Tag Archives: not-for-profits

Anxious management

I was reminded of the importance of anxiety and the idea of emotional contagion the other day when I sat with a group of not-for-profit trustees who were being given a presentation by an auditor from a big corporate firm of accountants. The auditor had been asked to present on his experience of auditing other not-for-profits to identify what other organisations were concerned about and how they were dealing with it. The trustees saw it as a way of ‘benchmarking’ the field so that they could be reassured that they were focusing on the right things as they undertook their roles and developed a new strategy.

What transpired in the meeting made me think about how certain ideas about leadership and management are spread partly because they have emotional valency, and thus are more likely to be taken up without being challenged. For the presentation was not just an overview of the sector but also carried a strong ideological message wrapped in an anxiety narrative. This was that adopting a particular approach to organisations and management based on an especially dominant orthodoxy is a way of belonging to an in-group in especially turbulent times. To emulate others would mean ameliorating anxiety about not keeping up, not being professional and not being alongside the people who really know.  Continue reading

Different theories of knowledge

There have been a number of postings on the Giraffe blog, a blog of one of the working groups of the Information and Knowledge Management Emergent (IKME) project which struggle to come to grips with what we might mean by ‘knowledge management’. In some of the postings, authors draw on management theorists, describing them as ‘gurus’, in order better to understand what it is they are dealing with. In doing so, however, there is no attempt also to draw attention to the theoretical assumptions of these ‘gurus’, or probe how their conceptual schemes give rise to and shape their recommendations.

So it is a broadly taken for granted assumption in many of the postings that there is a difference between information and knowledge, that knowledge can be managed or even ‘leveraged’, and even a suggestion that it is possible to put a monetary value on making tacit knowledge explicit (drawing on Michael Polanyi’s ideas of tacit and explicit knowledge).

Many management theorists write from a position that might be called extractive: in other words, their explicit intention is to instrumentalise human interaction for the good of the company, to bring about better performance or enhance efficiency, and to help managers with tools and techniques for doing the same. In doing so they privilege a certain understanding of scientific method, assuming that methods which are so powerful when used in the natural world are equally applicable in the social world. This can lead to considering knowledge to be a ‘product’, a tangible and fixed commodity which can be ‘captured’ and utilised unproblematically by others.

When staff in not-for-profits which have an explicit moral purpose of doing good with and on behalf of others borrow from intellectual traditions which are extractive in this way, it might be worth pausing to reflect a while on whether the methods these traditions recommend help achieve the ends that they seek. Methods are constitutive of ends: in other words, the way that you work directly affects social outcomes. It is worth pausing to consider to what extent extracting knowledge products from the objects of our humanitarian intentions begins to undermine those very intentions.

In this and subsequent postings I will explore different ways of understanding how knowledge arises in order to set out a more social understanding of knowledge, one which arises in social processes of interaction and power relating. Rather than construing knowledge as something that is fixed and unchanging and something separate from the people among whom knowledge arises, I will explore theories that privilege the social, dynamic and contingent nature of knowledge.

The hermeneutic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer makes the case that scientific enquiry always tries to make knowledge an end itself, it is teleologically driven, and as such creates ‘an illusion of experience perfected and replaced by knowledge’. By doing this, Gadamer argues, it robs human experience of much of its value, which is to be found in its historicity and the process of dialectic. The idea of scientific enquiry is to create universal and timeless products that enable us to predict and control nature. In contrast, Gadamer idealises not the product but the process of enquiry; to be experienced, he argues, means that one is open to more experience. He draws attention to conversation, and latterly the conversation with a text, with the aim of pointing to the Socratic process of questioning, the opening up to otherness, to the dialectic of negation, that is not about being in control but about being increasingly undogmatic and questioning further:

‘The art of questioning is the art of questioning further . i.e., the art of thinking. It is called dialectic because it is the art of conducting a real dialogue. .To conduct a conversation means to allow oneself to be conducted by the subject matter to which the partners in the dialogue are oriented. As against the fixity of opinions, questioning makes the objects and all its possibilities fluid. A person skilled in the art of questioning is a person who can prevent questions from being suppressed by the dominant opinion.’ (Truth and Method, 1993: 360/361)

This is not to say that Gadamer is uninterested in truth, merely that he is less interested in truth as a fixed product rather than the truth that is manifest in an ongoing cycle of enquiry. Drawing on Socrates and Hegel, he believes that knowledge arises in the process of question and answer in a way that is driven by the movement between engaged discussants.

This is a very different understanding from considering knowledge to be a ‘product’ which can be ‘leveraged’. Rather, for Gadamer it is a process of social engagement through which we better understand ourselves through our encounter with others. Knowledge in this sense, is an expanding knowledge of the self.

Are business principles good for not-for-profits?

There have been a number of articles in the newspapers recently recounting how business thinking can help the not for profit sector http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2008/jul/09/voluntarysector . Although there are a number of different initiatives, where people in business volunteer their time, or where people from business have migrated to the not-for-profit sector in order to make a contribution, there are some general trends in the kinds of advice that they bring.

Their first intervention is to encourage managers in not-for-profits to bring ‘focus’ (http://www.pilotlight.org.uk/index.php/experiences/pilotlighter-perspective/) to what they are doing. Bringing focus, as far as business volunteers are concerned, can mean drastically reducing their understanding of the complexity of what not-for-profit organisations are dealing with. So business volunteers are delighted if they can reduce the mission statements of not-for-profits to one or two sentences. Achieving focus comes to mean concentrating on just one or two things.

The second piece of advice is that managers in not-for-profits should have ‘ambition’ in what they are doing. This can sometimes mean that they should consider expanding what it is they are doing many fold. In other words, not-for-profit managers should concentrate on growing the business.

This kind of advice is usually portrayed as helping not-for-profit managers make the transition to the ‘real world’, and in this sense, particularly in the way that these articles are carried completely uncritically, are intensely ideological. After reading these articles one might be left with the idea that business volunteers and interventions have helped not-for-profits from floundering around in a muddle instead of growing the business and focusing on the bottom line. But what is the ‘bottom line’ as far as not-for-profits are concerned? If the bottom line is about meeting the needs of clients for whom the not-for-profit was set up in the first place these may or may not be met by growing the organisation. Concentrating on growth, coping with size forces managers to attend to the needs of the organisation as much as to the needs of beneficiaries. And in a competitive and marketised world pursuing growth and competing with others then becomes an end in itself. Some big donors would also prefer to deal with fewer, larger organisations and for there to be a ‘rationalisation’ of the sector.

In an essay on Tolstoy, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin drew on an obscure Greek philosopher Archilochus to make the distinction between knowing like a hedgehog and knowing like a fox. The hedgehog knows one thing very well, while a fox knows many things.

‘Focusing’ and being ‘ambitious’ is hedgehog thinking, encouraging not-for-profits to act just like corporations, and thus creating exactly the kind of competitive, sometimes conflictual dynamic that we encounter between organisations in the private sector. Growth and promotion of the organisation becomes as important an organising principle as paying attention to clients the organisation is supposed to serve. It is a powerful way of thinking, but it is a reductive, potentially destructive way of thinking for a sector which is involved in the messy, complicated and pluralistic domain of human need and social development. Smaller not-for-profits are often forced to be more adaptive, and more innovative to survive in comparison with much larger more corporate organisations, which a friend on mine, once a ‘beneficiary himself, has referred to as ‘powerful empires of philanthropy’.