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.

Even before we notice we are doing it, we act out of structures in which we are predisposed to act in particular ways – ways that are shaped by habits of thought, word, and deed. Most of the time, people pay little attention to the way that acting in habitual and unexamined ways shapes our world. I have for many years been interested in ways of thinking and acting that allow me and my clients to look beneath the world’s neatly ordered stories about why and how people do the things they do. Further, because the construction of new habits always involves breaking or reshaping old habits, I also study how to intervene in old habits. As the reader will see, these matters are deeply relevant to the subject of designing and building systems that support wise action in organizations.

The chapter is organized into five parts followed by a short conclusion.

1. In What is Wisdom? we begin by exploring what we mean by that word, and the implications of setting out in pursuit of it.

2. In What about Wisdom in an Organization? we do the same with “organizations,” asking questions about what happens to people when they work together in organizations.

3. In Churchman’s Gathering of Philosophers I turn to a series of reflections on the philosophical traditions in which C. West Churchman gathered five philosophers to help him in his work, and open an exploration of what those traditions tell us that could be important for the job of IT designers.

4. Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations offers a set of reflections about underpinnings, or conditions in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

5. A Well-Tooled Investment Management Process sketches a case example of design, implementation, the underlying logic of a set of practices and supporting tools for investment management in large organizations, and makes a series of specific recommendations for systems designers.

1. What is Wisdom?

For Churchman, knowledge bespoke an accumulation of the capacity to act wisely. His interpretation of what would need to be examined in order to develop systems that engender wise action was remarkable. Courtney tells us that Churchman saw knowledge as at once collection, activity, and potential, … (James F. Courtney, (2001). Decision making and knowledge management in inquiring organizations: toward a new decision-making paradigm for DDS. Decision Support Systems 31 (2001) 17 39, p. 22.)

1. Deeply connected to action, ‘a vital force, which makes an enormous difference in the world’, in the midst of action, or as ‘potential for action’,

2. Dynamic, as one of knowledge is able ‘to learn as circumstances change’,

3. Somehow deeply connected to ethics and morality, and

4. In some way requiring the actor to break with rationalist scientific traditions and become entangled in ones own feelings and thought processes.

In this chapter we want to interpret wisdom as the substrate of what Churchman was observing – the ‘base metal’ if you will. We will explore the construction of wisdom and its appearance in enterprises, so that when it comes time to cultivate or accumulate wise action we have explored what that is and where it comes from.

Looking in http://www.dictionary.com, we find wise defined as, “Having the ability to discern or judge what is true, right, or lasting; sagacious: a wise leader.” The behavior of organizations , and of people working in organizations, seems at first glance to be a good place to observe everything but wise behaviors. (I understand as “organizations” a broad range of human enterprise, including what we construct within the institutions of families, communities, societies, governments, as well as businesses of all sizes and types.) Something about the notion of a wise organization is oxymoronic, like “a deafening silence.” Why are organizations not automatically bastions of wisdom? After all, a whole lot of people should be smarter than any one of us, right? Our experience with the behavior of people in organizations tells us that this logic doesn’t work reliably.

Let us first turn our attention more to the question of what we mean when we say ‘wise’ or ‘wisdom.’ Think back to an interaction you had at some moment in your life with someone you consider wise. Think about what happened before, during, and after your saying to yourself, or to another, ‘That is wise,’ or the equivalent. Here are three examples of my own, the first personal, and the second and third institutional. See how your example is similar to, and different from these examples.

1. During our teens, twenties, and into our 30’s my younger brother and I were not close. He is 2 ½ years younger, and on coming into adulthood he concluded that I was not interested in listening to him or learning from him. For my part I carried forward one of those standard older brother irritations with the ‘too-full-of-himself’ younger brother. As a result, when we were together at family affairs, we would be found at opposite ends of the room, and we did not speak between such events. Unbeknownst to me, as he came into his 30’s, my brother had shared with our mother his yearning for a relationship with me. In the spring of 1984 my wife suddenly became very ill, lost the child with whom she was nearly at term in her pregnancy, and found herself at death’s door. In that moment, my mother called my brother and said to him, “I know that you have wanted a relationship with your brother. He is in trouble and he needs you. If you want that relationship, figure out how to drop everything and go and be beside him immediately, where he is sitting in the hospital praying and waiting to see what will happen with his wife.” He followed her suggestion, and, in the ensuing weeks, our relationship transformed.

2. Perhaps some of you reading this are familiar with the “Iron Ring” that Canadian Engineers wear on the fifth finger of their right hands. The ceremony in which the ring is delivered to a young engineer about to graduate from engineering school, called the “Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer” was invented early in the l900’s by an engineering professor, Herbert Haultain, and Rudyard Kipling, after a railway bridge to link Winnipeg, Manitoba and Moncton, New Brunswick twice collapsed while under construction over the course of 10 years, at a human cost of 85 lives and untold other damage. An inquiry revealed that the collapses resulted from errors in judgment by the bridge’s engineers. Haultain and Kipling invented the ritual to alter Canadian engineers’ sense of their responsibilities and their experience of the realities of their profession. Graduating new engineers are told, ‘The ring itself symbolizes the pride we have in our profession while, at the same time, reminds us of our humility.’ The humility is cemented into the memories of those engineers by the fact that the rings were originally crafted from the iron of the bridge that collapsed.

3. A decade ago I was working on the management practices at one of the world’s largest copper mines, operating more than two miles up, and at the end of one day a colleague of mine arrived back from the smelter in a terrible mood. A young man he had met and formed a small friendship with had died during the day when a huge oven ‘belched’ a cloud of toxic gas while he was walking across the top of it. I asked my colleague many questions about the accident and here is what we pieced together. This had happened before. I don’t remember the numbers, but let us say there had been three deaths over the previous four or five years. The conditions in which the ‘belching’ occurred were understood by the engineers, but could not be predicted or stopped in any way that the engineers could figure out. The engineers involved were skillful, well-educated, and dedicated. All of the deaths recorded under these circumstances were of young workers. I suggested to my colleague that he discuss with the responsible engineers and managers the advisability of a new work practice to the effect that young workers would not go onto the top of this oven without being accompanied by an older worker. In the discussion, some older workers acknowledged that they sometimes had a weird sense about when not to be on top of the oven, a sense that they obeyed, although they did not even know how to describe it. The new work practice was instituted immediately and without further discussion.

Using only these few examples as a point of departure, what can we begin to say about wisdom? Here are some of the elements that I think are essential:

1. When we enter into a conversation about wisdom and wise action, one of our central concerns is to intervene in some set of current behaviors, to bring about possible futures that will not otherwise happen, and to lead people away from other futures that would be better avoided. I am grateful to James Gosling (Sun Microsystems, inventor of Java) for introducing me to the use of the word “goofy” for pointing to situations in which sincere, otherwise intelligent people behave in ways that are wildly inconsistent with their ambitions, declarations and/or capabilities. A whole lot of behavior in organizations, including much of what we call bureaucratic behavior is “goofy.”

2. Wisdom is born in a concern for action to take care of things that matter to people, and it is fundamentally connected to human bodies and language. Wisdom is something that we ascribe after some actions are taken in response to some set of circumstances that we find in our world. The actions can be of word or deed, but they are not purely cognitive actions.

3. Some change, or learning, or new adaptation is possible in the moment of such actions. The wise person has his/her attention on different things than those who are primarily absorbed in everyday activities. Before the actions, there was a continuity of circumstances, but in the moment of action, the whole world changes. Deep caring and solidarity is evidenced in the way that the ‘wise’ party acts to take care of things that matter to the futures of the other party.

4. Wisdom happens in the right kinds of conversations and practices, and in the right kinds of communities. It is not a solitary occupation. Buddhist monks who spend years or even decades apparently alone and silent, are participating in conversations that have been going on for generations.

5. The ‘wise’ party in an event of wisdom is using the moment of change to illuminate, emphasize, and expand some human ethical values. Wisdom is about getting the best out of individuals and communities of people, and inventing futures and relationships from a new, expanded point of departure. To be wise is to be able to observe deep and abiding stabilities and regularities in the world. We are each born unable to care for ourselves; the sun comes up every morning and goes down every night; each of us will die, and we do not know or control the moment of our death. At the same time, to be wise in action is more about changes than it is about these regularities that are the foundations of wisdom.

6. At the moment of the intervention (about which we will subsequently say, ‘That was wise’), it is not clear that the intended beneficiary of the wisdom actually has the qualities, virtues, or skills that are called forth by the ‘wise action.’ The wise speaker or actor is, in effect, making a bet that that the other parties have those qualities, virtues, or skills as possibilities, is inviting those parties to commit themselves to learn and grow, and is inventing a future out of that invention and invitation.

Now, for a moment, before we go on in our exploration of wisdom and wisdom in organizations, let us “consider the alternative.” Not all opportunities for wise action produce reinvented relationships, transformed professions, or lives saved. We have all spent countless hours observing and participating in conversations in which people were communicating with each other, but the actions that bring the moment of wise action were missing:

– Someone declares responsibility for a matter of concern.

– Someone proposes, offers, or requests new actions.

– Someone criticizes the results of our historic actions as being below what we are capable of.

What do we observe instead of wisdom? People immobilized in the moment of possible action; people repeating standard actions from the past; people in private conversations of intentions, but not in action.

The moment of a possibility of wisdom is a moment in which people are called to respond to some situation with integrity and authenticity, stepping outside of traditional ways of observing the situation, entering a domain in which they put themselves at risk of being ridiculed or assessed negatively by the community of their peers. In this regard, my colleague Guillermo Wechsler reminds me that this conversation about wisdom is also a conversation about a human tragedy – about the enormous numbers of intelligent, caring people who are coupled together in the wrong ways – having organized themselves to continue their lives along paths of behavior that are recurrently unproductive, self-defeating, or, worse, that literally produce damage to the lives involved.

Finally along these lines, a deep look into the question of wisdom will also show us that sometimes it is better to be silent. Sometimes we call someone ‘wise’ after we see that they have ‘smelled’ a tragedy coming and let it happen, thereby bringing hidden emotions to the fore, unfreezing the situation, accepting the consequences, and building out of that with relentless intention. Sometimes it is wiser to be patient and wait, let things happen, and deal with the ensuing mess.

Then we also need to conclude that wisdom is paradoxical, contradictory, controversial, and sometimes vexing. It does not follow the kinds of rules under which we build stable recurrent practices or systems. Think about how we understand the roles of managers and leaders in enterprises today. Professor John Kotter, Harvard Business School Professor and expert on leadership, tells us that “…the pioneers who invented modern management … were trying to produce consistent results on key dimensions expected by customers, stockholders, employees, and other organizational constituencies, despite the complexity caused by large size, modern technologies, and geographic dispersion. … Leadership is very different. It does not produce consistency and order, as the word itself implies. It produces movement. Throughout the ages, individuals who have been seen as leaders have created change, sometimes for the better, and sometimes not.” (John P. Kotter, (1990). A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs From Management, New York: The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan, Inc., p. 4. In October 2001, Business Week magazine rated Kotter the #1 “leadership guru” in America based on a survey they conducted of 504 enterprises.)

Building on top of the claim that we should understand wisdom as associated with actions responding to circumstances we encounter, we can add one more distinction at the beginning of this exploration. I propose we distinguish three levels or orders of wisdom to observe from:

1. Level One Wisdom has to do with learning from mistakes, finding ways to eliminate waste, inventing shortcuts, the like. Continuous improvement programs set up the conditions for this level. Finding ways of doing more with less is an example of the kind of result of this level of wisdom.

2. Level Two Wisdom is what is needed for producing discontinuous changes. Instead of learning from your mistakes or eliminating waste, you invent circumstances in which particular mistakes or wastes cannot happen. Poka-yoke is a Japanese expression that originated in the Toyota Production System that means a way of eliminating mistakes by design. Simple mechanical examples are the throttles on railway trains that stop the train if continuous pressure is not placed on them, or switches for dangerous equipment that stop the equipment if the operator’s hand leaves the switch, before a hand can come into contact with the equipment.

3. Level Three Wisdom is where I will speak about philosophical breakthroughs and reinvention of social realities. Such wisdom creates alternative interpretations of what is possible, and builds new discourses in which to observe changes. The Toyota Production System, an example, creates a kind of mass production in which each car is customizable as it moves down the production line, it is less expensive to put quality into a production line than it is to leave it out, inventories hinder, rather than help the process of producing, and in which the place to put the final authority for determining when the production line needs to stop for process repairs is in the hands of the lowest employees on the totem pole.

Wisdom is not something that lands on the planet ‘automatically’ like moonlight; it belongs to the world of intentional human action, not to accident, and it has been the subject of intense attention for millennia. (The development of wisdom has been a central theme in a number of ancient traditions for millennia. I am thinking of traditions that come to us principally from India, China, Japan, Asian countries, and from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These traditions share many principles about wisdom, “paths to enlightenment,” and styles of learning.) To call someone or something wise is to make an historical assessment that we ascribe to particular behaviors, within specific traditions and structures at particular moments of time. We cultivate the capacity to make that assessment within the communities that ascribe wisdom to particular behaviors. Human beings live uncertain existences. We live with historical possibilities, facts, courage, and to navigate in our worlds we make judgments and interpretations to underpin our actions. As we invent meaning and actions for ourselves, we invent assessments like ‘wise’ (and standards for judging what we mean by them) when we need them for preparing a space of action. Whom shall we turn to in the moment of a particular difficulty? Why, someone wise in the matters at hand, of course!

Stay tuned. More to come.

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations

Anthony Kenny, Oxford Professor of Philosophy, tells us that the questions I have been asking about wisdom and its origins ‘belong to philosophy’:

“The ambition of philosophy is to achieve truth of a kind which transcends what is merely local and temporal; but not even the greatest of philosophers have come near to achieving that goal in any comprehensive manner. There is a constant temptation to minimize the difficulty of philosophy by redefining the subject in such a way that its goal seems more attainable. …even the greatest philosophers of the past propounded doctrines which we can see – through hindsight of the other great philosophers who stand between them and ourselves – to be profoundly mistaken. This should be taken not as reflecting on the genius of our great predecessors, but as an indication of the extreme difficulty of the discipline. … But we philosophers must resist [the] temptation [to understate the difficulty]; we should combine unashamed pride in the loftiness of our goal with undeluded modesty about the poverty of our achievement.” (Anthony Kenny, 1997, in The Oxford Illustrated History of Western Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p 368. I reordered his sentences.)

In the following, I offer a set of six small texts about cultivating and exercising wisdom in organizational settings:

* Taking Language and Listening Seriously
* Language-Action and the Constitution of Organizations
* Preparing for Ethical Action
* Learning and Competence
* “Inventing” Waste
* Pain-Free Wisdom?

Text #1: Taking Language and Listening Seriously

Language underlies everything we understand and know, and underlies all our actions. Words, gestures, pregnant pauses and silence, music, our private moods and intuitions, reflections we share and those we do not, and the conceptions and misconceptions and confusions that abide in language are the space in which we live. We encounter and invent ourselves in language. What we find desirable and fearsome, our ambitions, doubts, and resignations, the identities in which we make sense of ourselves, those with whom we live and work, and our worlds, all these live in language. Our problems with things, observers, and ethics all arrive escorted by and clothed in language. Heidegger called language “the house of being.”

The warp and woof of the tapestry of organizations, and the threads that reveal the patterns of that tapestry, belong to language. Let us take an example. Cars move down assembly lines in the midst of a host of conversations. The stage for manufacturing automobiles is set by an extraordinarily complex set of conversations. Cars move down the lines as people make commitments to build, sell, and buy. Long before any parts move, design engineers give instructions to all concerned about how actors, instruments, and parts will come together into a set of unities that they hope will satisfy customers. In operations, production managers lay plans, workers come to work, suppliers promise and deliver materials, salesmen make offers, and customers accept offers.

All the joys, and all the miseries, all the services, and all the destruction and waste that result from people working together in organizations begins and is shaped in language. Ethics and values are created, understood, passed on, and acted upon in language. And, we vastly underestimate the role that language plays in our affairs as we speak and listen to each other.

The serious student of wisdom and organizations, I suggest, must put language in the center of his inquiry.

The first prerequisite of wisdom is listening. By the word, “listening,” I point to the bio-linguistic process through which we attune ourselves to situations, the concerns of others, our own concerns, and prepare ourselves for action. Listening is exemplified by what happens to us when we read poetry, or attend a great performance and are touched by it. We are altered by the experience of listening. Listening is partially an automatic process that is out of our control, going on continuously in life, while we are awake, and while asleep. We can take actions to “shape” and affect our listening, as when “we take a walk” “to collect ourselves” before undertaking a difficult conversation. We can be responsible for the emotional state in which we will be listening to others.

Following the work of Fernando Flores, I distinguish listening from hearing. I use the latter word to point to the mechanics of receiving and decoding disturbances in airwaves, signs, and signals in our worlds – receiving data. Most people confuse the two. The two are related, but the deaf who were not born deaf listen, just as the blind who were not born blind “see.”

Listening happens all the time, and not just when we are listening to spoken language.

To encounter wisdom in a fresh way in organizations, we need first to get closer to language – to observe some things that happen as we speak and listen to each other.

Read carefully (i.e., listen) to the following pair of passages by Gemma Corradi Fiumara from her book The Other Side of Language, in which she wrestles with the poverty of listening in our time. Neither she, nor Martin Heidegger, whom she quotes, is easy to read. You may have to read each short passage a few times to catch the heart of what she is saying.

“One is often tempted to maintain that the ‘richness’ of our inner world [actually exists as an independent entity], and that the ‘problem’ [of articulating what we ‘understand’] merely consists in [selecting] the words which are best suited to expressing and representing it [the richness of our inner world] in [a way that others can understand what we are talking about]. In this way, we may be tempted to believe that words are ‘like a grasp that fastens upon the things already in being …’ – a grasp which seizes and compresses. In fact, however, the situation is far more complex, demanding and enigmatic than that. The organization of our innerness seems to exist on condition that it is heard … – in effect brought [out] to be born. It is not just a matter of entities lying there [within ourselves] waiting to be linguistically seized and organized in the most [appropriate] expressions. (Gemma Corradi Fiumara, (1990). The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge, p. 148.; Martin Heidegger is quoted from On the Way to Language, 1971, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, p. 68.)

“To pay heed to what the words say is particularly difficult for us moderns, because we find it hard to detach ourselves from the ‘at first’ of what is common [e.g., from the common sense that strikes us immediately from what is said]; and if we succeed for once [in detaching ourselves from the common sense], we relapse all too easily.” (Gemma Corradi Fiumara, (1990). The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening. London: Routledge, p. 157. Martin Heidegger is quoted from What is Called Thinking?, p. 130.)

One lesson Greg recommends we take from these passages is this: learn to listen with more patience.

Go to the next part of this essay.

© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

3 thoughts on “Wise Action in Organizations

  1. Hello! This is kind of off topic but I need some advice from an established blog.
    Is it very hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m thinking
    about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Appreciate it

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s