Saturday, October 8, 2011

WB's Way: A Certain Kind Of Modesty

The way of ignorance, therefore, is to be careful, to know the limits and the efficacy of our knowledge. It is to be humble and to work on an appropriate scale.
How are we ever going to make our collective way toward healthier communities? Wendell Berry’s been suggesting for years it has to start with personal decency, humility and cautiousness, a disposition he’s referred to as the way of ignorance. (a phrase borrowed from T.S. Eliot’s poem, East Coker)

I’m interested – for purposes of this short series – in what happens when the way of ignorance meets and conducts business. How do people and companies live up to its requirements in the real world? What kinds of results do they get when they do? Mr. Berry’s done more than his share to frame questions and provide answers, but I think more work is needed still.

Specifically, I’d like to try to link his ideas to the MANAGEMENT ADVISEMENT arena. And I’ve been keepin’ a sharp eye out lately for anyone or anything that might help.

Enter stage right: David Brooks and his new book, The Social Animal.

Enter, too, the concept of epistemological modesty. 

Epistemological What?

Might as well let him explain:
Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Epistemological modesty is the knowledge of how little we know and can know.
More user-friendly:
Epistemological modesty is an attitude toward life. This attitude is built on the awareness that we don’t know ourselves. Most of what we think and believe is unavailable to conscious review. We are our own deepest mystery.
Epistemological modesty is just like the way of ignorance.

If our ability to understand our selves is limited, so, also, by extension, must be our ability to understand other people, circumstances, and events. We still have to make decisions and take actions, of course. So the question becomes, How do we do so modestly? Mr. Brooks submits that we “can design habits, arrangements, and procedures that partially compensate for the limits on our knowledge.” In one of my favorite parts of the book, he then takes his best shot at illustrating what he means.

What really set my eyes a poppin’, though, were the parts in which he relates epistemological modesty to business management. This he does c-o-n-s-p-i-c-u-o-u-s-l-y via the characters (this is a fictional work) of Harrison, a “typical” management consultant* who DOES NOT exhibit epistemological modesty, and Raymond, a mid-level manager, who DOES. The narrator goes to great lengths to describe their respective decision making processes and the effects their decisions have on their companies.

It’s here where Mr. Brooks does just the kind of linking I alluded to before, and where he fills in some of the missing pieces. I don’t know what kind of impact this has had inside the consulting community, but I’m curious to find out.

I also want to find out if there are any real, living, breathing consultants who are talking this same sort of talk.

Philip Evans of the Boston Consulting Group is referred to in The Lords of Strategy (Walter Kiechel, III, 2010) as one who likes to think and talk about epistemology, specifically the nature of the knowledge of how to achieve competitive advantage. But, as for the modesty part?

BCG’s bailiwick has been strategic analysis and strategy formulation, along with the mission, vision, and values stuff that precedes it. In conversations about these topics with clients, what characteristic attitude does he bring? I’m sure all BCG consultations address enterprise risk management (ERM), but is that the same thing DB and/or WB have in mind?

"The Full Wendell" would call for companies to carefully consider, among many other things, the ramifications of the use of their products or services in the world. (Do they help end users become more self-sufficient? Do they promote wasteful consumption? Are they instrumental in helping people maintain and enhance their home towns?) Has any consultant at BCG, itself a US$ 3.05 billion firm, ever gone so far as to recommend to a client that the scope of her company’s operations should be limited, because, for example, further growth could be destructive?

These things I don’t know.

As always, more investigation is needed.

*Can you believe it, a management consultant in a novel?!?

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