Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Reading :: The Tacit Dimension

The Tacit Dimension
By Michael Polanyi

The Tacit Dimension is an oft-cited book, so often cited that I have often felt guilty for not reading it earlier. But when I finally ordered it, I was surprised at how thin it was. The book is a compilation of three lectures, of which the first seems to be the most cited.

Polanyi is concerned about the difference between the over-emphasized role of explicit, expressed knowledge and the less-expressed tacit knowledge—as he puts it on p.4, "I shall reconsider human knowledge by starting from the fact that we can know more than we can tell" (p.4, his emphasis). How does tacit knowledge work, he asks?

To answer the question, he moves methodically. First, he posits that "the basic structure of tacit knowledge ... always involves two things," one known and the other unknown. "It combines two kinds of knowing." His example is that of unconscious associations learned from administering shocks (p.9). That is, there's a functional relationship between two "terms," in which "we know the first term only by relying on our awareness of it for attending to the second" (p.10). "In an act of tacit knowing we attend from something for attending to something else; namely,  from the first term to the second term of the tacit relation" (p.10).

But there's also a phenomenal relationship between the two terms: "We are aware of that from which we are attending to another thing, in the appearance of that thing."

Together, the functional and phenomenal aspects yield meaning: "When the sight of certain syllables makes us expect an electric shock, we might say that they signify the approach of a shock. That is their meaning to us" (p.11).

Polanyi goes on like this for a bit, reasoning in a stepwise fashion through semantic and ontological meanings (p.13), then discussing why an explicit integration can't fully replace its tacit counterpart (p.20). Honestly, although I appreciated the careful work here, it also seemed quite limiting in the way that these abstract discussions so often do. I began to see why Polanyi's book is so often cited but so rarely described in any detail: the people I have read seem to very much like the notion of tacit knowledge, on knowing more than we can tell, but aren't especially invested in the actual philosophical dissection that interests Polanyi.

Me, I appreciate and respect his effort, even though it's not a discussion that I relish following in detail.

Reading :: Adhocracy

By Robert H. Waterman, Jr.

Alvin Toffler's 1970 book Future Shock coined the term "ad-hocracy" to describe "the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals" (Toffler 1970, p.144). Such adhocracies (let's drop the hyphen), Toffler said, would be composed of experts from different fields who came together to swarm a project objective, rotated leadership during different phases, then dispersed at the end of the project.

Toffler's observation, and especially his term, really took off in the literature. For instance, Mintzberg's The Structuring of Organizations theorized adhocracies within a larger framework of organizational structures and characteristics. Robert Quinn and associates wrote both articles and books (such as Cameron and Quinn's Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture: Based on the Competing Values Framework) describing adhocracies as one quadrant of a larger framework of organizational cultures. Others similarly took up the term.

Twenty years after Future Shock, Waterman published this thin volume, simply named Adhocracy. It's not an academic study, it's a business book, and its definition of adhocracy is right on the front cover: "Any form of organization that cuts across normal bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities, solve problems, and get results." Similarly, on p.16, he defines it "broadly" as "any organizational form that challenges the bureaucracy in order to embrace the new." That is, in Waterman's view, an adhocracy functions within the setting of an established bureaucracy. In fact, he says, "I've focused on the most common, sturdy, and visible ad hoc form: the project team, or task force" (p.17).

Startlingly, Waterman says that although Toffler introduced the idea of the adhocracy in Future Shock (and he also cites Warren Bennis' 1960s work as a precursor), "nobody ever really fleshed out the idea, applied it to the business world, sought out success stories, or outlined their common themes" (p.19). This is the task that Waterman takes up—and the results, I think, tell us a lot about Waterman's time and place.

Drawing on interviews and stories from managers, Waterman states that adhocracies need "clear and visible executive support" to thrive (p.28). Since adhocratic work is unstructured and untied to the bureaucratic position (particularly compensation), he says, it requires a managerial perspective and frequent management interaction (p.31). Teams, he says, must represent all parts of the bureaucracy, both horizontally (across the departments in the org chart) and vertically (down the levels of hierarchy in the org chart) (p.36)—and one way to ensure this representation is to use the "diagonal slice" method, slicing diagonally across the org chart to select the appropriate diversity of team members (p.37). To summarize, in Waterman's view, adhocracy is a construct of the existing bureaucracy rather than a different kind of organization.

Indeed, Waterman cautions against measures that threaten the existing bureaucracy, since these measures will also destroy the viability of adhocracies. Writing in 1990, he says, "In the rush to downsize and de-layer, most companies don't have the human resources to make adhocracy work as well as it should. If you agree that rapid change is here to stay and that team efforts work only when staffed with good people, then it's hard not to conclude that there is such a thing as being too lean and too mean" (p.45). Later, Waterman argues that "adhocracy can flourish only in an atmosphere that discourages bureaucratic excess and uses the bureaucracy to structure team efforts" (pp.97-98). Compare these statements with Toffler's description of the adhocracy—"the fast-moving, information-rich, kinetic organization of the future, filled with transient cells and extremely mobile individuals" (Toffler 1970, p.144)—and you'll realize how much this vision diverges from Toffler's. For Waterman, the adhocracy is a temporary tactic deployed within, and reliant on, an existing bureaucracy.

As we know, Waterman's call to resist downsizing was ignored; by 2000, companies were outsourcing all but their core functions. Yet, I would argue, adhocracies did flourish outside of and between organizations—in great part because they were no longer forcibly layered over bureaucratic organizations. But that's an argument I'll develop elsewhere.

Reading :: Tricks of the Trade

Tricks of the Trade: How to Think about Your Research While You're Doing It
By Howard S. Becker

Howard Becker, one of the more famous members of the Chicago School of Sociology, published this book in 1998. As the title suggests, it's full of the "tricks" of qualitative research that Becker learned the hard way—first by performing his own studies, later by teaching his students how to do the same. "These tricks," he explains, "... are ways of thinking about what we know or want to know that help us make sense of data and formulate new questions based on what we've found" (p.5).

Becker, that is, gives us ideas and answers that don't appear in standard qualitative research textbooks. And for good or ill, his book isn't written as a textbook either: it's written in a narrative, perhaps even rambling, style that is easy to enjoy but hard to skim. The great advantage to it is that we get a fully fleshed idea of how each "trick" works. So, rather than simply describing the "null hypothesis trick" (p.20), Becker sets up the problem of stereotyping and overgeneralization with several pages of description, then introduces the trick as a way to identify, doubt, and investigate those stereotypes and overgeneralizations.

Becker describes these tricks, not just from his own research, but from other sociologists as well (I was impressed by how he used Latour to make a couple of points). And because his style is the way it is, the reader almost feels as if she or he is having a conversation with Becker—not a lecture, but maybe a conversation over a beer after the lecture. It reminded me a bit of Bateson. If you're looking to pick up some tricks—whether you're an experienced researcher or a student—definitely pick up this book.

Reading :: Tales of the Field

Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography, Second Edition
By John Van Maanen

During my Q&A at a recent conference, someone characterized my research (again) as ethnography, and I clarified that I considered it a case study approach. It's not that I'm against ethnography, it's that (a) I'm not trained as an ethnographer and (b) I'm much more interested in bounded activities than in culture per se, which is what ethnography studies.

Still, I'm interested in the perspectives of ethnographers, so I've been working on (a). And for that goal, reading John Van Maanen's Tales of the Field was useful, although not world-changing.

Van Maanen's book describes developments in ethnography by focusing on the styles and narrative conventions that ethnographies use—an approach that is potentially quite interesting for writing scholars. He traces ethnography from its beginning in "realist tales" (based in naive empiricism) to "confessional tales" (in which ethnographers woke up to their ethnocentric and cultural biases) to "impressionist tales" (in which ethnographers sought to delight readers with their impressions of the field, giving up on an objectivist account and rather describing things through the ethnographer's eyes).

These shifts in style, he demonstrates, develop in tandem with ethnographers' theoretical stances. That is, in describing style changes, Van Maanen also describes how ethnography has developed theoretically, methodologically, and ethically from its inception to the present day.

If you're interested in ethnography, certainly give it a look.

Reading :: The Anatomy of Persuasion

The Anatomy of Persuasion
By Norbert Aubuchon

For years, I've been using Rich Freed's book Writing Winning Business Proposals in my proposal writing classes and seminars. But someone recently recommended this book, which is used in UT's MA in Technology Commercialization and elsewhere, so I thought I'd check it out.

How is it? I would compare this book with Freed's, but in some ways it's an apples-and-oranges comparison. Even though both books address proposals, even though the resulting proposals have roughly the same structure, and even though the approaches are both methodical, the results are actually quite different documents.

Freed's book addresses proposals in general, but consulting proposals in particular. And these proposals can be insight, planning, or implementation proposals. For these reasons and others, the proposals tend to be long—the example used throughout the book is perhaps eight pages, and Freed clarifies that such proposals can run into the hundreds of pages. Since Freed's book is written based on his work with a consulting firm, the proposals have a heavy focus on problem-solving: they explain how the proposer will go about solving the unique, often ill-defined problem that the client faces.

Aubuchon's book, on the other hand, describes sales proposals, and specifically what Freed would call implementation proposals: Proposals in which the proposer has a ready-made solution. One of the examples, for instance, is a client who needs a new computer system. The salesperson has a system that can meet that need, and just has to describe it. Although Aubuchon's proposal does involve problem-solving, that problem-solving is in terms of how to write the proposal—not how the proposer will go about solving the client's problem, which in this case is fairly clear-cut. The rhetorical situation may not be any less complex, but Aubuchon's proposals carry less of an explanatory burden, so they wind up being 1-2 pages.

Despite those differences, the two books—Aubuchon's book was originally published in 1997, Freed's in 1995—take a fairly similar approach to examining persuasive factors, defining an objective, structuring the proposal, and "debugging" (Aubuchon) or "reconciling" (Freed) the proposal logic. Reading one against the other is fascinating, and together, they helped me gain a different perspective on the range of proposals one might write.

If you're interested in writing proposals, check it out.