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.