Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life
I was prompted by the comments on my last blog on management tools and techniques to write this blog as a reply. I am struck by how strong the belief in tools and techniques is so that even though agreeing with what I said, there is an immediate move to talking about dynamic tools instead of static ones and claiming that there is scientific evidence for certain propositions about the development of the human mind allowing standard patterns to be mapped and measured. Of course what I wrote is contesting all of this and is certainly denying the assertion of a scientific base allowing us to know as a fact. Another comment asserted everything we do could be described as using a tool or technique. In this blog I will try to explain why I profoundly disagree with that statement. Then there is a comment by Chris Rodgers, most of which I agree with. What I am trying to talk about, however, is not about different prescriptions or ‘shoulds’ but rather with a way of thinking about what people are already doing in organisations.
Since they do talk about using tools and techniques and since they do believe that certain prescriptions lead to success I am interested in trying to understand the nature of this talk. After all, we know that in organisational life we strike a strategic pose and talk publicly in particular ways while actually accomplishing what we accomplish in ways different to our public transcripts. So the interesting question becomes one of understanding what people are doing when they apply or use a management tool and what the organisational consequences of doing so are. I am also arguing that it is a false dichotomy to split thinking and doing since thinking is action and doing reflects past patterns of thought modified by a little or a lot of current thinking. What I am trying to do is hold the paradox of thought and action, theory and practice. I am exploring how it is to avoid dualities in thought and hold the paradox. However, I do agree there is an implicit prescription in advocating reflection instead of application. So what I want to do in this blog is explore a more complex understanding of organisational life and then look at what tools and techniques actually are and what part they play in organisational life.
The French sociologist, Bourdieu, makes a distinction between two modes of experience and thought. In the first mode, human agents are thought of as acting on the basis of reasons so that once the reason is found, the coherent set of principles governing a series of actions becomes apparent and it is possible to see pattern in what might have looked like random actions. Bourdieu contrasts this notion of the reasonable agent with one in which agents act on the basis of interests. He relates this to the notion that in their ordinary activities, agents are engaged in a game which they take seriously and regard as worth the effort because they have an interest in it; they are invested in it and they participate in the game, recognizing the game and the stakes. In this mode, they are pre-occupied by the game rather than acting rationally to achieve goals. We acquire our interest in particular social games through our living in the society we are born into. Our minds are structured by this social experience which is imprinted in our bodies as a feel for the game and to talk about mapping and measuring of our minds is to immediately obscure our understanding of the thoroughly social nature of mind and self. Agents are caught up in various social games and have the dispositions to recognize the stakes at play. They are invested in the stakes and play the game with each other through enacting the habitual social customs and ways of thinking into which they are born which some call habitus. People acquire their interest in particular social games through living in the society they are born into. Their minds are structured by this social experience which is imprinted in their bodies as a feel for the game.
Of course, much of this is unconscious as agents embody schemes of perception on the basis of which they act rather than setting objectives for what they do. Agents are absorbed in their affairs and act in ways which are inscribed in the game itself. A feel for the game develops in a history of developing the skill of anticipating the moves of others, so achieving some mastery over the unfolding game. Social agents have “strategies” which only rarely have a true strategic intention.
This is a very different way of thinking about what we are doing in organisations where we usually think it is all about projects and the pursuit of aims and objectives. What is actually going on is far more complex than simple notions of using tools and techniques or naïve notions of following simple rules. It makes no sense to talk about applying anything to the action of participating with others in the game. The dominant discourse on change in organizations focuses attention almost entirely on the design and the plan, the tools and the techniques, so encouraging us to ignore how we are actually pre-occupied by the organizational game. We are absorbed in the affairs of the organization in our local interactions, conducting skilful performances which give us some mastery of organizational continuity and change. However, we could be covering over the limitations to such mastery by focusing attention only on the design, the aims, the tools and the techniques. While the individual with the capacity for powerful individual agency exercised in a rational, detached way is what is publicly presented, the reality of ordinary interaction is that of participating, largely unconsciously, in games, in the habitus in which we live. So what is the nature of this participation in the game?
We can only interact with each other locally and that local interaction always reflects population-wide generalizations and idealizations most of which we are not conscious of. I use the term immersing to describe what we are doing as we interact locally, pre-occupied in the game, in ways which unconsciously reflect the generalizations and idealizations, the habitus, of our society. The word immerse means to be absorbed in some interest or situation where one devotes oneself fully to some interest or situation, throwing oneself into that situation and to engaging others to be so immersed. Immersing is an activity of bringing together, filling in, expanding, elaborating, complexifying and taking into account greater detail and diversity. It is our pre-occupation with the game, our experience of the habitus in which we live, our direct involvement in our ordinary, everyday local interactions. Such activity, essentially ideology-based acts of choice, inevitably generates conflict.
Immersing, therefore, refers to activities taking the form of:
• the ordinary, everyday politics of life. This is our ongoing negotiation with others, including our attempts to persuade and manipulate those others using ‘techniques’ ranging from the use of rhetorical ploys to the use of emotional blackmail and the ‘techniques’ of domination.
• the patterning of the power relations between people. Patterns of power relations between people reflect the dynamics of ideologically-based group inclusion and exclusion which establishes individual and collective identities.
• acts of politeness and face-saving. Politeness is essential to maintaining good social relations and takes the form of political acts required to gain the cooperation of others, especially powerful others. Civility requires us to smile and exchange routine pleasantries, especially when the other has the power to harm or reward us, even if we privately despise that other. In local interaction people are testing, challenging, supporting and undermining so as to shift or sustain patterns of power relations. Mostly we do this by avoiding direct confrontational challenges but use instead socially acceptable, polite ways involving humour, irony, sarcasm and social banter. How to do this will depend upon the evolved habitus, the generalizations and abstractions across a population.
• practicing the arts of resistance . Subordinate groups of people in organizations often have to adopt a strategic pose when dealing with the more powerful in which they express compliance in the ‘public transcripts’ (legitimate themes in the dominant discourse) couched in terms of abstractions. But they also find other ways of expressing what they think and feel amongst themselves in ‘hidden transcripts’ (shadow themes) in which they block, subvert and countermand the abstract categories imposed upon them. The contradictions and tensions expressed in the hidden transcripts, and between them and the strategic pose, have a major impact on what happens.
• denial, scapegoating and blaming as defensive ways of living with the anxieties of ordinary, everyday life. Talking in terms of second order abstractions may serve the purpose of providing social defences against anxiety in organizations;
• the spontaneity and improvisation required of us if we are to respond appropriately in the unique contingent situations we so often face.
• the attachment to others, as well as the empathy with, and trust in, those others, which enables us to find fulfilment in what we do and also aggression, competition, rivalry, mistrust and hatred.
• the creative imagination of alternative ways of living and doing and the inevitable destruction of others’ ways of living.
• altruism and generosity as well as selfishness and meanness.
So in the local interaction of making the general specific and the ideal functional in conversation with each other, in their pre-occupation with the game, people are negotiating their next actions in ways that have emerged and continue to emerge and evolve as narrative and propositional themes of power, identity and ideology.
However, we also have the capacity to become aware of our preoccupation with the game, to reflect upon our practical action, which expresses the habitus in which we live, in an effort to make conscious sense of what we are doing. To live simply immersed in the above ways would be to live a life devoid of all thought, reflection or meaning making. Thought, reflection and meaning-making are all activities of abstracting, the opposite of the activities of immersing. The most common understanding of abstract is that it denotes theory as the opposite of something practical but in its original sense, it means ‘to draw away from, to separate from’. All forms of thinking about and reflecting upon experience necessarily involve abstracting or drawing away from that experience which becomes an object of perception, not simply the subject of experience. Abstractions are articulations of both local and global patterns of interaction. They are attempts to describe habitus and the game rather than just participate in them. However, such activities of articulation always occur in local interaction and it is in such local interaction that the meaning of these abstractions emerges. Experience is thus an inseparable interplay between the activities of immersing and abstracting, of participating and reflecting, in which each is simultaneously forming and being formed by the other.
Since humans have always sought to make meaning they must also always have been paradoxically immersing and abstracting from experience in explorative forms of reflecting on the generalization and idealization of experience and articulating them in narrative and philosophy. People made, and continue to make sense of the population-wide patterns of interaction they lived in through the stories they told and the myths they recited from generation to generation. We still articulate the general / ideal in stories, rumours, and fantasies about distant powerful figures despite the social and individual evolution of the past centuries. The point about the narrative forms of our articulations is that they stay close to our experience of local interaction in that they provide descriptions and accounts of that local interaction itself, even in mythical form. Articulations of these generalization and idealizations in narrative form involves selecting and simplifying and in that sense, abstracting from experience. However, the selection is not only simplification but also elaboration. Narrative articulations of experience require interpretation in particular contingent situations. Their aim is not simplicity, standardization and uniformity, as we shall see below it is in later forms of abstracting, but rather their aim is the opening up of accounts of experience for greater exploration in order to develop deeper understanding.
However, the conscious simplifying generalization of narrative does amount to abstracting from, that is, simplifying and generalizing, the detail of each uniquely experienced situation. Insofar as the characters and situations in stories are stereotypes’, narratives abstract from and categorise the detail of experience. Furthermore, thought is essentially an act of categorizing and generalizing. So people do not think entirely in terms specific objects such as this table or that table but instead they think in terms of a general and so abstract category of tables. There were always philosophers and theologians who articulated formal simplifications, generalizations and categories of experience concerned with perceiving, knowing and acting ethically. Metaphysics involved abstracting from unique experience to signify hidden causes. Philosophy sought to explain the experience of perception, of knowing and relating in abstract modes that opened up exploration and interpretation so elaborating further reflection on experience.
Human thought, therefore, has always been paradoxical acts of immersing and abstracting at the same time and for most of human history it is the narrative form of abstraction that has been most prominent. It is only over the last few centuries, however, that social evolution has produced modern agents who engage in a kind of generalizing about their experience, articulated primarily in propositional forms, which was not available to pre-modern individuals. What emerged we could say was a particularly rigorous form of simplification, a stronger form of abstracting from the experience of local interaction than before. In addition to generalizing through the identification of categories of experience, articulated in narratives and philosophical arguments, which we might call first order abstracting from the experience of local interaction, there was an added generalization expressed in the mapping and modelling of relationships between the categories, which we might call second order abstracting. This is a form of simplification by abstraction which manipulates the categories of first order abstractions and therefore operates at yet another remove from direct experience. This abstraction from the abstraction of categories of experience makes it easier to split the second order abstraction off from the experience through reification and so lose the sense of the paradox of immersing and abstracting at the same time. Second order abstracting activity seeks to simplify, standardize and measure so reducing elaboration, multiple interpretations and mystery. The consequent clarity and uniformity makes it much easier to exert some control on the activities of others from a distance.
In our ordinary, everyday local interaction with each other, in which we accomplish all our joint activities, we always have been and still are immersing ourselves in the experience of such interaction and at the same time we are abstracting from that experience by simplifying, generalizing and categorizing in the forms of narrative and philosophy as first order abstracting, and also in the modern world we are frequently articulating generalizations / idealizations of the categories of experience as maps and models which can be described as second order abstracting. Local interaction in the modern world, therefore, necessarily includes the formulation and interpretation of second order abstractions as one aspect of what we are doing together in organizations. Certainly, to be included in groups of managers one must be a skilled participant in the dominant discourse conducted in terms of second order abstractions. In our immersion, our pre-occupation in the game of ordinary, everyday organizational life, we are together meaningfully patterning our interactions by drawing upon both the first (narrative) and second order (models and maps, tools and techniques) abstractions which have evolved in our community and in so doing we are together changing the abstractions in our local interaction. We are largely unconscious of how we are relying upon abstractions and find it difficult to notice just how readily we reify them and so cover over our pre-occupation in the game.
This activity of second order abstracting involves:
• Objectifying and categorizing. Here phenomena from celestial bodies down to social patterns, modes of thinking and individual human feelings are placed in well-defined bounded ‘spaces’ where differences within categories are obliterated and all difference is located at the boundary.
• Measuring the quantitative aspects of these categories (and nowadays the qualitative too by means of quantitative proxies) using standardized measures.
• Averaging out differences within categories and interactions between categories.
• Analysing the data so produced using mathematical, statistical and other analytical techniques.
• Selecting regularities and stabilities and forming hypotheses about relationships between entities, particularly causal connections often involving, by deduction, some hidden mechanism or whole.
• Modelling, forecasting, specifying probabilities with given distributions of variances, mapping, articulating rules and schemas.
• Prescribing rules, laws and moral norms.
• Setting targets, planning, monitoring and envisioning.
The scientific method is the paradigmatic example of the activity of second order abstracting. It is also an essential activity for governing the modern state and modern organizations because its aim to standardise and so remove diversity to make activities legible to people at some central point, so enabling some degree of central control.
However, standardising, mapping and modelling inevitably leaves behind real people, replacing them with simplified averages. So the activity of second order abstracting produces articulations of generalizations and idealizations in relation to hypothetical wholes which have the effect of focusing on what is believed to be important across a whole population and this could and often does render invisible the experience of local interaction. This is by no means a criticism because without the activity of second order abstracting there could be no modern state or policies of improvement, nor would it be possible to govern large organisations. In reflecting an ideology of order, rationality, harmony, design, control and improvement, the activity of second abstracting does change the world and is essential for the kind of lives we live in modernity. However, second order abstracting does render rationally invisible the disorder, diversity, deviance, conflict, compromise, manipulation, cheating, trickery, power plays, concealing and revealing of ordinary everyday experience which also changes the world and so also needs to be understood.
The activity of second order abstracting necessarily involves the postulating of an entity outside of our local experience and we easily come to believe that it actually exists, that we can be outside of it, observe it and then ‘move’ it around using various ‘tools and techniques’. This kind of belief in second order abstractions is the foundation of today’s dominant discourse about organizations and management. What is striking about such formulations is just how thoroughly people disappear from view. For example, I recently made a contribution to a program aimed at developing the strategy competence of senior managers at a major international corporation. I listened to the session just before I was due to talk. The session took the form of a report back by small groups on their discussion of a number of case studies of strategic success and failure in other large companies. The conversation ran entirely in terms of abstract entities. Toyota was said to have decided to enter the Chinese market and an intense discussion followed on why Toyota had done this, what China expected in return and whether it had been the ‘right’ strategy or not. The whole discussion was purely speculative since none of the discussants, including the presenter, had any involvement with Toyota and few if any had actually been to China. When a particular decision looked puzzling, discussants looked for rational reasons for Toyota having made it and if they could find none they concluded that it had been a mistake. No one ever suggested that we might need to understand the figuration of power relations amongst senior groups of managers at Toyota or that the special interests and private agendas of senior managers and their Chinese counterparts might have had something to do with the decisions.
Second order abstracting is a major activity in organizations today. It is also a major aspect of organizational research and management education. Economic, industrial, and organizational trends are abstractions. Strategy discussions are abstraction. Vision and mission statements are not only abstract generalizations but also idealizations of those abstractions. Targets set for public sector organizations, or any other organization for that matter, are abstractions. The tools and techniques of management are abstraction. However, to label as second order abstractions so many of the activities that take up peoples’ time in any organization is not to denigrate or dismiss such activities. Large scale change and improvement does require second order abstraction but taken on its own, it cannot accomplish change or improvement. The second order abstraction must be interpreted in terms of local contingent situations in the everyday practical activities of people in local situations if they are to have the potential for beneficial effect. Many organizations create climates of fear which suppress local interaction. We have a tendency to become so immersed in the abstractions of models and plans that we collapse the practical art of local interaction into a stereotypical activity called ‘application’ and ‘implementation’ and as a result, we lose sight of what is happening until it is too late. It is not difficult to see the strength of this point in modern corporations. For example, major banks do have systems of regulation and control which should prevent rogue traders taking financial positions which jeopardize the whole organization. However, these regulations can easily be re-interpreted, ignored or circumvented as we repeatedly see. To think that it is enough to set up an abstract system is to be in constant danger of unpleasant surprises. What is called for then is a renewed attention to everyday forms of experience and how particular first and second order abstractions are being taken up in ways which might be helpful but also in ways which might be harmful. Shifting the focus to local interaction will open up the possibility of reflecting on the usefulness or otherwise of the abstracting activity we now so blindly undertake in completely taken-for-granted ways.
Second order abstractions, especially those claiming to accord with science, are very powerful rhetorical ploys in the modern world and can certainly be used as techniques of domination but they do also create greater ‘visibility’ from a distance and so make some forms of improvement possible. The ability to express and utilize second order abstractions, which reflect powerful modern ideologies of control and improvement, is of major importance in the inclusion-exclusion dynamics of modern organizations.