Sapere Aude – An Age of Enlightenment for Business?
A few weeks ago Keith Swenson asked me if our current age has been considered or named in the sense of a further step in our human evolution, much as it happened during The Enlightenment or The Age of Reason. I answered that I did not think so, but I spent some time on the subject and what it meant for the business world today. I came to the conclusion that while we are entering a new age, like in the 18th century there is substantial opposition against the progress of mind. I would even propose that many concepts of the Enlightenment have not reached business and IT management.
The Enlightement era started according to Bertrand Russel with the Protestant revolution against the Catholic church. Renè Descartes started it in the scientific sense with his ‘Discourse on Method’. John Locke, Francis Bacon, Baruch Spinoza, Pierre Bayle and no less than Voltaire belong to the group that pushed the idea forward. It was however the German philosopher Immanuel Kant who made the term well known in 1784 through his essay: ‘Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?’ He proposed that the roots of Enlightenment had been there since Horace and his book of Epistles who wrote in 20BC: ‘Sapere Aude – Dare To Know!’
Why did it take so long for ideas of The Enlightenment to spread?
It is quite obviously not only about the ideas and principles as such. Without the invention of the printing press the ideas of progress would have remained hidden from the eyes of the public. I propose that we are entering a similar new age as today it is Social networking that provides once again the infrastructure in which such progress can be pushed. Wikipedia, Google, Twitter and Facebook are a social canvas on which we paint a new picture of mankind for all to see who care. Whether it fosters movements like the Arab Spring (whatever the outcome will be initially) or allows Wikileaks to spread its information without control of governments, in the end all this would not happen without the Internet. Even simple blogging is a fast and immediate form of global sharing of knowledge that wasn’t there just ten years ago. It will eventually kill the copyright and IP laws that hold back progress, simply because they won’t remain enforceable. It will change the way the business world thinks and operates. But we are not there yet.
We now see the effects of true globalization.
Not in the sense that large enterprises raid third world countries in terms of manpower and natural resources, but in that the people of the world can communicate with anyone they want (with some limitations but still). It is not only the Internet but the huge step from a complex and expensive MS-Windows laptop computer to a powerful but simple, mobile smartphone. But imagine that without the low-cost manufacturing in Asia the Mobile revolution would have never happened. Add Cloud Computing to the formula and you have a completely different world economy than 20 years ago.
Small business have through Cloud computing now the same access to IT functionality that large businesses had exclusively before. They can be as efficient and still remain nimble and swift in markets that belonged to enterprises. The difficulty to run the huge conglomerates who thought that they are ‘too big too fail’, will eventually cause their downfall. They will simply be too difficult to control.
If there is one thing that seems to permeate all aspects of the change we see, it is the recognition of our lack of control. The likes of Nassim Taleb started a rethinking with ‘The Black Swan’. Many management experts are advising businesses to the need to think adaptively and lose the ‘command and control’ attitude. But there are counter-movements such as ‘Big-Data’ and Predictive Analytics’ that continue to sell a control illusion just like the one that was originally sold with BPM. But even one of its fathers – Michael Hammer – had turned back on that idea a few years later. His later words were less and less heard as he stopped to consider the control illusion feasible. On a positive note, Harvard Business Review printed an interview with Michael J. Mauboussin about ‘Embracing Complexity’.
I therefore call this era we are entering ‘The Age of Complexity.’
John Henry Holland and others started in the 80’s to discuss complex adaptive systems and emergence as the true creative forces of nature. His books tell the story better than I ever could:
- 1975, Adaptation in Natural and Artificial Systems
- 1995, Hidden Order: How Adaptation Builds Complexity
- 1998, Emergence: From Chaos to Order
The overarching message is that there is no need for rigid control structures as the resonant interactions of forces evolve the least energy consuming operation. Structures that waste energy will simply fail in the evolutionary competition. Control creates counter-forces and wastes energy. The important elements are communication and alignment of goals. That too is the message and power of Social networks. We no longer need to fear complexity and try to avoid it, but we can make use of it. Those who do will sustain while the others will dwindle away. That large, complex systems are uncontrollable we can see with the European financial crisis.
It will be some time until the current army of control freaks will fall off the duty roster as they retire. They demand predictability and certainty when such is impossible. They propose that one can build and manage a theoretical economy and business model theory. Thus I want to call for the help of another Austrian-born thinker, Sir Karl Raimund Popper (1902-1994), who proposed to change classical observationalist scientific method in favor of empirical falsification. That is well accepted today. But many in business and IT aren’t aware what that actually means. It means that only a theory that provides methods for falsification is a valid one. It does however also mean that the theory that is the least probable (containing the highest information content that can be tested) is the most preferable one. I see no such falsifiable content for Business Process Management. There is no BPM theory but only a faith in orthodox, justificationist management concepts – ‘so many can’t be wrong’. Thus I propose to apply the theory of complexity and embrace the potential of information technology. The most amazing part is that the theory of complexity is the most simple one to apply, as it uses existing natural concepts. John Nash discovered that the most successful collaborations in nature and economy are the ones where individuals act in way that is not just good for themselves but is also good for the family/group/company, despite the fact that we cannot predict or control what that individual does.
To embrace complexity also means to embrace technology.
I have already posted about the relationship between apparent simplicity and underlying complexity in information technology. KEEP IT SIMPLE is good, but we must guard against oversimplification, which I consider the largest fallacy of current BPM practices. Rather than accepting a business and its markets to be complex adaptive systems it assumes WITHOUT PROOF that a work procedure will guarantee outcomes. It ignores the complexity of human interactions, chaotic starting conditions, uncontrollable events and the cost of control for a supposedly simpler procedure-flow that thus ought to be better. Without a technological advance that dumps the current fragmented IT world for a ‘System of Engagement’ the Age of Complexity will mean the end of those businesses who won’t have the necessary adaptability. It needs BOTH different management and different technology!
Immanuel Kant considered “Enlightenment as man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity, but not from a lack of understanding, but rather the lack of courage to use one’s reason, intellect, and wisdom without the guidance of another. Our fear of thinking for ourselves.” And that is why orthodox BPM that does not allow people to think for themselves has no place in the ‘Age of Complexity’. BPM must be about aligning goals in purposeful collaboration of reasonable and skilled intellects and not about command and control! BPM must be about empowering people to act as individuals.
The final straw is for me that the kind of thinking that orthodox BPM promotes in a business, kills the disagreement that allows a critical review as proposed by Popper. Margaret Heffernan explains how that works in this great TED-Talk.
So if you want to finally be enlightened: Dare To Know and Dare To Disagree!