managing in a clumsy world, designing a better one

Management is a noble profession. Or at least, it should strive to be one. The sad reality is that, however, we don’t think of it that way. Instead, when we think of management, it is easy to think of arrogant, self-centered, merciless, greedy, and overly compensated corporate executives who pay little or no regard to the environments and the well-being of labor and consumers. Alternatively, management often implies incompetent and bureaucratic paper-pushers who get in the way of getting things done. Indeed, management has a really bad name in our society. Therefore, it is almost scandalous to think that management is and should be a noble profession in the same way we think of educators, doctors and firefighters. But, I think it should be. In fact, I would argue that management is perhaps the most important profession in the 21st century. Why?

It has to do with the world in which we live. Increasingly, we are living in an artificial world. I use the word artificial in the same way Herbert Simon uses in his book, The Science of Artificial and Bo Dahlbom uses in his book, Artifacts and Artificial Science. The world in which we breath, eat, talk, see, touch, smell, and sleep is no longer shaped by natural environments only. It is populated and filled with the stuffs that we have created — artifacts. These artifacts, particularly technology, organizations and information, play essential role in shaping our way of life in the contemporary socio-technical world.

Our bodily experience is no longer shaped by the natural forces alone. Although we are still subject to the force of gravity, we now fly with the help of an airplane. We paved high ways, built bridges and tunnels, and constructed cities. The air that we breath in is mixed with pollutants coming from cars and factories, and filtered through air purifiers with added scent of our choice. The water we drink is contained in bottles that we made, mixed with vitamins and “natural” flavors. We eat meats from poultry that were raised with artificial feed mixed with antibiotics and growth hormones.

Our social experience is not any different either. It is no longer confined with the biological connections or geographical constraints. We are enmeshed with nested set of relationships with organizations that were created specific purpose. These “artificial” organizations now define our relationship more than ever. Proliferation of social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace takes this phenomenon to another level. Our social relationship is constantly shaped by Facebook status change and the last Twittering friend.

Furthermore, all types of information shapes our daily experiences. We use Google for almost everything we do. The information we consume there is deliberately created, stored and searched. We make purchase decisions with the information we have. We make investment decisions based on information that is publicly available. The entire field of accounting was created to design information about the value of a company. Sometimes, the information we have is more accurate than others. The accounting information provided by Enron and many of the sub-prime mortgages were at best inaccurate, if not deliberately false.

The reason that management is the most critical profession in the 21st century is, then, simply because at the junction of these three important artifacts, technology, organization and information, we find management. Through management practice, we constantly tinker with technology, organizations and information. Management constantly invent new technology, new products, and seek better ways of organizing. Through management, we re-invent the (artificial) world that we inherit. We constantly invent and improve ways to represent information. The question is, do we make it a better place than we found it through these activities?

Here comes the crux of the management challenge in the 21st challenge. The artificial world is a clumsy place. It is never a neat place. Unlike natural world that runs like a clockwork, the artificial world is a heap of accidents. In the artificial world, there has never been a big enough intelligence to centrally plan and organize. As Beatles once said, “life is what happens while you are busy planning.” The artificial world happens and evolves that way too. It is messy, ripe with tensions and contradictions. It ruptures and breaks down; yet, it goes on with fixes and patches sent from Microsoft.

As Karl Weick once writes, then, managers always find themselves thrown into this clumsy world. It is the articial world that needs more tinkering. The world needs some fixing, which will cause them to do more tinkering down the road. They will never know which plumping pipe will burst next. However, as managers struggle to keep things in order and strive to make things better, they can turn this place a better place to live. Management thus is based on “unhappy consciousness” as Bo Dahlbom says. Management is an antidote to the clumsy artificial world.

This brings us to the key essential aspect of management that is critically missing in today’s management education. That is, management is about seeing what is not there. Following the natural science model which follows the logic of discovery, we teach our MBA students to see what is out there. Through statistical analysis and focus group, our students are trained to collect data and analyze them to discover what is there. Yet, it is not enough. It is not enough just to see what is out there in this clumsy artificial world and analyze it. What we need is manager’s ability to see what is not in this clumsy world and turn it into a better place to live. Managers need to be able to conceive and construct a plausible future through technology and organization — the two most important artifacts at their disposal.

Information technology is advancing at a remarkably predictable pace. Moore’s law has been proven to be very useful in forecasting the incredible developments in the computing power. If this trend continues, an average computer that costs $1000 today will only cost $10 by year 2020. Today, my colleague showed me a perfectly fine sub-laptop computer that costs only $250. He calls it a “disposable computing.” At the price of $250, we are not there yet, but in ten years, we will be there. Digital technology is being embedded in our cloths, cars, buildings and streets, turning them into a part of a larger computer network, so to speak. This new technology in turn enables us to conceive new form of organizations. Open source, collective intelligence, crowd source, and many other new forms that we have not even thought about to mobilize and harness human creativity and power.

The question is, then, what can we do about all these possibilities. Who will make sure that we indeed create a better and more desirable artificial world using these new artifacts? Which profession and discipline is best positioned to provide the answer to this call? Can management be a part, in fact an essential part of this important challenge? I believe we can. Indeed, management is responsible to respond to this challenge in a meaningful way. But in order to do that, we must address two fundamental deficiencies in management thinking.

First, we must teach managers how to think what is possible. As I argued earlier, management should not be just about the past. Managers cannot be just geographers who are discovering the landscape of the nature. The geography of the artificial world that they want to discover hasn’t been yet created. They need to be created. Thus, managers need to able to imagine what is possible.

Second, we must teach managers how to think what is desirable. Not everything that is possible is desirable. What is desirable is not always the most efficient or the most effective. What is desirable may not be even possible currently. That should touch deeply the unhappy consciousness of the managers.

If we can begin to train future managers to see what is possible in the future and help them not to be afraid of asking “what is desirable?”, we can turn management as a noble profession. It can be a profession that can turn this clumsy artificial world into a better place to live. At least, that is what we all should try to aim for.

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4 thoughts on “managing in a clumsy world, designing a better one

  1. I thought this was a really good lecture. The idea of “unhappy consciousness”, and the need for a manager to be a visionary, rather than just indulge in paper-pushing or number-crunching are both very significant.
    I guess managers are too obsessed with getting immediate results (and we can’t blame them entirely for this) that their focus becomes narrow.
    Secondly, they constantly strive to bring order to the world – because of their inhibitions about chaos. This is, in a way, like your point about reductive arguments not being very useful.

  2. So insightful!
    One thing about research on IT impact of business or management of IT:
    Through about one year of literature review on IT related issues and paper reading, I seem to have the impression that research is providing theoretical basis for practices that already exist(e.g. the case of item based collaborative filtering technology). Is it really hard for them, or management-related researchers just do not want to do “predictive research” that might result in my real application in business, or researcher are also preoccupied with too many issues to tackle?
    I think it is really hard, since last time I had a conversation with one of my friend who is an IT manager, he said it is really hard for him to even keep track of latest techonology, how could research(which might take a long time to get result), reflect the trend of technology?
    Thank you professor for sharing with us such an inspiring lecture notes.

  3. Cliff Pickover used to do an interesting exercise he called the soda can computer. Imagine a computer no bigger than a soda can that has essentially infinite memory and that produces essentially instantaneous results. How would the world change it such a computer were available to everyone for free?
    I used to give this to students as a thought exercise, and was most interested in the number of times that we hit on things that were quite undesirable as a result of the trajectory implied by Moore’s law. By looking at a current trend at its limit, we came to see many implications that typically float just below our “seen world.”

  4. My colleague at Temple, Sudipta Basu, pointed out to me that information should the third significant artifact that shapes the artificial world. I agree. In my future lecture, I will add information as the third element. In a due time, I will update this lecture. In the meantime, I am using this comment to recognize the importance of information as the third element of artificial world.

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