Wise Organizations? Continued …

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 below. To get back to this page, click on the title of the blog in the upper left.

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

We are continuing the set of six tiny essays inviting reflection about the construction of the conditions and situations in which wisdom can be cultivated and exercised in organizational settings.

Preparing for Ethical Action

The concern for action is central to the question of wisdom, and there is a direct relationship between the exercise of wisdom and ethics. Let’s take these one at a time. Wisdom has more to do with action and less to do with dry abstraction than a casual look at many traditions would have us believe. Even the extraordinarily rigorous contemplative activities frequently found in the practices of some wisdom traditions, when carefully examined, will be found to have to do with getting prepared for taking or being involved in action. We meditate, contemplate, and the like in order to be prepared to take action, or to support others taking action when the moment for action arrives.

Here is Ronald Heifetz, putting the case for the relationship between the exercise of wisdom and ethics beautifully in the context of effective (i.e., wise) leaders:

“… scholars who have studied ‘leadership’ have tended to side with the value-free connotation of the term because it lends itself more easily to analytic reasoning and empirical examination. But this will not do for them … We have to take sides. When we teach, write about, and model the exercise of leadership, we inevitably support or challenge people’s conceptions of themselves, their roles, and most importantly their ideas about how social systems make progress on problems. Leadership is a normative concept because implicit in people’s notions of leadership are images of a social contract. Imagine the differences in behavior when people operate with the idea that ‘leadership means influencing the community to follow the leader’s vision’ versus ‘leadership means influencing the community to face its problems. … socially useful goals not only have to meet the needs of followers, they also should elevate followers to a higher moral level.”

(Ronald A. Heifetz, (1996). Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p. 14 and 21.)

Similarly, in The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schon reported that he found that the most effective professionals’ skills are not built on rational structures learned in school, but instead result from intuitions and improvisations built through a process of observing themselves in the midst of their practices. (Donald A. Schon, (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.)

Perhaps at this moment you may be tempted to characterize what I am saying as “philosophizing” or “a matter of semantics.” I urge you to be patient and follow the thread of this part of the inquiry. This is not a minor, theoretical part of the conversation about wisdom in organizations.

The biologist, cognitive scientist, and philosopher Francisco Varela (see here, here, and here) gave a series of three short lectures in 1994 on the construction of wisdom in human beings. He based the talks on the intersection of recent developments in the science of mind and the teachings of Eastern and Western wisdom traditions. The lectures have been published as a little jewel of a book entitled Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. “As a first approximation,” he says, “let me say that a wise (or virtuous) person is one who knows what is good and spontaneously does it.” . (Varela’s emphasis. p 4.)

In the third of the essays comprising the book Varela turns his attention to what the Eastern wisdom traditions have to say about the foundations of ethical action. Varela was a practicing Buddhist and a principal scientific advisor to the Dali Lama.

Quoting the philosopher Charles Taylor, Varela says, “Ethics is closer to wisdom than to reason, closer to understanding what is good than to correctly adjudicating particular situations. … the focus [of the current examination of these questions] has moved away from meta-ethical issues to a much sharper debate between those who demand a detached, critical morality based on prescriptive principles and those who pursue an active and engaged ethics based on a tradition that identifies the good.” (Ibid., p 3.)

Varela builds his arguments upon current scientific research regarding the functioning of the brain and the human nervous system. Here are four conclusions that bear on our concerns in this chapter:

  1. “… truly ethical behavior does not arise from mere habit or from obedience to patterns or rules. Truly expert people act from extended inclinations, not from precepts, and thus transcend the limitations inherent in a repertoire of purely habitual responses. This is why truly ethical behavior (… or, I would say, wise behavior) may sometimes seem unfathomable to the untrained eye, why it can be what is called in the Vajrayana tradition “crazy wisdom.” (p. 31.)
  2. “… we acquire our ethical behavior in much the same way we acquire all other modes of behavior: they become transparent to us as we grow up in society. This is because learning is, as we know, circular: we learn what we are supposed to be in order to be accepted as learners.” (p 24.)
  3. “Contrary to what seems to be the case from a cursory introspection, cognition does not flow seamlessly from one “state” to another, but rather consists in a punctuated succession of behavioral patterns that arise and subside in measurable time. This insight of recent neuroscience – and of cognitive science in general – is fundamental, for it relieves us from the tyranny of searching for a centralized homuncular quality to account for a cognitive agent’s normal behavior.” (p 49.)
  4. “Were we to entertain the idea that there is no hard and fast distinction between science and philosophy, philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, and Husserl would take on a new significance: they could be seen as, among other things, proto-cognitive scientists. (p 25.)

In this background, I propose that in the pursuit of systems that support wise organizational action, architects and designers must take careful note of recent developments in cognitive sciences and philosophy. Along the way, I propose that some treasured “wisdom” of the IT and DSS fields should be re-thought, including, for example, the notions that at the heart of the process is a mental model, and that decision processes begin with the recognition that problems exist and decisions need to be made.

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.

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.


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