Archive for December, 2011

There’s something intriguing about a word you almost (but not quite) understand but that  which, if you did fully understand it, you suspect would do more than simply add to one’s vocabulary. Without a vocabulary we are  figuratively, and literally, dumb. It is through our use of a varied language, as the case of Christopher Hitchens shows, that we win arguments, make points and, in fact, elaborate the world around us.

Right now, I’m contemplating the word “isomorphic”. It’s quite an elegant concept, used to describe a mapping of similar forms or relations.

The world is not wholly made of parts, but of systems of relations – and to understand how the world is ‘put together’ is to study the formal relations between parts, not the parts themselves. The study of parts cannot explain anything of the whole. To talk of “possession” therefore becomes a meaningless way of looking at the world.

Management must always involve the matter of relations between two people. More than involving, management must actually be defined as the relations between two or more people, or between people and things. The idea of someone being a manager in isolation from other people or from any other context is, more or less, absurd.

So what is management isomorphic to? Well, this is what I’m contemplating.


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In one of the Personal Development workshops I run we spend some time discussing a quotation from Henry Mintzberg’s 2004 book “Managers, not MBAs”, in which a criticism of business schools is raised. The quote is:

“Conventional MBA classrooms over-emphasise the science of management, while ignoring its art and denigrating its craft.”

I use this quotation to foster a discussion in the room on the “science”, “craft” and “art”, what they are and – importantly – in what ways are they different from each other. Of the three, the most interesting and, to my mind, most important is the art of management.  The science and the craft of management seem to have a logic that most managers can get to grips with, but what is the logic of the art of management? Does it have one? Does it matter?

It matters, I think, because it’s only the art of management that can connect to the purpose of business. The purpose of business is not such a simple question as, unless you subscribe to the empty notion that the purpose of business is only the production of profit or – worse – the circular notion that the purpose of business is the continuation of business, it tends to touch on systems of values (moral ones, not financial ones). The purpose of business must address the “why”, not the “how” or the “what”. The why is a matter of values. Values do not translate too well in the literal logic of science, but can find expression in the logic of metaphor. By the logic of metaphor I mean understanding how the following syllogism makes sense:

Men  die/grass dies/Men are grass.

This is Gregory Bateson’s syllogism in grass, and although it appears to make no logical sense it actually demonstrates how we think much of the time, and certainly how we communicate one thing by referring to another. By linking the object “dies”, and not the subject(s) we reveal a truth which is not part of the “logic of logic” but which is nevertheless extremely profound since it reveals something about the nature of the way that the world is relational.  It might help to think of this example:

The Coca-Cola corporation has individual rights under law/Citizens have individual rights under law/The Coca Cola corporation is a citizen.

This is not a simile (it doesn’t say that the Coca-Cola Corp is like a citizen), it is working at another level, one that says something about our concept of the idea of Coke and the idea of the citizen, and this could explain much about why that organisation does the things it does.

The confusion this can cause is the source of meaning in art, in drama, in poetry, in play/games, and in humour.  For example, the premise behind the film “Being There”, starring Peter Sellers, also relies on the logic of metaphor for its power as a piece of drama.

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Worth coming to work for on mornings such as these

Mist on the river Thames

Henley early on a forsty December morning

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