The Tube of Analysis
Over the past 18 months I have been trying to build a conceptual model which will enable a greater depth of understanding of the phenomenon of organisation and the part which organisations play in society. This is a progress report.
I began by looking at the problem of deciding what are the criteria for acceptable explanation. I decided to build my theory on the basis of certain assumptions: firstly, that everything is created by discourse so explanations would have to be in terms of discourse; secondly, this basis in discourse gives me an epistemology which is radically constructionist, that is that consciousness is not the property of autonomous individuals but is constructed in discourse and thirdly, that the nature of the world is dynamic and chaotic. From these assumptions follows the theory that people impose structure on the world through discourse and this is the means by which they are able to act on the world, though these structures a re always incomplete, contradictory and unstable (and susceptible to “deconstruction” Derrida).
These assumptions give me a paradigm in which to work and a place to stand from which to observe the world which lies within postmodernism.
You have to make some assumptions before you can say anything; this necessity is the reason for the importance of understanding paradigms. Mostly the assumptions are unconscious and paradigms have to be exposed rather than declared. You have to live within some paradigm since there is no place to exist outside of paradigms. If you begin to question the assumptions of your paradigm, you have to move to a different paradigm so it is essential for a scholar to be able to think in other paradigms to the one in which he or she lives. I have created a framework which gives us three master paradigms in the west in historical times: the theocentric, the modernist and the postmodernist paradigms. There are many varieties within each of these master paradigms.
Among scholars there is a great deal of confusion about level of analysis. Because I live in the postmodernist paradigm I am going to explain what I mean by this from within that viewpoint. I shall use a metaphor. Imagine that we look at reality through a cardboard tube which has piece of perspex across it at the end nearest to us forming a screen on which we see our world in a continuous state of becoming – the phenomena which we perceive. As you move down the tube, the level of abstraction increases and the depth of explanation increases.
We can choose to have the screen at the top as our level of analysis, and many natural scientists do, but at this level we can create theory which has predictive power but we cannot create theory which has explanatory power, hence the necessity for the deeper levels. At the other end of the tube is unorganised, and unknowable, reality where there is no self, no organisation and no meaning – many other natural scientists operate at this level.
At levels part way down the tube are sociological theories which have decomposed the picture which we see at the top end in order to reveal hidden structures and connections which are not immediately visible. So, positivists are at the near end of the tube, realists are some way down the tube and postmodernists are at the bottom of the tube. Some examples, the Competing Values Framework model of organisations is in the top half of the tube; Grid-Group Cultural Theory is about half way down; Foucault is nearly at the bottom and Deleuze is so far down that he is looking back at us from the other end – the “body without organs” precedes the subject so it is as far down as you can go.
Near the bottom of the tube the self is revealed as an “assemblage” (Deleuze) which has a dual nature: it is a unique locus of action, so it has autonomy, but it is also a node in a network, a collective construction. Consciousness and community are constructed in discourse, by discourse, and these create meaning and truth, and eventually other things like identity and knowledge. Discourse is an amorphous flow, the flow of consciousness (“duree” in Bergson) and is as chaotic as the world in which it exists but in order to be useful, and it is a tool (for the interruption of flow, or “machine” in Deleuze) it has to be shaped to produce structure. This shaping occurs by throwing boundaries around discursive application and creating rules for the discourse within those boundaries (which are loose, changing and porous though they can become more rigid, or “territorialized” in Deleuze). This process creates finite language games which create meaning and truth and there is no meaning or truth independently of these language games. The rules of formation (Foucault) of the language game create “discursive formations” (Foucault) which create structure, which also creates organization at different levels (3 levels in late capitalism according to my theory). My metaphor of organisation as river illustrates organisation as an assemblage of the flow of discourse and the rules of the discursive formation which govern the relationships between the smallest units of discourse, the “utterance” (Bakhtin) or “enunciation” (Foucault).
So, using my examples, we have Grid-Group half way down the tub which looks at organization in terms of the individual, the collective and the hierarchy. Though it is very useful for analysing phenomena, using this model it is impossible to go to a deeper level of analysis. Much further down the tube we have Foucault who is able to tell us how discourse creates organisation. From Foucault’s position we can see why it is that Grid-Group is a useful model. At the bottom of the tube we have Deleuze who breaks everything down into components and gives us metaphors for these components and the relationships between them: the “body without organs”, “territorialisation”, the “rhizome” and the “tree”, the “machine”, “line of flight” and so on.
It is possible to apply a conceptual model at any level above the level at which it is described but not possible to apply it below that level. Of course, it is possible to test any model described at any level at the screen end of the tube: to test if it is consistent with the empirical evidence in the world. So for example, you can apply Deleuze at any level but you might hesitate to apply it at a very high level because other models, designed higher up the tube, may do the job more efficiently.
Once you understand the nature of paradigm and the relationship between the explanatory levels in the tube of analysis, you are in a better position to see the relationship between arrays of phenomena, and between different scholarly endeavours which employ different theoretical frameworks.
I find that much of the journal literature which I am reading is ill conceived. There is in the field of business and management an obsession with the frenzied gathering of data without sufficient thought about why it is being gathered or what to do with it. I may be being cynical but I see a lot of research which goes like this:
• The government says that there is a huge problem with motorcycles. However, there is little agreement about what the problem is. Some say the roads are not suitable for them; some say that they are badly driven, some say that they are not designed with safety in mind and so on.
• The researcher is looking for a suitable topic of research and he/she chooses motorcycles.
• Then, the researcher looks for something about which it is easy to gather data but everything is too, too complex. The motorcyclists are all suffering from brain lesions because of all their accidents so what they say doesn’t make sense; the manufacturers only talk about self-defining technical issues like speed or fuel consumption; the politicians all have another agenda like green issues or cost cutting, and so on. So, the researcher decides to measure the diameter of the front wheels of motorcycles to see if there is any correlation with insurance claims while formulating “diameter-claim theory”
• A very competent research project is carried out which fulfils all the academic criteria of quality and further research is subsequently based on it. But it is all useless, beside the point (because the point was never properly identified in the first place) and a waste of public money.
What we are short of is good theory which builds useful understanding.
Why the Knowledge Asset is Undervalued
Despite the discussion that has taken place over the past twenty years or so about the strategic value of the knowledge asset to the organisation, it has continued to be undervalued by most organisations in all sectors of the economy. Before attempting to identify remedies to this shortcoming, it would be useful to identify why this undervaluation takes place so consistently across the board.
Here we are not addressing the separate, but related, question of why the knowledge asset is underutilised.
Before addressing the question head-on, it is necessary to investigate some related matters.
First of all, let us consider the question, “What does this knowledge consist of?” When one consults the standard text books on the subject of knowledge management, they tell us that organisations contain a lot of tacit knowledge which resides in the heads of employees and built into business processes. This received wisdom goes on to tell us that the organisation can protect this knowledge by making it explicit, by capturing it in documents and software systems so that it is not lost when individual employees leave the organisation.
In fact, this model of knowledge is erroneous from the start. Tacit knowledge cannot be made explicit by recording it because knowledge cannot be recorded; only data can be recorded. Knowledge may only be derived from data through the application of understanding and, so far, only people are able to do that. However, descriptive or detailed the data is it can only be used if it is interpreted by individuals who are suitably prepared by their professional training. We could, to be concise, say that the knowledge asset of an organisation consists in its employees’ ability to interpret pertinent data.
What an employee’s professional training has done, chiefly, is to insert them into a professional discourse which gives him or her a vocabulary, a set of objects of analysis and some rules of analysis, in short, a way of talking and thinking about their field of activity. This discourse is very rarely created by one organisation but almost always it is created by a professional community which spans many organisations in many geographical locations. The employee of a particular organisation acquires greater expertise in this discourse as they gain experience and they also gain knowledge of its specific application to the conditions of their organisation.
This point brings us to another question, Who owns the knowledge asset? If the knowledge asset resides in the heads of employees, it is evident that it is not possible for the organisation to own it any more than it is possible for the organisation to own its employees. In the absence of actual slavery, it isn’t possible for organisations to prevent employees from leaving.
So, the value of the knowledge asset to the organisation is dependent on the effectiveness with which employees apply it. The value of the part of the knowledge asset in use by any particular employee is the value of their wages. The time and effort spent in acquiring this personal asset, for that particular employee, represents an opportunity cost compared to other bodies of knowledge that they might have acquired. If the employee loses his or her job their knowledge is ripped out of context and rendered worthless. Because they are inserted into a professional discourse, they have a value to other organisations who are engaged in the same activities but the prospective employee lacks some of the context that existing employees have so a new employee usually has less value than an existing one.
Marx’s concepts of the alienation of the employee from the products of his or her labour are relevant. The individual employee is only selling their labour as a commodity and another employee who can perform to the same extent has the same value. The identity of the employee is expunged by the transaction of exchanging labour for wages. This situation leaves the employee vulnerable to the whims of the employer, for example, if the organisation makes a decision to discontinue one of its activities. The situation of the employee is very different to that of an artist for example. Take the example of a novelist. His work is directly attributed to an individual and no matter what opinion anyone has of him, his work is irrevocably his work. Usually, this attitude is reflected in the way that the novelist is paid: by royalties on each book sold.
There is a conflict of interests here. It is advantageous to the employee to have the value of his or her knowledge evaluated to its fullest extent. It is advantageous to the employer to obfuscate the value of an employee’s knowledge as a proper evaluation might give the employee a bargaining tool and might upset the given power structure and hierarchy of the organisation. It is here that we have the answer to our question, “why is the knowledge asset undervalued?” It is not a problem with the knowledge asset in itself but a problem in the evaluation of the human resource.