Saturday, January 12, 2008

Getting back to the Things: Business Management

How we carry ourselves and the way we live our lives have profound philosophical implications. Take for example the latest installment of Peter Day's BBC program Global Business:

This week’s programme explores an intriguing proposition: that craftspeople know better than most business people how organisations ought to be run. Peter Day explores the mystery of crafts and speaks to a big thinker, who believes that good craftsmanship – knowing the practicalities of the job – lies at the heart of good business. (Source: ZenCast)

Mr. Day interviewed sociologist Richard Sennett of London School of Economics and NYU about the value of craftsmanship. Sennett says,

I'm thinking about craftsmanship as trying to do a good job for its own sake.... rather than trying to find a niche in the market.... The last thing you want to do if you want to achieve quality in an organization: separate people with power from people with knowledge.... You can have a very profitable company and do very poor work in the short term. My argument is that in the long term, craftsmanship is quite economic.

Sennett cites W. Edwards Deming, who helped set up Toyota-Honda autoworks, as a predecessor in this approach.

As Mr. Day prompts, "There's something about the fingertips..., the touch...." even in management. Sennett picks up on this with an idea that has implications for how we approach nature (and life in general):

The point I'm making to you is a much larger one: it's that we don't think in the abstract. We think through instances, through particulars, through touching things, even if those things we touch are a particular person's character, a particular task they do, and so on.

He continues with the human application of this idea1:

If you don't have a sense of the craft of focusing on other people and their needs and helping them focus, you're running a business where you're not doing everything yourself, your business will run down. You don't proceed by principle to particulars.... You start with a bit of wood or a particular problem in the office....

(Mr. Day likewise interviewed Richard Taylor in New Zealand, who did the effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Mr. Taylor's ideas are very similar to Prof. Sennett's.)

Sennett and Taylor's ideas run against professional management model around which businesses are organized today, presided over by an army of MBAs. An article in the Atlantic Monthly revealed the vacuousness of that degree. The article recounts how, at the last turn of the century, Frederick Winslow Taylor applied mathematics to managing workers and called it "scientific management." In a roundabout kind of way this was appropriate, because his ideas reinforce the prevailing philosophical climate that's grown in the shadow of science, but that actually have very little to do with real science:

At the same moment was born the notion that management is a distinct function best handled by a distinct group of people—people characterized by a particular kind of education, way of speaking, and fashion sensibility. Taylor, who favored a manly kind of prose, expressed it best in passages like this:

… the science of handling pig iron is so great and amounts to so much that it is impossible for the man who is best suited to this type of work to understand the principles of this science, or even to work in accordance with these principles, without the aid of a man better educated than he is.

From a metaphysical perspective, one could say that Taylor was a “dualist”: there is brain, there is brawn, and the two, he believed, very rarely meet.

So Sennett is essentially opposing a practical instance of philosophical dualism.

For decades, we've been laboring under the illusion that one needn't know anything about the particularities of business to manage it. So, when you really sit down to think about it, the resulting short-term thinking comes as no surprise. It's no wonder, for example, that management looks to the bottom line instead of employee loyalty: it's not as if the employee is a spiritual creature with intelligence and free will. Rather the employee is seen as an interchangeable unit of production, to be disposed of at management's pleasure. Never mind that quality of work diminishes when experienced employees move on.

The result is shoddy work, but more ominously people instrumentalizing other people. Can today's pitiful moral climate be any surprise?

This interesting article discusses Professor Sennett's ideas on the design of cities.


1. The ordering of Sennett's procedure here appears to be the reverse of that he is advocating. The difference is that he's doing so in explaining an idea, whereas his approach is about discovering the world.

Peter Day, "Crafts," Global Business (08 Jan 08).

Matthew Stewart, "The Management Myth," Atlantic Monthly (June 2006). [subscription required for full-text access]

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Allen Lane, 2008).

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