In conversations with friends, I’ve had the chance to reflect about how I look through readings. This is an attempt to articulate what happens when I’m browsing for articles and books, both physically and digitally.
What usually happens is that I start off with a bit of grand theorizing – find the people who try to construct universal frameworks. These are only the beginnings and they are often discarded and/or refined as I encounter new facts and frameworks. After a while, I realise that I’m looking a lot at academics and specialised journalists who have spent a long time looking at a specific area. This is also that I try to avoid op-eds and authors of books who tend to only aggregate newspaper material.
Tapping into academics and specialised journalists helps me to construct detailed concepts about how a specific issue develops and its sub-issues. For example, if I was doing work on poverty, I would be looking at grand theories about how poverty happens – cultural framings, economic framings, cognitive framings and so on. Within each of these framings I would go into detail, all the time asking if the framings are appropriate. For example, with culture, I would ask, how do people talk about culture in useful ways? With economic, perhaps its an issue of skills and economic structure. With cognition, it could be the way people decide spending and investment decisions. And then go into greater detail into the linkages between say, economics and culture.
After exploring the silos, I’ve found it helpful to read works on how the different silos are related. I like the works by Vaclav Smil as he explores the interactions between energy, food production, consumption and natural processes. Sometimes they horizontal linkages become silos in themselves – such as system dynamics and complexity, both of which are vast disciplines in themselves. So with the poverty example, I would be interested in how cultural framings interfere with economics and/or with cognition, and how various countries have addressed poverty in various ways.
After a while, it’s possible to develop a meta-sense when looking at articles into: (1) things directly relevant to interests; (2) things that add to current interests; and (3) things that I never knew about. (1) and (2) overlap, and its a function of what am I interested in at the current moment, and also about rebalancing areas that I am more familiar with and what I’m not as familiar with.
I try to look for fact-heavy books with subtle arguments. They tend to be historical and supplemented by primary research – which as a result, becomes the domain of academic researchers, or very senior journalists who have spent a lot of time in an area.
I guess what drives me is that I’m trying to understand the world and constructing frames to guide my understanding.
So far, what I’ve described is pretty generic – I’m thinking this is the general process of what most people go through in many things, ranging from workplace implicit knowledge to how fan-fiction is generated.
To further categorize the knowledge acquired, another labels can be helpful. I’ve found Aristotle’s 4 causes to be useful labels: efficient, material, formal and final causes of things. In short, they describe the process, the materials/technology, the medium in which the happen and the purpose for why they occur, respectively.
I’ve found the Snowden’s Cynefin useful – in describing the epistemology of events/processes – whether the process are simple, complicated, complex or chaotic – terms to describe the relationship between cause and effects and the degrees to which they are known. Kahane’s notions of complexity are also useful – whether things are socially (involving diverse beliefs), generative (awkwardly, the expectedness of outcomes), and dynamic (again, relationship between cause and effects) – as I understand the terms. I hope to explore their notions and other notions of complexity in greater detail in a future blog post.
There are some limitations in my current understanding. I don’t have clear notions about aesthetics, spaces, tactility and perceptions. My design/aesthetic senses are not as developed, and its something I ought to get more experiences at.
Thanks for reading, and hope you find this helpful. 🙂
In the previous post, I mentioned three modes of knowledge that undergird our way of thinking. They are:
1. Certainty is possible;
2. Rewards are zero-sum;
3. Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of thinking.
I also posited that “indicators” are central to the modes of knowledge above. This post elaborates this claim, and points to other things in this map of change-making and leadership in society.
I want to first point out to examples in societies. We wonder why why is it that passion doesn’t take flight here; or that excellence doesn’t take flight here – often don’t see past the immediate reason of a lack of creativity and the indicators. A better question to ask is, if the current incentive structure in our system is really suitable for student-based initiative, or is it meant for the purposes of supplying people for an advanced economy. That to me, is a far better way of asking the question of education than to do direct rebuttals on the state of education.
Wherever you look, indicators are everywhere. Indicators help to simplify the world. All the understanding of the student is distilled into a single factor; a country’s economic performance, for all its messiness and complexity, becomes drilled down to one figure; a company operations and worth, similarly. Indicators simplify the world with all its messiness into a few numbers. Indicators solve the problem of computation and the cost of information. In interaction with the three modes of knowledge from before, indicators contribute to decisions that are concrete, specific and actionable. And here’s the problem: not every problem out there is amenable to a numerical interpretation; and the reality is that a single figure, or even a few figures, will not be able to describe the nuances of the situation.
We often get tired of the existing set of indicators. The easy answer to that is to say that “the system has to change”, or “the indicators have to change”, and we often fail to think about why the indicators existed in the first place. Grades are after all, easier to evaluate than the concept of understanding. For indicators to change, the modes of thinking behind the indicators have to change too.
There’s still another aspect to indicators and information, which is about the organization of information – we are still not entirely sure what the best ways are to represent reality with all its messiness. This is one reason why we have distributed information systems – the economy with its system of prices of goods and services is actually one such way. Companies rise and fall and rise again when they get the price information right or wrong. Overall, everyone benefits – or so the hope goes.
As a result of this dependence on indicators, the indicator tail can wag the system dog. And besides, it’s not always about the raw form of the indicators that exist, and always about how those indicators get played out. Indicators are about accountability and trust – and it’s also when indicators become more important than the matter at hand that we should worry.
As a summary to this post, I want to point out that when viewed through the lens of indicators, one also have to look at organizations as cognition systems. Indicators are used in organizations as a way to manage information flows and where decisions are needed. Indicators are also the ways through which mindsets and assumptions get played out – it’s often the indicators that reveal how a person thinks – much like how our behaviours can demonstrate the things we value. In the same way, the models of thinking of an organisation’s leadership gets demonstrated in the indicators and the behaviours of the organisation.
So far, I’ve talked about knowledge modes and indicators. I’m still some distance away from the thoughts about change-making and leadership that served as the original motivations for this series of posts. I hope to get to that soon enough.
Before I talk about change-making, I feel that there is a very strong need to articulate the assumptions that exist in our society and organizations. All change-making happens in the container, and we ought to think about what’s in the container before thinking about changing the content, or break the container altogether. Since people will always be in some sort of container (institutions and organizations), I’m going to think about what’s in the container – the assumptions and ideas that cause everything else to work. (I am using metaphors very loosely here, apologies.)
What are the prevailing assumptions today in most of our organisations? With these articulations of assumptions, I am not yet imposing value judgments on them – but when I do, I try to defend them.
One is that certainty is possible.
Two is that a lot of rewards are based on a zero-sum vision of the world.
Three is that rational thought is the only mode of cognition there is.
These three assumptions form the the bases of the world we live today, at least in the organization context. Working lives in bureaucracies start and end with these three myths. I call them myths because they are the building blocks of all the stories we tell one another at work. As the charisma and powers of heroes fuel the stories in older times, so in present day, certainty, zero-sumness and rational thought are the building blocks of the stories of our time.
Certainty is possible
There are people out there who think that there exists only “one correct answer”, or who think that there is only one vision of the world. They dismiss all other possibilities except their own.
That’s not true. Yet people and organizations strive to attain greater certainty. A whole industry – Intelligence – in both economic and security domains suggest that people pursue certainties in their environment. These are noble pursuits but ultimately unhelpful given that the real world is much more contested. Even if it’s desired, Objective Truth-finding would have to go together with the ability to deal with multiple truths.
Certainty is not possible – there will never be enough information to find out how an outcome will be; there is never enough time to go through all of that information to decide in time. Living with uncertainty is the only way there is.
Rewards are zero-sum
Is the gain for someone at work necessarily a loss for another person? If the rewards are limited, and if there can only be one winner, then the answer has to be, “yes”. Then again, if people are competing for different rewards, then the answer is, “no”. Is there a right answer to all the problems an organization has to solve? Certainly no. In an ideal world, people get to define themselves and establish unique roles for how they want to contribute to teams. But then, the cruel realities of poor HR policies can get in the way, and de-motivate people from the best of themselves.
If societies are driven to think that rewards are limited, and not everyone can win, perhaps the outcome is an individualistic society. When people can come together that the benefit of one adds to the benefit of others, then perhaps we can have people adding to one another.
Rational thought is the only acceptable mode of cognition
Defining “rational thought” is tricky. What I’m trying to get to here is the logic of thinking that suggests that all problems can be solved, and that optimal solutions are possible for most situations. That by following a linear train of thought, one can arrive at most answers. While this is true in many cases, there are also classes of problems where solutions cannot be arrived via deductive means. There certainly are very strong resonances with “Certainty is possible”.
The other neglected consequence is that everyone thinks that they are the most rational people, and that everyone else is irrational. Therefore, people should come round to my side of the argument, and all other perspectives are wrong. This extreme is most evident in authoritarian leaders who dismiss the opinions of others.
How are these three maxims related to change-making? I suggest that these three maxims are the way the world works – from a psychological, and epistemological point of view. These views are still dominant, and undergird the way how our education, economy and society turn. Understanding that they are the myths of our time is crucial in thinking about how change can proceed.
In the next post, I want to talk about “indicators”, and how the idea of “indicators” is very central to the three qualities mentioned here.
Made slight edits in the sentence on Intelligence.