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From ambiguity to action – a paper preview

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The powerful documentary The Social Dilemma highlights the polarizing effect of social media, and how it hinders our collective ability to address problems that impact communities, societies and even nations. Towards the end of the documentary, the technology ethicist, Tristan Harris, makes the following statement:

“If we don’t agree on what is true or that there’s such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem beneath all other problems because if we can’t agree on what is true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.”

The central point the documentary makes is that the strategies social media platforms use to enhance engagement also tend to encourage the polarization of perspectives. A consequence is that people on two sides of a contentious issue become less likely to find common ground and build a shared understanding of a complex problem.

A similar dynamic plays out in organisations, albeit on a smaller and less consequential scale. For example, two departments – say, sales and marketing – may have completely different perspectives on why sales are falling.  Since their perspectives are different, the mitigating actions they advocate may be completely different, even contradictory. In a classic paper, published half a century ago, Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber coined the term wicked problem to describe such ambiguous dilemmas.

In contrast, problems such as choosing the cheapest product from a range of options are unambiguous because the decision criteria are clear. Such problems are sometimes referred to as tame problems.  As an aside, it should be noted that organisations often tend to treat wicked problems as tame, with less-than-optimal consequences down the line. For example, choosing the cheapest product might lead to larger long-term costs due to increased maintenance, repair and replacement costs.

The problem with wicked problems is that they cannot be solved using rational approaches to decision making. The reason is that rational approaches assume that a) the decision options can be unambiguously determined upfront, and b) that they can be objectively rated.  This implicitly assumes that all those who are impacted by the decision will agree on the options and the rating criteria. Anyone who has been involved in making a contentious decision will know that these are poor assumptions. Consider, for example, management and employee perspectives on an organizational restructuring.

In a book published in 2016, Paul Culmsee and I argued that the difference between tame and wicked problems lies in the nature of uncertainty associated with the two. In brief, tame problems are characterized by uncertainties that can be easily quantified (e.g., cost or time in projects) whereas wicked problems are characterized by uncertainties that are hard to quantify (e.g., the uncertainties associated with a business strategy).  One can think of these as lying at the opposite ends of an ambiguity spectrum, as shown below:

Figure 1: The Ambiguity Spectrum

It is important to note that most real-world problems have both quantifiable and unquantifiable uncertainties and the first thing that one needs to do when one is confronted with a decision making situation is to figure out, qualitatively, where the problem lies on the ambiguity spectrum:

Figure 2: Where does your problem lie on the ambiguity spectrum?

The key insight is that problems that have quantifiable uncertainties can be tackled using rational decision making techniques whereas those with unquantifiable uncertainties cannot. Problems of the latter kind are wicked, and require a different approach – one that focuses on framing the problem collectively (i.e., involving all impacted stakeholders) prior to using rational decision making approaches to address it. This is the domain of sensemaking, which I like to think of as the art of extracting or framing a problem from a messy situation.

Sensemaking is something we all do instinctively when we encounter the unfamiliar – we try to make sense of the situation by framing it in familiar terms. However, in an unfamiliar situation, it is unlikely that a single perspective on a problem will be an appropriate one. What is needed in such situations is for people with different perspectives to debate their views openly and build a shared understanding of the problem that synthesizes the diverse viewpoints. This is sometimes called collective sensemaking.

Collective sensemaking is challenging because it involves exactly the kind of cooperation that Tristan Harris calls for in the quote at the start of this piece.

But when people hold conflicting views on a contentious topic, how can they ever hope to build common ground? It turns out there are ways to build common ground, and although they aren’t perfect (and require diplomacy and doggedness) they do work, at least in many situations if not always. A technique I use is dialogue mapping which I have described in several articles and a book co-written with Paul Culmsee.

Figure 3: An example dialogue (or issue) map

Regardless of the technique used, the point I’m making is that when dealing with ambiguous problems one needs to use collective sensemaking to frame the problem before using rational decision making methods to solve it. When dealing with an ambiguous problem, the viability of a decision hinges on the ability of the decision maker to: a) help stakeholders distinguish facts from opinions, b) take necessary sensemaking actions to find common ground between holders of conflicting opinions, and c) build a base of shared understanding from which a commonly agreed set of “facts” emerge. These “facts” will not be absolute truths but contingent ones. This is often true even of so-called facts used in rational decision making: a cost quotation does not point to a true cost, rather it is an estimate that depends critically on the assumptions made in its calculation. Such decisions, therefore, cannot be framed based on facts alone but ought to be co-constructed with those affected by the decision.  This approach is the basis of a course on decision making under uncertainty that I designed and have been teaching across two faculties at the University of Technology Sydney for the last five years.

In a paper, soon to be published in Management Decision, a leading journal on decision making in organisations, Natalia Nikolova and I describe the principles and pedagogy behind the course in detail. We also highlight the complementary nature of collective sensemaking and rational decision making, showing how the former helps in extracting (or framing) a problem from a situation while the latter solves the framed problem. We also make the point that decision makers in organisations tend to jump into “solutioning” without spending adequate time framing the problem appropriately.  

Finally, it is worth pointing out that the hard sciences have long recognized complementarity to be an important feature of physical theories such as quantum mechanics. Indeed, the physicist Niels Bohr was so taken by this notion that he inscribed the following on his coat of arms: contraria sunt complementa (opposites are complementary). The integration of apparently incompatible elements into a single theory or model can lead to a more complete view of the world and hence, how to act in it. Summarizing the utility of our approach in a phrase: it can help decision makers learn how to move from ambiguity to action.

For copyright reasons, I cannot post the paper publicly. However, I’d be happy to share it with anyone interested in reading / commenting on it – just let me know via a comment below.

Note added on 13 May 2022:

The permalink to the published online version is: https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/MD-06-2021-0804/full/html

Written by K

May 3, 2022 at 7:59 am

Risk management and organizational anxiety

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In practice risk management is a rational, means-end based process: risks are identified, analysed and then “solved” (or mitigated).  Although these steps seem to be objective, each of them involves human perceptions, biases and interests. Where Jill sees an opportunity, Jack may see only risks.

Indeed, the problem of differences in stakeholder perceptions is broader than risk analysis. The recognition that such differences in world-views may be irreconcilable is what led Horst Rittel to coin the now well-known term, wicked problem.   These problems tend to be made up of complex interconnected and interdependent issues which makes them difficult to tackle using standard rational- analytical methods of problem solving.

Most high-stakes risks that organisations face have elements of wickedness – indeed any significant organisational change is fraught with risk. Murphy rules; things can go wrong, and they often do. The current paradigm of risk management, which focuses on analyzing and quantifying risks using rational methods, is not broad enough to account for the wicked aspects of risk.

I had been thinking about this for a while when I stumbled on a fascinating paper by Robin Holt entitled, Risk Management: The Talking Cure, which outlines a possible approach to analysing interconnected risks. In brief, Holt draws a parallel between psychoanalysis (as a means to tackle individual anxiety) and risk management (as a means to tackle organizational anxiety).  In this post, I present an extensive discussion and interpretation of Holt’s paper. Although more about the philosophy of risk management than its practice, I found the paper interesting, relevant and thought provoking. My hope is that some readers might find it so too.

Background

Holt begins by noting that modern life is characterized by uncertainty. Paradoxically, technological progress which should have increased our sense of control over our surroundings and lives has actually heightened our personal feelings of uncertainty. Moreover, this sense of uncertainty is not allayed by rational analysis. On the contrary, it may have even increased it by, for example, drawing our attention to risks that we may otherwise have remained unaware of. Risk thus becomes a lens through which we perceive the world. The danger is that this can paralyze.  As Holt puts it,

…risk becomes the only backdrop to perceiving the world and perception collapses into self-inhibition, thereby compounding uncertainty through inertia.

Most individuals know this through experience: most of us have at one time or another been frozen into inaction because of perceived risks.  We also “know” at a deep personal level that the standard responses to risk are inadequate because many of our worries tend to be inchoate and therefore can neither be coherently articulated nor analysed. In Holt’s words:

..People do not recognize [risk] from the perspective of a breakdown in their rational calculations alone, but because of threats to their forms of life – to the non-calculative way they see themselves and the world. [Mainstream risk analysis] remains caught in the thrall of its own ‘expert’ presumptions, denigrating the very lay knowledge and perceptions on the grounds that they cannot be codified and institutionally expressed.

Holt suggests that risk management should account for the “codified, uncodified and uncodifiable aspects of uncertainty from an organizational perspective.” This entails a mode of analysis that takes into account different, even conflicting, perspectives in a non-judgemental way. In essence, he suggests “talking it over” as a means to increase awareness of the contingent nature of risks rather than a means of definitively resolving them.

Shortcomings of risk analysis

The basic aim of risk analysis (as it is practiced) is to contain uncertainty within set bounds that are determined by an organisation’s risk appetite.  As mentioned earlier, this process begins by identifying and classifying risks. Once this is done, one determines the probability and impact of each risk. Then, based on priorities and resources available (again determined by the organisation’s risk appetite) one develops strategies to mitigate the risks that are significant from the organisation’s perspective.

However, the messiness of organizational life makes it difficult to see risk in such a clear-cut way. We may  pretend to be rational about it, but in reality we perceive it through the lens of our background, interests , experiences.  Based on these perceptions we rationalize our action (or inaction!) and simply get on with life. As Holt writes:

The concept [of risk] refers to…the mélange of experience, where managers accept contingencies without being overwhelmed to a point of complete passivity or confusion, Managers learn to recognize the differences between things, to acknowledge their and our limits. Only in this way can managers be said to make judgements, to be seen as being involved in something called the future.

Then, in a memorable line, he goes on to say:

The future, however, lasts a long time, so much so as to make its containment and prediction an often futile exercise.

Although one may well argue that this is not the case for many organizational risks, it is undeniable that certain mitigation strategies (for example, accepting risks that turn out to be significant later) may have significant consequences in the not-so-near future.

Advice from a politician-scholar

So how can one address the slippery aspects of risk – the things people sense intuitively, but find difficult to articulate?

Taking inspiration from Machiavelli, Holt suggests reframing risk management as a means to determine wise actions in the face of the contradictory forces of fortune and necessity.  As Holt puts it:

Necessity describes forces that are unbreachable but manageable by acceptance and containment—acts of God, tendencies of the species, and so on. In recognizing inevitability, [one can retain one’s] position, enhancing it only to the extent that others fail to recognize necessity. Far more influential, and often confused with necessity, is fortune. Fortune is elusive but approachable. Fortune is never to be relied upon: ‘The greatest good fortune is always least to be trusted’; the good is often kept underfoot and the ridiculous elevated, but it provides [one] with opportunity.

Wise actions involve resolve and cunning (which I interpret as political nous). This entails understanding that we do not have complete (or even partial) control over events that may occur in the future. The future is largely unknowable as are people’s true drives and motivations. Yet, despite this, managers must act.  This requires personal determination together with a deep understanding of the social and political aspects of one’s environment.

And a little later,

…risk management is not the clear conception of a problem coupled to modes of rankable resolutions, or a limited process, but a judgemental  analysis limited by the vicissitudes of budgets, programmes, personalities and contested priorities.

In short: risk management in practice tends to be a far way off from how it is portrayed in textbooks and the professional literature.

The wickedness of risk management

Most managers and those who work under their supervision have been schooled in the rational-scientific approach of problem solving. It is no surprise, therefore, that they use it to manage risks: they gather and analyse information about potential risks, formulate potential solutions (or mitigation strategies) and then implement the best one (according to predetermined criteria). However, this method works only for problems that are straightforward or tame, rather than wicked.

Many of the issues that risk managers are confronted with are wicked, messy or both.  Often though, such problems are treated as being tame.   Reducing a wicked or messy problem to one amenable to rational analysis invariably entails overlooking  the views of certain stakeholder groups or, worse, ignoring key  aspects of the problem.  This may work in the short term, but will only exacerbate the problem in the longer run. Holt illustrates this point as follows:

A primary danger in mistaking a mess for a tame problem is that it becomes even more difficult to deal with the mess. Blaming ‘operator error’ for a mishap on the production line and introducing added surveillance is an illustration of a mess being mistaken for a tame problem. An operator is easily isolated and identifiable, whereas a technological system or process is embedded, unwieldy and, initially, far more costly to alter. Blaming operators is politically expedient. It might also be because managers and administrators do not know how to think in terms of messes; they have not learned how to sort through complex socio-technical systems.

It is important to note that although many risk management practitioners recognize the essential wickedness of the issues they deal with, the practice of risk management is not quite up to the task of dealing with such matters.  One step towards doing this is to develop a shared (enterprise-wide) understanding of risks by soliciting input from diverse stakeholders groups, some of who may hold opposing views.

The skills required to do this are very different from the analytical techniques that are the focus of problem solving and decision making techniques that are taught in colleges and business schools.  Analysis is replaced by sensemaking – a collaborative process that harnesses the wisdom of a group to arrive at a collective understanding of a problem and thence a common  commitment to a course of action. This necessarily involves skills that do not appear in the lexicon of rational problem solving: negotiation, facilitation, rhetoric and those of the same ilk that are dismissed as being of no relevance by the scientifically oriented analyst.

In the end though, even this may not be enough: different stakeholders may perceive a given “risk” in have wildly different ways, so much so that no consensus can be reached.  The problem is that the current framework of risk management requires the analyst to perform an objective analysis of situation/problem, even in situations where this is not possible.

To get around this Holt suggests that it may be more useful to see risk management as a way to encounter problems rather than analyse or solve them.

What does this mean?

He sees this as a forum in which people can talk about the risks openly:

To enable organizational members to encounter problems, risk management’s repertoire of activity needs to engage their all too human components: belief, perception, enthusiasm and fear.

This gets to the root of the problem: risk matters because it increases anxiety and generally affects peoples’ sense of wellbeing. Given this, it is no surprise that Holt’s proposed solution draws on psychoanalysis.

The analogy between psychoanalysis and risk management

Any discussion of psychoanalysis –especially one that is intended for an audience that is largely schooled in rational/scientific methods of analysis – must begin with the acknowledgement that the claims of psychoanalysis cannot be tested. That is, since psychoanalysis speaks of unobservable “objects” such as the ego and the unconscious, any claims it makes about these concepts cannot be proven or falsified.

However  as Holt suggests, this is exactly what makes it a good fit for encountering (as opposed to  analyzing) risks. In his words:

It is precisely because psychoanalysis avoids an overarching claim to produce testable, watertight, universal theories that it is of relevance for risk management. By so avoiding universal theories and formulas, risk management can afford to deviate from pronouncements using mathematical formulas to cover the ‘immanent indeterminables’ manifest in human perception and awareness and systems integration.

His point is that there is a clear parallel between psychoanalysis and the individual, and risk management and the organisation:

We understand ourselves not according to a template but according to our own peculiar, beguiling histories. Metaphorically, risk management can make explicit a similar realization within and between organizations. The revealing of an unconscious world and its being in a constant state of tension between excess and stricture, between knowledge and ignorance, is emblematic of how organizational members encountering messes, wicked problems and wicked messes can be forced to think.

In brief, Holt suggests that what psychoanalysis does for the individual, risk management ought to do for the organisation.

Talking it over – the importance of conversations

A key element of psychoanalysis is the conversation between the analyst and patient. Through this process, the analyst attempts to get the patient to become aware of hidden fears and motivations. As Holt puts it,

Psychoanalysis occupies the point of rupture between conscious intention and unconscious desire — revealing repressed or overdetermined aspects of self-organization manifest in various expressions of anxiety, humour, and so on

And then, a little later,   he makes the connection to organisations:

The fact that organizations emerge from contingent, complex interdependencies between specific narrative histories suggests that risk management would be able to use similar conversations to psychoanalysis to investigate hidden motives, to examine…the possible reception of initiatives or strategies from the perspective of inherently divergent stakeholders, or to analyse the motives for and expectations of risk management itself. This fundamentally reorients the perspective of risk management from facing apparent uncertainties using technical assessment tools, to using conversations devoid of fixed formulas to encounter questioned identities, indeterminate destinies, multiple and conflicting aims and myriad anxieties.

Through conversations involving groups of stakeholders who have different risk perceptions,   one might be able to get a better understanding of a particular risk and hence, may be, design a more effective mitigation strategy.   More importantly, one may even realise that certain risks are not risks at all or others that seem straightforward have implications that would have remained hidden were it not for the conversation.

These collective conversations would take place in workshops…

…that tackle problems as wicked messes, avoid lowest-denominator consensus in favour of continued discovery of alternatives through conversation, and are instructed by metaphor rather than technical taxonomy, risk management is better able to appreciate the everyday ambivalence that fundamentally influences late-modern organizational activity. As such, risk management would be not merely a rationalization of uncertain experience but a structured and contested activity involving multiple stakeholders engaged in perpetual translation from within environments of operation and complexes of aims.

As a facilitator of such workshops, the risk analyst provokes stakeholders to think about their feelings and motivations that may be “out of bounds” in a standard risk analysis workshop.  Such a paradigm goes well beyond mainstream risk management because it addresses the risk-related anxieties and fears of individuals who are affected by it.

Conclusion

This brings me to the end of my not-so-short summary of Holt’s paper. Given the length of this post, I reckon I should keep my closing remarks short. So I’ll leave it here paraphrasing the last line of the paper, which summarises its main message:  risk management ought to be about developing an organizational capacity for overcoming risks, freed from the presumption of absolute control.

Written by K

February 5, 2018 at 11:21 pm

The façade of expertise

with 2 comments

Introduction

Since the 1980s, intangible assets, such as knowledge, have come to represent an ever-increasing proportion of an organisation’s net worth.  One of the problems associated with treating knowledge as an asset is that it is difficult to codify in its entirety. This is largely because knowledge is context and skill dependent, and these are hard to convey by any means other than experience. This is the well-known tacit versus explicit knowledge problem that I have written about at length elsewhere (see this post and this one, for example).  Although a recent development in knowledge management technology goes some way towards addressing the problem of context, it still looms large and is likely to for a while.

Although the problem mentioned above is well-known, it hasn’t stopped legions of consultants and professional organisations from attempting to codify and sell expertise: management consultancies and enterprise IT vendors being prime examples. This has given rise to the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm, an organization in which most work is said to be of an intellectual nature and where well-educated, qualified employees form the major part of the work force.   However, the slipperiness of knowledge mentioned in the previous paragraph suggests that the notion of a knowledge intensive firm (and, by implication, expertise) is problematic. Basically, if it is true that knowledge itself is elusive, and hard-to-codify, it raises the question as to what exactly such firms (and their employees) sell.

In this post, I shed some light on this question by drawing on an interesting paper by Mats Alvesson entitled, Knowledge Work: Ambiguity, Image and Identity (abstract only), as well as my experiences in dealing with IT services and consulting firms.

Background: the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm

The first point to note is that the notion of a knowledge-intensive firm is not particularly precise. Based on the definition offered above, it is clear that a wide variety of organisations may be classified as knowledge intensive firms. For example, management consultancies and enterprise software companies would fall into this category, as would law, accounting and research & development firms.  The same is true of the term knowledge work(er).

One of the implications of the vagueness of the term is that any claim to being a knowledge-intensive firm or knowledge worker can be contested. As Alvesson states:

It is difficult to substantiate knowledge-intensive companies and knowledge workers as distinct, uniform categories. The distinction between these and non- (or less) knowledge-intensive organization/non-knowledge   workers is not self-evident, as all organizations and work  involve “knowledge” and any evaluation of “intensiveness” is likely to be contestable. Nevertheless,  there are, in many crucial respects, differences  between many professional service and high-tech companies on the one hand, and more routinized service and industry companies on the other, e.g. in terms of broadly socially shared ideas about the significance of a long theoretical education and intellectual capacities for the work. It makes sense to refer to knowledge-intensive companies as a vague but meaningful category, with sufficient heuristic value to be useful. The category does not lend itself to precise definition or delimitation and it includes organizations which are neither unitary nor unique. Perhaps the claim to knowledge-intensiveness is one of the most distinguishing features…

The last line in the excerpt is particularly interesting to me because it resonates with my experience: having been through countless IT vendor and management consulting briefings on assorted products and services, it is clear that a large part of their pitch is aimed at establishing their credibility as experts in the field, even though they may not actually be so.

The ambiguity of knowledge work

Expertise in skill-based professions is generally unambiguous – an incompetent pilot will be exposed soon enough. In knowledge work, however, genuine expertise is often not so easily discernable. Alvesson highlights a number of factors that make this so.

Firstly, much of the day-to-day work of knowledge workers such as management consultants and IT experts involves routine matters – meetings, documentation etc. – that do not make great demands on their skills. Moreover, even when involved in one-off tasks such as projects, these workers are generally assigned tasks that they are familiar with. In general, therefore, the nature of their work requires them to follow already instituted processes and procedures.  A somewhat unexpected consequence of this is that incompetence can remain hidden for a long time.

A second issue is that the quality of so-called knowledge work is often hard to evaluate – indeed evaluations may require the engagement of independent experts! This is true even of relatively mundane expertise-based work. As Alvesson states:

Comparisons of the decisions of expert and novice auditors indicate no relationship  between the degree of expertise  (as indicated by experience)  and consensus; in high-risk and less standard situations, the experts’ consensus level was lower than that of novices. [An expert remarked that] “judging the quality of an audit is an extremely problematic exercise” and says that consumers of the audit service “have only a very limited insight into the quality of work undertaken by an audit firm”.

This is true of many different kinds of knowledge work.  As Alvesson tells us:

How can anyone tell whether a headhunting firm has found and recruited the best possible candidates or not…or if an audit has been carried out in a high-quality way?  Or  if  the  proposal by  strategic management consultants is optimal or even helpful, or not. Of course, sometimes one may observe whether something works or not (e.g. after the intervention of a plumber), but normally the issues concerned are not that simple in the context in which the concept of knowledge-intensiveness is frequently used. Here we are mainly dealing with complex and intangible phenomena.  Even if something seems to work, it might have worked even better or the cost of the intervention been much lower if another professional or organization had carried out the task.

In view of the above, it is unlikely that market mechanisms would be effective in sorting out the competent from the incompetent.  Indeed, my experience of dealing with major consulting firms (in IT) leads me believe that market mechanisms tend to make them clones of each other, at least in terms of their offerings and approach. This may be part of the reason why client firms tend to base their contracting decisions on the basis of cost or existing relationships – it makes sense to stick with the known, particularly when the alternatives offer choices akin to Pepsi vs Coke.

But that is not the whole story, experts are often hired for ulterior motives. On the one hand, they  might be hired because they confer legitimacy – “no one ever got fired for hiring McKinsey” is a quote I’ve heard more than a few times in many workplaces. On the other hand, they also make convenient scapegoats when the proverbial stuff hits the fan.

Image cultivation

One of the consequences of the ambiguity of knowledge-intensive work is that employees in such firms are forced to cultivate and maintain the image of being experts, and hence the stereotype of the suited, impeccably-groomed Big 4 consultant. As Alvesson points out, though, image cultivation goes beyond the individual employee:

This image must be  managed on different levels: professional-industrial, corporate and individual. Image may be targeted in specific acts and arrangements,  in visible symbols for public consumption but also in everyday behavior, within the organization and in interaction  with others. Thus image is not just of importance in marketing  and for attracting personnel but also in and after production.  Size and a big name  are  therefore important for  many knowledge-intensive companies – and here we perhaps have a major explanation  for all the mergers and acquisitions  in accounting, management consultancy and  other  professional service companies. A large size is reassuring. A well-known brand name substitutes for difficulties in establishing quality.

Another aspect of image cultivation is the use of rhetoric. Here are some examples taken from the websites of Big 4 consulting firms:

No matter the challenge, we focus on delivering practical and enduring results, and equipping our clients to grow and lead.” —McKinsey

We continue to redefine ourselves and set the bar higher to continually deliver quality for clients, our people, and the society in which we operate.” – Deloitte

Cutting through complexity” – KPMG

Creating value for our clients, people and communities in a changing world” – PWC

Some clients are savvy enough not to be taken in by the platitudinous statements listed above.  However, the fact that knowledge-intensive firms continue to use second-rate rhetoric to attract custom suggests that there are many customers who are easily taken in by marketing slogans.  These slogans are sometimes given an aura of plausibility via case-studies intended to back the claims made. However, more often than not the case studies are based on a selective presentation of facts that depict the firm in the best possible light.

A related point is that such firms often flaunt their current client list in order to attract new clientele. Lines like, “our client list includes 8 of top ten auto manufacturers in the world,” are not uncommon, the unstated implication being that if you are an auto manufacturer, you cannot afford not to engage us. The image cultivation process continues well after the consulting engagement is underway. Indeed, much of a consultant’s effort is directed at ensuring that the engagement will be extended.

Finally, it is important to point out the need to maintain an aura of specialness. Consultants and knowledge workers are valued for what they know. It is therefore in their interest to maintain a certain degree of exclusivity of knowledge. Guilds (such as the Project Management Institute) act as gatekeepers by endorsing the capabilities of knowledge workers through membership criteria based on experience and / or professional certification programs.

Maintaining the façade

Because knowledge workers deal with intangibles, they have to work harder to maintain their identities than those who have more practical skills. They are therefore more susceptible to the vagaries and arbitrariness of organisational life.  As Alvesson notes,

Given the high level of ambiguity and the fluidity of organizational  life and interactions with external actors, involving a strong dependence on somewhat arbitrary evaluations  and opinions of others, many knowledge-intensive workers must struggle more for the accomplishment,  maintenance and gradual change of self-identity, compared to workers whose competence and results are more materially grounded…Compared with people who invest less self- esteem in their work and who have lower expectations,  people in knowledge-intensive  companies are thus vulnerable to frustrations  contingent upon ambiguity of performance  and confirmation.

Knowledge workers are also more dependent on managerial confirmation of their competence and value. Indeed, unlike the case of the machinist or designer, a knowledge worker’s product rarely speaks for itself. It has to be “sold”, first  to management and then (possibly) to the client and the wider world.

The previous paragraphs of this section dealt with individual identity. However, this is not the whole story because organisations also play a key role in regulating the identities of their employees. Indeed, this is how they develop their brand. Alvesson notes four ways in which organisations do this:

  1. Corporate identity – large consulting firms are good examples of this. They regulate the identities of their employees through comprehensive training and acculturation programs. As a board member remarked to me recently, “I like working with McKinsey people, because I was once one myself and I know their approach and thinking processes.”
  2. Cultural programs – these are the near-mandatory organisational culture initiatives in large organisations. Such programs are usually based on a set of “guiding principles” which are intended to inform employees on how they should conduct themselves as employees and representatives of the organisation. As Alvesson notes, these are often more effective than formal structures.
  3. Normalisation – these are the disciplinary mechanisms that are triggered when an employee violates an organisational norm. Examples of this include formal performance management or official reprimands. Typically, though, the underlying issue is rarely addressed. For example, a failed project might result in a reprimand or poor performance review for the project manager, but the underlying systemic causes of failure are unlikely to be addressed…or even acknowledged.
  4. Subjectification – This is where employees mould themselves to fit their roles or job descriptions. A good example of this is when job applicants project themselves as having certain skills and qualities in their resumes and in interviews. If selected, they may spend the first few months in learning and internalizing what is acceptable and what is not. In time, the new behaviours are internalized and become a part of their personalities.

It is clear from the above that maintaining the façade of expertise in knowledge work involves considerable effort and manipulation, and has little to do with genuine knowledge. Indeed, it is perhaps because genuine expertise is so hard to identify that people and organisations strive to maintain appearances.

Conclusion

The ambiguous nature of knowledge requires (and enables!) consultants and technology vendors to maintain a façade of expertise. This is done through a careful cultivation of image via the rhetoric of marketing, branding and impression management.The onus is therefore on buyers to figure out if there’s anything of substance behind words and appearances. The volume of business enjoyed by big consulting firms suggests that this does not happen as often as it should, leading us to the inescapable conclusion that decision-makers in organisations are all too easily deceived by the facade of expertise.

Written by K

July 8, 2015 at 8:47 pm

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