A philosophical approach to joining organisations

Consultants like me are sometimes engaged by clients on a very short-term basis, and sometimes embedded inside organisations for much longer periods of time. Yesterday, I started a period of ’embedding’, this time with Moodle.

While I’ll discuss elsewhere the things I’ll be working on over the coming weeks and months, in this post I want to consider what it’s like to start working with a new organisation from a philosophical perspective.

The areas of enquiry represented by what we call ‘Philosophy’ can be sub-divided in many ways and, of course, people differ as to how this should be done. When I think about Philosophy, over and above the (valuable) ‘history of ideas’ courses taught to undergraduates, I tend to use the following buckets:

  • Epistemology – what can we know?
  • Ethics how should we act/behave?
  • Ontology what exists in the world?
  • Metaphysics what else exists?

I’m sure some people reading this may disagree with these simple definitions, and with separating out metaphysics and ontology, but hopefully you’ll see why I tend to do this in a moment.

When a person joins a new organisation, there’s often a mad rush to get them ‘up-to-speed’ as quickly as possible. Not one minute should be wasted to ensure that they can reach full operating efficiency as soon as possible. Taken to its logical conclusion, I’m sure there are plenty of organisations that would like to be be able to send the required knowledge directly into a new employee’s brain, Matrix-style.

Plugged into the Matrix

I was ‘onboarded’ by Moodle HR yesterday and, while they can improve the experience, it was the first time an organisation has actually set out its information landscape. It sounds like such a simple thing, but this ontology of the organisation as it sees itself, is a hugely valuable thing to share. After all, the inverse of this — finding out about things in a piecemeal way — can be rather anxiety-inducing.

In the past, I’ve joined organisations that explicitly don’t share things like org charts and what technologies they use. The reason given for this is often that such documents would be ‘out of date as soon as they’re created’, but in reality it’s usually because there’s a huge disconnect between different parts of the organisation. There is no map or shared reality.

Ontology is an easy one for organisations to focus upon. They can point to things and draw employees’ attention to them, even if it’s just directing people to a URL or a particular app. What’s harder is getting to the other three: the epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics of an organisation.

In an organisational context, the question of ethics isn’t solved simply by having a mission or a values statement. It has to be lived and demonstrated. There are large, organisation-wide ethical issues that can only really be solved by the leadership team. Examples of these might include the type of investment that the organisation takes, diversity issues in hiring, or the way it interacts with the natural environment.

As well as these large, organisation-wide issues, there are also much smaller, everyday ethical issues. In fact, some of these might not even be put under a banner of ‘ethics’ by most people. For example, I’d include in this list of smaller ethical issues things like the amount to which line managers and senior management ‘check up’ on employees.

“If you don’t have your own time, then you have no control of your day. And if you have no control of your day then you end up working longer than you should.” (Jason Fried)

These also include the way in which members of the organisation interact with one another. A lot of this would perhaps traditionally go under ‘culture’ or perhaps ‘etiquette’ but, actually, I think considering this as part of the wider ethics of an organisation is a better way to think about it.

It obviously takes time to figure out the lived reality of ethics within an organisation. The same is even more true of its epistemology and metaphysics. We’re going a stage deeper here.

You can see the ontology of an organisation; you can point to different things that exist. To a great extent you can see the outputs of the ethics of an organisation; you can point to the outputs it creates. When it comes to epistemology and metaphysics, however, we’re in a less tangible realm: what can we know? what else exists?

It takes a while to understand the epistemology of an organisation. A new employee (or contractor) isn’t going to be able to figure out an organisation’s approach to the above questions in the first few days, or even weeks, after joining. Again, a lot of these issues are lumped within the rather unhelpful category of ‘culture’.

Epistemological questions are particularly interesting for organisations that deal primarily in bits and bytes and digital ‘stuff’ that can affect people’s lives in a material way. The frontiers offline are physical, whereas the frontiers online are conceptual.

Consequently, when organisations ask ‘what can we know?’ it’s a collection of individuals with hopes, dreams, and inbuilt-biases making value judgements. More than that, it’s a collection of people responding to a particular set of pressures affecting them individually and corporately, and coming to collective epistemological decisions.

I’d include examples such as Facebook’s algorithmic approach to matching ‘people you may know’ here, as well as edtech companies gathering brainwave data to measure ‘student engagement’. As the Contrafabulists show with their work around predictions, when you say that the world is, or will be, a certain way, you’re revealing your epistemology.

Metaphysics is a harder thing to pin down, and perhaps the most difficult thing for an organisation to access directly. Some schools of philosophy, in fact, believe that metaphysics is meaningless and not worth studying. I disagree.

If we conceptualise metaphysics as asking the question what else exists? then we can see that this is the kind of question that can drive organisations forward and help them to improve. This is particularly important for organisations who create digital products and services, as they can literally invent these from ones and zeroes.

Martin Dougiamas, CEO of Moodle, shared with me a book called Reinventing Organizations that’s inspired him recently. Although I’m yet to read it, even the book’s website gives an example of the kind of thing I mean when talking about organisational metaphysics. There’s a ‘pay-what-feels-right’ option for the book, instead of a single price. If we step back and think about it for a moment, this is an acknowledgement that the full value of something like a book can’t be captured in a financial transaction. It also makes us question what a ‘book’ actually is when it’s digital and the distribution value drops close to zero.

I haven’t finished thinking about this philosophical approach to joining organisations. No doubt, any comments I receive below and on various networks of which I’m part will help inform my thinking. As, of course, will my experiences as I spend more time with Moodle.

The important thing for me is to realise that when you’re joining an organisation, what you’re doing is plugging yourself (a complex mixture of thoughts, emotions, and biases) into something that isn’t necessarily an easy thing to understand. To hurry and try and ‘get-up-to-speed’ quickly, therefore, might actually waste more time than it saves.

Why ontologies are best left implicit (especially for credentials)

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, becoming, existence or reality as well as the basic categories of being and their relations. Traditionally listed as a part of the major branch of philosophy known as metaphysics, ontology often deals with questions concerning what entities exist or may be said to exist and how such entities may be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences. (Wikipedia)

I’d argue that the attempt to define what ‘exists’ within a given system is usually a conservative, essentialist move. It’s often concerned with retro-fitting new things into the current status quo, a kind of Kuhnian attempt to save what might be termed ‘normal science’.

Perhaps my favourite example of this kind of post-hoc ontology is from a reference Jorge Luis Borges makes to a fictional taxonomy in a book he calls Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

This, of course, is meant to be humorous. Nevertheless, we’re in danger when a dominant group sees the current state of play as the ‘natural order of things’. It’s bad enough when this is latent, but even worse when essentialst worldviews are codified into laws — and by ‘law’ I’d include ‘code’.

The thing that disturbs me most is when people accept the artefacts that have been left for them as the given circumstances of nature… It’s this automatic acceptance of how things are that leads to a sense of helplessness about changing any of them. (Douglas Rushkoff)

This week, a survey was sent out to the Open Badges community on behalf of the Credential Transparency Initiative. This initiative is funded by the Lumina Foundation, an organisation that describes itself as an “independent, private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates and other high-quality credentials to 60 percent by 2025.” The Lumina Foundation therefore has a vested interest in deciding what counts as a ‘high-quality credential’.

The problem is, of course, that what one well-funded, high-profile group decides after ‘consulting the community’ is likely to be adopted more widely. This is how de facto standards emerge. They may decide to play the numbers game and equate certain types of badges with degrees. Or, they may choose to go to the other end of the spectrum and ensure that badges do not equate with ‘high-quality’ credentials. Either way, it’s not really up to them to decide.

The survey featured this highly problematic question:

CTI survey

There are all kinds of assumptions baked into this question that need to be unpacked. For example, perhaps the biggest is that all of these have an ‘essence’ independent of one another, rather than in relation to each other. I see this as an attempt, either consciously or unconsciously, to turn the notion of a ‘badge’ into what Richard Rorty termed a ‘dead metaphor’:

Old metaphors are constantly dying off into literalness, and then serving as a platform and a foil for new metaphors. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 16)

In my doctoral thesis (better consumed as this ebook), I used Rorty’s work along with that of William Empson to come up with a ‘continuum of ambiguity’:

Continuum of ambiguity

The idea behind this continuum is that almost every term we use to describe ‘reality’ is metaphorical in some way. Terms we use to refer to things (e.g. ‘badge’) contain both denotative and connotative aspects meaning that the person using the term cannot be absolutely certain that the person they are communicating with will understand what they mean in the same way.

Articulation of an idea

Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The more we try and create a one-to-one relationship between the utterance and the understanding of it, the more we are in danger of terms ‘falling off’ the continuum of ambiguity and becoming dead metaphors. They “lose vitality” and are “treated as counters within a social practice, employed correctly or incorrectly.” (Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, 171). Such terms have the status of cliché.

The attempt to create a one-to-one relationship between a term as written or spoken, and the term as it is understood by an interlocutor or reader, is an understandable one. It would do away with the real, everyday problems we’re faced with when trying to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. As Rorty puts it, “the world does not provide us with any criterion to choose between alternative metaphors” (The Contingency of Language, 6). The problem is that if we have a single ontology, then we have a single worldview.

Returning to Open Badges, it would be difficult to do any interesting and useful work with the term if it becomes a dead metaphor. For example, I’m quite sure that there’s nothing many of those in Higher Education would like better than to demarcate what a badge ‘counts for’ and the situations in which it can be used. After all, organisations that have histories going back hundreds of years, and which are in the game of having a monopoly on ‘high-quality’ credentials need to protect their back. If they can create a dead metaphor-based ontology in which badges count as something much lower ‘quality’ (whatever that means) than the degrees they offer, then they can carry on as normal.

The fading conviction originating with Plato that language can adequately represent what there is in words opens the way for a pragmatic utilization of language as a means to address current needs through practical deliberations among thoughtful people. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

At this point, I’m tempted to dive into differential ontology and the work of Derrida and Deleuze. Instead I’ll simply point out that the reductive attempt to define an essentialist ontology of credentials is doomed from the outset. What we need instead is to ensure that our use of terms such as ‘Open Badges’ are what I would call ‘productively ambiguous’ — that is to say, in the Pragmatist tradition, ‘good in the way of belief’.

Or, if you like your takeaways more pithy: Keep Badges Weird!