Re: Unskillful Decisions LO182

Mariann Jelinek (
Tue, 21 Feb 1995 11:11:02 -0500

Replying to LO168 --

Regarding hierarchy and participation, and whether or not
"bureaucratic" organizations are capable of learning, Jack's questions
about our usual habits of thinking are on the money: we have a
centuries-old tradition of thought (Descartes to the present) that says
there's a "reality" out there different from "mind / spirit / imagination"
inside our heads. "THAT" is "real," while "THIS inside" is "imaginary" and
not real. Equally, and relatedly, we have a long tradition of logical
positivism and objective science: what you can see from the outside, what
you can measure or touch is what is real, while the rest (especially
emotions, ideas, and so on) is "only" imaginary.
An enormous shift in physics that began in the late 19th century and
hinged on Einstein's 1905 papers on relativity, plus the work on atomic
structure that followed,l created a new understanding: the "obvious"
character of human experience (what we could touch, see and measure) is
simply not a good guide to atomic structure. In place of solidity and
objectivity, the "real" structure of matter is mostly space, with
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and the wave-particle nature of light
as prime exemplars of the fundamental ambiguity of the "real." What people
expected to find, conditioned what they did find; cognitions matter.
The story is longer and more complex than I've laid out here, but
the social sciences (including organization studies) is finally catching
on, slowly (only a mere century after the discoveries that revolutionized
physics, and through it, human existence in the physical world . some
good, and some bad). People are not non-reactive, passive recipients of
orders (nor are atoms the "solar systems" Neils Bohr at first proposed).
Figuring out what "is" instead is where we are, IMHO: and again,
cognitions matter enormously, if for no other reason than that they enable
scattered human beings to coordinate, collaborate, and assist one another
to achieve goals beyond their reach as individuals or face-to-face groups.
Jack's starting point of variety and hierarchy comes right back:
human cognitions can simultaneously embrace "larger goals" and individual
perspectives - the transform: "What does my action contribute to the
whole?" or "How can I employ my knowledge to meet organizational needs?"
Unless the "I-me-mine" is part of the picture, the organization cannot
learn, for there is no other route for human learning to enter the
organization. We cannot know in advance who will learn, or whose learning
will be important (except we can on past experience speculate that even a
really good senior guy - Jack Welch? - cannot possibly know enough about
what goes on where the real action takes place, face to face with a
customer, a problem, a decision.
Hence my argument regarding hierarchy is, like George Caspar
Homans's on theories: "As much as you must; as little as you can." The
less hierarchy, the easier for any one member to pose an insight (which
many can try and test: if there's not much status, there's no shame in
learning from anybody). If we all truly feel that "we are in this
together," then we are all responsible for keeping alert to what we might
need to know, testing views and offering our ideas, don't you think?

Mariann Jelinek
Richard C. Kraemer Professor of Business
Graduate School of Business,
College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA 23185

Tel. (804) 221-2882 FAX: (804) 229-6135