donderdag 28 oktober 2010

Plato at the workplace

In some of my previous messages I spoke about Plato and the impact of his dualism on Christianity and on education. But also in organizations his ideas are established quite firmly.

The Platonic privileging of the head over the body, of the spiritual realm over the physical realm that currently is playing tricks with the churches and Christianity, also exerts its negative influence in the workplace. This manifests itself in the preference of many organizers (managers, consultants) for a strict separation of policy and operations, think-work and do-work. And coupled to that separation it shows itself in a higher social status and higher financial rewards for the first and an underestimation of the second.

This situation in my view explains a lot of the discontent which may be observed in workplaces. Indeed, there the real added value of organizations is being created, but quite often managers think what is happening there is too trivial for serious attention. They prefer to confine their attention to the broad outlines, also because that’s more prestigious.

Yet in that respect a turnaround seems to be noticeable and that has much to do with the automation and computerization that take place anywhere. The many failed IT projects make it increasingly clear that the traditional management approach, invariably with a certain disdain as to the details of implementation, might be the cause of the failures. After all, if you're automating your processes and you limit yourself to the big picture without having precise knowledge of the operational requirements, you will easily create monsters of dysfunctionality.

So you need to know precisely what is happening at the workfloor. And of course the manager himself does not have to know all the details. But he must understand the importance of that knowledge and take care that it be gathered. This necessity in itself is a break already with thinking just broadly, in terms of strategic concepts and ideas. It is a (re-)valuation of the empirically concrete and hence of the workplace. Not really Plato’s cup of thea.

Within labor organizations therefore a self-correcting mechanism seems in place against the Platonic dualism. In politics this is less clear. Sometimes one reads optimistic stories about the possibilities of using the Internet and other social media for creating more and more direct forms of participation. There are times I believe so too, yet meanwhile I doubt whether that will work.

By definition, politics is about measures on a large scale for people at a distance. This requires thinking in broad outlines and it limits the possibilities for attention to the detailed outcomes of policy. I recently read about the ability of Americans to organize large scales in a small scale way. Perhaps that might offer opportunities to counter inappropriate Platonism in politics.

zondag 10 oktober 2010

La trahison des clercs

As openly expressed as recently by the Dutch Reverend Bas van der Graaf one does not find it easily. When well-educated smart people come to church, according to him, then this is for simplicity and for having something to hold on. They live in a complex, hectic world and their greatest need is: quiet. That’s what they look for in the church and then they do not want to be treated to difficult topics. They're not in for challenging thought.

Indeed, they have enough of that already, says Van der Graaf. And I agree with him, I may watch in wonder how much thought and ingenuity is being invested in financial products, legal acquisition structures, scientific research, audio equipment and even football formations.

And apparently then it’s all used up. “Highly qualified church-goers don’t like lectures on difficult topics”. They intuitively know very well that the world is bigger than what they do in their jobs, and they try to make space for that surplus, but please let that cost no additional mental effort.

This attitude is nothing new in Christianity. On the contrary, it stands in a tradition in which silent contemplation is more valued than sharp, substantial debates; in which submission and simplicity are “celebrated”; and in which the idyll of monastic communities should not be disturbed by critical reflection on potentially unhealthy tensions within.

In the last resort, moreover, that tradition does not allow to question the possibly shaky nature of its own foundations. Of course one may have reasons to take that position, namely the reasons Van der Graaf adduces for this: he and his fellow highly educated wish to have quiet in the house. But intellectually spoken one pays a price for ones rest.

This refusal cannot as easily be reconciled with intellectual acuteness as Van der Graaf suggests when he says that of course some things should not be meddled with. Compared to this the Remonstrant pastor Leegte, in an answer to Van der Graag, is a lot brighter. “If only one of my braincells is not allowed to participate in my work as a pastor”, he says, “then I’ll look for another job”. That very braincell might well have problems with the "realities" of Van der Graaf, such as the crucifixion, resurrection, Pentecost, the work of the Holy Spirit.

The refusal to use that one braincel is of course everybody’s own prerogative. And by that refusal you even may attract very dedicated people with brains into your church, as Van der Graaf says. But I am afraid the internal intellectual debate will not easily rise above the average level. Really critical questions about our living together, critical reflection which directly affects our professional behavior, all that remains half-baked. That flawed intellect was once referred to as “la Trahison des Clercs”. More recently - and with better answers than Benda - Huub Oosterhuis referred to that issue by asking the question: “If you are so smart, why don't you think more about how we live together?”