I’m getting into the shadow theme in this series of posts, and there are strong links to ideas of dark constraints and dark scaffolding (a reference to dark matter) which are a key element in the whole body of work we are putting together on landscape mapping. Probably the key phrase in my last post on this was, in respect of reality, Ignore it for too long and the light gradually starts to flicker and then dies. Although the most picked up phrase on social media was Meaning is discovered in the shadows and shining too bright a light too early is probably a mistake. Those two phrases are complimentary and exploring them is going to take a few posts. In today’s post I want to start to explore initial ideas of control in organisations. That is going to take posts to scratch the surface of the subject. This one to set the scene and tomorrow’s to draw conclusions and propose actions and activities.
I choose the image of an Engine order telegraph (EOT) for a reason. On steam ships there was a need to send instructions to the engine room from the bridge. Moving the hand on the dial would ring a bell in the engine room who would acknowledge receipt of the order by moving their handle to the same position. There was a lot of trust in this both ways as it would take some time for the effect of the order to be felt on the bridge. In the sailing ships that preceded steam the officer of the watch would directly control the power by issuing orders to set or furl sails and would see the impact in real time. In the modern world the electronics automatically control things without the need for any engineers to be present. Although there are regulations and practices which still retain EOTs and also alternative command posts as radar and other sensors no longer require visual clues. A point I am making here relates to one of the key actions to manage a complex system, namely, so far as possible to enable disintermediation, removing interpretative layers between the decision maker and raw data.
On a related thread, today is the 18th Anniversary of my Father’s death in Ysbyty Gwynedd. My sister and I were spelling each other on what we knew was a death watch and I arrived, with daughter to take over after having had the car services in Conwy, more or less at the moment of death. Dad was a Veterinary Surgeon, the first out of a long line of farmers to go to University. His father got what he thought was an excessive vet’s bill one day and marched down to the school to demand their judgment as to which of his son’s was bright enough to become a Vet. Dad was selected, his planned apprenticeship to his Uncle as a carpenter terminated and he ended up in Glasgow University during WWII and served in the Royal Army Veterinary Corps in a British Cavalry Regiment on the North West Frontier. He was in an officer’s mess with the elite of the English public school system but it all washed over him and it is to my lasting regret that I never captured all his stories. Dad was deeply rooted in the land, he saw his death as a natural transition and his final words to that effect (a few days before he actually died) will stay with me for ever. The relevance of this memory is that, other than his garden, his first love was carpentry and I served as his apprentice building, over the years, three sailing dinghies and a canoe. One of the dinghies, a Fireball came with a glass fibre hull but otherwise everything was wood; sawn, planed, chiseled, glued, sanded and varnished by hand (the only electrical tool in the garage was a drill and we didn’t use that much). We sailed those dinghies every Wednesday evening and Sunday from Llandudno Sailing Club and we knew our boats at multiple levels. In dinghy sailing you are also deeply intimate with the sea around you and every rope, sail and pulley not to mention the physical feeling of the boats hull. The flag at the top of the mast, the patterns of the winder on the water and the feel on your cheek all tell you things which instruments could never do, but the apprenticeship was a long and hard one. It payed off in races but also in survival. Piloting the Fireball on a reach with full sail (including spinnaker) on the leading edge of a major Irish sea storm I had to hit a six foot wide slipway through the surf and call for the centreboard to be raised with probably a 2/3 second tolerance. I can still remember the vision of that board from when I made it, fitted it and tested it and I knew where it was and when to act. We ended up at the top of the slipway out of danger and only two or three others made it. The rest were damaged in various ways although thankfully everyone survived.
Another reason to choose the image was that the engine room matters, we often place (and Senge in particular is guilty of this in Fifth Discipline) too much emphasis on the bridge and not enough on the source and management of the energy which allows the ship to move in the first place. Without power there is no steerage and without the complex nexus of human interactions there is no communication and no effective control. I’ve argued elsewhere that informal networks naturally carry trust and without a healthy informal network the organisation as a whole is doomed. In human systems power is both implicit and explicit as well as structural and contextual. Much exists in the shadow and awareness of that simple truth is key. Its something we don’t teach in Management Schools which tend to idealised cases and the formal systems, rarely (unless I am lecturing) do they challenge the orthodoxy of planning and order.
So control is not just about decision making and feedback loops, it is also about understanding the more deeply entrained and entangled patterns of meaning and being which are as much a part of an organisation and society as its explicit, formal and declared structures. More on this tomorrow but to end I want to reference the work on Anil Seth which is contributing to my understanding of all of this. I’ll come back to the significant of the banner image tomorrow.
I got a chance to do some reading yesterday as I had to take my wife to hospital for wisdom tooth removal (ironies here) and wasn’t allowed to leave the waiting room as they had to know I would be there to take her home when the aesthetics wore off. One of my current books (I normally have three/four on the go in terms of non-fiction) is Anil Seth’s Being You. His direction of travel in resolving the hard problem through the idea of consciousness as a series of controlled hallucinations is interesting. In that book he has a discussion of Cybernetics (p181 et seq). He references its etymology in the Greek kybernetes meaning steersman or governor and quotes Wiener’s definition: “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”. He also points out that AI shifted away from cybernetics into the “offline, disembodied, abstract reasoning that came to be exemplified by chess-playing computers”. He links Ashby’s work on regulators and essential variables to active inference and suggests that we can then see emotions and moods as “control-orientated perceptions which regulate the body’s essential variables”. Five pages later he is referencing Gibson’s idea of affordances as opportunities for action and contrasting Allostasis (stability through change) with homeostasis (shifting to a state of equilibrium). He concludes ten well written and rich pages by saying
We are not the beast machines of Decartes, for whom life was irrelevant to mind. It is exactly the opposite. All of our perceptions and experiences, whether of the self or of the world, all are inside-out controlled and controlling hallucinations that are rooted in the flesh-and-blood predictive machinery that evolved, develops, and operates from moment to moment always i the light of a fundamental biological drive to stay alive.
We are conscious beast machines, through, and through.
And at the end of that chapter he states: We are not cognitive computers we are feeling machines. Now I think there is a lot in here that we can work with in understanding organisations. There are aspects I am less sure about in particular the emphasis on a biological drive to survive. One of the characteristics of humans is our ability to accept the need of sacrifice and I think that links with some of the ideas on abstraction and the nature of language – something that is supported by the idea of controlled hallucinations. There are clear links here to some of the work we have been doing with SenseMaker® to overcome issues of inattentional blindness which can be understood through the idea of an emergent pattern of collective hallucination in Seth’s terms. Mind you the way the popular, and even some of the scientific press picked up on his use of hallucination was truly appalling.
I would also be careful on how we talk about cybernetics. From my perspective what it was (with Bateson in particular) in its inception is not what it has become. I plan a post on that in the not too distant future as I think it is becoming more evident what the agreed differences are between complexity and systems thinking but I have a couple of books to reread after a few decades of absence and some new ones to read before I do that. I’m also differentiating more and more between Checkland and his heirs and the rest of the systems thinking field. In part because I started my journey to complexity working with soft systems and also because people from that background (Michael Jackson in particular) seem far more open to interesting conversations than others.
Well that is for tomorrow …
I took the banner picture approaching the summit of Carrock Fell a ‘Back of Blencathra’ walk in which I picked up four more Wainwrights back in May of 2021. The work of someone who became known as ‘The Borrowdale Banksy’ it gives perspective over the Vale of Eden to the North Pennines. The opening picture is by Gustavo Sánchez on Unsplash, the symbolism of both should provide food for thought.
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