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Are organizations like brains?

Images of OrganizationAs part of my Ed.D. course through the University of Durham I had to take some taught modules. One of them that I took back in 2006 was entitled Management, Leadership & Change. It was an excellent course from which I gained a lot. Unfortunately, unlike many of my classmates, I wasn’t then at a time where I could use this knowledge being then only just finished my second year of teaching. Now that I’m in a position that carries more responsibility, management responsbilities and leadership opportunities, it’s time to revisit that course and related reading.

One of the books I read for the Management, Leadership & Change module was Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization. I found it a revelation, especially being so fond as I am of metaphor. Morgan uses eight metaphors as a lens through which to view organizations:

  1. Organizations as Machines
  2. Organizations as Organisms
  3. Organizations as Brains
  4. Organizations as Cultures
  5. Organizations as Political Systems
  6. Organizations as Psychic Prisons
  7. Organizations as Flux and Transformation
  8. Organizations as Instruments of Domination

Each of these perspectives teaches the reader something about organizations; it’s a very clever and interesting way of presenting insights.

Having just come across this neat overview of Daniel Goleman‘s idea of the various leadership styles, I wonder how much overlap/synergy there is between the two?

Goleman - Leadership Styles

I’m especially interested in the idea of organizations as ‘organisms’, ‘brains’ or ‘cultures’ as I believe these lenses to be the most powerful for effecting positive change. The remainder of this post will look at organizations as ‘brains’.

Organizations as brains

Morgan starts off the chapter comparing brains to holographs where ‘everything is enfolded in everything else’, there is not centre or point of control and, most importantly,

Pattern and order emerge from the process – it is not imposed. (Morgan, 1998:73)

The philosopher Daniel Dennett, someone who I read fairly widely at university during my undergraduate degree in Philosophy, suggests that our highly-ordered stream of consciousness is actually the result of ‘a more chaotic process where multiple possibilities are generated as a result of activity distributed throughout the brain.’ (ibid.) Competing parallel activities can make complementary and competing contributions into a coherent pattern.

‘Just In Time’ and perceived chaos

Morgan gives the example of ‘Just In Time’ (JIT) manufacturing as being a process that is highly organized yet without ‘boundaries and patterns of membership’:

To an outsider, it may be impossible to distinguish who is working for whom. The fundamental organization really rests int eh complex informaiton system that coordinates the activites of all the people and firms involves rather then the discrete organizations contributing different elements  to the process. (Morgan, 1998:75)

Clay Shirky - Here Comes EverybodyThe above leads Morgan to wonder whether it is better to refer to a ‘system of intelligence’ rather than an ‘organization’ when describing such states of affairs. These systems break what Herbert Simon, Nobel laureate, called the ‘bounded rationality’ of human beings. To my mind it’s Morgan picking up on the start of what Clay Shirky has shown to be completely revolutionary in his excellent Here Comes Everybody (which I’m currently reading).

Understanding how organizations can become capable of learning in a brain-like way is similar to understanding how robots and other objects in the study of Cybernetics are able to ‘learn’. The latter discipline involves negative feedback. That is to say error-detection and correction happens automatically to maintain a course towards a desired goal. In order to be able to self-regulate, systems must be able to:

  1. Sense, monitor, and scan significant aspects of their environment.
  2. Relate this information to the operating norms that guide system behavior.
  3. Detect significant deviations form these norms, and
  4. Initiate corrective action when discrepancies are detected. (Morgan, 1998:77)

This negative feedback system is only as good as the procedures and standards that underlie it. So long as the action defined by these procedures and standards is appropriate dealing with the changes encountered, everything is fine. The ‘intelligence’ of the system breaks down, however, when these are not adequate leading to negative feedback attempting to maintain an inappropriate pattern of behaviour.

In order to prevent the above happening (so called ‘single-loop learning’) the model of ‘double-loop learning’ has been promoted by Donald Schön and Chris Argyris. This builds in a self-review ‘loop’ to the learning process:

Double-Loop Learning

Image cc-by-sa Ed Batista

There are three major barriers to double-loop learning: budgets, bureaucracy and accountability. One of the most famous examples of double-loop learning and organization being thwarted by these three barriers came with the US Challenger space shuttle explosion.

Learning organizations

So, how are ‘learning organizations’ created? Insights from cybernetics would suggest the following:

  • Scanning and anticipating change in the wider environment
  • Developing an ability to question, challenge and change operating norms and assumptions
  • Allow appropriate directions and patterns of organization to emerge (Morgan, 1998:82)

Morgan follows this with stressing the importance of ‘framing and reframing’ which reminds me of Lord Bilimoria’s discussion of the value of regular SWOT analyses (see this post). ‘Many organizations,’ says Morgan, ‘become myopic, accepting their current reality as the reality.’ (Morgan, 1998:84)

Organizations that embrace double-loop learning sound like the type of places I want to be part of:

For successful double-loop learning to occur, organizations much develop cultures that support change and risk taking; embrace the idea that in rapidly changing circumstances with high degrees of uncertainty, problems and errors are inevitable; promote an openness that encourages dialogue and the expression of conflicting points of view; recognize that legitimate error, which arises from the uncertainty and lack of control in a situation, can be used as a resource for new learning; recognize that since genuine learning is usually action based, organizations must find ways of helping to create experiments and probes so that they lear through doing in a productive way. (Morgan, 1998:85)

Emergent organization

Coming back to the metaphor of brains, the intelligence of the brain is not predetermined. It is not centrally driven. It is emergent. A top-down approach to management leads to single-loop learning and therefore is the opposite of such a model of emergence. To prevent chaos and incoherence targets should take the form of vision and value-sharing.

Morgan continues on to articulate a vision of ‘holographic organization’ based on five principles:

  1. Build the ‘whole’ into the ‘parts’ (i.e. ‘networked intelligence’)
  2. The importance of redundancy
  3. Requisite variety (i.e. ‘internal complexity must match that of the environment’)
  4. Minimum Specs (i.e. don’t define more that is absolutely necesssary)
  5. Learn to learn (i.e. ‘double-loop learning’)

Conclusion

After fleshing out these princples, Morgan concludes this chapter with listing the strengths and limitations of the brain metaphor.

Strengths:

  • Gives clear guidelines for creating learning organizations
  • Shows how IT can support the evolution of organizations
  • Gives a new theory of management based on the principles of self-organization
  • Addresses the importance of dealing with paradox

Limitations:

  • There could be conflict between the requirements of organizational learning and the realities of power and control
  • Learning for the sake of learning can become just another ideology

I can live with these limitations. I think the ‘organization as brain’ metaphor has a lot going for it. What do YOU think? 😀

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: the confusion around ‘digital literacy’.

literacy

I had another Skype chat with my Ed.D. thesis supervisor, Steve Higgins, last night. I really enjoy our informal video conferences as he’s at the forefront of things at the University of Durham (and further afield!), as well as being very experienced and intelligent.

I’d been a bit apprehensive as during our email exchanges prior to the Skype chat he’d talked about bringing in my second supervisor. I assumed that this was because I wasn’t organized enough, wasn’t on track, etc. – but it turns out that it’s a result of the university’s new QA procedures. Steve said he’s ‘no concerns about the quality and level of my work’. So that’s good to know! 😀

I’m in the slightly odd position of undertaking a vocational doctorate (Ed.D.) in a purely conceptual and philosophical manner more suited to a PhD. That’s because my doctoral course is an extension of my previous MA (and before that my PGCE!) Steve urged me to focus on the overall conceptual schema so that the whole thing ‘flows’ and fits together. We agreed that the following thesis structure (which I’ve blogged about before), with one added section, has the scope to do that:

  1. Literacy (what is literacy?)
  2. ‘Digital literacy’ (literature review)
  3. Pragmatic methodology (what is the ‘core’ of definitions?)
  4. ‘Flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work – ‘digital flow’?)
  5. Application to schools (how ‘digital literacy’ as a concept is applied in educational systems around the world)
  6. Meta-level definition (*new*) (pragmatic definition of ‘digital literacy’ or similar)

Texts as metaphors

Steve and I started by revisiting the idea of ‘texts’ as metaphors. Whilst some would question this use of the word ‘text’, it is use widely in the literature to refer to even objects (digital/physical) that do not have an alphabet-based written element to them. Steve talked about the ‘denotative’ as well as ‘connotative’ meanings of texts, which is something I’m going to have to explore further… :-p

Hierarchical model of digital literacy?

I brought up the possibility of coming up with some kind of ‘hierarchical model’ of concepts in the digital literacy arena. Perhaps ‘digital competency’ would be at the bottom, with ‘digital literacy’ above it and ‘digital fluency’ as being at the top of the conceptual pyramid?

Steve agreed that this may be possible as ‘competence’ has a restrictive element to it in that it can be assessed or measured – it is bounded in some way. Literacy implies some kind of transferability which is, presumably, why educators like it as it assumes more than mere ‘competence’. Problems arise, however, when people want to be able to ‘assess’ digital literacy as what would such a test look like? Finally, the idea of ‘digital fluency’, Steve wondered, would surely be an extension of digital literacy rather than something separate?

Again, this is something I need to go back to the literature and investigate!

Forms of literacy

Steve mentioned en passant that librarians have really latched on to the term ‘information literacy’ as it describes what they are trying to engender in students and library users. We then discussed the use of ‘umbrella terms’ by those coming at new literacies from a particular angle. I mentioned the fact that not only do people try and use their preferred term as some type of overarching term encompassing other literacies, but that some make up words to try and make a name for themselves when doing so!

21st century skills

Regarding 21st century skills, I wondered about the relationship such an idea may have with ‘digital literacy’. Steve said it was worth looking at in terms of the formation of the phrase and where the drive is coming from. Is it coming from politicians worried about global economic competition and effectiveness, or from educators? If the latter, is it coming from those who would be considered ‘digitally literate’ or not?

We discussed the EU, and Norway in particular, as being at the forefront of ‘digital literacy’ from a participatory rather than simply an economic perspective. I’m going to compare and contrast this with views from (for example) the USA and Singapore.

Can literacy by dissected?

I mentioned to Steve that I’ve read this week about Knobel & Lankshear’s belief that literacy cannot be ‘dissected’. I thought I knew what this meant, but then when trying to explain to Steve got a bit tongue-tied. Steve talked about literacy being ‘complex’ – not complicated – but fundamentally difficult to understand and prise apart. If the various parts are teased apart do they still make sense in isolation? The danger is that literacy is reduced to competency – and therefore susceptible to tick-box tests… 🙁

Paolo Freire and ‘conscientization’

Whilst I was aware of some of his work, Steve thought that Paolo Freire’s idea of conscientization might be applicable to my thesis. This is something I need to explore more thoroughly, but the concept of an ’emancipatory literacy’ which is in some way opposed to ‘functional literacy’ would set up a good dialectic in my argument, I think! We came back to the previous discussion of whether ideas of ‘literacy’ in the EU, Singapore and USA involved an emancipatory element.

Solid and liquid modernity

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how struck I was with Martin’s idea of ‘liquid modernity’. Steve and I discussed the relationship between knowledge and technology and how, because of the rate of change of technology, ‘literacy’ and ‘knowledge’ are always in a state of flux. I raised my concern with Steve that this would mean not even a working definition of something like ‘digital literacy’ could be achieved. He responded that going to some type of ‘meta-level’ without specific mention of technologies, so long as it was rigorous enough, would work.

Steve mentioned the idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium‘ in evolutionary theory and how technological advancements can be seen in a similar way. We moved into discussing cultural practices – for example the difference between being able to quote someone and/or use their ideas in your own words, compared with copying word-for-word what they said. At what stage will we privilege ‘organization’ as a higher-level skill?

After Steve raised the above, it got me thinking about Lessig’s book The Future of Ideas, which I’m currently reading (and have blogged about). Lessig talk about ‘remix culture’, something which Steve said he had a slight problem with as it has a negative connotation as being ‘derivative’. Howeer, if there is some type of granularity of reassembling, then such works should be valued as much as the originals.

Returning to the idea of a ‘meta-level’ definition for literacies, Steve talked about how they are not susceptible to shorter-term change, but must be applicable retrospectively to, for example, someone in Roman times. Obviously the ‘digital’ element will not apply, but the other elements should have some explanatory power.

What is ‘digital’?

Just before we finished, Steve drped a bit of a (positive) bombshell. Up until now I’ve been focusing on the ‘literacy’ aspect of ‘digital literacy’. But what about the ‘digital’ part? What makes something digital? How are, for example, a cassette recorder and a digital recorder different? Do they involve different skills?

In an attempt to tease this out a bit we talked about interoperability and connectedness. I thought about the conceptual difference between a book and a Word document (very little difference) and the difference once hyperlinks are added (quite a lot of difference!)

The idea of ‘digitality’ is something I’m going to have to explore further! 🙂

The way forward

Finally, Steve gave an example from a project he’s working on. He’s part of a group at the University of Durham experimenting with ‘multi-touch tables’. He talked about how some Year 6 pupils had seen him and other supervisors use ‘hidden menus’ within the software. The children only had to see this once to be able to access this themselves. Steve wondered wither this would fit into ideas of ‘digital fluency’.

This reminded me of the work of Sugata Mitra, creator of the ‘Hole in the Wall’ computer and ’emergent literacies’. This is, again, something I need to explore in more depth, but Steve said it fits in with the currently-popular Activity Theory (of which he’s not a big fan) and his concerns about the literature on literacy focusing on meaning rather than intention. It turns out that Mitra is now at Newcastle University, which is handy!

I’m going to concentrate now on my literature review, which I’ve already written a couple of thousand words on. Once that’s (almost) complete I’ll start work on fleshing out the pragmatic methodology. 😀

(Image credit: Literacy by ~Anarxur at deviantart)

‘Flow’ and the waste of free time

flow_bookHaving twice got the classic work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience out of Durham University Library and having it twice recalled before I got a chance to read it, I decided to just go ahead and buy the book. It’s a very famous work, cited in almost everything I read – despite the fact that the author, Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi, has an almost-unpronounceable surname…

Upon its arrival from Amazon, I eagerly opened and flicked through Flow. Just as sometimes you’re sitting in an audience and you feel that the speaker is talking directly to you, so it was with the section ‘The Waste of Free Time’ (p.162-3). Here’s my abridgement of that short section. Do you recognise yourself in it? I do!

Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback, rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate, and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.

The tremendous leisure industry that has arisen in the last few generations has been designed to help fill our free time with enjoyable experiences. Nevertheless, instead of using our physical and mental resources to experience flow, most of us spend many hours each week watching celebrated athletes playing in enormous stadiums. Instead of making music, we listen to platinum records cut by millionaire musicians. Instead of making art, we got to admire paintings that brought in the highest bids at the latest auction. We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action.

The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. Collectively we are wasting each year the equivalent of millions of years of human consciousness. The energy that could be used to focus on complex goals, to provide for enjoyable growth, is squandered on patterns of stimulation that only mimic reality. Mass leisure, mass culture, and even high culture when only attended to passively and for extrinsic reasons – such as the wish to flaunt one’s status – are parasites of the mind. They absorb psychic energy without providing substantive strength in return. They leave us more exhausted, more disheartened than we were before.

Most jobs and many leisure activities – especially those involving the passive consumption of mass media – are not designed to make us happy and strong. Their purpose is to make money for someone else. If we allow them to, they can suck out the marrow of our lives, leaving us only feeble husks.

Eloquently put, I’m sure you’ll agree! It reminded me somewhat of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four in terms of the vision it conjures of a mass ‘citizenry’ obediently doing what the guiding voice behind the media they consume tell them to do.

It’s a wake-up call for me. Instead of spending money on gadgetry that allow me to consume mass media at an ever-increasing rate, I’m going to focus on creativity and meaning-making. For me, that will mostly be in a written format because of my interests and talents. But, you never know, it may stray into areas musical as well… 😀

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