THE FOUNDATIONS OF MANAGEMENT KNOWLEDGE - Business foundations of management knowledge. School of Business and Economics Streatham Court, ... communities and some kind of established

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  • Foundations of Management Knowledge: Assumptions and Limitations

    Paper number 01/04

    Robert Chia University of Exeter

    Abstract

    Modern management knowledge relies overwhelmingly on the written word and its disseminated through print. Writing in general and alphabetic writing in particular facilitated the development of abstract thinking and the linear logic necessary for the systematic framing of individual activities into purposeful functions. In so doing it precipitated the necessary future goal-orientation required for a rudimentary form of organization and management to emerge. With the invention of typography the printed word reached far beyond the spatial confines of a particular established social order enabling the aspirations, cultural attitudes and lifestyles of those both far and near, and across time, to be influenced and shaped according to the priorities of modernity. Printing thus freed thought and aspirations from the shackles of local knowledge and inspired a visual emphasis that led to the advent of the Enlightenment with its obsession with rational analysis, systematic empiricism, representationalism and causal determinism. These four epistemological imperatives continue to underpin the foundations of management knowledge.

    School of Business and Economics Streatham Court, Rennes Drive Exeter EX4 4PU Tel: +44 1392 263241 Email: R.Chia@exeter.ac.uk

    mailto:R.Chia@exeter.ac.uk

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    ISSN No: 1473 2939

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    Introduction

    'We inherit an observational order, namely types of things which we do in fact discriminate; and we inherit a conceptual order, namely a rough system of ideas in terms of which we do in fact interpret.Observational discrimination is not dictated by the impartial facts. It selects and discards, and what it retains is rearranged in a subjective order of prominence'

    A. N. Whitehead

    Adventures of Ideas (1933: 183-184) The origins of management knowledge lie in the background of a dim consciousness

    slowly but almost inexorably sapping the base of some established cliff of instinctual

    habit. Like a phantom ocean beating upon the shores of life in successive waves of

    specialization, evolution as a whole is characterised by a net increase in the rate at

    which expandable energy is harnessed and used in organic maintenance (Sahlins,

    1960). Living things, especially humans, have an inherent tendency to increase their

    'thermodynamic accomplishment': that is, their capacity to trap and utilise such forms

    of energy to raise their level of existence from lower to higher forms. This is what

    makes 'a crab superior to an amoeba, a goldfish to a crab, a mouse to a goldfish and a

    man to a mouse' (Sahlins, 1960: 21). Evolution is, thus, an interminable process that

    works from a start of more or less randomness towards increasing coherence, and that

    moves from amorphousness towards definiteness, from fumbling trail-and-errors to

    purposeful decision. Humans, in particular, evolve not by physical changes in our

    bodies but by advances in our mindsets and by our expanding capacity for stockpiling

    knowledge. Thus, the cultivated impulse to impose some systematic order and

    coherence on our otherwise amorphous flux of lived experience provides the first

    clues to the development of the kind of problem-solving orientation that we have

    come to associate so much with effective management practice. Our almost insatiable

    need for differentiating and fixing parts of experience, for situational clarification, and

    causal attribution, as well as the ongoing attempt to successfully predict future

    courses of events, stems from what McArthur (1986: 32) calls our primordial

    taxonomic urge. It is by now a well-documented fact that the ability to ask questions

    relating to these key domain of concerns is what accounts for the impressive artefacts

    of modern civilisation and underpins almost all of its outstanding discoveries and

    achievements particularly over the last two thousand five hundred years. What is less

    well appreciated is the fact that the basic principles and assumptions of modern

    management, formulated and developed within the context of contemporary concerns

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    and preoccupations, are inextricably linked to these widerranging survivalist patterns

    of thought.

    The history of management thought is, therefore, also the history of how humans have

    learned to develop and operate systems of recording, reference, information retrieval

    and methods of analyses that are increasingly more and more abstract and external to

    the brain. This capacity for externalising, objectifying and systematizing thought in

    order to aid comprehension and control is a central feature of mankind's rise into

    prominence over the other species. It is what underpins the more modern economic-

    administrative practice of management. Managing, in its most fundamental existential

    sense, is, therefore, the ongoing refinement of methods, means and mechanisms for

    fixing, portioning, externalising and objectifying aspects of our lived experiences in

    order to render them more amenable to manipulation and control, and to thereby attain

    a desired level of predictability in affairs of the world. Understood thus, management

    and organization are, in effect, reality-constituting and world-making activities

    intrinsic to the survivalist instincts of the human species and not just a specialised

    technique applicable to economic-administrative activities designed to achieve profits,

    growth, market share, or global dominance in the world of affairs.

    The purpose of this chapter is to trace the foundational roots of modern management

    knowledge and to relocate their origins in the broader civilisational processes that

    have taken place especially over the last five millennia. In particular, it will be shown

    that contemporary management knowledge owes much to three major

    transformational events occurring in the history of Western civilisation, namely; the

    invention of writing; the alphabetization of the world beginning some three thousand

    years ago; and the rapid rise of the printed word from the latter half of the fifteenth

    century. These three civilisational milestones have irretrievably changed the course of

    human history in that they have precipitated the necessary asymmetries in our sense-

    ratios such that visual knowledge have come to predominate over all the other senses.

    Such an intellectual pre-disposition has, in turn, fundamentally shaped contemporary

    attitudes towards management and its priorities and practices. Indeed, it has instilled a

    set of instinctive 'readinesses' (Vickers, 1965: 67) amongst management academics

    and practitioners to construe the vague, the instinctive, the tacit and the contextual to

    be perennial 'problems' that need to be overcome in the establishment of management

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    knowledge. This metaphysical preference for visibility, clarity and precision, for the

    individual, the explicit, the articulate and the expressible owes much to the formative

    influences that language, and in particular the alphabetic system, has had on our

    thought processes. It is argued here that without such a historical appreciation of the

    material events in human history and their effects on contemporary modes of thought,

    the foundational principles of modern management knowledge and, more importantly,

    their hidden preferences and limitations cannot be fully appreciated. This chapter

    seeks to make a small contribution towards this deeper understanding of the

    foundational forces shaping the establishment of management knowledge and to re-

    framing it in terms of the wider historical-shaping of modern civilisation.

    Material Foundations: Externalising, Representing, and Containerising

    According to popular estimates, the species Homo has been in existence for some two

    million years yet it may not have become properly sapiens up until a mere 100,000

    years ago. Civilisation, a dynamic complex of collective purposeful practices

    including especially organised agriculture, centralised authority, socially coherent

    communities and some kind of established system of communication, therefore, make

    up only a very small percentage of the much lengthier process of human evolution.

    For much of this early civilising period, there were little or no external systems of

    reference to speak of and hence to systematically organize collective effort. The

    human brain, with its erratic memory, was the only available apparatus for knowing,

    referring, recording and problem-solving. As a consequence, learning and the capacity

    for adaptation was contingent and limited and survival always a question.

    Somewhere in this early period of human evolution, however, tool making emerged as

    the first indications of the attempt to externalise thought and to exert some kind of

    proactive influence on our surroundings. Tools are prosthetic devices that help

    'extend' human influence across space by substituting an artificial part for a human

    limb, an eye or a tooth. Tongs, for instance, may be used in inhospitable

    circumstances such as a fire in place of our hands which are frail and hence unable to

    deal with the intense heat a fire generates. Tools are, therefore, technologies of

    representation in that they stand for or represent a part of the human bo