Misunderstanding strategy: reductionist determinism

… the most precise definition I have yet mustered of what I have described for some time as a ‘reductionist determinism’ in corporate, conceptual, and academic approaches to ‘information’ related subjects.

INN331 – Management Issues for Information Professionals

WEEK TWO: Reading notes on strategy, synthesis for reductionist determinism.


Introduction: cognitive dissonance

I expect a level of cognitive dissonance between an academic unit or lecturer’s, objectives, the assigned and suggested readings, and my own professional and personal perspectives.

That dissonance was dialed up pretty high this week when it came to considering the differences between strategic thinking, strategic planning, and the scope to ‘foster’ organisational creativity and innovation. The most jarring mismatches between my perceptions and the readings occurred when evaluating the LIS-focussed articles.

What surprised me, though, was how much more closely aligned my thinking in this area was to older American material; the surprise stems from my pronounced antipathy for contemporary American business practices, which I regard as infused with a nihilistic, amoral, corrupt dishonesty about ends and means.

If I had to discuss the difference between strategic planning and strategic thinking, I’d quote Martin (2013):

… strategy is a singular thing; there is one strategy for a given business — not a set of strategies. It is one integrated set of choices: what is our winning aspiration; where will we play; how will we win; what capabilities need to be in place; and what management systems must be instituted?

And I’d recommend Mintzberg’s (1994) elegant perspective:

Systems have never been able to reproduce the synthesis created by the genius entrepreneur or even the ordinary competent strategist, and they likely never will. (p. 110.)

If I had to point to an example of how not to go about strategy, I’d cite Hong’s (2008) confused, confusing, splintered approach to IT strategic planning.

If I had to discuss how to develop or encourage creativity and innovation, Graetz (2001) and Sukovic (2011) would be the antithesis of what I’d aim for.

How I came to these conclusions is detailed below, but most importantly for me, so is the most precise definition I have yet mustered of what I have described for some time as a ‘reductionist determinism’ in corporate, conceptual, and academic approaches to ‘information’ related subjects.

The concept is of a reduction, or highly selective culling, of data and issues to be considered, plus an almost religious determinism with which this truncated perspective is then misinterpreted and misapplied to pursue hidden agendas. I see this as a deliberate strategy emanating from an intensely anti-intellectual American corporate culture. In recent years the epicenter of that culture has been Silicon Valley and its satellites.

However, that kind of disingenuity seems to have made its way into Australian public and academic discussions as well. So my conclusion to this review of readings is an expansion on my theory of reductionist determinism. That is perhaps the most valuable insight I gained from a synthesis of the readings, and, according to some definitions, almost paradoxically demonstrates ‘the informal learning that produces new perspectives and new combinations’ (Mintzberg, 1994, p. 109).

The academic perspective

My critiques may at times seem harsh, so it strikes me as appropriate to acknowledge that I recognise academics are bound to a rigidly structured, bureaucratic career path that demands publishing, gaining at least a PhD on the road to tenure as a professor, and then, possibly, a lot of arse-kissing politics on the way to a less academic career as an executive administrator.

Within QUT, one of the attitudes that underpins my course is enunciated by the resident LIS/IM professor, Helen Partridge, as research and evidence-based ‘practice’ (2011, p. 259). The principle sounds fine, until it meets the reductionist determinism of measuring human qualities with quantitative survey instruments and metrics; this never works, but is the easiest way to feign the appearance of a scientific objectivity while in fact omitting critical complexity for the sake of mitigating the greater effort required for dealing with greater ambiguity and complexity, More importantly, however, having reduced complexity arbitrarily, it becomes easier to suggest causal relationships between theory and data that are highly tenuous, and then to use such tenuous conclusions to propose deterministic theories that are just plain nonsense.

Sometimes I get the feeling that even in the academy I find myself confronted by the bizarre anti-intellectualism of Wikipedia, which has rules that make it perfectly valid to create an encyclopedia article on any subject – no matter how bizarre or obviously misleading –  so long as the anonymous creator can cite sources published somewhere else.

Traditionally there has been some comfort in the peer review process of academic journals, but this is no longer a guarantee, and it has never been a substitute for individual analysis and judgement. The Economist ran an article last year discussing a rising tendency for dubious rigour in scientific papers submitted for publication, and in the vetting process (Anonymous, 2013). Then there was the John Bohannon sting, when the microbiologist and science writer sent nonsense papers to various academic publications, with an unexpectedly high acceptance rate (Fitts, 2013), and finally the news about algorithm-generated, meaningless academic papers accepted for conferences (Sample, 2014). The lesson is that independent evaluation, analysis and judgement cannot be suspended just because a paper has been published.

I am as careful as I can be not to dismiss as without value even some fanciful conclusions, but I am less likely to rely on irrationally derived hypotheses than many of my fellow students, and even some of my tutors and lecturers. It seems grotesque that in the drive to promote evidence-based arguments, the Wikipedia philosophy has taken over: you can build an argument about anything if you can find published sources to back it, no matter how nonsensical the argument, but don’t bother showing up to talk sense if you can’t cite someone else first.

I acknowledge that the reading lists are compiled in good faith, and that this week’s reading is proposed as a starting point to untangle the ideas of strategic thinking, strategic planning, and the perplexing issue of how one might facilitate creativity and innovation. There is no suggestion here that my lecturer is particularly wedded to one point of view or another. But equally, there is no deference to an implied assumption that I credulously accept what I read like an empty vessel.

The LIS perspective

Oliver (2001) encapsulates what I take to be an entirely mistaken belief in public sector organisations – that private sector methods should be uncritically lauded and emulated:

The 1980s were a golden time in the history of strategy: The decade witnessed the start of global planning processes, corporate reengineering, the “information-based organization,” and recognition of the employee as a key resource. (p. 8.)

There is significant evidence that this perspective is in fact euphemistic propaganda to mask the rampantly corrupt kleptomania of Wall Street speculation and the casino economy based on it. Looking back on the past decade makes it possible to conclude that for all the MBA-led strategising, the resultant political economy in fact consisted of ruinous asset stripping, declining real wages, massive increases in income disparity, huge social dislocation, and generational unemployment. At the apex of this perspective on the ‘golden’ era of strategy sits the worldwide financial crisis sparked in 2007. While Oliver didn’t know that when he wrote his article, the reverential attitude he parroted still echoes largely unchallenged in many academic papers today.

The most useful advice on public sector strategy development and planning came from Wayne (2011), when he quoted Michael Allison and Jude Kaye:

Strategic planning is a tool; it is not a substitute for the exercise of judgment by leadership … Strategic planning merely supports the intuition, reasoning skills, and judgment that people bring to the work of their organization. (p. 15.)

Far less useful is Sukovic’s (2011) characterisation of ‘play’, and the description of its incorporation into staff planning sessions at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) library (pp. 264-271). My immediate negative response has everything to do with suffering through the absurd insistence on infantilising adults in the name of creativity during regular ‘planning’ sessions that were part of the Flight Centre culture, where I worked as a system administrator, technical team leader, and ITIL programme manager between 2000 and 2007.

Looking back on that lowest common denominator approach, I am drawn to the conclusion that Flight Centre’s CEO, the undoubtedly canny Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner, recognised that many of his frontline sales staff were young, not well educated, and easily motivated by regressive silliness. Unfortunately the one-size-fits-all approach that was adopted by his HR and training managers seemed to ensure that no one ever rose above that level of intellect or creativity.

I recognise in Sukovic’s paper the same approach, albeit dressed up in the pseudo-respectability of talking in Silicon Valley euphemisms:

… Generation Y is the first generation of ‘prosumers’ (consumers and producers) who expect to have creative engagement with the content of resources. There are indications that boundaries between analytical and creative academic work are blurring as a result of interacting with electronic resources … (p. 262).

What nonsense! My observation in response is that ‘Generation Y’ is the first generation in a hundred years less literate than its predecessors (see here, and here). If there is indeed a demographic that can be neatly encapsulated as Gen Y, it shouldn’t be given carte blanche to demand anything until it demonstrates some maturity, responsibility, and definitely the discipline to at least acquire written language competency.

Sukovic does have a point when she discusses staff recruitment and retention:

… if librarianship is to survive intense competition from other players in the information arena, it has to remain an attractive career option for younger generations. There are indications that certain personality traits are associated with certain types of work within information systems … and library professions … An implication for libraries is that they have to consciously adopt different recruitment strategies and develop flexible, creative environments if they want to attract and retain professional staff who will provide innovative services. (pp. 262-263.)

Missing from this consideration is that libraries do not offer innovative services in comparison to private organisations, and there is little indication that the top-down bureaucratic management regimes which dominate the public sector LIS occupation have made, or will make, any room for any meaningful innovation. Not because LIS workers and clients don’t want it, but because they are subject to the deadening hand of senior public service administrators and their always unadventurous budgeting processes.

So, Sukovic’s reasoning might have been applicable and visionary in the 1990s, stated about IT enterprises, but it is hardly convincing about public sector libraries.

It appears to me that before the Sukovic vision for Generation Y slackers becomes relevant, a layer of LIS middle management must first learn to manage upwards in order to liberate libraries from anally retentive senior managers who wouldn’t know inspirational leadership if it punched them in the face. Yes, that’s my generalisation, but I’ll back it against all the trendy euphemisms that come out of any Australian public sector organisation, if only because it is so obvious every time I interface with such organisations.

Sukovic discusses ‘playfulness’ as a necessary precursor for creativity and innovation (pp. 263-264), promoting the idea that:

It could be inferred that employees’ negative mood may not have a detrimental effect on the successful completion of daily tasks and accuracy of information processing, but it is likely to limit creative behaviours. On the other hand, inspiring and positive organizational cultures, which encourage exploration and playfulness, are likely to promote creativity. (p. 264.)

The idea that ‘negative’ mood is here somehow causally connected to lack of playfulness is not an evidenced fact. Likewise, it is merely asserted, not established, that organisational cultures encouraging playfulness are ‘positive’ and ‘likely’ to ‘promote creativity’.

In fact, just as John Stuart Mill cautioned against the tyranny of the majority, it is possible to mount a defense against the tyranny of extroverts and their ideology of cheerful positivity. Bowdoin College Barry N. Wish Professor of Psychology and Social Studies, Barbara Held (2002), wrote a paper entitled ‘The tyranny of the positive attitude in America: Observation and speculation’ in which she concludes:

I worry that the escalating pressure on Americans to be happy and cheerful, to smile and look on the bright side no matter how hard life gets, may do more harm than good. Again, I call this pressure the tyranny of the positive attitude because if you feel very bad about something and you just can’t put on a happy face no matter how hard you try, you could end up feeling even worse. You not only feel bad about what is distressing you in the first place, you may also feel guilty when you can’t feel good. You may feel defective for not being able to get with the positive-attitude program of the day.

Years ago, the comedian George Carlin joked about how much he hated it when people told him to “have a nice day” because, as I recall him saying, “this puts all the burden on you.” To this I add, if in America you just can’t have a nice day, no matter how hard you try, it is your own personal failing. It is your own personal moral failing. How’s that for tyranny? (pp. 986-987.)

From this perspective my characterisation of Sukovic’s argument as a piece of reductionist determinism becomes even worse: one of a tyranny of determinism by reductionism!

And what exactly is this playfulness Sukovic talks about? She gives the game away when she mentions a study of adolescents and their parents. But how does a parental relationship translate into a stifling public service environment?

Informal relationships and inclusiveness are likely to promote creative thinking in teams. Initial openness and the lack of any criticism is essential at early stages of the idea development, although assessment is necessary at a later stage (Adair 2007). Typically, open-ended divergent thinking is used at earlier stages and convergent thinking at later stages for analysis and selection of proposed ideas. (p. 265.)

So, what Sukovic is really talking about is perpetrating a sham. Get staff to feel like they are being listened to while they are actually being manipulated to feel involved and consulted when the real decisions have already been made, and there is only an appearance of congruent suggestions being slotted into the already-determined official plan. This is not only dishonest, but smacks of the proposition that it is possible to confect, by way of a conveyor belt system, organisational creativity in a way that actually subverts the entire idea of creativity.

I find it disturbing to contemplate that ‘play’ is conceived of as an essentially child-like activity, and I have an immediate affinity with the minority feedback in Sukovic’s study:

It was also clear that one or two people intensely disliked the planning day, particularly the ’kindergarten games’. (p. 272.)

It strikes me as both patronising to staff, and indicative of intellectual laziness, poor education, lacking maturity, or a mixture of all three in the author that there was no conception of ‘play’ as an activity engaged in by adults, not just children, and that playfulness does not mean infantilism.

For example, a mature adult professional might have opted instead for a relaxed, informal, egalitarian game of strategising along the lines of RAND Corporation exercises (see, for example, Williams (1966), or the RAND Corporation’s web site at www.rand.org). Choosing something with this level of sophistication and complementarity with a work environment might have involved actual trust, engendered rational respect, and generated real commitment rather than settling for the dishonestly encouraged ‘sense of engagement [that] was very beneficial for staff morale’ (Sukovic, 2011, p. 274).

I couldn’t help but smile at one of Sukovic’s conclusions for its apparent unreflective irony:

The experience with library strategic planning at UTS emphasized the social nature of creativity and innovation. First, what we identify as innovative is defined by previous experiences, in this case by similar processes within the organization and industry. Second, the depth and breadth of creative responses depend to a large extent on existing norms and expectations, on one hand, and on the other, creativity is enabled and supported by the whole organization. (p. 275.)

The suggestion that creativity and innovation are essentially social is a complete non sequitur. Where is the evidence that creativity and innovation cannot occur in solitary environments?  Moreover, that an artificial attempt at forcing it was made in an artificial ‘social’ setting does not make it social or validate Sukovic’s conclusion.

Nor is it rational or logical to suggest that innovation is always immediately recognised as innovation, or measured against previous experience.

If depth and breadth of creative responses can actually be quantified, they may or may not be related to notions of norms and expectations, but how that turns into a directly causal relationship escapes me, as does the suggestion that an absent, if indulgent, management layer enabled or supported any ‘creativity’ that didn’t slot into a predetermined strategic plan. Unless, of course, letting the children play is seen as enabling or supportive rather than patronising and disingenuous.

The merit of Sukovic’s paper has to be seen in the context of the advancement of her academic credentials, driven by publishing papers rather than the actual content, but it seems quite clear to me that it is precisely this sort of dishonest, euphemistic posturing about creativity, innovation, and strategy development that holds LIS back from being a vital profession rather than a moribund occupation headed for redundancies and extinction.

The business perspective

The human resource/psychology focus of Graetz (2001) has much in common with the Sukovic’s approach.

I’m no big fan of the psychobabble that seems to animate some parts of human resource management practice, and while I don’t deny the existence of personality traits, I see it as hugely dangerous to type-cast anyone. Typing almost always involves an end to all further evaluation of a person’s flexibilities, conceits, strengths, or surprising departures from type.

Graetz may have a point in proposing that creativity and innovation could require a careful mix of personality types in some settings, but her method is a crude reductionism about human qualities that makes me highly suspicious about the validity of ostensible ‘results’. Nor am I convinced that creativity and innovation are necessarily derived solely from group activities.

She did not discuss the organisational culture of the studied company well enough to permit judgements about the honesty of her subjects when responding to the Life Time Assessment Tests (LTAT). Also, the testing/survey instrument was not revealed, preventing scrutiny to permit judgements about the credibility of conclusions about either dominant personality traits or traits under pressure. In my view this makes her conclusions dubious:

The “Communications Co.” case findings appear to support the view that while strategic thinking capabilities can be nurtured and diffused through an organisation, it will need business leaders with a high degree of emotional intelligence to lead the way. At “Communications Co.”, for example, the LTAT results indicated that enormous creative potential exists within the organisation. However, the entrepreneurial, “can-do” approach of its people was being stymied by the traditional, conservative, engineering focussed culture that still dominated the “way we do things around here.” (p. 460.)

I cannot discern evidence in the paper supporting a view that strategic thinking can be ‘nurtured and diffused’ in that particular organisation, or that there is ‘enormous creative potential’. It also escapes me how Graetz identified an ‘entrepreneurial “can-do” approach’, but I suspect her paper was written at least partly to stroke her lab rats the right way.

On the other hand, Graetz might have been quite deft at avoiding stating some harsh truths. It seems likely to me that the observed people were Telstra staff in small business unit, and that organisational rigidities represented not only barriers to potential creativity and innovation, but also reasonable fear of personal reprisals from managers against subjects speaking their minds.

Graetz’s departure into the touchy-feely fantasy of ‘emotional intelligence’ struck me as complete flight of fancy:

Key characteristics of emotional intelligence and superior leadership include:

  • strong interpersonal skills;
  • an ease with ambiguity and openness to change;
  • the ability to draw others to a vision and take decisive action;
  • “contagious” enthusiasm, and commitment;
  • belief in and sensitivity to followers;
  • expertise in building and leading teams;
  • expertise in managing relationships, building networks and creating rapport;
  • high levels of energy, passion, motivation and commitment; and
  • a deep understanding of the business and its operation. (p. 460.)

The ambiguity of some of the terminology aside, who has ever heard of a leader who combines all these traits, and at exactly the right times? In other words, waiting for such a leader is a fool’s errand. Graetz would have done better to add value by moderating the sessions to illustrate how proposed personality imbalances in teams could be anticipated and managed towards a more desirable outcome.

Ultimately, what use is advice that applies only when conditions are perfect; circumstances under which advice of course becomes unnecessary.

Moving away from individual human factors, Reeves, Love & Tillmanns’ (2013) survey of types of strategy matched to kinds of environments is a somewhat formulaic approach, and rooted in the idea that operating environments can be ‘objectively’ evaluated (p. 82). What emerges from this survey, though, is a potentially useful insight for the LIS stream: their organisations operate predominantly in highly predictable and unmalleable environments because they are mostly top-down bureaucracies with fixed objectives and budgets.

What is not so clear is whether staying within those parameters runs the risk for an LIS organisation to be

overrun by events, and missing opportunities to control its own fate. It would do better to employ a strategy in which the goal is to shape the unpredictable environment to its own advantage before someone else does—so that it benefits no matter how things play out. (p. 81.)

This is almost the same point I made a couple of days ago about the Missingham paper, which I criticised for being intellectually undisciplined and pursuing a course I see as handing over the fate of the LIS occupation to someone other than its workers.

Reeves, Love & Tillmanns do offer some solace:

For companies in a declining phase, the environment becomes more malleable again, generating opportunities for disruption and rejuvenation through either a shaping or a visionary strategy. (p. 83.)

They even hint at how this might be achieved, by describing how freight company UPS employed a matrix team structure to iteratively develop a strategy capitalising on fulfillment for online shopping (pp. 81-82).

In other words, perhaps a break-down of teams organised by function and seniority, coupled with constant, iterative planning and improvements, might be a better way to manage LIS environments in transition to a more professional structure than the traditional team structures have been.

The most engaging treatment of strategy development and planning came from the oldest suggested reading: Mintzberg’s 1994 treatment of what differentiates strategy from planning.

Planners should make their contribution around the strategy-making process rather than inside it. They should supply the formal analyses or hard data that strategic thinking requires, as long as they do it to broaden the consideration of issues rather than to discover the one right answer. They should act as catalysts who support strategy making by aiding and encouraging managers to think strategically. And, finally, they can be programmers of a strategy, helping to specify the series of concrete steps needed to carry out the vision. (p. 108.)

Quite so. Information input is necessary, but not a determining factor in strategy formulation, which is about seeing things not necessarily present in the information. Nor is strategy business planning, the way it has been popularised in MBA programmes since the 1980s.

The outcome of strategic thinking is an integrated perspective of the enterprise, a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction … (p. 108.)

Just because most line staff and middle managers want to develop the concrete product of an ‘actionable’ document, like a business or strategic plan, does not make such a document a strategy, or even a necessity.

For strategic planning, the grand fallacy is this: because analysis encompasses synthesis, strategic planning is strategy making. This fallacy itself rests on three fallacious assumptions: that prediction is possible, that strategists can be detached from the subjects of their strategies, and, above all, that the strategy-making process can be formalized. (p, 110.)

And here it is – the reductionist determinism so popular with technology companies, by which all things can be reduced to measurable quantities that determine all outcomes. But as Mintzberg states so aptly:

Planners’ favored solution has been “hard data,” quantitative aggregates of the detailed “facts” about the organization and its context, neatly packaged and regularly delivered. With such information, senior managers need never leave their executive suites or planners their staff offices. Together they can formulate – work with their heads – so that the hands can get on with implementation.

All of this is dangerously fallacious. Innovation has never been institutionalized. Systems have never been able to reproduce the synthesis created by the genius entrepreneur or even the ordinary competent strategist, and they likely never will.

Ironically, strategic planning has missed one of [Frederick Winslow] Taylor’s most important messages: work processes must be fully understood before they can be formally programmed. But where in the planning literature is there a shred of evidence that anyone has ever bothered to find out how it is that managers really do make strategies? Instead many practitioners and theorists have wrongly assumed that strategic planning, strategic thinking, and strategy making are all synonymous, at least in best practice. (p. 110.)

In continuing his discussion, Mintzberg offered what is perhaps his most prescient insight: ‘Systems do not think, and when they are used for more than the facilitation of human thinking, they can prevent thinking’ (p. 114). That statement perfectly summarises my own response to management and specialist advice on how to turn all aspects of organisational and professional practice into systems and idiot-proof, documented processes.

I do appreciate the pressing need some people feel to reach for certainties and truth, but I cannot see this as a rational pursuit so much as a hankering for a religious experience. It seems to me that nothing is ever absolutely certain, and less so the more people are involved. Despite an inherent self-contradiction in separating political, social and economic factors, I’m willing to let Peter Drucker (1999) have the last word on this matter:

… what can strategy be based on in a period of rapid change and total uncertainty, such as the world is facing at the turn of the 21st century? Are there any assumptions on which to base the strategies of an organization and especially of a business? Are there any certainties?

There are indeed FIVE phenomena that can be considered certainties. They are, however, different from anything present strategies consider. Above all, they are not, essentially, economic. They are primarily social and political.

These five certainties are:

  1. The Collapsing Birthrate in the Developed World.
  2. Shifts in the Distribution of Disposable Income.
  3. Defining Performance.
  4. Global Competitiveness.
  5. The Growing Incongruence Between Economic Globalization and Political Splintering. (p. 37.)

Conclusion: Reductionist determinism

Last year I wrote a paper about the strategic environment and opportunities for the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC). In my research I was surprised to find no evidence of an IT strategy. I was forced to conclude that the AEC had instead adopted the overarching Australian Government Information Management Office strategy instead. While it could be argued that IT is not really an area deserving of a strategy separate to a more general organisational approach, the experience nevertheless illustrated for me the constraints in public sector organisations relating to any degree of independence or flexibility to determine their own destinies.

And so it is with the LIS stream. Australia’s librarians appear not to be empowered to make the strategic choices they apparently desire (as described by Partridge (2011), Partridge & Hallam (2004), and Partridge & Yates (2012)). They are squeezed into rigid, bureaucratic structures, and apparently consigned to be no more than cogs in a much larger machinery.

Nevertheless, the ambit of this particular unit of study appears to be at least to offer an insight into the management tools necessary to understand how it might be possible to break out of that rigid structure by developing vision and managing upward to infuse enthusiasm for their ideas among their managers.

To effectively manage upwards, however, I think a base requirement is a greater level of maturity, intellect, and broadly-based education than seems evident to me so far in the literature. Professionals should be well educated rather than just trained, civically and socially engaged to understand their environments and alternative perceptions of them, and able to absorb new ideas as well as abandon old ones through critical analysis and rational conclusions.

My perspective is that a strong tendency towards a reductionist determinism is evident in most of the readings, and my tentative conclusion is that it is facilitated by a dismaying ignorance, getting worse within my lifetime, in the traditional areas of liberal arts education, such as economics, history, literature, philosophy, politics, and even rhetoric and written expression. That ignorance probably fuels the dismissal of information that is not understood and therefore deemed irrelevant without valid grounds for that decision.

While ‘reductionist determinism’ is my terminology, I must acknowledge that the concepts I am referring to have a parentage in philosophy, and more recently in social and economic critique.

What I mean by reductionist determinism is a closed mind-set habitually reducing broad data-sets and information sources to a few simplified indicators, and using these to determine and impose a path that is neither rationally indicated, nor re-evaluated or questioned in the face of contradictory evidence.

Put another way, the reductionism I speak of is therefore a pre-emptive and unnecessary narrowing of options, and the determinism is the imposition of presuppositions, as well as the unquestioning adherence to what are foregone conclusions, without further and iterative critical analysis and synthesis.

The most compelling example of such deterministic reductionism is the almost religious faith in Silicon Valley (and associated) propaganda about the power of algorithms and engineering-minded ‘solutioneering’ to address all problems, whether they are in fact problems or not, and whether they can really be solved in this manner.

Academic, writer, and technology industry critic Evgeny Morozov ‘wrote the book’ on Silicon Valley propaganda. He suggests that the only way to understand broad societal, or strategic, dynamics

is to resist technological determinism and embark on a careful analysis of nontechnological forces that constitute the environments they seek to understand or transform. It may make sense to think about technologies as embodying a certain logic at an early stage of their deployment, but as they mature, their logic usually gives way to more powerful social forces. (2011, pp. 288-289.)

Making that point almost channels Peter Drucker’s prediction, cited above, that the certainties strategic planners face are not specific to organisational aims or dynamics, but to the social, political, and economic factors representing the broader strategic environment.

In the context of something he called ‘Internet-centrism’, Morozov elaborated that clarity of thought itself can be undermined by narrowing all debates to a technology or engineering-focused perspective, which may have created hugely successful corporations, but by which all that has been gained in this way

has been lost in analytical clarity and precision. Internet-centrism’s totality of vision, its false universalism, and its reductionism prevent us from a more robust debate about digital technologies.

Internet-centrism has become something of a religion. To move on, we need, as French media scholar Philippe Breton put it, “a ‘secularization’ of communication.” Such secularization can no longer be postponed. We need to find a way to temporarily forget everything we know about “the Internet”—we take too many things for granted these days—roll up our sleeves, and work to ensure that technologies do not just constrain human flourishing but also enable it. (2013, p. 62.)

He goes on to clarify the idea of reductionism in an ontological sense with direct consequences for information management:

The problem with Silicon Valley’s quest to organize the world’s information (Google is only one of the many culprits here) is that it tends to succumb to the worst excesses of “information reductionism”—a tendency to view all knowledge through the prism of information that sociologist Nikolas Tsoukas faults for assuming that “a set of indices” can “adequately describe, to represent, the phenomenon at hand.” The quest to organize the world’s knowledge cannot proceed without doing at least some violence to the knowledge it seeks to organize; making knowledge “legible,” to borrow James Scott’s phrase, is tricky regardless of whether a totalitarian government or a Silicon Valley start-up does it.

According to Tsoukas, information reductionism thrives whenever humans start thinking of ideas as autonomous objects that can be exchanged between the sender and the recipient in their original form, without any distortion that might be introduced by the communications channel or the nodes doing the sending and the receiving. It’s the ultimate double click: ideas are seen as completely independent not just of the infrastructures that transport them but also of each other. This is a very naïve view of how humans and institutions communicate. Once popular with theorists of cybernetics, it was all but forgotten but is now enjoying an intellectual renaissance of sorts thanks to the epochalist claims of Internet-centrists. (2013, p. 87.)

While Morozov comes close to my intended meanings when I talk about reductionist determinism, he has not extended his critique as trenchantly as I have into the massive failure in contemporary debate to consider and openly discuss the features of political economy that determine public and private organisational behaviours. It seems to me that political economy is one of the least understood disciplines in a world entirely shaped by it.

As a crude reductionism of my own, political economy is the study of what political systems and methods are used to support which modes of wealth distribution, and how that is done (the methods) in specific national and international contexts.

The principal, but not only, relevance to information management disciplines is that much of the rhetoric and propaganda adopted by writers in this area is actually underpinned by the astonishingly ignorant, amoral and crassly greedy libertarian economic conceptions peddled by American tech entrepreneurs, and by proponents of the Washington Consensus/Wall Street capitalism in general (apart from Morozov, see Packer (2013) and Packer (2014) for an insight into the Silicon Valley mindset, Steger & Roy (2010, p. 19), and Harvey (2005, pp. 13, 93) for explanations of the Washington Consensus political economy).

My insight, then, is that by ignorance or avoiding consideration of the strategic environments in which most of the writers surveyed here have discussed their topics, they have reduced the vigour, if not also the rationality, of their perspectives, and instead have become uncritical propagators of an American corporate doctrine that might actually be antithetical to their stated or implied objectives.

For example, Sukovic and Graetz may have both been motivated to discover methods for enhancing creativity and innovation, but because they did not question their own strategic environments and assumptions, they may in fact have contributed to a doctrine of distracting workers from gaining some control over their working environments with ineffective and time-wasting versions of busy work for idle hands.

American corporate ends may be shared by some Australian organisations, but they are not the sole options for information professionals and information practice. However, to be aware of alternatives, one must be first aware that one option is proposed through many channels as the sole correct or viable path.

Is it ironic that writers on strategy have failed to understand the strategic environments in which they operate, or is it merely to be expected? I’m hoping that no matter how I will sell my skills in future, I will at least be aware of information and issues that seem just too invisible or too hard for some of my peers to grapple with.


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