Thursday, June 25, 2009

January 13, 2007 (3): Decisions!

It all began when one of my colleagues and I parlayed the insights of knowledge management into an attempt to identify the role of communication and understanding in corporate decision-making. This began to take the form of a critique of decision support technology or, more properly, the ways in which that technology has now been appropriated by more recent enterprise software; and, with my tendency to always “push back to basics,” I found myself asking more general questions about the current state of decision theory and how consistent it is with decision practice.

There was a real irritant in asking these questions, however; and it seemed to lie in how “understanding,” as we were trying to study it, serves to “inform us to make informed decisions” (allowing for a circular turn of phrase). Well, for a start, what is it that we need to understand? The answer to that seems to be that we need to understand the situation (i.e. state of affairs, where I am choosing that word “state” because this involves taking a flow of events and relationships in which we are embedded and rendering it as something static) in which one or more actions need to be taken; and those actions need to be selected on the basis of one or more decisions. In other words, as any number of philosophers probably discovered long before I did, any theory of decision making must rest on a foundation of understanding the situation.

At this point I have to share some frustration with a book I am trying to read: Narrative Policy Analysis by Emery Roe. At the very least this book should wean me away from too much indulgence in postmodern deconstructionism; but, putting aside his stylistic preferences (obsessions), Roe is reluctant to come right out and say that he is trying to explore how narrative can serve explanation. This is not an unreasonable point to make; but for anyone of a philosophical bent it opens a real can of worms (if not several).

The most important can of worms is the very nature of explanation itself. I had A9 do an exact phrase search on “nature of explanation;” and the frame came up with 1355 books. My guess is that most of them have their roots in analytic philosophy, all sharing a positivist streak that can be traced back to Hempel (or someone who inspired Hempel). In my own intellectual development this is basically the pile of manure in the barn that convinces me that there must be a pony somewhere in the vicinity (but not in the pile of manure)! All that means, though, is that I am still looking for the pony.

However, finding the pony is only part of the story. Once you home in on the nature of explanation, you still have to worry about communicating an explanation to others. In other words you have to account for an explanation, and usually we do this by articulating it through text. This is another can of worms, since we now encounter all the subtleties associated with different text types and how we arrive at communication and understanding through those text types.

On the other hand, if we go back to Ancient Greece (well, if we go back to either Plato or Socrates as Plato tried to represent him), we discover that the two cans merge into one. The label on that can is the Greek noun λόγος, which means all sorts of things that, taken together, seem to orbit around the concept of an explanatory account rendered as text. (This is why “ology” is such a great suffix. The validity of the explanatory account is not necessarily part of the story. So “scientology” involves λόγος as much as “neurology” does!)

The good news is that, with all my experience in writing, I am never afraid of text. Furthermore, as my own blog header tries to proclaim, I do not try to hide from uncertainty or complexity behind fear, superstition, and/or pettiness. However, this may be an occasion to reflect on some wisdom of Richard Feynman:

In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.

Thus, I am beginning to feel that just about any action we take (not to mention the decision-making preceding that action) cannot help but be “surrounded by uncertainty;” and all we can to do manage is to keep expressing ourselves through texts that we utter and/or write, knowing full well that they will never be clearer than our all-too-muddled thoughts! In other words the final say goes to one of Feynman's most honored predecessors, Niels Bohr:

Never express yourself more clearly than you think.

January 07, 2007: Everything is no Longer Beautiful at the Ballet

Regular readers, as well as those surveying my current Tag Cloud, have probably detected my interest in opera; and, here in San Francisco, that interest is well satisfied by the San Francisco Opera. As is often the case, our Opera House divides it time, roughly equally, between the San Francisco Opera and the San Francisco Ballet. So I am frequently asked if I spend as much time at San Francisco Ballet performances as I devote to the Opera. I have answered this question in the negative so many times that I think I am now well-enough rehearsed to express it in text!

Those who know more about my than Google is ever likely to reveal know that, back when I was working on my doctoral thesis, I was fanatical about the dance, writing regularly for Boston After Dark and sending dispatched from Boston to Dance Magazine. New York was the place to be for such fanaticism, but Boston was not that bad. In fact, it was in a used bookstore in Boston (one of the best places to gather material about dance history) that I first met Leslie Getz, who probably had the most awesome collection of dance-related literature I had ever seen, all in an apartment in Palo Alto! Leslie was the one who taught me the aphorism of dance history that shaped much of my personal aesthetic: Fokine was the Father, Balanchine was the Son, and Ashton was the Holy Ghost. Two other choreographers eventually shared close proximity with this "holy trinity:" Anthony Tudor and Merce Cunningham.

On the popular front this was a time when Jerome Robbins was attracting a good deal of attention, particularly after the impact of West Side Story. He came up through the ranks of the early efforts in American ballet choreography; and, at a time when I would drive from Boston to New York every chance I had to catch the New York City Ballet at the New York State Theater, his "Afternoon of a Faun" was a fixture in the company repertoire. Similarly, Ballet Theater would do his "Les Noces" regularly. With all this as context, Robbins decided to "return to his roots" by introducing "Dances at a Gathering," a near-epic setting of Chopin piano music, complete with an on-stage pianist. (If imitation is the greatest form of flattery and parody the highest art of imitation, then the greatest honor to Robbins' effort came when Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo added "Yes Virginia, Another Piano Ballet" to their repertoire!) I was never particularly happy with Robbins working at this scale (I was even less happy when he tried to take on the "Goldberg Variations"); but this was where the "buzz" was (even if we did not use that noun in those days).

Run the time-line closer to the present when I discovered that San Francisco Ballet was going to include "Dances at a Gathering" in one of their seasons. My wife had never seen it; but she was curious about the company and had a lot more enthusiasm for Chopin than I usually do. I had not seen the company since 1967, when they had visited Jacob's Pillow; and they had gone through a lot of changes since then. So we went, and I am afraid that it did not take me long to start grumbling. What I began to realize was that the days of my fanatical interest in dance were actually the "twilight period" of the "good old days;" and it was unclear when the sun would next rise.

Back in those days, of course, one could not live by Balanchine, Ashton, Tudor, and Cunningham alone; but the alternatives could be pretty disappointing. Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino tended to have the strongest hold on consistently putting out disappointing stuff. Time magazine may have been excited about Joffrey's "Astarte;" but all I ever remembered was the way in which the cyclorama had an erection! Nevertheless, even the most rabid fans would still go to see the Joffrey Ballet because they performed "The Green Table;" and they did it very well, probably because the original choreographer, Kurt Joos had an active had in its reconstruction. Also, when we could not go to "live" performances, we would seek out movie revival houses, not just for old ballet films but for Hollywood musicals with "real" choreography in them. Balanchine frequently confessed to being a great admirer of Astaire, and you do not have to watch many of the RKO films with Ginger to see why.

So why is there now such a long dark night of an art form I once loved so passionately? The best explanation I can give is that it all comes down to energy. From the evidence I have gathered, "The Green Table" is a perfect example because Joos understood the role of energy in both theory (some of which he apparently got from Laban) and practice. Both Astaire and Kelly were masters of energy control; and, in Astaire's case, that came in through his very conception of choreography. Every now and then I see a choreographer (such as Forsythe) who seems to understand the role of energy; but that understanding does not matter very much if the dancer's can't "get it." Here in San Francisco I really could not fault the local company on any of the steps in "Dances at a Gathering" (particularly since, given the volume of them, my memory was not that strong); but my grumbling all had to do with the fact that I experienced no sense at all of how to control energy in order to turn the steps into dance.

Will this trend change? That is impossible to predict. When Balanchine came to the United States, no one expected that American ballet would rise to a level that had been associated almost exclusively with its Russian heritage; but, between Lincoln Center, City Center, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York could justifiably claim to be the Dance Capital of the World. Perhaps it will regain that title. Perhaps San Francisco will make a serious play for it. More likely, however, we now live in a digital culture with far less admiration for such performing arts, which means that the best we can hope for is that any records we have of any of those art forms be properly preserved for posterity!

January 02, 2007: Augustine on (in?) the Brain

For me the most fascinating part of Augustine's Confessions is his attempt to come to terms with the concept of time. From the very beginning he makes it clear that he is up against a serious challenge:

What then is time? Provided that no one asks me, I know. If I want to explain it to an inquirer, I do not know. But I confidently affirm myself to know that if nothing passes away, there is no past time, and if nothing arrives, there is no future time, and if nothing existed there would be no present time. Take the two tenses, past and future. How can they ‘be’ when the past is not now present and the future is not yet present? Yet if the present were always present, it would not pass into the past: it would not be time but eternity. If then, in order to be time at all, the present is so made that it passes into the past, how can we say that this present also ‘is’? The cause of its being is that it will cease to be. So indeed we cannot truly say that time exists except in the sense that it tends towards non-existence.

Ultimately, he can do little more than clarify his terminology, anticipating Wittgenstein by concentrating more on how the terms are used than on what they mean or are:

What is by now evident and clear is that neither future nor past exists, and it is inexact language to speak of three times—past, present, and future. Perhaps it would be exact to say: there are three times, a present of things past, a present of things present, a present of things to come. In the soul there are these three aspects of time, and I do not see them anywhere else. The present considering the past is the memory, the present considering the present is immediate awareness, the present considering the future is expectation.

What has interested me the most is the extent to which our increasing knowledge of the physical brain has turned out to align nicely with Augustine's metaphysical soul-concept. The "present of things past" anticipated that engram that Lashley invested so much of his life in trying to find without success, although within the last ten years in appears that Richard Thompson and his colleagues at USC have managed to associate it with a localized region in the cerebellum. Meanwhile, we have Gerald Edelman to thank for demonstrating that the "present of things present" is actually a "remembered" present. New BBC NEWS has reported results from Washington University concerning the "present of things to come," presenting evidence that this, too, is localized, in this case in the left lateral premotor cortex, the left precuneus and the right posterior cerebellum. It is nice finally to home in on some good news at the start of a year that began with so many ill omens!

December 29, 2006: Organizational "Health Maintenance"

I would like to continue to explore the point I raised on December 26 to the effect that enterprises need "health maintenance," rather than "illness treatment." Obviously, if an organization is in a pathological state, then that pathology needs to be treated; but there are (at least) two aspects of health maintenance that are likely to facilitate treatment.
  1. There is the need to cultivate an awareness of pathologies, since, as if often the case with human patients, it is often (frequently?) the case that the organization does not know when it is in a pathological state.
  2. There is also the need to cultivate preventative measures: An organization that is aware of a potential pathology is better equipped to "nip that pathology in the bud," dealing with it before it has a serious impact.
So how do we implement such measures for an organization? In medicine we know about the physical examination and the frequency with which it should be performed (having now "graduated" to an age where I have to have mine annually). However, this time scale is to coarse for the world of business. An enterprise functions on the basis of ongoing business processes, and those processes need to be monitored in the course of their functioning. IT is now in a position the make sure that such processes are running reliably and accurately; so this is the first step towards making the health maintenance metaphor "work."

However, such monitoring cannot be conducted for its own sake. The data generated by monitoring drives the formulation of hypotheses that address detecting, diagnosing, and treating pathologies. Some rather interesting visualization technology has gone into "driving" dashboard displays that deliver monitoring data; but the hypothesis data generated by managers at all levels of the enterprise are equally important to health maintenance. When a hypothesis is posed, it will (almost?) always need to be vetted by several managers throughout the enterprise; so we need some kind of "dashboard visualization" to provide awareness of the current "state of the hypothesis space" and facilitate the vetting process.

How can all of this take place? In his book Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan addressed this question by bringing another metaphor into play:

The formal analysis and diagnosis of organizations, like the process of reading, always rests in applying some kind of theory to the situation being considered.

In other words the real purpose of visualization, of both monitoring data and hypothesis spaces, is to enable managers to read their organization, a concept that inspired the subtitle of James Taylor's fascinating book on organizational communication. I would further argue, to draw upon another previous discussion, that we are talking here about a literary approach to reading, rather than any kind of objective or analytic one. In the context of another favorite theme, managers should be able to think about the people in an organization as subjects rather than objects. The danger of visualization is that it serves up abstractions that entail excessive objectification, but this danger is more likely to add to any looming pathologies than to deal with them.

This then leads to my final point, which is the recurring question of whether or not tools such as Wikipedia and Google are eroding our skills for being critical readers, whether of texts or of organizations. We are more interested in tools that deliver answers, and reading is not necessarily about delivering answers. As I previously suggested, sometime one has to go "roundabout" the questions; and literary reading enables such "roundabout" thinking. This may take more time that finding an answer from a search result or a Wikipedia entry; but, where the health of an organization is concerned, getting to the most effective answer is more important than getting there "efficiently."

December 28, 2006: On Tags

I was glad to see Yahoo! 360° introduce a tagging feature for blog entries. Given that I cannot really count on the Search tool for anything useful, tagging is the next best thing. Readers may even recall that I started experimenting with using Flickr for the images I was incorporating in order to tag those images (many of which were not photographs). However, once I hit the maximum number of images I was able to store without charge, I decided that I was not getting enough benefit to justify paying for an upgrade. So over the last couple of days I have been adding tags to all of my blog entries, drawing upon the tags I had assigned to the images where appropriate; and, so far at least, I have been relatively satisfied with the results. (Among other things, they helped me to find the proper destination for the above hyperlink!)

Having said all that, however, I should make it clear that these are my own tags for my own use purposes. I do not expect them to be of much use to anyone else unless I tell someone to look at a collection of entries associated with a specific tag. In this respect I subscribe to one of Wittgenstein's fundamental precepts: Words only convey meaning in the context of how they are used. I know my own contexts of use well enough to use my own tags; but I doubt that any amount of my reading of anyone else's texts will provide me with a use-model that will allow me to negotiate that persons tags for my own use-purposes. To put this another way (and draw upon a past discussion), tags are a highly impoverished "solution" (which is why I am using scare quotes) to the problem of description. This is because, at the end of the day, description is most effective if it is recognized and rendered as a literary form, far more subtle than we tend to take it to be. We tend to associate description at its best with well-written fiction; but, to reflect on a recent discussion, the well-edited review is also, by its very nature, an excellent example of good descriptive writing. My great fear is that our increased immersion in the use of "rich media" may eventually erode the talent of skilled literary description, and we may be left with little more than increasingly sophisticated tagging systems. This will erode not only our literary capabilities but our very capacity to make ourselves understood.

December 27, 2006: Identity Meets the Cluetrain Manifesto

What is Hecuba to you or you to Hecuba? This injunction (shameless appropriated from Shakespeare's Hamlet) applies not only to actors but to all of us in the “roles” we play (our “presentation of self,” as Goffman called it) in everyday life. However, there is also a grander scheme of things that I introduced some time ago. This involves what I feel is the most important lesson from Plato’s “Theaetetus” dialogue. This is that, while none of the four definitions of knowledge considered can survive Socrates' critical examination, Socrates does demonstrate how the concept of knowledge is tightly coupled to three other key concepts: memory, being, and description (λόγος).

I would now like to pick up where my last discussion left off and examine the concept of “Being.” I would argue that this concept needs to be sorted into the being of objects and the being of subjects, i.e., the agents who engage with objects; and this latter class of being has to do with identity. In other words any inquiry into the nature of identity involves pulling at a thread that is tightly woven to many other critical threads, including the thread of knowledge itself!

These couplings have been particularly well appreciated by George Herbert Mead, particularly in his exploration of the concept of symbolic interactionism. I like to say that the motto of symbolic interactionism is: “No perception without personal interaction.” For my money this is the underlying premise without which the assertion that “markets are conversations” cannot make any sense. Indeed, it is also the premise behind Habermas’ theory of communicative action, which argues that “communicative action” (as Habermas defines it) is the fundamental prerequisite for understanding. Since it seems valid to assume that markets can only operate effectively within a context of understanding between buyers and sellers, Habermas’ theory ultimately explains why markets are conversations; but I am afraid that this kind of foundational thinking has gotten lost amid the 95 theses of the Cluetrain manifesto!

December 26, 2006: "Clinical" IT

I would like to continue my thoughts on the question of whether or not there is a suitable academic foundation for "service science" as inspired by my reading of Decision Support Systems: An Organizational Perspective, by Peter G. W. Keen and Michael S. Scott Morton. This time I would like to begin with a question posed to me last October by a friend working at Accenture: He wanted to know what Accenture could do to make IT organizations better at what they do. My point of departure for answering this question involved an analogy from medical practice, viewing the IT organization as responsible for the "health" of the organization. I argued that IT developers needed to take a clinical approach to "taking the history of the patient," who comes in with some set of possibly pathological symptoms. I then extended the analogy by arguing that enterprises need "health maintenance," rather than "illness treatment." Ultimately, this conversation did not progress, possibly because the analogy was too much of a departure from the "normal practices" (as in "normal science") of both Accenture and its customers.

Imagine my surprise then in discovering that Keen and Scott Morton proposed a "clinical" approach to the development of decision support systems! What was particularly interesting was that they recognized two different levels of diagnosis that need to be performed by IT developers. The primary level of diagnosis relates to what I called "taking the history," identifying what needs to be changed and how IT can facilitate that change. However, they insisted that it is also important to diagnose symptoms of resistance to change, because, if the resistance is not "treated," it is not going to matter very much how effective the proposed solution is. The forces of resistance can undermine even the best of ideas, no matter how well they are implemented!

I then noticed in the Bibliography that Keen had been advocating this clinical stance since 1975, when he wrote a Sloan School Working Paper on the subject. That means that the idea has been around for over 30 years but has never really "taken" in the world of enterprise software. I suspect one reason for this is that this kind of thinking does not fit into the specializations found in most academic curricula. One does not go to business school (or, for that matter, computer science departments) to learn about "the socio-technology of diagnosis," let alone the intellectual skills required for such diagnosis, such as an understanding of the subjective (as well as objective) motives behind speech acts or the use of narrative as a tool for "thinking in time." As a result, Keen's insights seem to have faded into obscurity.

Meanwhile, the history of attempts to make IT useful to the enterprise continues to repeat itself. As Marx said, what is tragedy the first time around becomes farce with the next iteration. However, he did not say anything about any subsequent repetitions!