Wise Organizations? Continued…

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2c

We have been talking about language-action and the constitution of organizations. To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links below. To get back to this page, click on the title of the blog in the upper left.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Next we turn to the implications of language-action for the design of systems. In their book Understanding Computers and Cognition, Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd outlined a three point theory of management and conversation in their that shows well many of the features of how software designs could embody the insights we are exploring here:

  1. “Organizations exist as networks of directives and commissives.” Directives include orders, requests, consultations, and offers; commissives include promises, acceptances, and rejections. (These names for performative verbs are from a different taxonomy than I use and present here, but the reader will see the relationships.)
  2. “Breakdowns will inevitably occur, and the organization needs to be prepared. In coping with breakdowns, further networks of directives and commissives are generated.”
  3. “People in an organization (including, but not limited to managers) issue utterances, by speaking or writing, to develop the conversations required in the organizational network. They participate in the creation and maintenance of a process of communication. At the core of this process is the performance of linguistic acts that bring forth different kinds of commitments.” (Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. p. 157.)

Flores and Winograd claim (and I am convinced that their claim is a good one) that the classical idea of decision-making is not well supported phenomenologically. (In ordinary language, this fancy expression means “bad theory” or “the evidence doesn’t fit the claims,” or, “that dog won’t hunt.” The problem is that when people are talking about decision making it appears to all concerned that they know what they are talking about, and, in fact, normally they do not.) Flores and Winograd recommended substituting the notion of ‘dealing with irresolution’ and supporting people in coming to resolution. (Ibid, p 144ff.)

Stay tuned. More to come.

© 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.

Now about listening …

From TED, again. Margaret McIntyre referenced this in a comment, but it is too good to be buried there. Here is a glorious example of what our friend Fernando Flores called the difference between listening — the act of interpretive attunement to the concerns of another human being — and hearing — the mechanics of receiving potentially meaningful signals of one sort or another.

“In this soaring demonstration, deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie leads the audience through an exploration of music not as notes on a page, but as an expression of the human experience. Playing with sensitivity and nuance informed by a soul-deep understanding of and connection to music, she talks about a music that is more than sound waves perceived by the human ear. She illustrates a richer picture that begins with listening to yourself, and includes emotion and intent as well as the complex role of physical spaces — instrument, concert hall and even the bones and body cavities of musician and listener alike.” (Quoted from the TED introduction to the event.)

Wise Organizations?, continued …

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.

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2b

We have been talking about language-action and the constitution of organizations. To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links. To get back to this page, refresh the blog.


Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Each language action has standard elements which, when recognized, can help guide designers as they specify elements of an organization: strategies, configurations, practices, systems, etc. The standard elements of a language action? Speakers, listeners, conditions of satisfaction, time of speaking, time of expected response, time of committed action, and so forth.

John Austin discovered performative verbs (language-actions) some 60 years ago. The implications of his discovery are vast and still mostly unrecognized. Dr. Fernando Flores Labra, currently a Senator in the Chilean government, was the first to point out the importance of performatives for understanding and guiding the behaviors of people in modern organizations, and as a potential underpinning for design in organizations. (Flores brought together many of the thinkers and the traditions of thinking on which I rely in this paper.)

Ask yourself the question, ‘What makes something be an organization?’ Within every culture there are a variety of standard modes of business operation that can be observed (sales, manufacturing, invoicing, shipping, and so forth.) Underneath all of the variety is a more fundamental set of practices. Whether a business is as simple as an individual sitting on the ground with a pile of fruit for sale or a multinational conglomerate, and whether it produces tangible goods in factories, provides janitorial services, or operates entirely “on paper,” as in the case of many financial businesses, …


A business is created when a person or group of people declares that they will recurrently make certain classes of offers to some population of customers, and that they will satisfy the conditions of those offers (deliver what they promised) in exchange for some offer the customer makes in return, or the fulfillment of some request they make to the customer.

Continue reading

Wise Organizations? Continued …

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.

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2a

This is the second in a set of six essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.
Language-Action and the Constitution of Organizations

For the vast majority of the moments of our lives (including much of our sleep, in dreams remembered and not), we are doing things in language, and language is doing things to us. The opportunity of this topic is that “language-action” offers a radically improved path to observing what we are doing as we are speaking (and listening). When we speak we create new interpretations, moods, possibilities, and futures in the bodies and minds of those with whom we are speaking (and for ourselves). Therefore, one of the distinctions that will be essential for us is language-action: observing language as communicative acts.

The English philosopher John L. Austin (1911-1960) was the first to carefully distinguish a class of verbs that he called performatives – verbs that, rather than describing actions, perform actions. (John L. Austin, (1975). How to Do Things With Words, Second Edition. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 148.)

When someone says ‘I promise to …,’ he is performing the action of promising, not reporting that he will, did, or might promise. It turns out that all human languages contain performatives. For the purpose of designing work in organizations, I distinguish six classes of performatives:

* declarations
* offers
* requests
* promises
* assessments
* assertions

The most important, and most interesting thing about these verbs is that, when we look carefully, we can see that it is with these acts that we human beings invent our futures. Very often we don’t actually use the words; people make promises all the time without saying “I promise,” and make requests even more often without saying “I request” (for example, “The soup needs salt” and “Don’t you think that it is cold in here?”)

How do these language-actions show up as we are inventing our futures?
Continue reading

Wise Organizations?, Continued …


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.

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?

Continue reading

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 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

Introduction

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

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)

My Problem with Design

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

I was reminded today of the things I find troubling about our modern notions of “design” and “designing.” Hundreds of years ago, if one wanted to become a designer, one would first have become a master craftsperson. We learned how to construct distinctive artifacts (and worlds of artifacts) and then we began to innovate in that tradition. To say one was a “designer” without that background would have been Harry Potteresque: ridiculous.

Neil Gershenfeld shows us how, starting a long time ago, we began to separate the “manual” work of craftsmanship and the “intellectual” work of design into two threads, and we began, moreover, to ascribe classist differences to the “types” of work. This distinction, I think, is a poor one, and today gives us no end of messes in our world. The following is a reflection I started writing several years ago, about why that is the case.

When someone says they have designed something, what do we understand? In the world at large, after all, “design” is something pretty simple and universal. To design is an activity – to devise, contrive, intend, indicate, plan, arrange, strategize, scheme, sketch, or the like. Further, we understand designing as relevant in an enormous range of life’s events, usually in combination with two other activities: actions to implement “the design,” and results or effects produced by the implemented design. Put in its simplest form, ideas are translated into actions that in turn produce results. When our actions lead us awry – or don’t give the results we want – we have the option of concluding that the flaw was in “the design.”

So why do I say I have a problem here? I have a problem because this way of understanding design decomposes an important unity into arrangements of trivial components. Imagine that we are observing a competent chef preparing a meal. We have our standard understanding of the activities of cooking, mixing ingredients, and tasting. If we attempt to understand the chef’s design of a meal as a collection of activities, we will miss the essence of the chef and the meal.
Continue reading

Interview with Fernando Flores on Blogging

Conducted earlier this year by Rosario Lizana, the full text of the interview can be found here.

The site is set up so that I could not cut and paste from it, so you will have to go there to see what he said. The interview is less than a page in length. In it, Flores talks about his blogging, what he doing with it, about language and what it is to give an opinion, and about bullshitting. The interviewer interpreted that he was talking about Harry Frankfurt’s book, but as one person commenting pointed out, Fernando Flores was talking about bullshitting decades before Frankfurt published his book.