“…humanity’s immune response to resist and heal political disease, economic infection, and ecological corruption …”

Paul Hawken first came to my attention with the publication of The Ecology of Commerce in 1993. In the book, he said (my interpretations) that in The Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was right, but that the situation was worse than she had said. We did not just face imminent danger, but rather the endocrine systems of our planet’s living organisms had already been compromised by the way we were engaging in commerce and industry on the planet. Secondly, he said, we could give up the idea that the situation could be remedied by governments, agreements among governments, or regulation. There was, he said, only one force on the planet up to the challenge we faced: we had to transform the way that we understood and did commerce and business.

In his new book, Blessed Unrest, working from the same concerns, he reflects on something that “is going on in the background.” From the perspective of more than a decade of talking to people around the world about what is going on in the world of the environment, he discovered that there is a huge social movement underway that does not fit anyone’s picture of a movement. He calls it a vast network of organizations that are operating ‘without a white male vertebrate running the show,’ and addressing the questions of human rights, social justice, and environmental restoration in what he understands now as a unified phenomenon.

I recommend the book. In this video, you can hear him talking about the book for a little over 5 minutes. In this video, you can watch his presentation of the book at Google’s offices, and a wonderful conversation after the presentation with Dr. Lawrence (Larry) Brilliant (about an hour long).

I think Paul’s work is important for understanding many things about our modern world, possibilities for transforming cultures, designing businesses, and building new ethical enterprises. I am convinced that he is distinguishing something “new” in a very solid way. As Michael Salveson said to me when I told him about the book, “But of course, de Tocqueville told us that when he wrote Democracy in America: every major change in this country begins in the communities. The big changes are not generated by the institutions.”

What do you think?

Wise Organizations?, Continued …

by Chauncey Bell

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Part 2. What about Wisdom in an Organization?

Now let us turn our attention to wisdom in organizations per se. The first thing that we will do is to introduce several questions and foundations that we will employ for thinking with you about wisdom, mostly without resolving them.

Do you admire the way that your bank handles your questions, your supermarket manages your experience, your auto dealer handles the maintenance of your car, or the way that manufacturers of things you buy handle your questions and suggestions? We may admire the wisdom of someone in dealing with his children, spouse, or even colleagues or employees in his company, but a wise organization? Can you remember a real, sustained experience with an organization that learns from its mistakes, as Churchman dreamed? (The book in which this chapter was published is dedicated to the memory of Professor C. West Churchman of the University of California at Berkeley.)

Even those small community and fraternal organizations over which we might think we have the greatest control are often sources of epic frustration. I listen to my neighbor: “You will not believe what just happened at the neighborhood association meeting.” (Yes, I will.) Does anyone admire the way our governments interact with us? Take a deep breath and prepare yourself to stand patiently in line and wait. When, as does occasionally happen, we have the experience of someone in an organization listening carefully and acting with alacrity in response to our request, this is an occasion for a celebration. “A miracle happened!” my wife will begin a report of that rare event: an organization acting wisely.

Some institutions produce disproportionately large numbers of people adjudged “wise” in their communities. Consider, for example, the histories of the great religious institutions of the East and West, the institution of science itself, and the institution of medicine down through the ages. These are not the only examples by any means. Can you think of other examples of your own? Why does this happen? And why are these histories so uneven? Why great wisdom at some moments and behaviors that we would call stupid, self-serving, or even criminal at others?
Continue reading “Wise Organizations?, Continued …”

Wise Action in Organizations

Three years ago Jim Courtney, Professor of Management Information Systems at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, asked me to write a chapter on the subject of “wisdom in organizations” for a book he was preparing. The book was published in 2005 as Inquiring Organizations: Moving From Knowledge Management To Wisdom, a book dedicated to the memory of Professor C. West Churchman of the University of California at Berkeley, edited by Jim, John Haynes, and David Paradice. It included my chapter, entitled, “Wise Organizations?”

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m going to share the chapter here, in a series of postings (it is quite long), to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Wise Organizations?
Chauncey Bell

In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence; the second, listening; the third, remembering; the fourth, practicing; the fifth teaching others.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Jewish Poet and Philosopher (c. 1021-1058)

“There is no use trying,” said Alice; “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I dare say you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


In this chapter, I want to help put a richer background in place to support the work of IT designers. I hope that an examination of wisdom may inform those who have the ambition to, or are charged with designing and building software systems and networks, and lead to the development of systems that do a better job of supporting people in the wise exercise of their responsibilities in all kinds of organizations. The subject is too big for a chapter in a book, but perhaps with the following I can inspire, suggest some foundations, suggest directions for exploration, and at the same time point out some goofy interpretations that may be adjusted or altered.

In his exploration of the idea of ‘designing inquiring systems,’ C. West Churchman challenged himself to invent a basis for building systems that support human action more effectively:

“Instead of just asking the traditional questions of how human minds come to learn from experience, [I] asked how one could design a system that would learn from its experience in some ‘optimal’ fashion. My plan was to translate some of the historical texts in the theory of knowledge into modern systems terminology, by assuming that the authors were discussing the components of a system design. … I was struck again [while studying Leibniz] by the fact that in his approach to the inquiring system he was insisting that a concept of the whole system was essential in understanding how each ‘part’ worked. … Now in these days of rather intense study of systems and their management, few seem in the least concerned about … the characteristics of the whole system in any but a very narrow sense. If Leibniz was right, then modern theories of system design and managerial control are sadly lacking in their reasoning.” (C. West Churchman, (1968). Challenge to Reason, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, p. v.-vi.)

I am a designer of business habits. I design ways that human beings – in explicit or tacit collaboration with others – do things to shape their futures by adjusting or changing their habits. Mostly I work in large institutions. In the process of building new working habits in a number of industries over the years, I have designed and led the development of several complex software systems.

We human beings are creatures of habit, and habits are deeply relevant to the question of wisdom.
Continue reading “Wise Action in Organizations”

Bullshitting in The Economist: Homage to Fernando Flores and Harry Frankfurt

In the November 8, 2007 Economist we find a “Briefing” entitled “Toyota: A wobble on the road to the top.” It is a well-crafted article for someone who is not thinking. However, Greg and I were surprised to see an article like this, without attribution, in The Economist. Who is hiding what? Who takes responsibility for authoring this article? The editors of the Economist? If that is the case, this article invites me to make a major shift in my interpretation about the integrity of this journal, because it looks too much a “planted” article.

The article puts me in a mood of irony and frustration at the opportunities that the West is wasting by attempting to understand Toyota within the framework in which we have been so busy killing our own automobile industries for so long. Greg and my mother call what this article is doing, “Cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
What do I mean?

1. “… not all is running smoothly at Toyota” is exactly the same condition that the company has been in every day for the last 50 years. They don’t expect it to run smoothly, and it has not run smoothly. The difference between Toyota and its competitors is that Toyota organizes itself to deal with a world in which things don’t run smoothly, and to take massive advantage of every breakdown.

2. Where GM (for example) pats itself on the back for making 20,000 changes in its operations a year, Toyota makes a million changes. Literally. They do that as part of paying close attention to the evolving space in which they interact in the world, and adjusting continuously. The article implies that the company is experiencing momentous, techtonic shifts that they are not in condition to deal with. There is no evidence for such a claim that I have seen. The evidence cited in the article is no more than the kinds of events that are happening every day in every company.

3. The website to which the article points us to show that “nine of America’s leading scientific and environmental organisations took out advertisements in newspapers and started up a website” is a political hit site without, as I can tell, any substance.

4. If someone wanted to do the research (I don’t have the time) I’d bet a good sum of money that this is a planted article originally constructed (or shaped less directly) by someone attempting to defend the American automobile establishment. “Toyota could be leapfrogged ….” In whose dreams? The time and money spent here, attempting to pretend a “balanced” report on the state of the Toyota enterprise, would be far better spent trying to figure out why for 50 years the Western auto companies have not been able to understand or build their own version of what Toyota has built.

5. The author, whoever he or she is, could not make sense of what Toyota’s president was doing in a “personal mobility concept,” and goes on to ridicule the man and the company, calling it a “silly stunt.” This reminds me of the report that my friend George Kuper gave me on returning from one of the earliest visits of US auto executives to Japan to tour Toyota plants that were beginning to use the Toyota Production System. The American executives had been invited by the Japanese to see what they were doing, as a gesture of goodwill originally born out of Taichi Ohno’s admiration and gratitude to Henry Ford for his inventions. At the end of the day, George told me, the American executives caucused in private to discuss what they had seen. One consensus: they could not figure out why the Japanese were so committed to try to convince them that they were running their plants without inventories and parts warehouses. They ridiculed the Japanese for their “silly show.” Everyone knows, the American executives agreed, that it is not possible to run a plant without inventories, and they could not grasp what kind of devious intention was hiding behind their hosts’ insistence that they were operating without these essential components of a good facility.

It only took 30 or so years for some of the people in the US auto industry to discover what was behind the “devious intention.” Perhaps 30 years from now someone from the Economist might want to investigate whether what the president of Toyota was doing with his “personal mobility concept” was really only attempting “to polish Toyota’s image as a car company with a highly developed sense of social responsibility rather than one chasing growth at all costs.” I know what I bet we’ll find….

About the title: My friend Fernando Flores has been talking about bullshit as a formal distinction for understanding deceptive misrepresentations for more than 20 years. I wrote about it here. Harry Frankfurt, in his marvelous little book “On Bullshit,” speaks of bullshitting and bullshitters: “… carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. In entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this [apparent] selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are relplete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who–with the help of advancend and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth–dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right. Yet there is something more to be said about this. However studiously and conscienntiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. …” (p23)