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?
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