Re: Management learning - Theoretical (and Philosophical) LO62

Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D. (
Fri, 10 Feb 1995 13:03:07 -0800 (PST)


This (in the message quoted below) is a similar point to the one I tried to
make in my introductory post.

Within the backlog that I have read (through November) there is little
evidence of awareness of postmodernist philosophy and its implications
for the whole concept of "learning organization." It seems that the
primary intellectual stream from which people are drawing is systems
theory. The genesis of the field several people trace back to Gregory
Bateson. I am sure there are many other origins but Bateson's theory of
levels of learning seems to me to be the best of these. So maybe we should
begin by talking about Bateson's levels of learning and their
philosophical implications.

In my tutorial mentioned in my introduction called Advanced Process
Architectures I use Batesons hierarchy of meta-levels of learning to
define work. In fact I combine the meta-levels of learning with
meta-levels of change. The most advanced theory of work in my opinion is
presented by Baudrillard in THE MIRROR OF PRODUCTION and by Sartre in
CRITIQUE OF DIALECTICAL REASON. Both of these are significant attempts to
reformulate marxist theories of labor. Baudrillard basically says that
both communism and capitalism share the same assumptions about human
productivity and argue over who owns the results of labor. This pointing
to the common assumptions about human productivity within our worldview
is a significant move that allows us to see beyond the cloud of
ideological rivalry over this issue that has rendered it taboo within our
society. There are no significant studies of the labour process because
if you do such a study you will be labeled marxist which is taboo within a
capitalist society (the long shadows of McCarthyism). However, with the
process improvement discipline it is exactly "labor process" that has
become the crucial issue allbeit approached from a naive Taylorist
perspective that is normal for businesses to take -- i.e. objective
control oriented perspective of management. Thus we need to consider
these taboo questions of labor process that are beyond the ideological
rivalry because they involve common assumptions of both ideological
regimes which take nihilistically opposite views of the question based on
the perspective of workers or management. This dichotomy that is
traditional breaks down when we consider high tech engineering work. Such
work is neither management nor manual labor -- it is the actual work of
creating the technological system itself that encompasses both of the
prior dialectically opposite perspectives. Almost all industrial
sociology and psychology works only consider the relations between manual
factory floor type labor in relation to management. Engineers have not
been extensively studied by either sociologist or psychologists before.
It is only the Taylorist process improvement movement that has recently
started focusing on engineering work processes and has led to the
realization that engineering work is fundamentally different from both
management and factory industrial work. Now the engineers create the
technological system that encompasses both of these traditional divisions
of labor that dichotomize our view of work ideologically.

Sartre is the only theorist I know of who has attempted to produce a
philosophically sophisticated theory of work that builds on the insights
of marx but brings them up to date. His perspective is rooted in Hegel's
dialectical philosophy tempered by existentialism. He puts forth the
concept of the practico-inert. He has a sophisticated view of humans as
constantly alienated from themselves and displaced from the pratico-inert.
The thing produced is practico-inert. The producer is shifted away from
the thing produced due to the action of his consciousness so that what
the person who produces the thing IS cannot every be determined. This is
basically a reformulation of the doctrine of BEING AND NOTHINGNESS that
sees nothingness operating at the center of consciousness related to
labor. Sartre's formulation of existentialism is normally seen as a
misunderstanding of Heidegger. However, only Sartre spells out the
impications of his philosophy for labor and society so his work is a
landmark in this respect. Similar studies are needed for other
philosophers such as Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Deleuze, Derrida. I have
formulated an interpretation of Derrida's philosophy for software
engineering design work in my paper on Software Ontology. But there is a
long way to go in order to apply postmodern perspectives to this crucial
human problem.

So the thing created is the practico-inert (this means every product is a
reification of action -- a rendering of a sequence of actions inert which
is a trace of the operation of our consciousnesses as they EXIST within
our bodies. We cannot capture what consciousness is. Taylorists attempt
to render an objective "scientific" perspective on the operation of the
body and in doing so reify the worker -- but they can only do that with
manual labor. When they attempt to do that with engineering work they run
into fundamental problems because the work is done in the mind of the
engineer not with the body as objectified. Neo-Taylorists attempt to use
models such as Statistical Process Control and Socio-technical Systems to
extend the objectivist perspective with little success. The consciousness
of the person cannot be objectified and this is exactly what leads us to
attempt to apply postmodernist perspectives to understanding work --- and
these call into question fundamental assumptions within the western
worldview concerning human productivity that Baudrillard mentions.

Now one way to understand "consciousness" (i.e. that part of us that
projects the world from within our bodies) is to think about levels of
change and levels of learning. In our worldview we make a fundamental
split between physus and logos. Physus is the unfolding of things in
nature outside us and Logos is the unfolding of language and our
understanding within us. This split leads to the dualism between mind and
body which is rampant in our worldview. Thus when we consider physus and
logos we divide body from consciousness and consider that each one
participates in a series of meta-levels which we can talk about as levels
of learning and levels of change. I suggest in my tutorial that the first
meta-level away from the practico-inert is learning in the consciousness
dimension and change in the body dimension. Thus what a process IS is the
chiasmic relation between learning/change//change/learning. Work itself
is the simultaneous application of learning and change to any
practico-inert thing. In this view process is the chiasmic and dynamic
relation between body/consciousness as it exists at the change/learning
meta-level away from the practico-inert. Work is the application of
change/learning to the practico-inert.

In my tutorial I develop all four meta-levels of this theoretical schema.
The tutorial is available for review by anyone who will offer comments
back to me on it prior to may when I have to give the tutorial.

What is good about this view is that it says exactly what process is and
what work is and it allows us to handle the problems of describing
consciousness by appealing to Russell's Theory of Logical types (that
Bateson is using in his theory of learning meta-levels). If noting else
this way of thinking about consciousness allows us to avoid lots of
paradoxes we might fall into inadvertantly. But of course we must
recognize that this too is a reification of consciousness and must be
tempered with the cautions that arise in other postmodern philosophies.

However, this theory of work and process based on combining logos and
physus AND learning and change suggests that a learning organization is
merely a society of those who are operating at the higher meta-levels of
work process. This brings us back to look at what a society is and here
again it is Sartre that offers the most sophisticated view in his
CRITIQUE OF DIALECTICAL REASON. He offers us the fused group (similar to
Cannetti's pack in CROWDS AND POWER) as the archetypal social structure
from which all reified social groupings derive. This is similar again to
Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the "socius" in ANTI-OEDIPUS. These are
groups that are inherently revolutionary and which have not instilled
hierarchy or ordering. Thus if the individuals are operating at higher
levels of learning and change and are part of a social group that is
fused then we have the most flexible organization possible from which all
other less flexible (less revolutionary) organizations are reifications.

Thus I propose that a learning/changing organization is a fused group
made up of individuals operating at higher meta-levels of
change/learning. Every organization that we might describe is some step
away from this limit. Sartre describes these steps for social
organizations in his CRITIQUE. We can describe the steps for individuals
based on Bateson's levels of learning and a set of analogous levels
related to physus. I think such a model is a good formal starting point
for considering how we might apply some of the other insights of modern
and postmodern philosophy to the description of the fundamental
assumptions that our ideas of learning-organizations are based upon. All
organizations are at their core are meta-learning and meta-changing fused
groups because they are made up of human beings and this is one
description of the intrinsic freedom that all human beings share as their
own-most possibility. All organizations we actually see are reifications
that step away from this utmost possibility of human society. The study
of learning organizations is how to realize these possibilities within
ourselves and our social groups as existential actualizations of our

This is a first attempt to come to terms philosophically with the problem
of human processes within the setting of learning organizations. Let me
know what you think of this theory. Perhaps we can explore some of these
philosophical potentials together in order to enrich our perspectives on
the issue at hand which we ourselves are.

Kent D. Palmer, Ph.D. :Administrator of ThinkNet {aka DialogNet}
Software Engineering Technologist :philosophy and systems theory email lists
autopoietic social systems theorist:hosted at the Thinknet BBS (714-638-0876)
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On Thu, 9 Feb 1995 wrote:

> Colleagues
> As a recent subscriber to the learning organisation network I am
> interested in the types of theoretical paradigms that is driving this
> concept. Has there, to anybody's knowledge, been any discussion in the
> literature regarding the use of critical, radical (postmodernist?)
> perspectives to conceptualise management development and learning.From my
> work experience (in fairly bureaucratic organisations in the
> U.K/Australia) I would suggest that managers need to 'reframe' their views
> of employees if they are to encourage a learning environment, that is a
> workplace that empowers indivuduals to be innovative, risk taking and free
> thinking!
> Richard Winter
> Monash University (Victoria)
> From: <>