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Archive for May, 2013

Great Uncle Emmet Dalton was a man full of surprises. A soldier with nerve and cunning, and a leader with imagination and forethought. And a man with more than his fair share of great stories. Here’s another one: he instigated the Irish Air Force.

Discovered in the National Military Archives of website of the Cathal Bruga a barracks is a witness statement made by Emmet in 1951. In this he documents how he came to arrange for an aeroplane to be purchased by the fledgling Irish state on the occasion of a visit to London by Michael Collins following the end of the Irish War of Independence. As a figure of national importance to Ireland, and still a person of some ill repute to the English, Collins’ safety was a real concern if the negotiations with the British government should break down. Emmet Dalton was by this time one of the inner circle that protected Collins and so it was agreed that, following his idea, a purchase of a plane should be made, and that it should be held on stand-by at Croydon airport, ready to whisk the Big Fellow away if necessary.

The witness statement sets this out more elegantly:

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Collins_Plane

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Cartoon All those in favour say aye

The statement above is meant as a provocation, of course, but not a frivolous one. Here’s my thinking…

At the top, management (or leadership, if you prefer) is a matter of awareness of the total process; the whole entity, as it were. However, a consciousness of the “whole” of business – or commerce, or trade, management, leadership, or organisation, etc. – cannot be found in a consciousness of any of its “parts”.

What happens is that businesses like to focus on particular “problems” and then managers are trained to solve these by ‘seeing’ things selectively, and to do so in bits rather than wholes. The whole of our economy is predicated not just on growth but on the idea that we’re working our way somehow toward some kind of desirable end state or goal, with obstacles to control that are problems. There’s no doubt that technologically, at least, a lot has been achieved this way. So why do we never quite seem to get there? Our attempts to fix things always, ultimately, send us back to the drawing board; our careful, analytical reasoning and planning redundant and our short-cuts themselves short-circuited by unintended events (often of our own doing).

Whether by tradition or design, the MBA curriculum is also built around a categorisation, a selective sampling and division into parts. The names of those parts change over time, reflecting fashion as well as purpose, and overlap rather than integrate. This energy and intellectual innovation in business schools has undoubtedly led to many advances and successes at reaching goals. But my question is whether these amount more to a bag of tricks than they do to real insight or wisdom. In fact, how much of MBA output is indicative of the same short-term thinking that pervades corporate thinking, and which pervades it increasingly so? And this at the expense of the awareness of the ecological system that actually provides the boundaries.

People’s thoughts are welcome. Counter-positions particularly so.

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With just a few days to go, I’ve been making some notes on the argument. Here is one of them, about the process of getting from data to theory…

Reflection as an entity and our perception of it are both “occasions of experience”*. All occasions of experience have a temporal and historical duration and so are portions not wholes. The entity of reflection is, therefore, a part; a fragment in a much bigger picture. Because that big picture is a unified whole it cannot be reported in an analysis of a part.

In many examples of social science research it is only occasions of experience that are considered suitable as units of analysis, but this invites conclusions from fragmented description and it creates – as a minimum – a division between observed and the observer. This might be unavoidable, or avoidable only with considerable artistry, but the researcher’s decisions on where the boundaries are and where the description of an entity starts and stops is always an arbitrary one. Reading too much into our analyses is highly risky since that sort of understanding is inevitably limited by and to our capacity to observe. The occasion of experience, in all its subtlety and complexity, is never fully capturable in an epistemic model built to analyse the parts. In themselves, these occasions of experience aren’t ‘things’ but patterns of inseperable relationships.

I think it is essentially my thesis that something of the nature of these patterns of relationships that are about the wider story can, however, be inferred.

(*after C H Waddington)

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