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.
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