Posts Tagged ‘Management’


bell at the Shoren-in temple, Kyoto, sonorous when struck…

Isn’t it odd that we so rarely examine the background to or assumptions behind our words?  This is at least so in English – I cannot speak (no pun intended) for other languages.  For example, our word ‘orientation’ – crucial for induction at the start of any new process, such as an MBA, is originally been rooted in the act of facing to the East, to the Orient,  or the Holy Land, or Mecca, or perhaps (for the more awake) China, India and Japan…? We seem to rely so much on needing a place to be in line with. Ideologies require an orientation or they remain meaningless.  So where is the orientation for the task of management? Does management struggle for an orientation? Where is its central point, or axis? Following Gregory Bateson, and interpreting Anthony Wilden, I’m going to say that – whatever else it might be – management is an open system with the following characteristics:

  • A question of process and form, not matter substance
  • Holistic, entirely a matter of contexts, and contexts of contexts (hierarchical and context sensitive)
  • The organised and socially mediated use of information (where both-and thinking trumps either-or for productivity)
  • Subject to positive and negative feedback loops (where negative feedback is the constraint)
  • By its nature, open to novelty, surprise and innovation
  • Communicative in its behaviours (as well as its non-behaviours, which can also be communication), and with a capacity for memory
  • Every behaviour is also a question about the appropriate response for management to make

These may be a start in the definition of an orientation beyond “making money”.  ************

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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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I’ve been thinking lately about the idea of pathologies in management. It’s an interesting thought, but not one often dwelt on in the context of an MBA. I think this is a mistake because it’s always the pathologies that throw light on the day-to-day normal functioning that would otherwise be camouflaged from us by the fact that, frankly, there is just nothing noticeable going on.

The term ‘pathology’ conjures images of morgues and psychiatrist’s couches, but the definition also has other meanings and applications (see below). The one under discussion here is as “a departure or deviation from a normal condition”. This  seemingly spare definition is linked, of course, to the others and it should be of interest to managers and leaders for the following reasons:

1.  Although it is suggested that there is nothing to be learnt from “a normal condition”, actually it would be better to say that there is nothing that’s easily learnt. In fact, the normal is where most of us operate, most of the time. We just do it without thinking about it. We are somewhat hard-wired to seek equilibrium and place into our sub-conscious minds as many routine aspects of behaviour as we can.

Now, ‘normality’ is, of course, a loaded term; what, exactly, is “normal”?  It is anything we don’t pay attention to, either because we don’t have to to get by, or because it has become so routine, so habitual as to be impossible differentiate.  This routine world is not open to examination because what we wish to examine and the means we have to examine it are one and the same. Only when we have at our disposal a new lens, a means of differentiating the normal, only then can we draw its outline.

2. So the study of a pathology is important as it shows us what we cannot see in the “normal”, and therefore shows us the nature of what we take for granted. To understand what we do as managers, we have to find or provoke situations which are deviant, or perhaps just a departure from the everyday. The psychiatrist Oliver Sacks has illustrated this phenomenon very well in his numerous books on deviant psychological conditions. The whole medical profession, in fact, has relied on pathology as a source of information about what must, necessarily, be the case in the world of the non-deviant.

The question of what are the pathologies of management is important not in order to validate the deviation but to show us how we work when we don’t have any problem at all. In Personal Developmnet on the MBA, I think this could be a valuable, if theoretical, starting point for all incoming managers. The challenge in education, aside from documenting cases of managerial pathology, is safely to provoke enough deviation in the course of the degree to let leaders and managers see for themselves how this works.

n. pl. pa·thol·o·gies

1. The scientific study of the nature of disease and its causes, processes, development, and consequences. Also called pathobiology.
2. The anatomic or functional manifestations of a disease: the pathology of cancer.
3. A departure or deviation from a normal condition: “Neighborhoods plagued by a self-perpetuating pathology of joblessness, welfare dependency, crime” (Time).

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After a six week drought of time and energy to pursue it, I have just started to get back to the business of writing things down for my PhD.  With a new and deliciously abstract focus on epistemology.

All PhD candidates are required to show that they have justified their research question and methodology consistent with an explicit epistemology. For some, I suspect this is probably akin more to the drunk man’s use of a lamp-post for support rather than illumination or, worse, the adoption of a convenient theory of knowledge simply to fit the results of the research. 

For me, though, the epistemology is now the question, and one seeks to find data to shed some light on the epistemology, not the other way round.  Bateson once defined epistemology as a) “branch of philosophy concerned with how it is possible to know anything, what is truth, and so on…” and “the study of Natural History”, which meant for him the study of “how people think they know things” as well as “how people know things”. There was no need to define ontology (study of being) except within this definition of epistemology; they were essentially the same thing because in the world of living systems all knowledge is a matter of differentiation and classification of classes of differentiation. The differentiated world of form is one that “exists” in abstraction, inevitably removed from the undifferentiated, unknowable world of substance, of  “things as they are”. 

It follows that, in this branch of philosophy, “management” is not the name of an action but the name of a class or aggregate set of actions which become so labelled only from a view of the context in which those actions are taken.

So beginning from an epistemology that views all living organisms as systems and subsystems defined by patterns and by patterns of patterns, with patterns being the properties of difference, in my research I now propose use an exploration of human narrative to help me better understand how to appreciate what we mean by “patterns of patterns” and what we mean (in Management Education) when we talk about “learning”.

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