After participating in this year’s Academy of Management Annual Meeting in San Antonio, the planet’s largest professional body of management scholars, I gained some puzzling insights to the profound problems of the field. Of course this is mainly due to my distorted worldview I inherit from Heinz von Foerster, Francisco Varela and Niklas Luhmann. However it might be just as valid as any other, and maybe even more so as it stems from a kind of reasoning that embraces paradox rather than run away from it.
Running away from it is what management science (and probably also management practice) is doing. For management practice this is forgiveable and most likely it is completely irrelevant as to how good or bad management problems are dealt with. For management science the case is different. I will try to explain why and what I see as the problem.
Heinz von Foerster distinguishes two kinds of questions: those that can be decided and those that cannot. Decidable questions take the form of “How old was Heinz von Foerster?” You can find the answer by looking in his passport or, more accesible to most of us as he is dead, by searching the internet. (He died shortly before is 91st birthday) Decidable questions are a bit like complete puzzles, everything is already there in order to answer them. It might just take a while but there is definitely one, and only one unambigous answer to them.
Some sciences, and sometimes even management science, deal with these kinds of questions e.g. when does water freeze under what context situtations or what is the most cost optimal production programme under given constraints. In brief, decidable questions are pretty boring, regardless how relevant the answer can be (e.g. if you want to have ice cubes in your Gin and Tonic).
However, some sciences, and most of the time management science, are dealing with the other kind of questions: undecidable questions. Some forms this type can take are: What is happiness? What is the origin of everything? What is the best market strategy? With whom should I partner (for business, for love)? You figure their general form for yourself.
Undecidable questions are of interest to me, they open up a space that bears new insight all of the time — not for answering the question, but for understanding why we ask them in the first place and how we can cope with their “undecidableness”. The funny thing with management science is that it uses the methods of puzzle solving (that is working for decidable questions) for adressing undecidable questions. The field is increasingly obsessive with quantitative studies and statistical analysis. And, needless to say, it is the way to get published, to get reputation and tenured positions.
Now, there is nothing wrong with statistics and some good old-fashione empirical social research. But if you do it, you are assuming something: you are assuming more or less clear causality and thus decidability. Causality is always given if you shorten your timespan of inquiry and limit contextual factors to the very least. If e.g. you want to find a causal link between internationalization of SMEs and their overall performance (e.g. R&D patents, employees, sales growth), you will definitely find them if you ignore the historic instances accompanying internationalization (e.g. high economic growth rates in the countries they are internationalizing to) and specific regulatory contexts (e.g. the need to patent your patent again under different national laws). The more you include and the longer you look, the less valid your analysis will become. And it is no wonder because such a question, e.g. to internationalize or not, is undecidable. You have to actually do it. There is no try, as Master Yoda said. And I would add: there is also no prospect to it, no method of calculating it ante.
If you want to take undecidable questions serious, and stick to notions of causality e.g., you have to acknowledge the circularity of causality: a influences a, and it could influence it in such a way that it becomes non-a. And back again. Circularity increases the likelihood of paradox. And if you look to the real world, in which managerial problems occur, paradox abounds.
What I was missing from the discussion at the Academy was the full acknowledgment of paradox stemming from undecidable questions. In more blunt words: the guts to look into them, not for answers about them but for answers about us who are asking these questions. The only sessions where this was possible were Yoga and meditation sessions… Seriously.
Does management science have to turn Yoga in order to adress these questions properly? That is not what I am advocating, although some Yoga can do no harm to a scientist nor to a manager. What I am advocating is a language of inquiry that can handle undecidable questions and is able to provide a formal grounding for posing them. There is nothing else under this sun I came across that appears to be able to deliver this than system theory and second-order cybernetics. I know, the means to apply it to empirical research are hard; I know that the means to connect it to existing management theories is hard; I know that almost none in the management field really know about it. But that is no excuse, it is a spur to start the discussion and get into the heart of the matter. That was what we did with our workshop on system theory and we will continue to do so. Who wants to join? The odds are against us and the outcome unclear (not to mention the possibility of tenured positions…), but I guess this is just what undecidable questions are all about.