Category Archives: knowledge

Organising as conversational activity

‘Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion has already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps which have gone before. You listen for a while until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument, then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or the gratification of your opponent, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late. You must depart. And you do depart with the discussion still vigorously in progress.’

Burke, K. (1941) The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, pp110-1.

The above quotation encapsulates for me what it’s like joining an organisation, as a consultant, or as a new employee, understood from a pragmatic perspective. On entering an organisation you pitch into an argument which is already going on and in which there are several threads of heated discussion. It’s a struggle to join in, to understand what is being said and what it might mean for what you do next because you don’t yet have enough history with this particular group. You take up a role and become part of the action, influencing and being influenced. Once in the organisation, not to participate is as significant as participating, because people have already noticed you. Do you have anything to say? There’s no ‘safe space’ that people sometimes crave in team away-days, and nor is there a view from outside what is going on where you can make sense independently, somehow uninfluenced. The moment you speak your ‘truth’ you have become part of the discussion; you have taken sides in organisational politics.

For the pragmatists groups of people talking together, arguing, making alliances, trying not to make alliances, clarifying what we mean by what we say, is how knowledge if produced. It is fallible knowledge, good enough for now until circumstances, and the turn the heated debate takes obliges us to think differently. In doing so, thinking differently, we understand ourselves and the argument we are part of, anew. We have to decide how to take the next step, but having taken the next step, everything looks slightly different from the new position.

There might be some advantage for those engaged in this situation of flux if they can use their reflective intelligence. Although there is no stepping out of the discussion it may be more or less possible to participate but at the same time to notice how your participation influences things, and how you are influenced. The ability to notice the repeated patterns of this particular episode of hurly burly may offer different options for you and the other discussants. But it may also not be an advantage for long. It is hard to maintain an understanding of plural points of view, particularly if they are changing as the discussion changes. Is it possible to maintain your own argument and be radically open to other arguments both at the same time?

These, then, are some key ideas from pragmatic philosophy which are helpful for thinking about organisational life. Organising is a conversational activity which has no beginning and no end and which takes place in a group of groups. It is often heated because our valuations matter to us: we cannot stand outside our commitments, although we only fully realise what they are through articulating them and encountering others’ difference. In struggling together as a conversational community we discover how to take the next step, which may then give us a new perspective to keep going with our inquiry. Practising intelligent reflection, noticing the patterns of our habitual engagement, may offer potential for thinking and behaving differently. But there is never just one thing going on and taking in plural points of view requires work.

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Doubt as a form of enquiry

In the last post I discussed what the pragmatic philosopher John Dewey referred to as the quest for certainty. I have been arguing that the discomfort that people feel if something isn’t completely nailed down in advance often prevents them from dwelling long enough with experience to work experimentally. There is rush to define, to plan out in advance, to idealise and to make certain and this is likely to prevent innovative ways of working to which organisations aspire. I have been making an alternative argument that without improvisation, spontaneity and risk there can be no innovation.

Dewey was interested in experimentation and argued that traditions of thought, such as mainstream philosophy, have conventionally been suspicious of the bodily, the temporal and the experiential, instead preferring Plato’s fixed and pure forms. We are generally encouraged to discover pre-existing ‘truth’, rather than dwell in the messy reality of experience. However, he himself was much less interested in knowledge as a pure and static expression of truth, and more committed to knowing as a form of active enquiry, the idea of constantly opening up experience to further experience. I think this idea of constant doubt and enquiry is especially relevant to managers who are thinking about how to deal with the ever changing patterning of experience in organisations that they have to deal with on a daily basis. Continue reading

Perpetual penality – thinking about targets with Mead and Foucault

I found myself among a group of school governors talking about targets. Every year in the UK school governors have a statutory obligation to set targets for levels of examination passes for pupils taking GCSE examinations at 16. The governors cannot set a target below last year’s – it must be the same or higher, even if the cohort on the point of taking their examinations is deemed to be weaker.

So should we set the target in line with what the statistical predictor (a figure derived from past performance) indicates is realistic, or should we set something more ambitious than that? Additionally, there might be other areas of teaching where we might set targets for ourselves even though we are not obliged to do so. This would look good during the next inspection, that we as a group of governors are prepared invent more ways of holding ourselves to account and scrutiny.

Just as annual setting of targets is something of a ritual, so too is the debate that follows. Continue reading

Power and continuity at the AoM

In a series of videos on YouTube, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu explains his interest in sociology and how his curiosity was piqued as a researcher  not so much by how things change, but why things stay the same:

Similarly I came across two examples of what Bourdieu refers to as  social reproduction in separate incidents at this year’s Academy of Management conference in Montreal, which give good illustrations of how current power figurations in the teaching  of dominant ways of understanding management tend to perpetuate themselves. In both cases the historian of science Thomas Kuhn was adduced to explain what was happening and why things have turned out the way that they have. The idea of equating management with the natural sciences, upon which Kuhn based his argument about paradigm change, rather than the social sciences, which Kuhn argued operated  differently,  is interesting in itself. Continue reading

Is there any evidence for evidence-based management?

In previous posts we have considered the appeal by a variety of scholars to be more evidence-based in management. The idea is that management practice should be grounded in a stable body of generalisable knowledge, which should then ensure that managers in organisations can take up ‘best practice’ and aspire to better outcomes for the staff and organisations they manage.

This is a noble aspiration, particularly if it works against the dominance of fads and fashion in management, where managers may adopt a particular practice mainly because managers in other organisations in their particular field are doing so. But what is the evidence for thinking that there is such a stable body of knowledge? Continue reading

Being scientific about science

The historian of science Steven Shapin, currently Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, produces this list of what he terms meta-scientific claims, ‘meta-scientific claims’ being statements about science:

1  There is no such thing as the Scientific Method.

2  Modern science lives only in the day for the day; it resembles much more a stock market speculation than a search for truth about nature.

3  New knowledge is not science until it has been made social.

4  An independent reality in the ordinary physical sense can neither be ascribed  to the phenomena nor to the agencies of observation.

5  The conceptual basis of physics is a free innovation of the human mind.

6  Scientists do not find order in nature, they put it there.

7  Science does not deserve the reputation is has so widely gained…of being wholly objective.

8  The picture of a scientist as a man with an open mind, someone who weighs the evidence for and against, is alot of baloney.

9  Modern physics is based on some intrinsic acts of faith.

10  The scientific community is tolerant of unsubstantiated just-so stories.

11  At any historical moment, what pass as acceptable scientific explanations have both social determinants and social functions.

The interesting thing about these statements is that Shapin draws them all from eminent practising scientists, some of whom are Nobel prize winners. Continue reading

Science and identity

Scientific knowledge, wrote Norbert Elias, is powerful because of its relative autonomy from the groups who produce it:

Scientific modes of thinking cannot be developed and become generally accepted unless people renounce their primary, unreflecting and spontaneous attempt to understand all their experience in terms of its purpose and meaning for themselves.

The recent spats over the e-mails from leaked or stolen from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia give an insight into what Elias might have meant by relative autonomy. The dispute over climate change is intensely political and ideological from both sides and helps us realise that science can never be entirely separate from the political and social processes of which we are part, and which we form, nor can it be separate from our sense of identity. It is clear from the furore surrounding the debate that very strong feelings have been provoked which appeal to these  themes of identity, truth and values. Continue reading