31 October 2008

An Inquiry into ba, BAH, and UCaPP Through the Ritual of Lunch

Yesterday, I had the good fortune to catch up with a friend I had not seen for at least five years. I met Ariel Garten during my years at the McLuhan Program, when we were collaborating with Steve Mann for the Deconferences, and in particular, our Brainwave Music happenings. She’s a neuroscientist by training, a psychotherapist by vocation, and a wonderful artist/designer and performer by spirit, soul and practice. As I was describing my Valence Theory research and the idea of creating ba as a distinguishing factor between BAH and UCaPP organizations, she asked an intriguing question: Does creating the space from which the common values, intentionality, and mutual understanding emerge also involve enacting ritual? (I’m paraphrasing here.)

A fascinating question. I would answer with a qualified yes, at least from the little I’m beginning to understand of Nishida Kitaro’s writing on basho – the place of engagement in which self recognizes and engages other, and both paradoxically cease to be and come into existence simultaneously (as in, what do you get when you cross Western existentialism with Zen?). Ritual in the sense of Nishida’s “pure experience,” may indeed create basho out of what he terms “absolute nothingness.” In the Introduction to the translated version of Nishida’s, An Inquiry into the Good, Masao Abe writes, “in pure experience, knowledge, feeling and volition are undifferentiated. Ultimate reality is not merely known cognitively but also felt or realized emotionally and volitionally. The unity of intellectual knowledge and practical emotion-volition is the deepest demand of human beings , and it indicates the living ultimate reality” (p. xviii).

I reflect on four examples of ba, characterized in organizational practice by a common and tacit “knowing what to do,” without necessarily requiring responsibility, accountability or project management typical of getting things done in organizations. There is the example of Inter Pares that has a lot of what I might call ritual around their hiring, welcoming, and initiating processes for new members. Unit 7 has its game metaphor, with an owner, customer, and co-collaborators for each initiatives, and both required and forbidden moves. (Both Inter Pares and Unit 7 are participant organizations in my research who have given me permission to reveal their identities, so there’s much more to come on them and their unique practices.) Yesterday, I heard about Campbell’s personal values exercise. And, my own department used World Café to create an experience of ba that led to all sorts of completed projects and initiatives after everyone unanimously said that they would take neither responsibility nor accountability for undertaking any project or initiative.

In each case, the embodied experience of the particular enacted ritual had to do with explicitly articulating personal values and aspirations in a collaborative environment, and using those to provide guidance to the organization as a whole. Contemporary “fast capitalist” discourse, however, goes the other way: In general, fast capitalist texts co-opt “high-moral-value” words, such as “liberation,” “empowerment,” “trust,” “vision,” “collaboration,” “teams,” and the like as mind-numbing clichés that allow workers to serve corporate ends without critique. Visionary leadership attempts to appropriate the definition of “core values” and moral agenda from their traditional institutional homes in society – church, school, university, government. Fast capitalism represents, in this way, an imperialist agenda, attempting to impose its own vision of a new world, based on its own closed rationale (Gee, Hull & Lankshear, 1996).

Is the direction of values alignment perhaps another differentiating characteristic between the contemporary BAH and UCaPP organizations? Do BAH organizations tend to align employees’ and customers’ values with corporate (so-called) values, while UCaPP organizations tend to align organizational values with those of its members, the latter made explicit and articulated through more-or-less authentic, embodied ritual? Neat questions to contemplate.

Man, was it worthwhile to hook up with Ariel again!

  • Gee, J. P., Hull, G., & Lankshear, C. (1996). The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

  • Nishida, K. (1990). An inquiry into the good (M. Abe & C. Ives, Trans.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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