Wise Organizations?, continued …

With the permission of the publishers of the book, Idea Group, Inc., I’m sharing this chapter in a series of postings, to see what kind of conversation it generates. Idea Group’s copyright prohibits copying the text in any written or electronic form. Please help me protect this copyright by referring people to the blog, but don’t copy the text that is here.

Preparing the Way for Wisdom in Organizations – Part 2b

We have been talking about language-action and the constitution of organizations. To see the earlier parts of this long posting which reflects on the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings, click on the links. To get back to this page, refresh the blog.


Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Each language action has standard elements which, when recognized, can help guide designers as they specify elements of an organization: strategies, configurations, practices, systems, etc. The standard elements of a language action? Speakers, listeners, conditions of satisfaction, time of speaking, time of expected response, time of committed action, and so forth.

John Austin discovered performative verbs (language-actions) some 60 years ago. The implications of his discovery are vast and still mostly unrecognized. Dr. Fernando Flores Labra, currently a Senator in the Chilean government, was the first to point out the importance of performatives for understanding and guiding the behaviors of people in modern organizations, and as a potential underpinning for design in organizations. (Flores brought together many of the thinkers and the traditions of thinking on which I rely in this paper.)

Ask yourself the question, ‘What makes something be an organization?’ Within every culture there are a variety of standard modes of business operation that can be observed (sales, manufacturing, invoicing, shipping, and so forth.) Underneath all of the variety is a more fundamental set of practices. Whether a business is as simple as an individual sitting on the ground with a pile of fruit for sale or a multinational conglomerate, and whether it produces tangible goods in factories, provides janitorial services, or operates entirely “on paper,” as in the case of many financial businesses, …


A business is created when a person or group of people declares that they will recurrently make certain classes of offers to some population of customers, and that they will satisfy the conditions of those offers (deliver what they promised) in exchange for some offer the customer makes in return, or the fulfillment of some request they make to the customer.

The words in bold font are performatives – language-actions. This definition of how an organization is constituted shows:

* A business is created by a declaration. In order to be in business, you have to declare to the appropriate people that you are entering or inaugurating a domain of potential business transactions.
* A business is constituted by the classes of offers that it makes. If you are in the automobile business, you offer to provide automobiles. If you are in the doctor business you offer to see and treat patients. A single business may bring together a variety of different offers, but without some public declaration of what they are, the business is not defined.
* To be in business you must be prepared to satisfy the conditions of the whole transaction that you have promised. You make offers, recognize the acceptance of those offers by your customers, complete the conditions that you promised (by providing goods, services, etc.), and recognize your customer’s satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the transaction .
* Finally, a business is distinguished from other kinds of enterprises (e.g., charities and governments) by the fact that there is an explicit offer in return from the customer (compensation: some form of payment, whether in money or other actions), which is contingent on the customer’s satisfaction with your completion of the offer made to the customer.

These structural features of a business belong to how human beings take care of things with each other. Since time immemorial these structures have existed; they belong to the processes in which people exchange goods and services with each other. It would be impossible to conceptualize or operate a business that did not have these underlying structures; they exist in every business activity everywhere in the world. In the simplest case a single individual in verbal communication does all these things with each customer. In large organizations, each aspect is undertaken and supported by organizational structures and business processes.

We are talking about taking language and listening seriously. The last two classes of language-action that we want to talk about are assessments and assertions.

The title of this long paper is “Wise Organizations?” What are we doing here with the word, “wise?” Let us look at it from the perspective of language-action. Wise is an assessment – a judgment or evaluation made by an observer with particular background, experience, and concerns that shape that judgment.

Here are some examples of other assessments: I am late. The cat is sick. The car is behaving strangely. Your hair is getting long. The project is expensive. The new President is not doing well.

Assessments help us make sense of our worlds, our place and progress in them, and, most importantly, they prepare us to take action in those worlds. Judgments about the state of affairs in my world or yours invite us to consider actions to take advantage of opportunities or avoid dangers (‘it’s late’ or ‘you are low on gas’).

Assessments are never true or false; they are effective and useful, or not.

Assertions – facts that can be observed by a universal witness – are true or false. However, the act of making an assertion – stating a fact – does not in itself invite action. However, in the way that we normally make assessments and assertions in colloquial language, we often produce confusions among them. Let’s show an example. Supposing someone says, ‘The clouds are black.’ On the face of it, that is an assertion, characterizing the color of the clouds. If the speaker and listeners are out hiking in the wilderness, it might also be a warning – an assessment of impending danger – in which the speaker is inviting consideration of the possibility of getting under cover.

The easily-made confusion of assessments and assertions, and the way that an assertion (black clouds) can be spoken as an assessment underlies a great deal of the confusion, miscommunication, missed opportunities, frustration, and waste in organizational life. At the same time, the diversity of interpretation that is possible as we encounter worlds of possibility is what makes possible innovation, diversity, buyers and sellers each delighted with their transactions, and many other aspects of commercial life. Different observers listen with different concerns, different experience, and different competence in the background. A pilot reporting black clouds may be speaking to someone in a control tower whose eyes and instrumentation do not show the same twisty shape of the black clouds. (One man’s meat is another man’s poison; a flat tire for a driver is business for a garage.)

Stay tuned. More to come.

© Copyright Chauncey Bell, 2003-4. All rights reserved worldwide.
Copyright © 2005, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc. is prohibited.

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