donderdag 20 november 2008

Heidegger, Wittgenstein and traffic

Organizational scientists who become philosophical should be cherished. They probably will allow a bit more space for manoeuvre and depth in their reasoning than those who are trained only in management. Nevertheless I want to make a warning remark concerning organizational scientists who orientate themselves towards Heidegger and the later Wittgenstein. What a number of followers of those two philosophers have in common – and that’s what I want to talk about – is the use of the metaphore of car-traffic for human communication in organizations. I find that irritating. For in my view that metaphore is not really adequate.

What can one say about traffic? Car-traffic consists in a unequivocal, uniform reality and this reality is based upon a set of (almost) generally accepted rules. Those among us who drive their car to the wrong side of the road or park it across the lane form a small minority. Of course the respective destinations of the road-users can diverge a lot but that’s not relevant for their quality of road-user. Their reality is being defined by the two white lines they have to respect, the arrows they have to follow and the trafficlights that come to their path. As far as their participation in traffic is concerned, all drivers have one and the same preprogrammed rationality in common, which allows only very limited space for interpretation.

The moment you start applying traffic as a metaphore for human behaviour in organizations a kind of alienating effect sets in. Take for example John Shotter, who is inspired by Wittgenstein. Shotter considers social action as ‘to know how to go on’ and for his explanation of this expression he takes recourse to the metaphore of car-traffic: “Just as in driving down a multi-lane interstate highway, we sense those cars here as near, and those there as far away, this one as requiring us to move away as it is moving too close, and we possess a synoptic grasp of how ‘to go on’ in a skilful way in many other spheres of our lives”.

Managementauthors Winograd and Flores, who orientate themselves towards Heidegger, also use car-driving as an image for communication and language in organizations. They speak about a kind of natural interhuman communication and compatibility by which things just go as they have to go and people, somehow, know what they have to do. Of course misunderstandings between people can arrise, in the same way in which collisions take place in traffic. And also in organizations one can find non-communicative people, as there are yokels in traffic. So, apparently, also traffic is not that unequivocal. But those situations are – according to the mentioned authors – exceptions, on the organization floor as in traffic, which are to be redressed or to be deplored. In the last resort they do not affect the clarity of the rules and the uniformity of reality. In principle human interaction functions, as does car-traffic, automatically.

I think this conception of human interaction is alienating because it does not match the experienced reality. The conception leans heavily on the presumption that people are permanently prepared to communicate. I find that a naïve, romantic thought. The day-to-day practice in organizations shows too many examples of the opposite. I have in mind people’s refuse to talk to others, the largescale use of language which in fact does not clarify but mystifies, and the energy it takes, not so much to redress misunderstandings, but to get people to talk with one another at all.

On a better look, it is possible to give some explanations for the discrepancy between the relatively unproblematic functioning of road-traffic and the laboriousness of human interaction. One can point to the fact that, opposite the unequivocal rationality and limited space for interpretation of trafficrules, in the domain of worldinterpretations and human acting many divergent rationalities can be found. And opposite the total freedom for each cardriver to choose his own destination, in organizations there is a hierarchy by which some workers (managers) tell other workers what to do. Conflicts on the road are usually restricted to teasing, while in organizations they often have to do with imposing, legitimately or not, one’s will on others.

These differences touch certain aspects of organizations which make communication in organizations so difficult but also interesting. Organizational scientists like Shotter, Winograd and Flores, who are orientated towards Heidegger and Wittgenstein, seem to miss exactly those points. They end up with a simplistic and technocratic caricature of interhuman communication. One may wonder whether something essential is lacking in the philosophical oeuvres of Heidegger and Wittgenstein because of which their organizational adepts arrive at that caricature?