Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Art of Objectivity

As many people have pointed out across several disciplines including management (Gilles Paquet), physics (Robert Laughlin) and psychology, there is a ubiquitous and lamentable tendency to believe that all that is real is measurable and only what is measurable is real. A few years ago, I found a great article on "The Top Ten Problems of Psychology" (I believe it is no longer available) by Jack F. Martin. In it, he commented on the thinking of Sigmund Koch, saying
Koch (1981) views such tendencies in psychology as residing within a more general twentieth century trend toward…regard[ing] knowledge as the result of "processing" rather than discovery…[and]…he is not the only historian of psychology to make the general observation that psychology has typically placed its methodological cart in front of its ontological horse (e.g., Bevan, 1986; Danziger, 1990)
What Koch is saying when he criticizes the notion that knowledge is a result of processing rather than discovery has nothing directly to do with computing. He is talking about the view that what is considered real (one's "ontology") is the output of a methodology, and if you think about it, this is putting the cart before the horse!

Robert Laughlin laments the same tendency in physics when he says,
The myth of collective behaviour [of particles] following from [laws of nature] is, as a practical matter, exactly backwards. Law instead follows from collective behaviour, as do the things that flow from it such as logic and mathematics.
You may think that scientific methodology is the arch guarantor of objectivity and truth, but as I have said before, to count anything you need a definition, sometimes called an "operational definition", and to test anything, you need to consider what types of things would have an effect on the outcome. The shorthand for that is, you have to identify, at least provisionally, the relevant determinants. The even shorter shorthand for that is that you have to identify the context, or "frame of reference." But coming up with definitions and determining contexts are not themselves products of a method, but preliminary to the development and application of a method, and arrived at by reasoning. Before anyone can apply a method, there has to have already been some observation (guided by interest, knowledge and reason, of course) and some reasoned hypothesizing.

What happens if we take this into consideration when it comes to business metrics? What happens when people are subject to an illusion that some kind of process or methodology determines what is considered real? The usual: Reason flies out the window and the B in Bureaucracy takes over. Consider Martin's tenth problem of psychology and then draw the analogy to business:

[The] inquiry practices of psychologists mostly reflect a misunderstanding of Bridgman's (1952) notions of operational analysis and definition. ...[P]sychologists frequently treat such definitions as exhaustive of the very conceptual meanings to which they are intended…only to point...[and] psychologists' conceptualizations of complex phenomena such as human motivation and confidence often are impoverished to the point where they are equated...with...a small number of predetermined factors such as effort, ability, luck, and task difficulty…

When the results one is supposed to achieve are tied to narrow indicators, and when people conflate the indicators (the report) with the result (the real, physical "out there" event/state of affairs) there is more attention to efficiency (the method) than the actual results (the ontology). It all goes horribly awry once some sort of methodology is in place that is supposed to be adhered to thoughlessly, as if the magic of some operational definition has created an "objective" situation, and we follow the methodology like unthinking robots, because in contrast to the robotic following of method, thought is supposed to be "subjective". This ignores the fact that it is through reasoning (well or badly) that we have come up with the method in the first place!

The advice to "let the managers manage" is the advice to trust that managers can reason things out. Why else were they hired? Strangely, there is more risk in following methodology and discouraging reasoning than there is in allowing creative human thought.

What is really needed is worthwhile goals and some committed, honest, thoughtful people to bring them into objective reality.

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