The dogmas of the quiet past

October 27, 2008

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We can succeed only by concert. It is not “can any of us imagine better?” but, “can we all do better?” The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, Dec. 1, 1862

There are some quotations that are timeless in their applicability and this is one of them. I’ve used it on many occasions and introduce it now as part of a blog series over the next week which will look at traditional management practices from the the perspective of naturalising sense-making. I could equally apply it to the current financial crisis i but my ambition for the moment is both less and more. In this first post I want to outline three key principles that need to inform both the theory and practice of governance in organisations. The overall title of this series will be Think anew, Act anew and I will continue tomorrow with Scenario Planning. I particularly like the We must disenthrall ourselves by the way; too many management movements are starting to represent religious cults (the black belts of sick stigma for example) and the need for institute detoxification programmes is long overdue.

Before outlining the three principles its worth a brief reminder of what is meant by naturalising sense-making. I am using sense-making here is the sense of answering the question of how do I make sense of the world so that I can act in it? With that comes a concept of sufficiency, knowing enough to enable action but without the implication that I can know all that I might like to know. It also contains an inherent assumption of praxis which in tern implies that practice must be grounded in theory. If you want an example of the need for that then look at Alan Greenspans recent testimony that he was wrong in following Ayn Rands (a really nasty piece of work if there ever was one) belief that the self-interests of organisations (such as banks) would provide sufficient regulation. He argues that 40 years of success lulled him into that belief. The addition of naturalising is to create a distinction with people like Weik and Dervin (while respecting their considerable contributions) by linking to the naturalising tradition in philosophy which generically means creating a base in the natural sciences for said theory. The main areas here are complex adaptive systems, cognitive science, aspects of evolutionary psychology and large swathes of material from anthropology, ethnography and narrative theory to provide a balancing contribution from the disciplined side of the Humanities.

So what are the three principles? I will outline them here, but then expand on their meaning over the next week.

  • Distributed cognition means far more that the more popular wisdom of crowds which in any case is a misnomer, crowds can be more foolish than wise. It means using network intelligence. The classic example is the Grameen Bank or micro-lending with self forming lending groups determine loan allocation rather than centralised credit scoring. I have used the example of the magic roundabout in swindon where drivers make decisions rather than traffic lights. In the context of modern management practice this means the top down stimulation of bottom up activity. Its not about delegation per se, or the absence of management, but it is about using the capacity of diverse networks to contribute to decision making. Government consultation of citizens, weak signal detection and innovation all benefit form this. But, to emphasise it is managed.
  • Finely granulated objects have more utility than chunked up documents (information) or massive organisational empires. I’m still not sure of the language yet and previously spoken around the theme of Everything is fragmented but am torn between populism and precision here! The basic idea is that small things are more adaptable than big things. People will spend more time surfing the web and using the fragmented material of an RSS feed than reading documents. Its easier to write a blog than a book (I know that one only two well). Importantly fine granularity material can combine in novel and different ways more easily than formal documents. Fragmented stories of partial failure create more learning than formal documents summarising best practice. Critically fragmented material can combine and recombine in novel and different ways, a form of conceptual blending. In organisations crews make are more adaptive than matrices in organisation terms and networks more effective than formal structures of interaction.
  • Disintermediation is one of those interesting words which borders on jargon but is too useful to abandon. It means removing the layers that separate decision makers from raw data. Allowing them to move from an abstract representation of a large data set, spot patterns and anomalies and then focus in on the five or six items they really need to pay attention to. There is an ethical dimension to this too. When people encounter real stories/pictures etc they are far more likely to gain empathy and understanding, and therefore make more contextually aware decisions. It also works two ways, with greater horizontal access to raw experience then knowledge and inspiration transfer more rapidly within organisations and society.

That lays out the principles. All of them link back to the naturalising concept and I will expand on that over the next week. So far I plan to cover Scenario Planning, Understanding Employees/Customers, Ethical Auditing and others. Any suggested topics feel free to throw them in through the comments field or via email


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