Friday, May 29, 2015

Foundations of a General Theory of the Organization V (general rules)

In my last post I presented in graphical form my ADVISE model of generic organizations, after a short review of some alternative models that are still widely in use in the field of organizational design. Before moving on I would like to reflect on why I’ve taken things like technology, resources and specially processes (being initially so heavily indoctrinated to think in term of input, output and transformations happening in each organizational substructure) out of the model, as they are obviously important, and it may be judged an impoverishment not to consider them when purportedly describing how organizations work. In defense of my model, I’ll remind my readers that many of the mentioned things are important only for a certain, very particular subset of organizations, namely those devoted to improve de social status of their members through the provision of certain goods or services to anybody willing and able to pay for them (what we termed productive/ commercial, or previous to that, “economic” organizations), and within them they are considered mainly to assess the viability and response to an exogenous change (as opposed to provide the “thick description” I mentioned previously), whilst I’m pursuing a “general” theory of any kind of organization. We normally do not care much about technology, style, resources or processes within the Catholic Church (an example we may have abused a bit by now), within a marriage or within a lama monastery, or even within an old fashioned university (meaning a medieval one, modern day universities, if they want to get a ISO 9001 certification, need to document their processes, measure their “performance” and be able to “continuously improve” them, silly as it does indeed sound).

If we talk specifically about processes, this may go a bit against the grain of some management trends, that see them as the ultimate source of competitive advantage for certain organizations (again, economic ones), as products can be duplicated, customers can be lulled away, technologies can (and frequently are) copied and transplanted without much ado, but the glue that links it all, the processes and the internal mechanisms that connect everything together are famously difficult to transplant from one organization to the next. Although we get in murkier and murkier terrain here, as processes are inextricably intertwined with the culture, the informal organization, the people’s skills and general outlook (motivation, beliefs, personality), etc. so any of those factors can be considered at the end of the day the “secret sauce” that lies in the origin of an company’s success as much as the processes themselves, when in reality every one of them is just the residue that is left unexplained by the analytical tools employed to analyze such success. Suffice it to say for now that I’ve grown more and more skeptical of the importance of processes (as they are typically understood, embodied in detailed flow charts where every step and activity is described, along with who performs it, when, how, why and with what tools, what they produce and how they are measured) as they are highly dependent on a host of other (typically unacknowledged) features that seldom get much attention but in the end determine to what extent they are followed at all. Indeed the management trends I mentioned as being heavily oriented towards process improvement (the Michael Hammer school) has been a tad out of fashion lately, as analyzing and documenting good ‘ol traditional processes fits poorly with the current focus in disruptive innovation, blue ocean design and reinventing traditional structures. Of course people of a process persuasion can retort that you can equally well model and monitor a process of “innovate and disrupt” (what previously was more modestly called “define and deploy new products”, or even before that “portfolio management”, which doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous), but following a process defined and documented by someone else doesn’t sound as the best recipe for having groundbreaking ideas or paradigm shifting insights.

At the end of the day models are models, and they are only as good as the validity of the predictions they allow us to make. But before starting to make predictions we need to understand the principles (the “rules”, or for those with a scientific bend, the “laws”) underlying the evolution of the model, something which all the models examined sorely lack (beyond “changes in a box –or in an oval- somehow influence the rest of the boxes –or ovals”). Not to fall in the same trap, I’ll present then the fundamental rules of organizational change (or rather, of organizational evolution) that go along with the ADVISE model:

·         R1: With time, the ability of any organization to achieve its ends gets worse. This is the organizational equivalent of the second law of thermodynamics, entropy in this case being the opposite of that ability (so as “organizational entropy” increases, the ability to achieve the pursued end decreases). There is a number of reasons why this is so: normally the pursued end is also pursued employing different means by competing organizations (“competing” because there is only so much of the end to go around, so the extent to which it is achieved by organization A necessarily detracts from how much of it organization B can in turn achieve). As machines, organizations also experiment the wear and tear associated with continuous functioning, and an increasing amount of their internal “energy” (resources) is lost in the equivalent of friction (either degraded energy that can not be applied to produce work, or waste –resources that do not contribute to the attainment of the goal, what in lean methodologies is designed with the Japanese word “muda”).
So with time educational organizations become worse at discovering (this-worldly) truths, and may end up just repeating the received wisdom without being able to add nothing new to the existing canon; religious organizations become worse at communicating (other-worldly) truths, and either stop expanding and become less and less relevant to the remaining faithful or become a bureaucratic enterprise centered around improving the material well being of their members with the thinnest veneer of transcendental aims to mask their true interests; political organizations become worse at reproducing, and grow at an ever slower pace until they finally implode (more or less violently depending on the force and status of their neighboring groups); economic organizations, lastly, become less successful at enhancing the social status of their employees (their salaries stagnate compared with those of the competition, their products loose market share, their profit dwindles, they have to cut back production and lay off people… you get the idea). Distinct as the experience of increased friction/ waste may be in the different types of organization, the degradation of their abilities to achieve their ends almost always have the following impact in some of their features:
R1.1 Their Dominance increases, as the universal response to the failure to get the desired outcomes (or to get them to a lesser extent, or a lesser portion of them) is to make members of the group try harder, devoting a higher percentage of their waking lives to the enterprise
R1.2 Their Isocracy diminishes, as power tends to be concentrated in those most able to exert it (and those differences become more marked in an environment of greater dominance, where the activity within the organization becomes more important relative to that outside it)
R1.3 Their Simplicity decreases, as the organization becomes more complex in an attempt to better achieve its end through grater job specialization, and thus through the creation of more differentiated roles
R2.4 Their Egalitarianism decreases, as there are less rewards to distribute (a direct consequence of the diminished ability to reach their stated goal) and there is Isocratic deciding structure, most times the elite where the decision power is concentrating will act taking a greater share of the remaining bounty
·         R2: There are only three responses to the diminishing ability to reach an organization’s ends: acceptance, growth or innovation. The first two are quite uninteresting (we will have a bit more to say about growth later on, right now we will just point out that as a strategy to improve goal attainment it fails at least nine times out of ten), so we will explain a bit more of the third. I define innovation as the systematic accumulation of changes that improve the organization’s ability to reach its goals. There are a number of features within that definition that merit a closer look: 1) it is a systematic accumulation, not a haphazard occurrence that happens, to everybody’s surprise, to translate in some improve. Being systematic means being preceded by some analysis of what the consequences are going to be for each of the dimensions of the organization, and of its impact in the elements of it (its people and the roles they play, the relationships between them, the resources it uses and its viability within the existing environment). And do not forget it is an accumulation of changes, not the result of a simple, time bounded effort that can afterwards be discontinued and forgotten (we’ll see why in a moment). 2) when we speak of change, of course, we mean doing things differently, not just talking about it or writing about it in a blackboard. Some of the elements within the model have to be modified… and not return to their previous configuration. 3) the change has to have a measurable, meaningful impact in the ability of the organization. Change for the sake of change does not qualify. Neither does, of course, destructive change that actually impairs the organization’s efforts towards its goals. With that we have probably eliminated 90% of the organizational “changes” that have afflicted modern corporations for the past three decades, regardless of how well they were sold back in the day to the respective boards.
Now regarding the intensity, timing and need for accumulation of changes I will recur to a concept developed originally in the first half of the XXth Century by an Austrian endocrinologist (Hans Selye) named General Adaptation Syndrome, and which has recently known a surge in popularity thanks to its adaptation to the powerlifting world through the work of Mark Rippetoe (whom with readers of this blog should be pretty familiar by now). Selye posits that organisms try to stay in a stationary state (homeostasis) unless disturbed by an external stressor (be it the demands of a taxing training session or the launch of a product by a competitor). In response to that stressor, the organism response is to exert itself, and initially that exertion causes a decrease in its ability to respond again to a similar stressor. However, if left enough time to recover, it not only recovers its ability to respond to the previous level, but increases it a bit for a period of time afterwards (the phenomenon known as “supercompensation” in the training literature):
Of course, if we want to actively combat a consistently decreasing trend, we have to keep on applying judiciously timed stressors in order to reach a slightly higher capability level in each supercompensation cycle.

We will deal in more detail with the implications of Selye’s model later on, right now we have to consider that the sustained application of innovation has a number of desirable effects in some of the dimensions we use to characterize the organization:
R2.1: Their Adaptability increases (indeed, it could be said that it is the other way around, being adaptable in the first place is what enables organizations to apply sustained, beneficial innovations to combat the pull of increasing entropy)
R2.2: Their Voluntariness increases, as people naturally feel attracted to positive changes (it could be argued that if changes were shown to be detrimental, and to hinder rather than foster the attainment of ends, they would reduce voluntariness, as people is naturally reluctant to accept change if it is not accompanied by a clear, tangible reward)
We should note at this point that the first rule affects dimension D(ominance), I(socracy), S(implicity) and E(galitarianism), and is indeterminate regarding how it impacts A(daptability) and V(oluntariness) which may go either way really, while the second rule does the opposite, modifying A and V in a definite direction, whilst leaving the potential change in D, I, S and E undecided.
·         R3: There is a direct correlation between the amount of time an organization has been declining in its capability to reach its ends and the amount and intensity of conflicts within it. We define conflict as any divergence between the end of any member of an organization and the end of the organization itself. As individuals have to renounce to some goods to join any organized group and obey their rules (that renunciation takes the form of time devoted to the organization, lack of liberty so rules are followed and other member’s rights are respected, material resources whose enjoyment is foregone as they are rendered to the group, like member’s dues or the like, etc.)  there is always a certain tension, a certain expectation of a modicum of reciprocity, so the individual enjoys in exchange of that renunciation something (the furtherance of the organization’s ends) that is for him at least equally valuable. Now as the organization becomes less capable of ensuring those ends are met, and has less to give back to its members in terms of rewards, the original covenant between them may be threatened and their commitment may be weakened. Thus each member may disagree with the rest about:
o   The current level of Adaptability (how much change there is)

o   The current level of Dominance (how much work is being demanded from him)

o   The current level of Isocracy (how decision power is distributed –normally claiming more for himself)

o   The current level of Simplicity (how complex work has become)

o   The current level of Egalitarianism (how the decreasing rewards are distributed)

There you are, then. With the elements we identified as belonging to the model in the previous post, plus those simple three rules I maintain we have the conceptual tools required to explain, and to a sufficient extent predict, the likely evolution of every type of organization (I admit that is quite a tall order). We will apply them to a couple of example in the next posts within this series to see how well the framework holds up against the dirty and complex real world, and we will see if there is some tweak needed. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Foundations of a General Theory of the Organization IV (models)

In my last posts devoted to the subject I gave a very high level overview of how different organizations (classified by the different ends they pursued) had evolved through History, and ended with a very condensed bibliography of the essential reading materials to be able to understand the most evolved form of organization (the multinational corporation in our current stage of capitalist development). I noticed since then I had made a glaring omission, as I forgot to mention there a very important book which helped me understand how only in the last Century a certain structure has evolved that enabled the separation (even dare I say the opposition) of interest between the owners of capital (which originally fund and finance the creation of enterprises) and the “technostructure” (the managerial class and their white collar adjuncts) who runs the companies created with that capital, and from which I drew heavily to arrive at my proposed understanding of the end of  commercial/ productive organizations as the betterment of the social recognition of their workers, regardless of what their explicit mission claims to be. That book, of course, is The New Industrial State, by John Kenneth Galbraith (by the way, although in the 90’s his ideas of vertical integration –very much in line with the mentioned Coase- seemed to fall out of favor in exchange for a focus on outsourcing and loosely coupled conglomerates that renounced to substantial amounts of the value chains which they belonged to, I can not fail to observe some resurgence in the second decade of the XXIst Century of the centripetal tendency to consolidate again “from design to retail” in most industries). I’ve already edited the last post, but wanted to give such important milestone some added visibility here.      

Now having defined the conceptual framework, completed the historical overview and provided a concise set of references we can turn our attention to the development of my own theory of the organization: how they work, what regularities we can identify in their functioning and how to steer them in the desired direction. To that end we will need to first talk a bit about models, or convenient ways to represent the most salient features of an organization that are easy to manipulate and can represent the behavior of the real thing with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Before explaining the proprietary model I’ve developed in the last decade, and to better understand what they are and how they work I’ll present some of the most popular ones out there before talking about my own.

Probably one of the better known, more widely used models of how an organization works is the one originally proposed by Harold Leavitt in 1965 known as the “diamond model”, which sees the organization as consisting of four separate aspects (and pretty heterogeneous ones at that), namely:

It is not immediately evident why those four aspects were chosen, rather than other more salient ones (like facilities, geographical locations, raw materials processed/ stocked, relationships with customers or providers, applicable laws and regulations, etc.) but specially when thinking about introducing changes in the organization it helped to consider how each of those aspects would be affected, and how the modifications in any of them would impact the rest. Indeed, the utility of these kind of models is limited to helping people (generally external consultants) think about the consequences of a certain well defined and temporally bounded change in some of them, ensuring they do not overlook and leave unmanaged any of those potentially fateful consequences. They are not that good for describing a stationary given organization (how would you convey how the “people” side looks like in a stable situation? How would you include in that what each person knows, expects, obtains, and performs for the organization? A similar problem shows if you wan to use this very simple model to reflect the “technology”, let alone the “structure” or the “tasks” of any given group).

In my first years as consultant I used a lot a modified version of Leavitt’s diamond, adapted to better fit the particular strengths (perceived or real) of my employer back then (a trailblazing consulting firm whose severe case of megalomania has been more or less validated by a continuing success in markets it significantly contributed to create):

Not that different, only technology was taken to signify a very precise part of what kept the organization running (its information systems), while strategy, people and processes were the other areas around which the services of the company were clustered (each bearing the fancy name that the marketing guru of the moment may had concocted). I still tend to find myself thinking about organization along those lines, as it became a very ingrained habit to consider those four particular aspects, subject to the same limitations as in the original inception. Although at least now I can see clearly the real use of this particular model: it helped us consultants sell more work, as after being contracted to update a client company’s technological platform (i.e. to install a new Information System) we could point to him that processes had to be redesigned to really reap all the advantages of the new technology, people would need to be assessed and most likely retrained so the new processes were used and the new technology harnessed, and if we saw the opportunity the strategy of the firm could potentially be reviewed and finessed to monetize to the hilt the new capabilities created by the combination of technology, people and processes we would unlock for him…

Which was all well and good, but then I learned that one of our niche competitors in the area of strategic consulting were doing us one better, as with the help of Tom Peters they had developed and were using in their engagements a (now famous) somewhat different model, the “7s” that identified not four, but seven aspects of organizations that had to be taken care of in order to steer them successfully through the turbulent waters of adapting to an ever changing world:

So while naïve us were stuck trying to sell “people” stuff (training) the whiz kids at McKinsey could sell “skills” upgrades; while we adapted new technologies they piloted “systems” work (only in this case the last laugh was on us… strategic consulting was wildly profitable, but it was truly difficult to sell something above 10 million dollars even to the biggest corporations back then, while IT work easily racked 100 millions, and before the Century’s end the first above-a-billion contracts were already being signed, although at a ridiculously low margin and based on saving estimates that would make most of them go sour very fast)… and on top of that they were probably selling “staff” work, “structure” work (I wonder if that was the equivalent of our more modest “processes”) and what I consider should be the real top of the pops, “style” work (damn, I would love to see some of the directors of my current employer trying to defend in front of the board to spend some of the company’s coin to have some recent Ivy League graduate help us change our “style”, but ludicrous as it may sound a good amount of bucks have exchanged owners, and careers have been built, on such flimflams).

Now I’m not saying such models are off the mark, or entirely useless. They were the core of many PowerPoint prodigious presentations, and many an organizational change (in Fortune 100 companies) has been hatched using them as a framework. Indeed the new century has brought us a plethora of ever more complex, ever more innovative models, like the Holonic enterprise reputedly used by the former Internet darling company Zappos, which tries to reimagine the traditional corporation as a “Holocracy” where every branch and subdivision can grow and expand in answer to market demand without loosing their creativity and potential for innovation:

There are even more abstruse (Burke-Litwon Causal model, McMillan Fractal web, etc.), but for our current purpose we have enough with what I have shown so far. Any and all of them are decent boilerplate fillers, good (lacking anything better) to grab the attention of a Director of Organization (or, even better, of a CEO or COO) and potentially make him understand what your organizational consulting firm can do for him/ her. They can even be useful providing heuristic (“hard and fast”, although also “fast and loose”) rules of the kind of things that may reasonably happen when an extraneous factor (from a new information system to a new CEO, and of course a new organizational structure with new reporting lines, new hierarchies and new responsibilities for the existing people) is introduced in an existing organization. But all of them are unsuited for my purpose of better understanding why organizations are formed in the first place, what makes them persist along time, what help them sustain changes (be more resilient) and what can be done to make them more efficient. In order to fill that gap (which started as a theoretical yearning, although as I developed it I kept on finding sometimes unexpected practical applications) I had to develop my own model, which unsurprisingly I’m calling the ADVISE model (as it is ultimately intended to help organizations of any persuasion become more Adaptable, more Dominant, more Voluntary, more Isocratic, more Simple and more Egalitarian… why? Because I will argue that such organizations achieve their ends more efficiently and can consistently deliver higher benefits to their members, although I recognize a lot of empirical work would need to be done to adequately substantiate such claim). The outlook of the model will look familiar to anybody that has accompanied me this far, and has read posts I, II and III of this series:

Taken directly from the definition I proposed at the beginning, all the elements that have to be taken into account are there: a group of people (members) situated in a certain environment (that imposes certain constraints on them –regulatory and normative, limiting what resources they can appropriate and in what kind of activities they can engage, what rights they enjoy and  what protections they can count on), pursuing certain ends. In that pursuit they may consume certain resources, and most likely will need to specialize and divide their labor, thus there will be different roles, and different relationships between them. Although roles can be repeated (there can be multiple project controllers in a company) the way each individual perform those roles is unique (so Jack the power hungry, somewhat neurotic and firmly autocratic project controller will interact with other members in a totally different way than Suzy the mild mannered, depression-prone but witty project controller), and will in turn give rise to totally different group dynamics.

My contention is that a complete description of the people, the roles they perform (what they are expected to do, how and when), the relationships between them, the environment they operate in, the resources they consume and the end they pursue would give us the kind of “thick” description (in the sense advanced in anthropology by Clifford Geertz) I’m after. Of course such a “complete” description may in the end be unattainable (for starters we are still pretty bad at “describing” actual people, and I am weary of all the efforts so far of psychometrics, and abominable constructs like the Five Factor Model and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator prove that people are always more complex and multi dimensional than our best efforts to simplify and pigeonhole them), but I believe that even an incomplete description along these lines (containing the most basic outline of what people there are, who each one interacts with, a most cursory description of their role, what they consume and what they are after) is prone to leave less loose ends, and to contain more useful hints on how that group will likely evolve in the presence of certain exogenous factors (or how, in the absence of such factors, left entirely to their endogenous impulses, they would either attain an stationary state or regress) than any of the alternative models out there.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, so the next chapter(s) will let each reader decide to what extent that claim is founded.      

Friday, May 22, 2015

Is there a strain of Kant in today’s dominant reason? (Matt Crawford believes so, and he deserves to be heard)

I’m not a great fan of posts of the type “I read X in [insert name of prestigious or simply cool newspaper or magazine] and I think Y of it” (normally Y being a moderately unimaginative rehash of what it says…) however, I myself am sometimes awestruck by the brilliance, wittiness or relevance for some of my own interests and lines of thought of something somebody else has published, and feel the urge to share it with my readership. That’s just what has happened with this subtle piece of analysis by the always interesting Matthew B. Crawford in “The New Atlantis”: Virtual Reality as a Moral Ideal.

Cutting to the chase, what Matt is saying is that there is an aspect of Kant’s thought that is directly responsible for an undesirable feature of our dominant reason: the fact that for choice to be truly free (in Kant’s metaphysic, a necessary condition of it being an autonomous agent, and thus of being morally responsible) it had to be universal, disembodied and independent of the physical features of the chooser. You may think “so far so good”, and it is difficult to argue that such a characterization of the preconditions of freedom are indeed deeply embedded in the Kantian system. Now what Crawford derives from such a characterization is far more troubling: such “pliable chooser” (his words) is liable to forget the importance of developing skills (physical skills to deal with an unyielding, uncooperative external world, skills which will then in turn affect how he perceives that same world, influencing what possibilities he has of affecting it –turning each element of perception into a potential “affordance”, for what it affords us to do with it and which before the acquisition of the skill could not even be considered as a possibility), and lacking those skills in the first place he can not but become a passive spectator, the only freedom he is able to effectively exercise being the freedom of acquiring one or other set of gizmos that do not demand any previous effort on his part (the ideal consumer shaped by television then, to which an endless array of effortless pleasures can be sold).

It is indeed a feature of the dominant reason that it facilitates the confusion between “consuming” and “acting” (in the old scholastic differentiated sense of agree as distinct of facere), and tries to present us with choices between different brands as the ultimate moral actions (buying then would be endorsing whatever fiction of a moral stance the providing corporations have succeeded in imbuing their products with), and that goes a long way to explain the attractiveness for such corporations of presenting the digital world (a frictionless world, a world where physical objects do not present us with any challenges, which we can manipulate effortlessly at will) as the “really important one” (hence the motto of a fabled consulting company I used to work for, “every business is a digital business”). As Tom Friedman reminded us only Yesterday in the NYT, the economy seems to be going fully digital at increasing speed (from Only the interface matters in techcrunch):

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.

In a certain sense, it is the logical culmination of our flight from nature: during the last two hundred years we have become increasingly successful in replicating the most pleasurable parts of it (from tamed botanical gardens to ever more immersive modes of narration that create a synthetic environment that looks more and more like the real thing –and the launch of Oculus Rift and the future VR gadgets at an affordable price will make that transition proceed even faster) getting rid in the process of everything that made it interesting (the need for struggle, although it could be argued that such need only made it interesting for those strong enough to succeed in that struggle, and thus benefit from overcoming it). When in a much commented section in The Examined Life Robert Nozick posited the possibility of an “experience machine” to discredit certain consequentialist philosophies (basically hedonistic utilitarianism and their associated philosophies of mind) technology was so far from making that possibility real that he still could fantasize that nobody would choose to live that way (to become what later would be termed a “brain in a vat”) even if they would be fed the most pleasurable experiences imaginable (his argument was that people crave meaning and whatnot, but tell that to a dude whose best existential prospect is holding two or three Mac Jobs just to make ends meet so doesn’t have much time left for meaningful interaction with other fully real human beings in a fully real unwelcoming world). Well, technology is getting to the point of making experience machines/ brains in a vat possible so we are pretty close already to having an empirical validation of Nozick’s contention, and my impression is that it has been already mostly refuted, as more and more people choose freely to spend more and more time in their entirely unreal and artificial paradises (they are known as gamers, and as VR becomes more mainstream and jobs become scarcer I forecast we will see their numbers swell).

We can then legitimately ask ourselves to what extent is Kant guilty of that strain in our current rationality, or put it another way, to what extent we owe to him that suspicion of the physical world that has yanked us from its perils and rewards and pushed us toward the siren songs of the unreal, disembodied, virtual reality. It is a deadly serious question for me because I consider myself as close to a card-carrying Kantian as there can be (if carrying any kind of card that denoted belonging to a wider human group didn’t clash with my also deeply held misanthropy and antipathy towards organized belief systems), I despise that “flight from the physical” that I recognize as part and parcel of that “desiderative reason” (currently dominant mode of rationality that I’ve devoted 422 pages and counting to unmask, analyze, explain and undermine all in one) that tries to substitute buying ready made pleasurable experiences for actually determining what a life worth living consists in (which usually would involve a healthy dose of struggle and confrontation with an at best indifferent and at worst positively frustrating nature). And if Matt Crawford sees a connection I can not help but paying attention, as my admiration of him runs very high (A guy who likes philosophy and rebuilding custom bikes was apt to have me enthralled from page one of Shop Class as SoulCraft).

However, after some pondering I have some significant differences in how I understand where Kant was coming from when he postulated the need of a totally free will (unbounded by material determinism) to set the foundations of his ethics. According to Crawford, it was a defense from the discoveries of Newton, that showed the natural world was like a well designed watch, bound to evolve according to very precise and simple laws. But such vision is not original of Newton’s systems. The Greeks (and not just any recent ones, the Eleatics and Pre-Socratics were already at it) already believed in the inescapable chain of ananké (necessity), by which even the immortal Gods were bounded. They already developed a conception of freedom (lack of direct external compulsion –compulsion, indeed, that had to be imposed by another will) that could be compatible with the agents actions being entirely predictable and preordained (see Oedipus example: he freely kills his father, and he freely sleeps with his mother, although it was said in an omen he would do so, and although he did not know of any of those deeds –so in a modern sense it could be argued that he was not “guilty” of them- the public believed that he deserved his final punishment all the same –it has to be noted the punishment is mostly meted out by himself, not to leave any doubts about its justice). So I will argue that is not to protect the individual will from the mechanistic understanding of the world that was coalescing that Kant arrived at his Metaphysics of Morals, but to solve a totally different problem.

What troubled Kant was not (or not mainly) the problem imposed by the growing determinism, but the much more ancient problem caused by the unruliness of the passions (in Aristotelian terms, not by ananké but by akrasia). He identified as the main risk for his concept of a moral agent able to apprehend universal moral truths (truths, it has to be noted, that objectively existed, so our cognition of them was the cognition of something real, and not of some construct we ourselves had concocted –that is what Habermas saw when he famously quipped that all and every cognitivist ethics in the end is reducible to the categorical imperative) not the compatibility with a deterministic natural external world, but the bias and distortions caused by our own (internal) desires. His quarrel was not with Newton, whom he admired and whose disciple he considered himself to be, but with Hume (aha!). He knew how our own desires befuddle us, cloud our judgment and make it more difficult to arrive at “ethical” decisions (here understood as impartial decisions, decisions which are not hopelessly biased in our favor and thus defensible before no one but our selfish selves). It is true he was not an especially muscular or handy guy, so he was unlikely to appreciate the activities that Crawford reminds us are so central to a meaningful life (like diagnosing if a bike that fails to start owes it to the coil, the spark plugs or the carburetor, such wonderful metaphor for the whole functioning of our thinking selves!), but I think if we accuse him of diminishing the importance of that kind of physical activities we are badly missing the mark. I do not see him so much diminishing them as being unconcerned with them. And I think that lack of concern is itself defensible and compatible with a fully grounded human life. I enjoy tinkering with my old bike as much as the next guy, but I could live without it (I concede it would be a slightly diminished life, btw), so I do not think not giving that involvement with the limitations and joys of the (deterministic) physical world a central preeminence in one’s recommendations on how to live can be construed as an invitation to flee from the world and recoil from engagement with it, thus somehow justifying the acquisitiveness of our current system and the reduction of we moral agents to little more than choosy consumers (or, as Crawford puts it, “pliable choosers”).

I would argue, furthermore, than Kant’s positing of a universal reason, entirely shielded from the highly contingent desires of each individual, is the best defense against that acquisitiveness, as it is by the promises it makes (that advertising professionals know so well how to exploit) that it enslaves us and makes us work towards goals that have little to do with “our own perfection and other people happiness”, steering us rather to the opposite (our own imagined but never fully realized happiness while we hold everybody else to much higher moral standard than ourselves, assuming it is them who should strive to be perfect so it is easier for us the be happy). Not that it matters that much, as I have argued elsewhere the influence of Kant in modern culture is almost negligible, as right after him came like a blight the notorious Georg Wilhelm Friedrich (Hegel, that is) and essentially buried all of his ideas and soiled so much his legacy there is very little of it we can still find outside of the occasional academic monograph (university professors do indeed love Kant very much, one of the handful of things we should be grateful towards them for) and the books of Christine Korsgaard and the like.

So I think we can all agree that Kant is blameless regarding the commercial, desire-fueling orientation of today’s culture. What about the original contention that he is partly responsible for the “virtualization” of morality, the impulse to substitute a fake, pliable, easy to effortlessly consume artificial reality for the true, stubborn, resistant one that thwarts our best efforts and refuses obstinately to yield to our command (unless we devote a significant effort to master some skill that allow us to overcome its resistance)? I reckon Crawford’s position has more merit here. I do not see Kant wielding a physical tool to repair even the simplest wheelbarrow, inquisitively identifying his activity as an expression of human genius (I can rather more easily imagine him discharging such a nuisance on his famed valet Lampe), but I can not see him extolling either the virtues of an unearned bliss or propounding the mass migration of consciousness to some artificial, tamed environment where our pursuit of perfection would be much hindered by the easy availability of distracting pleasures. However, I can not recommend my readers highly enough to consult in full Crawford’s text, and hope it will be as fruitful for them as it has been for me.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Reporting progress (a shot putter that doesn’t shot put yet)

Wow, looking back at my latest posts it seems I’ve been quite carried away with my theory of the organization, and society’s woes, and how much time some hapless souls spend at work (notice I didn’t say how much they actually work) to muse about how ol’ training is going. Time to correct that and devote some time to share with powerlifting and weightlifting addicts (yep, I happen to also know a few of those too) how things are going and what I’ve learned in these past months that could apply to anybody’s program.

I’ll start talking about power cleans. In an old post I stated that they are inferior to the full Olympic moves to build speed, as they do not involve as much the part of the neural system in charge of relaxing agonistic muscles (which I had just discovered is as important a part of moving fast as contracting the prime movers): Olympic lifts vs their power versions , so when I published the training split I was about to follow for this shot put oriented block some people commented that I had not included any full squat version of the lift, or the complete split jerk, for that matter, apparently discarding the wisdom I found back then, so some explanation is definitely in order. The reason is my knees have been giving me a hard time lately (specially, to nobody’s surprise, the one I had surgically reconstructed so many years ago… not having a meniscus is quite a handicap if you want to flex it as bent as it will go day in and day out for a longish period of time), and I am still toying with the idea of spending some time after summer (if my dissertation is completely finished by then, as I expect and things go reasonably according to plan) learning to actually snatch, clean and jerk under some experienced coach instruction, so I want to arrive there with joints as healthy as possible and with as little wear and tear as is consistent with still lifting heavy and frequently.

So the power versions both of the snatch and the clean are the ones I’ll be using, and I will also be substituting the push press for the split jerk. That also will allow me to get as close as possible (if not to actively surpass) some old records that I had left a bit unattended, as I think I’ve gained enough strength in the last couple of years to give them a run for their money. Starting with the power clean, of course, which has ended being seriously out of whack with the rest of my lifts. As of today, my best PC is around 107 kilograms (236 pounds), and I say “about” because I did it with a shitty commercial gym bar that probably weighted 17 kg, instead of the mandatory 20, so those 107 were most likely 104… Be it as it may, given the weights I’ve been moving lately I think I have a pretty realistic shot at (true) 110 anywhere between now and 2-3 weeks, as I’ve been doing doubles with 95 kg (210 pounds) without much effort, and probably this week I’ll be taking doubles w 100 kg for a ride. That compares very unfavorably with my current Bench Press (125 kg -276 pounds), when typically both lifts should be around the same figure in a well rounded lifter. It looks even worse compared with my Deadlift (220 kg, or 485 pounds), as I have noted elsewhere (less than 50% of it, when it should be anywhere between 65% and 80%, depending on the proportion of Type II fibers of the lifter). So really time to clean up my act and push that godforsaken move up at least a little notch.

However, I still have to clean up my form a bit, as it is still somewhat off kilt. I analyzed it to some detail here: The power clean and me and I can say that I have improved in some aspects of what I noticed then that was not yet OK (straightening the legs too early so the quads could not contribute at all to the 2nd pull), but I’ve probably regressed a bit on other aspects by not paying that much attention to them (I’m again bending the arms too early, just before the hip starts opening to propel the bar upwards, and I start from a position in which the torso leans too far forward). Not so noticeable in the warm up with the empty bar:

But it becomes more evident when the bar gets heavier (80 kg, we are not yet talking olympic records, or even PRs here), although I feel heartened by the fact that in this longish set (4 reps), as the fatigue sets in the form clears up a bit (probably as I get to become more efficient, and have to rely more on hip drive and less in the comparatively weaker arms):

And finally things get a bit uglier when I get to the working weight (95 kg, for doubles), although in my defense I have to say that is just 10 kg shy of my 1RM (again, probably I've grown stronger since the last time I tested this move, so my current 1RM is probably a tad higher)

There are still a number of additional things I have to pay attention to (the left foot goes a bit too far to the left, in an incipient "starfish" which is a very detrimental habit), but the main thing I'll be working at in the following weeks is keeping the torso more upright, for a more fluid transition between the 1st and 2nd pulls (chest more puffed up, shoulder blades more retracted -back and down), so the bar accelerates more consistently (without that uncomely "jump" as it passes the knees to be followed by some stopping as after the premature bending the arms create some slack when straightening again).

Good stuff, however, what about the shot put? well, I haven't seen much of it yet, as it is hay fever session, and yours truly is awfully allergic these days, so the sole idea of going down to the park and spending half an hour surrounded by grass, and bushes and trees makes me quiver, as my nose is runny enough, and my eyes itchy and sore as they stand without further need to torture them any more... so that part of the training will have to wait a couple of weeks yet, but I have good & warm feelings about how things will turn out when I start putting again, given how strong & fast I'm noticing I've become now.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Foundations of a General Theory of the Organization III (ends and contemporary theories)

In my last post I offered a 30,000 feet overview of the history of organizations, from the Paleolithic to the end of WWII, and I promised to tackle modern organization theories in a following post. We will be dealing with that in short order, but first we need to appreciate a point I only tangentially mentioned then: how the dominant form of organization has suffered its own Copernican revolution, putting front and center what I contended was a secondary concern in traditional societies. If we come to think about it, most mildly complex societies (from Sumerian cities on, I would dare to say almost all that have gone beyond the hunter-gatherer stage) have at least the following organizational forms:

·         F1. Political (who is a subject of rights, how are those rights acquired, what kind of regulations apply to civil interactions between subjects, what penalties are applicable for non compliance)

·         F2. Educational (how people acquire the skills necessary to earn a living or contribute to the community, what kind of regulations apply to the period of that acquisition, what kind of recognition and certification is in place)

·         F3. Religious (what kind of beliefs are deemed acceptable about the supernatural, about a potential source of meaning that goes beyond the world of physical appearances perceivable through the senses and that has the ability to dictate how we should behave, at least in certain aspects of our lives)

·         F4. Productive/ Commercial (how people deal with the production and exchange of material goods, what kind of contractual forms are acceptable, who can enter into them and what are the penalties for potential violations)

There is naturally an order of precedence between them, as each can command the behavior of their common members to a greater extent than others (in our previous terminology, some of them are necessarily more intense than others). I contended in my previous post that in pre-modern (pre Industrial revolution) societies, that order was, for the majority of citizens (read Fi > Fj as "organizational form i is dominant over organizational form j"):

F3 > F1 > F4 > F2

Altough soon after the Peace of Westphalia the birth of the modern state had the effect of putting the belonging to a certain political society in front of belonging to a certain (mostly fractured and made unpopular by the horrors inflicted by their respective zealots) religion, so:

F1 > F3 > F4 > F2

Well, it has been the (intended) consequence of the Enlightenment to push the religious belonging still further in the order of precedence, to the extent that in  European societies today it configures an even smaller part of people’s lives than their educational affiliation (so their perspective of life is shaped more by them being a physician or a lawyer or an engineer than by them believing in Christ or Muhammad or the Buddah or in none at all), but that pushing has had the (unintended) additional consequence of pulling the productive/ commercial form to the utmost forefront, displacing even the political/ national as most influential in controlling everyday’s lives, thus for contemporary men and women:

F4 > F1 > F2 > F3

So it can be argued that modern man follows the dictate of his corporation (or his trade, if he is an independent professional) first and foremost, as he spends most of the day devoted to the business that can most markedly optimize his income, and according to the rules dictated by the professional body he belongs to. During that pursuit he nominally also obeys the law of the land he belongs to, but such law has been engineered by what we may call “social selection” to ensure his compliance with the (mostly private) corporations that can decide what is produced, and to whom it is distributed, so from the taxes he pays to the hours he devotes to work, the age at which he starts and stops working, the repressive apparatus that controls that nobody steps out of line he and the recognition he gets from his peers, all the other forms of organization (not just the political) are attuned to the needs of the productive, and reinforce a life system in which he is but a cog in an immense machine finely tuned to maximize the production of material goods (not happy individuals, not transcendent truths, not engaged families, not sources of meaningful lives), because, as I have already reminded my readers ad nauseam, the ability to produce more material goods than the neighbors translated in an invincible advantage in the battlefield, so whole societies had every incentive to pursue that path of development (and those who, by choice or lack of ability, did not, were crushed and did not transmit their cultural heritage to modern ones, the civilizational equivalent of “the survival of the fittest”).

In our original definition what distinguishes those four “forms” (or “layers”, as they overlap and a typical person would be a member of all four) would be the different ends they pursue, as regarding essential features (adaptability, dominance, voluntariness, isocracy, simplicity and egalitarianism) we have seen any of them can run the full gamut between each of their extremes, and the same applies for the features we said we would not investigate more (size and inclusiveness). In order to clarify a bit more our definition, let’s then make explicit what we understand to be the end of each form:

·         F1 (political): political institutions (even the most virtualized ones in our highly interconnected post-modern world) have inherited the original intent of the first clans and tribes: to survive and to perpetuate themselves, with a modicum of continuity (so they can adapt, and given enough time, even renounce most of their defining characteristic features as long as they have a unified story they can tell about how a continuous “they” evolved and adopted the new ones). That’s why they need some form of external recognition (badges, flags, banners, mottos, even state mascots), so they can know that, whoever carries them (regardless of sex, race, ideology, aesthetic preferences or inclinations)is standing for each one of the members of the group, it “represents” them, and justifies thus their continued existence/ relevance. It has to be noted that continuance translates in biological terms to reproduction, so in that respect modern societies (with the exception of some outliers as Somalia, Nigeria and the like, but just give them time) are failing abysmally, as they have not been able to give their citizens reasons enough to keep on doing exactly that (reproducing themselves) at least at the replacement rate

·         F2 (educational): the avowed end of educational organizations is to equip their alumni with a certain body of knowledge, and occasionally to further that body with the addition of new elements congruent with the previous ones that formed it. As that body (be it the syllabus of primary education, the corpus of modern physics or the great mass of Western literary tradition, usually splintered by nation) is always inherited from the past those organizations are inherently conservative, or should be (there have been some instances throughout history of revolutionary schools that wanted to contribute to the creation of one sort of “new man” or another starting from scratch, and to my knowledge all have been abject failures), although we well-meaning heirs of the Enlightenment tend to believe a well-educated citizen is capable of critical thinking and to question the shackles of tradition (the old Kantian adage of sapere aude! –dare to know by yourself! And to apply your own measuring stick to all knowledge that comes your way, unencumbered by the dead weight of the past! Which unfortunately is a dead end and just substitutes some irrational beliefs by others equally unfounded). Let’s leave it at the point of remarking the somewhat contradictory nature of educational institutions (in their best incarnation, in their worst they are monolithic factories of indoctrinated drones) which contributes to explain why, influential as they are in shaping their pupils Weltanschauung, they have never been all that dominant

·         F3 (religious): the end of religious organizations is to embody a transcendent truth i. e. non physical, non material, but somehow more fundamental than what the senses can perceive. That truth is codified in the organization’s “faith”, and I have used the term “embody” as some organizations want to extend that faith (through proselytism, preaching to the infidels and so on) while others are content to keep it to themselves. In some cases the obeisance of the precepts of the faith is supposed to cause some ultramundane reward (in an indefinitely long afterlife, of a more or less sensualistic nature), whilst in others it has the opposite effect of causing the definitive annihilation of the individual member (the Buddhist Nirvana). So it has in common with the educational (with which it sometimes shares many more features, to the point of having their own institutions devoted to the instruction of the faithful, as primary or even secondary concern) the pursuit of the extension of certain kind of knowledge, but in opposition to what we grouped under F2, that knowledge is of a metaphysical nature, has to do with what goes beyond the information conveyed by the senses. As I have argued elsewhere (Jeez, we are quite materialist, aren't we?) our age is distinctly antimetaphysic, and the dominant reason is clearly opposed to the mere possibility of something non-material (not knowable by the senses) existing, so unsurprisingly a manifestation of that antipathy is the wilting and significant loss of dominance of F3 organizations

·         F4 (productive/ commercial): We have to start by declaring  that the stated end of a capitalist enterprise doesn’t make any sense. According to Marx (and, wrong as he was in so many other things, I believe he was fundamentally right in this one), they produce commodities so they can sell them in exchange for money, which in turn they can use (investing it to buy more raw materials, labor and means of production) to produce more commodities in a never ending expansion. Why would anybody want to participate in such a pointless exercise? It is as illogical as the proverbial saucer full of mud used by Anscombe as quintessential example of irrational desire. Even after the legerdemain of dividing enterprises in a “department I” devoted to producing means of production and a “department II” which produces the means of consumption (consumer goods like clothing and foodstuffs) that enable both the capitalists and the workers to survive, it defies explanation to pursue a production (be it directly or indirectly) well beyond what is needed to keep reproducing. So we are faced with the paradox of the most dominant organizational form in our time having an end we can not share due to its sheer irrationality. The resolution of the paradox comes from considering the double production (or the double flow of transformation) that the enterprise enables. Seen from the standpoint of the consumer of its goods, it transforms labor power (variable capital) and raw materials, with the participation of a certain amount of tools, machines and real estate (fixed capital) into mostly unneeded commodities (the fact that most humans are duped into not noticing that lack of necessity doesn’t make them less unnecessary). Totally unexplainable. But seen from the standpoint of its workers, it transforms their time into money (salary), which has been “fetishized” to the point of becoming the main and almost only marker of social status (at this point Marx was quite off the mark, believing money was just another commodity, marked by its convenience to facilitate the exchange of the rest, and we have to turn to Freud of all people to understand that common drive towards a zero sum social recognition –although the very own Freud never understood the real depth of such drive, and confounded himself and his followers claiming it was towards something as banal as sex). Now everything makes sense: the end of the corporation is to maximize the social status of its workers. For those in managerial positions, it has the potential to enhance it a lot, and their interest can be fully aligned with that of the company (the better the latter goes, as measured by its ability to turn out ever growing quantities of whatever the market will pay for, regardless of its utility, the higher the salaries and other perks and the higher the prestige of the former). For those at the bottom of the corporate hierarchy there is always certain misalignment, certain air of broken promise in the implicit possibility (more theoretical than real nowadays) of climbing through the ranks and reaching a more rewarding position. But as long as corporations can dangle in front of the eyes of the masses even the tiniest sliver of possibility of social advancement it seems they will keep on finding throngs of volunteers to jump through as many hops as needed to slave as many hours as demanded even in the humblest position.

Now we have an operational definition of what “economic” corporations (be they productive or commercial) pursue, which allows us to differentiate them from other types of organizations. We can thus review what theories have been advanced in the last half of a century to explain how they work and what could be tweaked to improve their “performance” (mostly understood as the capability to further the apparent end –churning more material goods nobody really needs, as that is the most reliable proxy for their capability to further the implicit end that really makes their leaders tick –earning tons of money so they can outshine their peers). We will focus on four theoretical frameworks: Coase’s (structures to minimize transaction costs), Hammer’s (structures to optimize processes, understanding those to be the most important source of competitive advantage), Christensen’s (focusing on the ability of corporations to innovate to outgrow their competitors) and what, for lack of a single proponent, I will call the hodgepodge approach (identifying best practices of “leading” companies to emulate, as expounded by the likes of Peters, Joyce and Nohria).

But we will not do that in this post, which has already reached the limits of the tolerable length. As a treat to my readers (or at least to those that managed to get this far) before leaving I’ll leave a list of books I would recommend for having a passable understanding of organizations:

The Republic (Plato)

Politics (Aristotle)

The Prince (Machiavelli)

The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith), Vols I-III and Vols IV-V

Capital (Karl Marx) Vol I, Vol II and Vol III (you thought you could do with just one, uh? sorry but nope, the third is the worst written, but the meatiest)

Economy and Society (Max Weber)

The Organization Man (William H. Whyte)

“The Nature of the Firm” (Roland H. Coase)

The New Industrial State (John Kenneth Galbraith)

The Innovator’s Dilemma (Clayton Christensen)

In Search of Excellence (Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman)

What Really Works. The 4+2 formula for continued business success (William Joyce, Nitin Nohria and Bruce Roberson)

Are all of them good books? Most definitely not (the last four are pretty weak, and within them the last two are positively atrocious, being made from a 99% of unsubstantiated blather that turned out to be mostly false), but that’s the price of knowledge, sometimes you have to sift through a pile of dung to find a nugget of it…