Posts Tagged ‘Evolution’

Flower in Oxford Botanic 2013

A couple of thoughts to end the week with:

Thought 1: Bateson’s challenge to management thinking

I’ve been listening, and not for the first time since it is multi-layered, to an audio recording of Gregory Bateson speaking, I think, to an audience of anthropology students in the 1970s about epistemology. He says the following:

“Epistemology is A, a branch of philosophy concerned the question of how it is possible to know anything, and what is truth, and questions like that. B, epistemology is a study of natural history; two studies of natural history. B1, it is the study of how people think they know things. B2 it is the study of how people know things. Which is not necessarily the same thing at all. It has to do with the word “how” and with the business of knowing. And everybody obviously has an epistemology, otherwise they couldn’t know anything, and those who say they don’t  have an epistemology have a lousy one.”

This contains some challenging ideas, and is already further along than most explanations of knowing that have been applicable in management learning. Later in that recorded session, and after illustrating the same point using Balinese puppets and the notion of symmetry in bird feathers, he asks whether the problem in knowing isn’t just a matter of error between the ‘how we know’ and the ‘how we think we know’. Confusion here results in a distorted epistemology – when descriptions of the way the world works (and it is inevitable that some sort of description will be necessary) are not in the same ‘language’ as the way the world works. Most social scientists and management academics act as though the social and the psychological worlds are governed by a set of fundamental laws with properties that are unique to human systems. So far, this view has led to all sorts of diverse (though hardly disparate, see below) conclusions and never-ending, small-scale internecine wars. No-one can agree with anyone on fundamental principles because everyone’s own fundamental principles are founded on the negation of the fundamental principles of others. Stalemate.

If, as a manager, you try to look at your organisation no longer in terms of numbers of parts to make up a whole but rather, as Bateson calls it, “a nest of relations”, you are closer to how nature puts things together. You begin to achieve an aesthetic understanding which is more harmonious with the fluid complexity of the way that messages and information that Organisation Theory has been attempting dismally to capture in explanation for at least 60 years. This is what an abductive mode of inference offers.

Thought 2: diversity is not the same as disparity

An often observed and pleasant feature of Day 1 on the Henley MBA is the diversity of background, industry and functional expertise that seems to be presented in each new group. This tends to be reinforced throughout the first days as people get to know each other. Correctly, in my view, this diversity is interpreted as a plus, and is real in the sense that our experience of identity is becoming more, not less, fragmented over time, and is likely to continue in that direction as knowledge-based and service sectors grow and emerging economies move in the same direction as the established ones.  However, I have never really thought much about what we mean when we talk about diversity in this way.

I have been reading a short book about Stephen Jay Gould’s approach to evolutionary theory and note an interesting contrast between the concept of:

       diversity – the numbers of variations within a set of basic types or forms (e.g. lots of species with much homology, or many aspects of personality characteristics formed from a few basic archetypes, or myriad job titles for the same basic sets of job functions etc.) –  and

      disparity – the numbers of different basic sets of types or forms.

Whilst not doubting that evolution offers good explanatory theory, Gould held that there were also still problems with it, as found, for example, in the idea that adaptation is progressive and, some would argue, teleological. In fact, he said, although we now see an amazing amount of rich diversity in our bio-sphere (probably uncountable numbers of variations of and within species of plant and animal), these are all variations from a surprisingly small number of forms. We have not seen, he says, an increase in disparity of basic forms since the explosion in diversity of species, 520 million years ago. On the contrary, there has been a steady reduction of variety.

So, I note that we may have diversity in our MBA, but there is very little disparity. In other words, and in a gross simplification of Gould, we have variation in but not of form. Lots of sorts of companies and businesses, but all with the same basic pattern or form. A variation of form for a Business School would be to reach out to include people/cultures  that have not been inter-twined in their development with our own. The global mono-culture seems to be the right condition for almost limitless response within cultural types, but very limited possibility to break out of that type itself.

I’m not sure what this really means, other than perhaps a sense that we may be vulnerable, at some higher level, to a kind of collective ‘groupthink’ in management education.


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A day or so ago I received an email (pasted at the end of the post below) from LinkedIn with the subject line “Sharing on LinkedIn and Twitter”. It appears to be the sort of mass message sent out to all users, so no doubt many others have also read it. That message is a straightforward one, to the effect Twitter has removed the possibility to share a Tweet automatically with the status screen on LinkedIn. What caught my eye, though, was the following sentence in the email:

“Twitter recently evolved its strategy and this will result in a change to the way Tweets appear in third-party applications.”

The odd thing for me was not the substantive change in policy. This is probably being endlessly debated elsewhere online and probbaly just as easily explained in economic terms, as Twitter wants to show potential investors that potential advertisers can best reach Twitter users by advertising on Twitter, not on LinkedIn. What caught my attention was the use of the phrase ‘Twitter evolved its strategy’.

What does that mean? Is it a synonym for ‘change’, used to make a less than palatable shift in direction seem like progress? Or do they really think that a company evolves strategy?

If it’s the latter, then I think they are in error. The fallacy is in two parts, the first being the idea that an organisation cannot evolve anything, even itself. Develop, build, adjust, construct a strategy, perhaps these words could describe the efforts of an organisation to make small changes to either its environment or to itself. But that is not evolution.  Evolution is a process that is transcendent of individual entities, and one that is not purposive in the sense the writer of the email almost certainly meant. The second part of the mistake, to my mind, is the idea that the unit of survival in evolution is the individual (regardless of whether the unit in question is an organisation, part of an organisation such as its strategy, or an organism). Nor is the unit of survival the population, or species, or industry. Rather, the unit of survival is the niche, the ecology – in short, the organism and (not in) its environment. In this sense, Twitter cannot evolve a strategy, a strategy changes or doesn’t change in line with external conditions and internal limits which are visible only over a long period and not really from the perspective of the individual that is living in the present.

It could be argued that this is nit-picking on my part.  But my point is not simply meant to be a pedantic response to choice of wording. It is exemplary of the metaphor applied by people to the world – one of control, ownership and possession. I don’t think this is a useful line of thinking – more like one which (like 99% of all species that have ever lived on earth) is prone to extinction through ignorance of the balance between a thing and its environment.


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