Why Wisdom Matters to You

Four words are inscribed on the Scottish Mace: Wisdom, Compassion, Integrity and Justice.

Wisdom is much more than just common sense. Wisdom has a rigour and a discipline. It is defined in the Chamber’s dictionary as “the ability to make the right use of knowledge” and knowledge (c.f. McGregor, Deming etc) is built on theory.  To give an illustration –  there was a time when doctors, when treating an individual with a disease, would resort to bleeding the patient. Their conviction was that fevers were caused by bad blood and the more of this bad blood that could be removed the better it was for the patient. Bleeding did in fact reduce the fever symptoms, but it also weakened the patient and made them less able to fight the infection. The practice faded from use when they discovered bacteria and the underlying theoretical causes of infections and disease. The medical profession acquired knowledge, based on the theory of germs, and could subsequently apply wisdom.

Dan Pink in his book “Drive – The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us,” writes – “For too long there has been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does”

In context of the social sciences and management, are we actually using practices that are simply based on wrong theory? Are they in fact bleeding the spirit out of people?

  • Are managers trying to manipulate people to work harder with bonuses, targets, appraisals etc? Do they work, or do they have unintended consequences?
  • Are our organisations divided up into functions, made competitively accountable for meeting their own targets, budgets etc – and then asked to work together and use joined up thinking?
  • Do leaders believe that they can manage an organisation from  measurable figures alone, ignoring the complex interrelationships and teamwork required for complex tasks?

To use Dan Pink’s phrases – Science knows that the above three practices are based on wrong theory, they are damaging the patient, the employees, They are reducing their contibution – see the rest of this site.

This talk about science and theory in context of management puts many of us off. It is too theoretical, it is not practical, it is not how we have gained our understanding of management. Unfortunately it is the future, we can only progress on the basis of sound knowledge. We cannot progress from quick fixes, what sounds right and flavours of the month. The Unreasonable Learners are, therefore, committed to the disciplined development and application of knowledge in management and the social sciences. In other words it is committed to Wisdom

McGregor’s Vision

Douglas McGregorDouglas McGregor way back in 1960 called for this type of commitment in his seminal book The Human Side of Enterprise. He had observed that both engineering and medicine had secured unbelievable progress through the application of scientific method. In engineering, within his lifetime, he had seen the first tentative attempts at flying mature to an ability to fly at near supersonic speeds. Five years after his death man walked on the moon.  In medicine he had seen the elimination of the scourges of smallpox, diphtheria, polio, cholera and other diseases.

Scientific method is the cyclical process of proposing a hypothesis or theory, conducting experiments and then studying the results to confirm or disprove the original hypothesis. This is how we have developed our scientific knowledge down the centuries.

McGregor’s vision was for “management” and the social sciences to adopt this scientific discipline in the development of their profession. He concluded his book by saying:

“The purpose of this volume is not to entice management to choose sides over” this theory or that. “It is rather, to encourage management to examine its assumptions and make them explicit. In doing so it will open the door to the future. The possible result could be developments during the next few decades with respect to the human side of enterprise comparable to those that have occurred in technology during the past half century.”

Management in the 50 years since publication of his book has failed to take up his challenge. Instead we have allowed our practice to drift and become bedevilled by flavours of the month, the dominance of accounting figures and the short term. In practice our managers are under so much pressure that they have little space to think and explore deeper issues. We are paying dearly for this situation

Wisdom matters because the use of wrong theories undermines and weakens the well being of the individual. The application of out of date knowledge results in massive waste  to our whole society. The application of sound knowledge can transform the quality of our lives and the homogeneity and effectiveness of our society.

There is No Substitute for Knowledge

Gordon Hall delivered this paper to the 17th Annual International Deming Research Seminar at Fordham University, New York in March 2011. – There is no Substitute for Knowledge