29 December 2009

Valence Theory Findings Now Posted!

After an intense two months of writing, the Findings chapters are now available and posted to my Valence Theory thesis wiki.

I have restructured the thesis into three parts: Ground (the invisible context), Figure (what is noticed), and Meaning (the interplay of figure and ground). These newly posted chapters comprise Figure, and tell the stories of the five participant organizations, as well as providing a summary of the characteristic differences between BAH and UCaPP organizations in seven categories: Change, Coordination, Evaluation, Impetus, Power dynamics, Sense-making, and View of people.

Of course, I would be interested in hearing your feedback and thoughtful reflections on my analysis. Organizations that are seeking to transform or gain insight into their current situations may find the results gleaned from others instructive.

For quick reference, direct links to specific organizations are:
Organization M, Organization A, Organization F, Unit 7, and Inter Pares.

As a reminder, Organizations M and A are BAH organizations. Organization F was transitioning from being mostly a UCaPP organization to becoming more BAH in nature. Unit 7 has been transitioning in the other direction, becoming more UCaPP. And Inter Pares is the archetypal UCaPP organization.

As always, the Conversation with Nishida chapters are intended to set an appropriate mindframe for the analysis to follow.

PDFs for the three posted Figure chapters, and for each of the Conversations, are available for downloading at the site.

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21 December 2009

Assault and Aftermath

I was assaulted today. Not metaphorically assaulted—a guy punched and kicked me; there was a trip to Emerg, police report, witness statements, the whole nine yards. Without getting into the details, (except to say that the incident was unprovoked by me aside from what the assailant may have perceived that caused him to fly into a rage), I’m pretty shaken up by the entire incident. But more disturbing than the physical upset, the bruises, and the post-adrenaline drag is the question of the level of both latent and expressed rage that seems to be pervasive these days. This goes far beyond lack of civility and manners. It seems that many people become violent at almost no provocation, sometimes with tragic consequences. (In fact the circumstances of my assault this morning are strikingly similar to those of Mr. Skinner’s attackers—no pun intended.)

That the world has become stressful to an extreme is not news. That people believe that their individual concerns, schedules, work priorities, or the few seconds of travel time saved by driving through red lights and stop signs are more important than anyone else’s concerns is a significant problem: It seems to demonstrate a type of collective, pathological narcissism that does not bode well for the survival of our society. As a social animal, we humans require the rest of the “pack” to ensure both our collective and individual survival. Sociopaths destroy the material from which the fabric of society is sewn. As an increasing number of people transform from responsible fathers, mothers, wives, husband, business colleagues, charity volunteers, soccer coaches, and hockey moms into channels of unbridled violence at the slightest slight, ultimately that fragile societal fabric is ripped asunder, and we are all inevitably lost.

McLuhan famously said that violence is the quest for identity. Although that may be true – a threat to one’s identity is often met by degrees of violence acted out in any number of ways – it is time, I think, for each of us to reflect on our own pent-up frustrations and latent rage. To heal the world, we must first heal ourselves.

I know that the man who attacked me was apprehended and charged. I hope that he will be able to use the lessons of the process he is about to face to reflect on how he can heal himself for the good of people who care about him, and for the rest of us as well.

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20 December 2009

The Future of Reading... Magazines

During the conversation the other evening on The Agenda about The Future of Reading, Bill Buxton of Microsoft Research (formerly a prof at U of T) described some very cool work on environmental interfaces, in which the wall of one's room, for example, might be variously a light source, a cinema screen, or an electronic, tactile-browsable bookshelf. Today's e-readers are relatively limited (especially by DRM!) and are not yet up to the capabilities required for what we on the panel envisioned for the future of reading, writing, and publishing. However, the work being done on the user interface for future devices is truly creative. Here's a look at some high-concept work on Mag+ from Bonnier R&D.

Mag+ from Bonnier on Vimeo.

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16 December 2009

The Future of Reading and The Empire of the Word

I’ve been invited once again to participate on this evening’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin (20:00 on TVO). The conversation tonight will be on The Future of Reading, the last segment of TVO’s highly recommended, four-part, documentary series, The Empire of the Word. As I’ve watched the first three episodes, I’ve been pondering the larger, and perhaps more fundamental question, why do we read? What is the role that reading plays in our culture that may transcend particular technological advances; therefore, what is the future of reading?

There is the old cliché of an infinite number of monkeys set to bang on an infinite number of typewriters – Gutenbergian versions of word processing software – producing all the works of Shakespeare. (I suppose it would be a somewhat less romantic gedankenexperiment to observe that they would also produce every blog post, Facebook status update, Twitter tweet, and—well, LOLcats is pretty passé now, isn’t it?) But in that trite postulate lies a fundamental truth: writing produces worlds. Written language provides a civilization the ability to create any number of possible existences, be they feasible for physical incarnation or not. Descartes has nothing on anyone who is literate: the French philosopher and mathematician thought and therefore he was. A writer thinks and writes and therefore a world as fantastical or as real as one would care to know is born, lives, and occupies not a physical space, but the space of our minds.

And those whose minds are inhabited by the creations of any number of writers have the opportunity to cast themselves into those realms. Readers have the ability to contextualize their lived experiences in the physical and social worlds with respect to these sometimes-fictional-and-sometimes-not creations, and thereby make meaning of their unique and respective existences. It is from that meaning that the Self is created as an inhabitant of the world provided by the writer. The writer may play Zeus in being lord over the worlds s/he brings into existence; it is the reader who fills the role of Prometheus, filling it with life and igniting that world with the fire of insight, reflection, and thought.

That reading in contemporary North American culture has become, variously, a banal chore, the surfing of snippets of information, or a cargo-cult fetish – witness the explosion of sales for Get a Grip on Physics when it was discovered in the rear seat of Tiger Wood’s SUV – is not to be blamed directly on technological advances like the World Wide Web, Google, Kindle, or iAnything. I cast my accusing eye towards school curricula and unmindful pedagogues who seem to have collectively devised a cynically calculated method for inculcating youth with a life-long aversion to instrumental reading through their insipid content tests, involving who-said-what-to-whom-in-which-scene. That many people today have lost the art of reading in depth is not surprising given the nearly two decades of training in reading to find a specific answer desired by an authority figure.

So what of the future of reading? I (and many others) have said that the private mind – and hence, a sense of self that is distinct and individual, that is, one’s identity – emerged from the ability to read silently, to take a world created by another and inhabit it, thereby gaining a better understanding and appreciation of one’s place in the society we all share. But in today’s ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world, identity is collaboratively constructed. We each contribute artefacts and contexts to each other through a variety of interconnected means. A person’s identity emerges from amidst this collection of diverse artefacts and contexts. To borrow from Bernie Hogan, we become, in a sense, curators of our Self—multiple Selves, actually, depending on the locale, the contexts, and the particular artefacts that we care to display. If reading has always been about recreating the writer’s world and literally/literarily making it our own, then the roles and practices of contemporary writers and readers must necessarily change. Writing and reading, I think, become collaborative endeavours. Thus, the distinction between the two roles blurs somewhat, realizing James Joyce’s perhaps not-so-rhetorical query from Finnegans Wake, “my consumers are they not my producers?”

A future writer will indeed appear to be more like a producer, creating environments of engagement among multiple future-readers who participate with the writer in constructing, inhabiting, and bringing meaning to both fantastical and more prosaic experiences. This means that new and different skills will have to be added to our educational curricula. No longer will variations on See Dick Run; Run Dick Run (with its obligatory and corresponding content test—What Did Dick Do?) be sufficient for contemporary schools. Instead, students will need to learn how to create environments of engagement among multiple people who each bring multiple contexts grounded in diverse histories, cultures, and life experiences. The budding “wreader” will learn to facilitate reflexivity among her/his audience so that each participant in the book-of-the-future will see, experience, and understand their piece of the world-in-relation with perhaps just a little more clarity than before.

The book itself has been obsolesced as an instrumental medium. Instead, it becomes an aesthetic objet d’art, an academic talisman, an artefact in contemporary fetish rituals presided over by the likes of Oprah, Harry Potter, or Tiger at Twilight. Writers, editors, and publishers become, to various degrees, creators of experiential environments in the context of what literacy has always been when considered relative to individual and collective identity. The reader likewise continues, not merely as consumer, but as collaborative producer of Self and the World that Self inhabits.

The Agenda with Steve Paikin airs this evening at 20:00 on TVO. The full video of the conversation is posted on the episode page.

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02 December 2009

Identity and Organization Change

From the emerging thesis draft:
Among the dominant effects of the Industrial Age were the concentration and importance of capital. As the modern BAH organization emerged amidst the effects of that environment, it is understandable that the Economic-valence relationship became situated as the primary driving force among modern organizations. The modern understanding of organization dynamics according to the instrumental, managerialist discourse has, at its core, a primary concern for economic considerations. On the other hand, the emerging humanist, relational organizational discourse of the 20th century – the line of reasoning that leads to the contemporary UCaPP organization – is arguably based on situating the individual simultaneously in relation to other individuals and in relation to organization as a distinct entity in itself. I suggest, therefore, that in a UCaPP societal environment the dominant driving force shifts from the extrinsic instrumentality of the Economic-valence relationship to the intrinsic relationality of the Identity-valence relationship.

In suggesting this profound shift in conception, I am not denying the ongoing importance of the Economic-valence relationship. The fact remains that many people can be induced to enact certain behaviours (including working at otherwise dehumanizing jobs) through direct financial incentive. Even among anti-capitalists, barter and exchange – non-monetary manifestations of Economic-valence relationships – still remain important forms of interaction. Economic gain, one’s salary, possessions, and other material displays of wealth are often proxy markers for social status and reinforcements of psychological self-worth – all material, external expressions of identity relative to any particular cultural conceptions of social location. Nevertheless, my previous research (Role*: A reconception of role and relationship in the workplace) confirms and extends Herzberg’s conclusion that economic compensation, beyond a certain level, becomes for the most part an issue of hygiene, rather than motivation.

I have argued elsewhere (No Educator Left Behind) that identity – the location of oneself in relation to one’s society at the time – has always been important, and indeed directly defines the role of education in a society. In the contemporary UCaPP world, however, identity being collaboratively constructed in the context of multiple, massively-interconnected networks of social relations takes on an even greater importance: the preservation or enhancement (or both) of identity becomes a critical consideration in effecting organizational change, be it as simple as a rearrangement of an organization chart, or as complex as transitioning from being a BAH organization to enacting a UCaPP organization. As was clearly demonstrated by Aaron in Organization F as it is transitioning to become more BAH, and by many departing individuals of various ranks in Unit 7 as it transitioned to become more UCaPP, a perceived threat to identity, a felt diminishment of Identity-valence relationship, is sufficient reason to seek employment elsewhere. The clichéd resistance-to-change is not a resistance to change per se, but rather a resistance to a change in identity. Conversely, it follows that the optimal strategy to effect organizational change of any sort is to first understand and account for the requisite change in Identity-valence, and then facilitate the changes among the other valence relationships.

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01 December 2009

It's About Time

The Ontario Ministry of Education has announced that it will be revamping the K-8 curriculum to focus less on rote learning of facts, and more on creating connections, understanding context, considering complexity, and making connotation, or meaning. Seems they've been listening (in fact, they have, as I've been tracking hits from the provincial government and TDSB on my blog to the video of No Educator Left Behind).

While they're at it, they may also want to have a look at an Adult Educator's Manifesto, since adult education isn't just for adults.

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24 November 2009

The Fundamental Difference Between BAH and UCaPP Organizations

From the emerging thesis draft:
BAH organizations replace the complexity of human dynamics in social systems with the complication of machine-analogous procedures that enable individual independence, responsibility, and accountability. UCaPP organizations encourage and enable processes of continual emergence by valuing and promoting complex interactions even though doing so necessitates traditional, legitimated leadership ceding control in an environment of individual autonomy and agency, collective responsibility, and mutual accountability.

Neither approach is universally appropriate; nor should an organization fall blindly into one or the other without understanding the ramifications and desirability of becoming less (BAH) or more (UCaPP) consistent with contemporary society.

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18 November 2009

Is Technology Ruining Our Lives? Join Us for a Discussion This Saturday

Ontario Science Centre has invited me to participate in this month's Café Scientifique. These are conversations in which a couple of "experts" kick off the musing on the theme of the day with their brief contemplations, and then the audience has at it. The theme for this month is the question, "Is technology ruining our lives?" My short take at the answer: Yes, and it's about time! The theme is an opportunity to explore the nature of our lives in a very large historical, sociological, and cultural context, and to contemplate the possibilities for collectively recreating our lives in today's UCaPP context.

So if you're available in Toronto on Saturday, November 21, from 16:00 to 18:00, join me and Bryan Karney, Professor in the Environmental Section of U of T's Department of Civil Engineering, at the Rivoli at 334 Queen Street West (just east of Spadina on the north side of Queen).

(Click for larger image)

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06 November 2009

Seeking Female Research Participants in Hierarchical Organizations

No, not for me - one PhD research project is quite enough, thank you. This posting is for a colleague where I was a few years ago. But if you are a woman in a large, hierarchical organization, please read on!

Despite their proportion of participation in the workplace, women particularly those from the ethnic minority groups have been disproportionately underrepresented in senior positions in hierarchical organizations. Most of these women are concentrated in low-paying and low-status occupations in these organizations regardless of their education and experience. Various structural and cultural constraints are ubiquitous in hierarchical organizations which limit their engagement and opportunities and compromise their career mobility. This study will investigate how learning in a self-directed and innovative way during the life course can be a constructive intervention for these women in overcoming obstacles arising directly or indirectly from the structure and culture of hierarchical organizations to their career. It further explores if learning through their experience at work will support these women in building new knowledge to improve their career opportunities and in becoming lifelong innovative learners. The study design includes discussions with women who are interested in this study and are able to share their experience relating to their experience in hierarchical organizations and their career development as well as their approach to learning.

If you are a member of the study population, i.e. women who have worked in an organization with over 50 employees for over five years and are interested in participating in this study, we would like to have an interview with you. Your participation in this study will enrich our understanding of the research questions with findings that may be instrumental in developing coping strategies to manage the careers of women and in promoting lifelong innovative learning as a constructive intervention.

The study is being conducted by Tammy Chan, a doctoral student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, under the supervision of Professor Peter Sawchuk.

If you wish to participate in the study, you will be interviewed at a time and place convenient to you. The interview will be conducted in two phases by the doctoral student personally and will take approximately two hours and, if necessary, a follow up discussion on any outstanding issues after reflection either in person or over the phone. Dialogues during the interviews will be audio-taped to enhance interpretability relating to the structural and cultural constraints experienced by participants, their career development and approaches to lifelong learning. All the information relating to the research questions collected during the interview will be kept in strict confidence which will only be used for the preparation of the thesis. If you would like to continue your discussion about your experience after the interviews, we will be able to refer you to other professional workers in the related areas.

Your name and name of your organization or any other information that may disclose your identify will not be used in the study. To maintain confidentiality, a pseudonym will be used for the report of the findings from your participation. All information about the organization that is discussed at the interview will be kept in confidence. The audio tapes and all related written records from the interviews will only be kept until the completion and approval of the thesis.

Your participation is completely voluntary and you may withdraw from the study without further obligations at any time up until the write up of the final analysis begins. Although there will be no financial compensation in participating in this study, we would like to recognize your contribution with a small token of a book certificate. A copy of the final analyses can also be provided to you upon request when available. Please fill in your contact information below if you would like to have a copy.

If you have any questions about the study at any time, you may contact us at the numbers below. Thank you for considering your participation in this study. I would also appreciate if you would forward this letter to others who might be interested in this study. Thanks again.

So if you have a couple of hours to spare and would like to help out a PhD candidate with her research (I can tell you that all of my participants really enjoyed the process and each learned something new about themselves and their individual situations), please contact Tammy Chan directly. Many thanks - recruiting is often the hardest part of the research process!

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05 November 2009

Leadership, Reward, and Contrary Compensation

From the emerging thesis draft:
“If the spotlight is on you, then you’re not doing your job, especially in a leadership role…” says Roger, one of my research participants from a UCaPP organization. Given that the UCaPP organization ideally does not privilege one group or class over another, the espoused leadership concept of personal success only being achieved through group success permeates throughout all organization members, irrespective of their nominal position, role, or tenure with the organization. When considering more traditional organizations, the converse is perhaps more important: collaboration or teamwork that might be expected among the workers cannot be contradicted, neither by the otherwise well-intentioned actions of management, nor the formal and informal compensation and recognition systems in the organization.

Reward and recognition are often constructed as rivalrous resources based on the premise of there being beneficial value in creating internal competition in a BAH organization. However, the tacit but clear message received by organization members is that they are always and continually competing for their respective offices unless one has job security via a collective agreement, tenure, or other, similar arrangement. Teamwork becomes necessary in this environment, among other reasons, to establish concertive control in the absence of legitimated and explicit coercion.

The collaborative culture of a UCaPP organization decouples reward and status from contribution. In an environment of organization-ba – especially in the presence of strong Socio-psychological-ba and Identity-ba – organization members will contribute not only because it aligns with their personal values to do so, but because they feel valued - strong Economic-ba in doing so.

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03 November 2009

Cory Doctorow on the Implications of the Secret Copyright Negotiations

I don't often quote entire posts directly, but this one from Cory is incredible:
The internet chapter of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a secret copyright treaty whose text Obama's administration refused to disclose due to "national security" concerns, has leaked. It's bad. It says:

* That ISPs have to proactively police copyright on user-contributed material. This means that it will be impossible to run a service like Flickr or YouTube or Blogger, since hiring enough lawyers to ensure that the mountain of material uploaded every second isn't infringing will exceed any hope of profitability.

* That ISPs have to cut off the Internet access of accused copyright infringers or face liability. This means that your entire family could be denied to the internet -- and hence to civic participation, health information, education, communications, and their means of earning a living -- if one member is accused of copyright infringement, without access to a trial or counsel.

* That the whole world must adopt US-style "notice-and-takedown" rules that require ISPs to remove any material that is accused -- again, without evidence or trial -- of infringing copyright. This has proved a disaster in the US and other countries, where it provides an easy means of censoring material, just by accusing it of infringing copyright.

* Mandatory prohibitions on breaking DRM, even if doing so for a lawful purpose (e.g., to make a work available to disabled people; for archival preservation; because you own the copyrighted work that is locked up with DRM)
Michael Geist, as usual, is on top of it with more details (thank you, thank you, thank you, Michael).

This is write your Member of Parliament time, ladies and gentlemen.

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Organizational Impetus

From the (emerging) thesis draft:
Every organization has an intrinsic motive force – the ideation which provides the impetus for the organization to move. For many organizations, its impetus is expressed by its mission statement that nominally captures its overall goals and objectives. For others, the impetus emerges from its members’ deeply held values that unify in the body of the organization. Regardless of its origin, impetus defines the processes of direction-setting and decision-making, and therefore informs and provides guidance to the mechanisms of management throughout the organization.

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Organizational Effectiveness Homework Assignment

From the emerging thesis draft (well, the idea, anyway):
Setting and meeting objectives is considered important for organizational effectiveness. However, how those objectives are set relates to what we mean by effectiveness. Is it better to set objectives that create visibility for the intended effects and continual reflection on the values of an organization, but may not be quantifiable (and thus, cannot be conventionally measured); OR to set objectives that are quantifiable and therefore can be designed to be accomplished as set, but may not actually achieve the desired or intended effects?

Hint: One way is consistent with the practices of UCaPP organizations, the other with BAH organizations.

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02 November 2009

Evaluation in the Contemporary Organization

From the (emerging) thesis draft (I expect these excerpts will be posted in a chapter in early December-ish):
With respect to evaluation in a UCaPP environment, the organization itself must be considered to be a distinct actant in relation with the individual and thus is, as well, a subject of evaluation along with the individual. It cannot be take as axiomatic that the organization is always correct in its often arbitrary selection of goals and objectives, and thus, individual goals and objectives derived via functional decomposition may well be contestable; indeed, in a UCaPP organization, they must be contested and negotiated. The fundamental evaluative concern of the UCaPP organization thus changes from that of the typical BAH organization, asking a different question: In what ways did the individual contribute to enabling and creating the organization's intended effects, and how well did the organization respond?

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29 October 2009

Organizational Culture Change

From the (emerging) thesis draft:
Effecting cultural change in an organization must necessarily be a discursive undertaking, literally changing the vocabulary of attitudes, behaviours, characteristics, determinants, and ethos that create individual identity with respect to the organization, and organizational identity with respect to its members. The social and psychological location of this change is manifest in the valence relationships, and particularly with respect to enacting (or suppressing) the ba-forms of those relationships. The place of that enactment - the culture change venue - literally creates metaphysical "place" in the organization - basho.

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Bureaucracy, Complexity, and Complication

From the (emerging) thesis draft:
Bureaucracy, administrative control, and hierarchy fragment natural interpersonal interactions, thereby interrupting naturally occurring complexity in human social systems. As in the fashion of a Newtonian clockwork universe, that complexity is replaced by the complication of BAH procedures in an attempt to replicate an organic system of humanity with the equilibrium of non-human machinery.

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27 October 2009

Understanding the Context of Education

It may be news to the so-called Internet generation that history did not begin only fifty years ago. That's why I ground my own research into contemporary organizations in 3,000 years of history. There is also an underlying existential, epistemological, and ontological foundation for the things we do today. That's why I introduce a philosophical frame to provide reasoned guidance to Valence Theory. Together, history and philosophy provide the context that enables meaning to be made, even (especially) in a contemporary context that has been tremendously influenced by the follies of post-modernist thought.

Believe it or not, education as well has a history, and a philosophy that allow today's practitioners to make sense of the circumstances that inform their pedagogical practices. Or, to put it simply, teachers and educators need to understand from whence we came to comprehend where we should be going.

This very simple lesson seems to be lost on the Chief Educators at the largest graduate faculty of education in the world, namely the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education - OISE - at University of Toronto. The Dean, Jane Gaskell, in conjunction with Brian Corman, the Dean of Graduate Studies and Vice-Provost of Graduate Education for U of T's School of Graduate Studies, announced that they are shutting down the doctoral program in the History and Philosophy of Education in the Theory and Policy Studies department at OISE.

Nominally, the Ontario Council for Graduate Studies states their reason for recommending that the program be shut down as:
The staffing levels for the program are extremely low and will be exacerbated by imminent retirements. The Committee was not convinced that a critical mass of Faculty is associated with the program to ensure the necessary intellectual climate for a doctoral program. In addition, there is no commitment for hiring at an appropriate level to ensure program viability.
However, there are no imminent retirements (two professors who are approaching the former mandatory retirement age aren't retiring), and the 7 tenured faculty in the program are augmented by 17 associate faculty who are paid by other U of T departments. What is true is that Dean Gaskell seems to have been starving this program of academic renewal for six years, apparently refusing to hire a new professor even though the TPS department unanimously agreed that the next TPS hire should be for H&P (the unanimity has been since 2007).

How easy it is to say that there is not academic critical mass when the requisite supplementary mass has been repeatedly refused by the Dean. It's not as if there was a long-standing tacit plan to shut down the program, right? After all, it's only 85 students we're talking about.

It may appear that History and Philosophy of Education are not immediately relevant to the corporate view of instrumental education. It may be that H&P don't get the paying bums in the seats - after all, most of us are nothing more than BUs (Basic Units) to the bean-counters on OISE's 12th floor - the same ones that have repeatedly told us there would be no negative impact to increasing enrolment, decreasing tenured faculty, decreasing adjunct stipends, and preventing part-time students from taking more than one course per semester (tell that to the person whose salary depends on completing her M.Ed.). These are the same bean-counters that wanted to introduce the concept of indentured servants to the funded cohort at OISE ("no impact," they said, even though it means that a student would be tied to a professor they have never met for the duration of their degree) because that's the way they do it in many science faculties.

Without doctoral research in History and Philosophy of Education (which, of course, attracts the Master's research before it) the understanding of educational context withers and dies. Thus, that which creates meaning to current practices goes by the wayside, and most important, what fundamentally enables us to query and probe why we are doing what we are doing, and whether it's still relevant, vanishes. Perhaps the status quo is acceptable to Dean Gaskell - after all, people are still paying to be taught how to be good 19th-century schoolmarms, albeit with fancier tech. But (and this is where it gets personal) were it not for a doctoral thesis produced by graduate of H&P at OISE (on Plato, of all things), I wouldn't have been able to state No Educator Left Behind (that has garnered attention among thousands of educators throughout North America), and quite literally, the foundational work that led to Valence Theory of Organization would not have existed, and thus, neither would my thesis. How about that? What I hope will be the Next Big Thing in business had its humble beginnings in the History and Philosophy of Education.

Yes, Dean Gaskell, it is a complex world - what you might perceive as a relatively inconsequential budget saving may indeed have implications far into the future that none of us can yet perceive.

Sign the petition to Save History and Philosophy of Education.

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Contemporary Organizational Effectiveness

From the (emerging) thesis draft:
To change the fundamental premise upon which organizations are constructed necessitates a change in our collective understanding of what it means to be effective. Simply put, to be effective in a ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world is to be cognizant of the effects one intends to create, and that one actually brings about in both the social and material - both natural and physically constructed - environments. As effects are substantially distinct from goals and outcomes, an organization concerned first and foremost with its effects must maintain a heightened awareness of its interactions amidst the social and material environments in which it participates. This logic brings an organization to having as its primary concern the relationships it creates, out of which intended effects emerge, followed by the goals, objectives, and outcomes towards which it strives.

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23 October 2009

Zichron L'vracha: Soupy Sales, 1926-2009

Childhood was so different in the 1950s and early '60s. It was a simpler time, and television then was not television now (two distinctly different media). And television personalities were different as well, hearkening from the tradition of vaudeville and the infamous borscht belt that influenced generations of American comedians. Soupy Sales was one of the greats in children's entertainment - not the least for this child. He passed yesterday at the age of 83.

I remember his shtick with the pies-in-the-face, and the mostly off-screen puppets, and the joy of pure silliness. In retrospect, and now seeing some of his clips with the eyes of an adult somewhat versed in media theory and the ideas of Marshall McLuhan, I can see the sophistication and the sly asides to any parents who might have happened to be watching along with their kids (something that rarely happened back then). Soupy Sales was cool - his gags needed the participation and completion of the audience, and he spoke to the child-sensibilities in us all. Even in his latter years of declining health, he always respected and had great regard for his audience and fans. Here's hoping there will be a great big heavenly cream pie waiting for you upstairs.

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22 October 2009

John Willinsky on Open Access

As part of Open Access Week, John Willinsky, currently of Stanford University, regaled a large audience at OISE this noon hour. Open access, according to Willinsky, means free online access to peer-reviewed, published literature. The concept reflects the trust in which the public has invested among academics (particularly, but not necessarily exclusively) relative to human knowledge and the fundamental human right to know. Public education, after all, is primarily about access to knowledge: even in the K-12 system the focus is almost exclusively on basic reading, writing, and 'rithmetic skill-building (although that in itself is somewhat problematic) - all skills that enable access to knowledge.

Currently, only 20% of all scholarly articles are available through Open Access. The good news is that the percentage is going up, and it's going up thanks to three primary mechanisms. First, the major journals cartel (Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Wiley-Blackwell) now grants the right for authors to post electronic versions of their final, peer-reviewed (but not copy-edited) draft on an institutional archive or private web repository (like a blog). Willinsky notes that an academic's responsibility to publish is only the beginning: there is also a responsibility to disseminate knowledge for everyone's benefit, especially since all academic research is conducted either through direct public funding of institutions and research grants, or indirect public funding through the tax-exempt status of (American) private universities. He observes that a recent study found that authors who archive their work for Open Access in this way are three times more likely to be cited than those who rely solely on being published in one of the slightly less than infinite number of academic journals that exist "out there."

The second piece of good news is that the number of Open Access academic journals is increasing, and increasing at a startling rate. He estimates that there are now about 5,000 online, Open Access journals covering every discipline in the academy. For example, the Public Library of Science boasts seven medical and scientific journals that publish leading and ground-breaking research in biology, medicine, computational biology, genetics, and others. The third piece of good news is that over 100 academic institutions have adopted a mandate that their respective scholarly production will be either published in Open Access journals, or archived for Open Access. In Canada, CIHR - the federal funding body for health research - requires Open Access publication for its funded projects. This, of course, makes sense: the research is publicly funded; the resulting knowledge should be publicly available. Willinsky calls for more institutions (like, say, OISE) to take a public stand on Open Access and declare a similar policy mandating its faculty and grad students to publish in Open Access journals, or to make drafts of their work publicly available.

The Open Access debate often becomes entwined with the copyright debate, and economics. The argument often follows that of the person who attempts to make a living from their creative output, like the fiction author, musician, painter, composer, or sculptor. However, academics are different in a significant way. Whereas the direct economic value provided by a work of fiction (arguably) diminishes (but not necessarily - Cory Doctorow, for example, argues convincingly against this) when the work is freely available, the value to an academic of her work becoming openly and freely available increases. The value of academic knowledge increases when it is shared: the value of one's learning is only measured by its consequential value to others.

As my regular readers know, I am a firm believer in Open Access. Most of my scholarly production has been posted via my blog under Creative Commons, and even my dissertation draft on Valence Theory is available, chapter by chapter, hot off the word processor. It's very simple, really: together, we're all smarter.

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21 October 2009

Chapter 2 Now Available: Understanding Reality's Production

The thesis writing progresses! For those who are following along, the second chapter, Understanding Reality's Production: On methodology and method, is now posted to my Valence Theory thesis wiki. This chapter explains why I've chosen the particular methodology I'm using (constructivist grounded theory, for those playing along at home), and describes the research method, the participants, and other nitty gritties of what actually happened. Here's a taste:
Law draws on Latour and Woolgar’s seminal, 1986 examination of how scientific facts are produced in the context of “laboratory life” to make the argument that science produces the realities that it describes. This is not an arbitrary, “anything goes” epistemology, but rather the product of a rigorous and difficult process of what I describe as “adding to the cultural compendium of wisdom” (Federman, 2007). Heterogeneous research practices and diverse contexts contributed by both researchers and participants produce heterogeneous perspectives and interpretive realities – both of which are, arguably, imaginary constructs – that nonetheless manifest in multiple real effects and consequences. Law then proceeds to suggest that “perhaps there may be additional political reasons for preferring and enacting one kind of reality rather than another” (p. 13; emphasis in original).

In considering the researcher’s responsibility in his or her knowledge contribution, these “ontological politics,” as Law calls them, loom large, especially in the context of both affecting and effecting human behaviours in social settings. Peter Drucker differentiates between natural laws that operate irrespective of humanity’s often limited ability to understand and describe them, and the basic assumptions held by the particular select group of researchers and practitioners that,
…largely determine what the discipline assumes to be reality. … For a social discipline such as management, the assumptions are actually a good deal more important than are the paradigms for a natural science. The paradigm – that is, the prevailing general theory – has no impact on the natural universe. Whether the paradigm states that the sun rotates around the earth or that, on the contrary, the earth rotates around the sun has no effect on sun and earth. A natural science deals with the behavior of objects. But a social discipline such as management deals with the behavior of people and human institutions. Practitioners will therefore tend to act and to behave as the discipline's assumptions tell them to. Even more important, the reality of a natural science, the physical universe and its laws, do not change (or if they do only over eons rather than over centuries, let alone over decades). The social universe has no ‘natural laws’ of this kind. (Drucker, 2001, p. 69-70)

Don't forget to read the accompanying "Conversation with Nishida" on The Question, too.

PDFs for all chapters are available for downloading from the wiki's front page.

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11 October 2009

Teaching Ignorance

No, I'm not talking about the "good type" of ignorance - the form that enables one to judiciously ignore the irrelevant and distracting. In fact, in Ontario, we're teaching precisely the opposite: how not to think, reason, or be aware. In a recent issue of University Affairs, Alan Slavin writes:
Has Ontario's educational system taught a decade of students not to think? There is growing evidence that the combination of standardized testing with a content-intensive curriculum that's too advanced - both introduced by the Conservative government between 1997 and 1999 - has done exactly that.
Slavin outlines six possible contributing factors to the loss of students' ability to think, reason, and construct knowledge and concludes that the major factors are primarily two-fold:
1. In 1997, the Ontario government introduced a new, content-intensive curriculum for grades K to 8 in mathematics and language, followed in 1998 by the science and technology curriculum. The design of this curriculum was top-down, unlike earlier curricula that had been designed by local teachers and their school boards under general guidelines from the Ministry of Education. Much of the new curriculum in the junior grades is considered by many experienced teachers to be beyond the mental development of students at that level. This encourages blind memorization rather than understanding. Moreover, the new curriculum significantly reduces time spent on the visual arts, and was so content-heavy that it greatly limited the amount of time available for developing analytical and conceptual-understanding skills from kindergarten on, even though the development of these skills was a stated goal of the curriculum...

2. In 1997, the Ontario government also introduced standardized province-wide testing in math and reading/writing in Grades 3 and 6, with a math test in Grade 9. I am told that much of the teaching at the elementary level is now directed to passing those tests, as schools are rated publicly on the results. Students must also pass a standardized literacy test to graduate from high school. This emphasis on passing standardized tests which cover too much material at too advanced a level increases the dependence on rote memorization and takes time away from the development of conceptual understanding and analytical skills.
Politically, the new curriculum is precisely what one would expect from a BAH organization: heavily content-focused, with the measure-of-goodness based exclusively on relatively straight-forward, (pseudo-)objective metrics that are more-or-less commonsensical to a lay public. However, when set against one of my research findings, that BAH organizations are unable to perceive quality, (and especially in an uber-BAH organization like government where metrics are designed to demonstrate the success of the system, rather than the success of those measured), the standardized tests are worse than simply being inaccurate indicators of educational achievement: They actually contribute to the deterioration of educational quality itself. More that that, they specifically encourage they type of curricula that prepare good citizens for the 19th century, rather than teaching the skills necessary in the 21st century.

I agree with Slavin's conclusion:
The indications are strong that we have taught students to memorize and not to think. If we do have such a problem, we must move quickly to determine its magnitude, and deal with its causes. A new Ontario curriculum was introduced for K-8 in Mathematics and English in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and a new high-school science curriculum is currently under review as mentioned above. Let's hope that local teachers and school boards are bringing their expertise to the development of this new curriculum, and will be involved in its monitoring and evaluation. There may be 10 years of students who have been taught not to think, and reversing that effect will be not be easy without a determined effort.
That determined effort will not be easy without a change in the BAH mindset that blocks quality, innovation, and simply knowing the right thing to do.

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01 October 2009

The Agenda with Steve Paikin on The Myth of Digital Literacy

I will be a panelist on Steve Paikin's show this evening, at 8:00 (replayed at 11:00) on TVO. Steve Paikin has what is probably the most intelligent, incisive, and informative panel/talk show on television these days. He is the best moderator I have ever had the pleasure to work with, and every time I have been invited as a guest, it has been a joy. This evening, following a one-on-one between Steve and Professor Andrea Lunsford of Stanford University on her Stanford Study of Writing project, I will be in conversation with Professors Lunsford, Nichole Pinkard from Chicago, and Alice Robison from Phoenix. We will be exploring The Myth of Digital Literacy, and what it means to be literate as we enter the 21st century in the UCaPP world.

If you missed the broadcast, here is the video:

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30 September 2009

The Emerging Thesis Draft

You may have noticed that my blogging has been rather light of late. This is because I've been in heavy thesis writing mode. But fear not! If you would like to read along as I am writing, you're in luck! I have created a Valence Theory wiki site on which I am posting the thesis chapters as I write them (in raw, draft form). You can either read online, or download PDFs of the full chapters.

The first chapter (plus its accompanying "Conversation with Nishida") is now up and available. It is "A Brief, 3,000-year History of Organization" and tells the story of organization in Ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages, and into modernity, with the two parallel organizational discourses of the 20th century. It sets up what the thesis is all about:
If history provides any guidance whatsoever, it is likely that in retrospect, these two stories will be cast in the context of yet a third story that speaks to organization in a way that both is consistent with the UCaPP world into which the 21st century is transforming, and makes sense of the parallel discourses. This thesis aspires to be at least the first telling of that third story, and seeks to discover two things: First, the 20th century literature enumerated throughout this chapter describes various external attributes, behaviours, and characteristics – the ABCs, if you will – of two organization types: those that can be characterized as predominantly BAH, and those that Kraus (1980), and Heckscher and Adler (2006) call collaborative (that may well possess many more distinguishing characteristics, of which collaboration is but one), which I call UCaPP organizations. This thesis will describe some of the key differentiating aspects of the internal dynamics between these two organizational types.

Second, as a seminal version of that third story, this thesis will propose a theory that unifies both forms of organizational behaviour, BAH and UCaPP, and offers a model of praxis that will help those in either type of organization create a better understanding of contemporary organizational dynamics for more effective decision making, and organizational transformation and change that is consistent with the UCaPP world.
If you would like to be added to the notification list when new chapters are added, let me know.

Unlike most of my stuff, the wiki is copyright, and not yet available under a Creative Commons license, since the content is still in flux. If you might want to use any part of it before I release the final version in about six to eight months' time, please write to me. And, if you are able to provide any comments, thoughts, insights, or useful critiques, I certainly would appreciate hearing from you.

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17 September 2009

Requiescat in Pace, Mary Travers, 1936-2009

Mary Travers, the "Mary" of Peter, Paul, and Mary, passed yesterday. Her beautiful soprano voice, together with the grassroots voices of her two compatriots, gave us the anthems of the peace and equal rights movements through the 1960s. This is part of the music to which I grew up, singing their songs first at summer camps, and later hearing them in the context of peace marches and the early protest movements. May her Hammer of Justice, Bell of Freedom, and Song of Love between all brothers and sisters throughout the world ring out forever.

And, more recently, and more sweetly,

May you rest peacefully in your Honalee, Mary.

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13 September 2009

Mary Parker Follett on The Giving of Orders, and the Duality of Organizational Frames

Regular readers will note that my blogging is rather scant lately. I am now immersed in literature and drafting the "theoretical" framing of the thesis. In a month or so, I will begin to post chapters and ask for your assistance in reviews and commentary. But here's a bit of a sneak peak.

The story of management through the 20th century is usually told in a more-or-less linear fashion: each subsequent author, theorist, practitioner, and management guru builds upon the collective wisdom of those that came before. It is, as my supervisor describes it, like the unrolling of a ribbon that weaves through the last hundred years or so as organizations become progressively more contemporary in considering the factors that create motivation, good leadership, teamwork, and effectiveness.

However, I perceive another reading of that history or, to be more precise, the reading of dual histories. If one frames the 20th century as a time of transition from an industrialized, mechanized, Gutenberg-inspired world to a world of instantaneous, multi-way connections (a.k.a., the UCaPP world), one can tease apart two, distinct storylines to the 20th century: one that is primarily instrumental with functional primacy, and one that is considerably more humanistic, leading to relational primacy in understanding organizational dynamics.

My inspiration for this dual reading came not only from an expectation of what one might find during the nexus period from one cultural epoch to another, similar to the ambivalence that Plato displays in his reflections on the societal effects of phonetic literacy in ancient Greece. Mary Parker Follett (1868-1933), whom I would consider the great-grandmother of Valence Theory, initiated the parallel discursive track with her early understanding of human relations and the importance of affective connections. (As an aside, the great-grandmother of the other discursive line would undoubtedly be Lillian Gilbreth; however, there were many more prominent men involved with the instrumentalist line of thought, including her famous husband, Frank Gilbreth.)

In her classic, 1926 article, The Giving of Orders, Follett identifies the need to reconcile the inherent conflict in an individual between resisting taking orders, arising from the natural animosity felt towards “the boss,” and the requirement to follow orders necessitated by a desire to retain one’s employment. Follett claims that if both the boss and the employee “discover the law of the situation and obey that … orders are simply part of the situation, [and] the question of someone giving and someone receiving does not come up. Both accept the orders given by the situation” (p. 153). In that case, the order becomes “depersonalized,” according to the language of scientific management. That is, the requirement to act or perform in a certain way is removed from the arbitrary exercise of power that derives from the legitimated hierarchical power dynamic and becomes contingently based. It is, in effect, the situation and not one’s superior office that is giving the order. As well, the order is being given to both superior and subordinate equally and simultaneously.

This reasoning might be considered as an origin of organizational contingency theory. However, with shared knowledge and shared understanding of what is to be accomplished, individuals being able to figure out what is the optimal course of action can be read as an early precursor to what I now call organization-ba in the contemporary context.

I suggest that one can draw a nearly direct discursive line of theorists and practitioners from Mary Parker Follett to UCaPP organizations that defines a parallel discourse to that which has a primary focus on instrumentality, rather than mutual relationship. In fact, Follett herself suggests a primary organizing impetus of relationship:
I think [situational contingency] really is a matter of repersonalizing. We, persons, have relations with each other, but we should find them in and through the whole situation. We cannot have any sound relations with each other as long as we take them out of that setting which gives them their meaning and value. This divorcing of persons and the situation does a great deal of harm. I have just said that scientific management depersonalizes; the deeper philosophy of scientific management shows us personal relations within the whole setting of that thing of which they are a part. (p. 154; emphasis in original)
In that last excerpt, Follett expresses the two ends of the spectrum that I now define as BAH and UCaPP, leaning towards the latter as perhaps the more effective explanation of situational contingency. The age-old, proverbial question of “which came first…” is more appropriately reframed as, “which has primacy: the functional or the relational?” in organizational matters. In the managerialist (or functionalist, or instrumentalist) view, it is the former; in the context of Valence Theory, it is the latter. Depending on one’s perspectival frame, each can be true: an organization can technically exist via its externally imposed structure without people; witness the so-called shell company. That it can be thought of literally as an inorganic entity – lifeless, despite often being populated by people – is perhaps incidental; the purpose remains paramount. In contrast, primacy of relationship creates an entity that is (i.e., can be shown to be) an autopoietic, dissipative structure that perceives, processes through affective connections, and responds in a non-deterministic – but possibly historically and experientially conditioned – fashion. That characterization, according to Capra (1996), defines a living entity. The teasing apart of the paradoxical probe, “which came first…” enables organization members to choose and embody their preferred interpretive frame, and thus abide by a new, valence-relational appreciation of Follett’s “law of the situation.”

  • Capra, F. (1996). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Follett, M. P. (1992). The giving of orders. In Shafritz, J.M. & Ott, J.S. (Eds.), Classics of organization theory (pp. 150-8). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company. (Original work published 1926).
(Update): The entire thesis draft is posted here.

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12 September 2009

Eyes Wide Open at TIFF

I don't usually attend the films at the Toronto International Film Festival, but this year is special. A former student of mine, Merav Doster, wrote the story and original screenplay for Eyes Wide Open (Eynayim Pekukhot), a provocative and moving Israeli entry. Through the minimalist but exceptionally effective direction of Haim Tabakman, Merav tells the story of two ultra-orthodox Jews in a small community in Jerusalem, a butcher and the stranger who enters his shop one rainy day and infiltrates his life, provoking latent homosexual desires. The relationship between the two men is set in counterpoint to the tractate of Talmud the men are studying, about the redemption of a sinner who can eventually resist temptation.

It is an outstanding film. I found it very intense, exceptionally authentic, and most important for this type of film, an understated but unambiguous portrayal of the conflicts and emotions that surround the complex situation of this enclaved community. Merav's story and script are powerful and convey a deep understanding of the human psyche. Director Tabakman's minimalist interpretation, and the actors' strong performances reveal the inherent tensions that engulf this community that is fiercely attempting to shut out uncomfortable contemporary realities.

Speaking about uncomfortable contemporary realities at this year's TIFF, and segueing from the title of the film, filmmaker Robert Lantos weighs in on the controversy surrounding John Greyson's and Naomi Klein's call for a boycott of Israeli films themed on the anniversary of the founding of Tel Aviv. Lantos's rebuke calls for those who would be seduced by the populist anti-Israel propaganda to, indeed, have their eyes wide open about the facts of the matter:
The difference between most people and professional liars is that the latter have no shame. They will proclaim as the gospel truth, without blushing and without the slightest hesitation, any falsehood that serves their cause, no matter how fictitious and regardless of consequences. Lying without shame and without reservations is at the heart of their strategy. They bank on decent people's assumption that when a statement of "fact" is made repeatedly and with emphasis, it must contain a modicum of truth.

This age-old but effective propaganda technique has, as of late, given rise to such blatant falsehoods as "Israeli Apartheid," or, to quote Ms. Klein's open letter to the TIFF [which the Post reported on in "Protesters object to spotlight on Tel Aviv" on Sept. 4], "The city of Jaffa was Palestine's main cultural hub until 1948." This seemingly factual statement fails to mention a little detail: There was no such thing as Palestine prior to 1948. The city of Tel Aviv was founded in 1909 in a Turkish colony, later a British colony and once upon a time a Roman colony, consisting of lands from which the indigenous Jewish population had been forcefully -- though never fully -- evicted.

The headline of her "open letter" protesting the presence of films by Tel Aviv filmmakers, "No Celebration of Occupation," implies that Tel Aviv is "occupied territory." That is more than just a lie. That is a regurgitation of terrorist slogans. We are not talking about the West Bank or the Golan Heights here. We are talking about the biggest population centre in the heart of Israel, where the first neighborhood was built in 1887. If that is "occupied" or "disputed" territory, then Ms. Klein and her armchair storm troopers are clamouring for nothing short of the annihilation of the Jewish State. They are effectively Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's local fifth column.

...Ironically, this whole "boycott Tel Aviv" affair began over filmmaker John Greyson's decision to withdraw his short documentary, Covered, to protest the presence of Israeli films. Mr. Greyson's film documents the disruption, by local homophobes, of the Sarajevo Queer Film Festival. As Mr. Greyson, Ms. Klein and their lynch mob know perfectly well, Israel is the only country in the region where a film such as Mr. Greyson's could be made and shown without government interference, where no one is persecuted or discriminated against because of his or her sexual persuasion. The Klein Brigade obediently kowtows to the party line of autocratic regimes and terrorist organizations who would not hesitate, given the opportunity, to dispatch Mr. Greyson and his film to a painful fate which, regardless of our differences, I would not wish on anyone.

The attack on TIFF and the films from Israel is nothing more than an attempt by a gang of well-fed, fashionable bigots to stifle voices they don't like. They have taken a page straight out of the fascist propaganda handbook. To create an environment in which a religious or ethnic group can be persecuted, it is first necessary to demonize and vilify them to the point that their humanity is in question. In this propaganda campaign, all lies -- no matter how foul -- are fair game.
Lantos rightly says, "enough is enough," not only at TIFF, but at our academic institutions, and those who claim to represent workers, but truly only represent the interests of a select, elite few, (and actively participate in the hatefest that is the so-called Israel Apartheid Week).

For the record: Although I support Israel and Zionism (since history has repeatedly shown - and contemporary circumstances continue to demonstrate - that after 2,000 years Jews are still not safe when hatemongers, including Jewish hatemongers, are given half a chance), I do not agree with the policies of the current Netanyahu government in Israel. Dialogue, proper education, and the creation of opportunities for Israelis and Palestinians to actually know each other as people marks the road to peace, security and prosperity for everyone. Klein, Greyson, and their ilk only offer sabotage and the continuity of enmity.

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Suicide is Painless, But Sadly, Cancer is not: Zichrono Livracha Larry Gelbart; 1928 - 2009

M*A*S*H, Tootsie, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. A genius when it came to observing and sardonically commenting on life and society in the late 20th century. Larry Gelbart passed on Friday of cancer. A montage from his most famous, endearing, and enduring television show, M*A*S*H.

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01 September 2009

To Those Who Think They Can Manage Organizational Change

Two words: You can't!

The trick is to stop thinking of organizations as stable entities - distinct ontological endpoints in the realm of business school models of reality. Tor Hernes (2008) refers to Tsoukas and Chia (2002) who replace the notion of organizational change with “organizational becoming,” the idea that organizations are continually in flux: organizations are continuously in a state of becoming something that may be intended but can never actually be achieved. Thus, the true nature of organizational change, considered from a process ground, is that the result can never be what was expected because (1) the actors directly involved can only direct their attention to a relatively small domain within the realm of the entire world, and (2) “nothing stops the outside world from inviting itself in, especially during attempts at organizational change when expectations of multiple stakeholders are at stake” (Hernes, 2008, p. 40).

The corollary to this idea is that what I call the purposeful organization is forever doomed to fail. Like the barking dog attempting to catch the fleeing delivery van, it grows increasingly frustrated and increasingly annoys the neighbours. Instead, an emergent, relationship-based organization (like that described by Valence Theory), recognizes and accepts the natural state of flux and its inherent predilection for discovering new opportunities for connections.

  • Hernes, T. (2008). Understanding organization as process: Theory for a tangled world. New York: Routledge.
  • Tsoukas, H., & Chia, R. (2002). On organizational becoming: Rethinking organizational change. Organization Science, 13(5), 567-582.

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29 August 2009

The Colour of Autopoietic Organizations

These past few weeks have been filled with a trip back through the literature. This week in particular was really heavy reading, the type of headache-inducing concentration on very abstract ideas that defy common sense. For those who know me, you'll know it's the type of stuff I like. Before that, I finished up with an interesting book The Firm as Collaborative Community. Its first chapter is a good description of some of my findings, essentially describing attributes of organizations that shape themselves as communities that are informed by values, in which trust and collaboration dominate. At first I had that heart-stopping experience of my research being scooped. However, the more I read, the more I realized that their book is the Thomson model of organizations, and I've done the Rutherford experiment, developing the Bohr model, from which I derived the Valence Theory metaphor.

The book finishes with the description of a program that many companies are using, run by a couple of Harvard professors. It’s a very clever packaging of several useful processes for organizational change that I learned about as Organization Development interventions. They wrap it together and call it a Strategic Fitness Process, and it is supposed to effect better collaboration and the creation of community in a traditional command-and-control type of organization. It is a bit of appreciative inquiry and a whole lot of action research wrapped around David Bohm’s process of dialogue , with a smattering of polarity management thrown in for flavour. A very clever packaging of what are standard tools in a contemporary OD practitioner’s toolkit. I can see how they would be able to make an awful lot of consulting money running these sorts of big interventions, and have fodder for Harvard Business Review articles and HBS case studies.

The more challenging, but fun (in a perverse way) stuff was getting down and dirty with Niklas Luhmann’s autopoietic organization as a social system theory. I will have to cover this extensively, as I am proposing more or less a similar idea – a Valence Theory organization is an autopoietic (literally, self-producing) social system, and a lot of the language is similar. However, Luhmann argues that people are not actually elements in an organization. Luhmann’s theory is very specific about the nature of human beings, and their role in social systems. Luhmann considers humans as combinations of organic and psychic systems, the latter being a meaning-constitutive system whose events manifest as thoughts (like the events of a social system manifest as communication). A person, according to Luhmann, is a construct by a social system that interprets the perturbation of these agglomerated organic and psychic systems as being that of a specific person: “the social identification of a complex of expectations directed toward an individual human being” (Luhmann in Seidl, 2005, p. 20). Psychic systems and social systems are mutual environments that are distinct, and coupled via the structural adaptation of language. The distinction between psychic and social systems (despite their complementary and symbiotic relationship) enables the consideration of human beings as the environment of social systems, rather than their constituents, thereby supporting the notion that people are not part of organizations; rather organizations are emergent from the environment of people (Seidl, p. 19-22).

The specific communication events that give organization structure are decisions, and even decisions in his terminology have a weird meaning (See Seidl, p. 37-41). Organizations as autopoietic systems are defined by Luhmann as “systems that consist of decisions and that themselves produce the decisions of which they consist through decisions of which they consist” (Luhmann in Seidl, p. 43). Theoretically, assuming you can twist your head around the self-referential, recursive definition, it holds together: that definition more or less works to be able to understand the mechanisms of organizational activities, organizational culture and, according to Seidl’s book, organizational identity and transformation.

However, it’s not all necessarily good. Among the problems for me (and I am about to read another couple of sources on this stuff to make sure I more or less understand it) is the inclusion of a very particular and limited form of typology for “decision premises” (chains of interconnected prior decisions that impinge on a current decision), and one other minor detail: the exclusion (or to be more precise, dismissal) of people as social projections of meaning on agglomerations of abstract autopoietic systems. That an organization creates and regenerates itself in interconnecting processes (decisions tied to chains of prior decisions that lead to future decisions) is not a bad theory as theories go. And, it is consistent from his foundational premises about autopoietic systems. But it seems to me to be a theory that is not well rooted in a historical context, or to be more direct about it, not rooted in a context of a human history that recounts anthropological, sociological and even neuro-psychological evolution that accounts for the macro-world of interactions in which we live. In particular, it seems to be at odds with Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate (UCaPP) conditions: Luhmann’s language is dependent on creating distinctions between one organizational system and another, and among those and the “outside” environment. His theory of organization seems to be about fragmentation and dividing whereas UCaPP is all about creating connections and tactility in complex ways. And, its other deficiency is that, while it can explain macro-phenomena in a consistent fashion (that is, it doesn’t have to make up too many exceptions to explain observed behaviours and dynamics), it is difficult for lay people to apply in a commonsensical way to practical matters.

I agree wholeheartedly that an autopoietic model is a useful way to explain continually morphing organizations. It is far better than the currently in vogue Structural Contingency Theory that essentially creates deterministic organizational responses to a variety of external stimuli, selected from a fixed typology suggested by one of the guru-professors-du-jour. SCT does not adequately explain processes of significant organizational change (aside from prescriptive methods like the Strategic Fitness Process), and that, in my book, amounts to a form of organizational voodoo. And, autopoietic models would tend to account for informal and non-formal organizations in a way that more deterministic, typology-based models do not; in other words, it provides for a more general model, and that’s always good. And, autopoietic models account for complexity, while deterministic models deal with complication. Our world is in enough trouble as it is; I would rather not suggest dealing with complex problems using complicated approaches.

Valence Theory accounts for an organization as an autopoietic system without eliminating people as its primary elements. Autopoiesis occurs through processes of relations that are, admittedly, of specific types. However, Valence Theory does not necessarily rely on those types being exclusive: the theory applies if the five particular valence relationships that I’ve chosen (Economic, Knowledge, Identity, Socio-psychological, and Ecological) are swapped out and substituted by another set that could also account for observed phenomena and the dynamics of organizational change (that is, having both the equivalent of fungible and ba forms). It is analogous to the various ways of designating colours in different contexts: red, green, blue, for light and cyan, magenta, yellow for pigments, noting, of course, that each set of primary colours is the set of secondary colours for the other set.

And, after all, what I’m setting out to do is to shed a whole new light on thinking about organizations.

  • Adler, P.S. & Heckscher, C.C. (Eds.), The firm as a collaborative community. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Seidl, D. (2005). Organisational identity and self-transformation: An autopoietic perspective. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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12 August 2009

Even the 1950s Recognized the Utility of Valence Theory

Or at least, something like Valence Theory. I'm currently reading - a lot - to gather up the literature contexts for my research findings. In Martin Parker's 2000 book, Organizational Culture and Identity, the author recites a history of "organizational culturism," mostly demonstrating that it has been primarily of the managerialist persuasion. This means that authors like Edgar Schein (famous for his 1985-with-two-subsequent-editions classic, Organizational Culture and Leadership) for example, engineer organizational culture as a means to more humanistically instill control mechanisms via cultural hegemony.

Parker then draws our attention to a passage from Fritz Roethlisberger and William Dickson, they of the famous Hawthorne Experiment that laid the groundwork for the Human Relations Movement in organizational behaviour:
Many of the actually existing patterns of human interaction have no representation in the formal organization at all, and others are inadequately represented by the formal organization. … Too often it is assumed that the organization of a company corresponds to a blueprint plan or organization chart. Actually, it never does. In the formal organization of most companies little explicit recognition is given to many social distinctions residing in the social organization. (In Merton, et al., 1952)
What’s fascinating to me is the recognition during the 1950s of the importance of the types of informal interactions that occur in what we now call a network organization (Castells, 1996) using more a more contemporary metaphor. I would argue that the “network organization” metaphor is limiting, drawing, as it does, on associations with computer networks that are perceived by many to dominantly transfer information (or more precisely, data)*. As our understanding of the effects of social media increases, one could say that computer networks are becoming understood to transfer relationship connections and social interactions, gradually bringing more general applicability and relevance to the “network organization” metaphor. Nonetheless, that early recognition of the inadequacy of formal organizational representations supports a more general model, like Valence Theory, as being more useful in understanding organizational dynamics and behaviours.

* My problem with this knowledge/information-favouring metaphor is that it reinforces knowledge supremacy in the Druckerian conception of the so-called knowledge economy. And what's wrong with that? In the application of that discourse, Knowledge is constructed as a rivalrous commodity both within and among competing organizations. Knowledge is thus no longer the flame that can ignite a thousand candles without diminishing itself. Rather, it is equated with political, social, and economic power, to be held to one's own advantage, restricting creativity and innovation to our collective detriment.

  • Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Merton, R.K., Gray, A.P., Hockey, B. & Selvin, H.C. (1952). Reader in bureaucracy. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Parker, M. (2000). Organizational culture and identity: Unity and division at work. London: SAGE.
  • Schein, E. H. (1985/1992/2004). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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