Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Poet-Scholar

The Harvard Business Review has a surprisingly enjoyable interview with James G. March, "professor emeritus in management, sociology, political science, and education at Stanford University". From the introduction

In these pages, three years ago, consultants Laurence Prusak and Thomas H. Davenport reported the findings of a survey of prominent management writers who
identified their own gurus. Although his is an unfamiliar name to most readers of this periodical, James G. March appeared on more lists than any other person except Peter Drucker.


March is perhaps best known for his pioneering contributions to organization and management theory. He has coauthored two classic books: Organizations (with Herbert A. Simon) and A Behavioral Theory of the Firm (with Richard M. Cyert). Together with Cyert and Simon, March developed a theory of the firm that incorporates aspects of sociology, psychology, and economics to provide an alternative to neoclassical theories. The underlying idea is that although managers make decisions that are intendedly rational, the rationality is “bounded” by human and organizational limitations. As a result, human behavior is not always what might be predicted when rationality is assumed.

One of the themes of his work appears to be the importance of the irrational- of behavior that does not seek to justify itself. It is unusual for the subject of an interview to insist on his irrelevance

If there is relevance to my ideas, then it is for the people who contemplate the ideas to see, not for the person who produces them. For me, a feature of scholarship that is generally more significant than relevance is the beauty of the ideas. I care that ideas have some form of elegance or grace or surprise—all the things that beauty gives you.


No organization works if the toilets don’t work, but I don’t believe that finding solutions to business problems is my job. If a manager asks an academic consultant what to do and that consultant answers, then the consultant should be fired. No academic has the experience to know the context of a managerial problem well enough to give specific advice about a specific situation. What an academic consultant can do is say some things that, in combination with the manager’s knowledge of the context, may lead to a better solution.


The scholar tries to figure out, What’s going on here? What are the underlying processes making the system go where it’s going? What is happening, or what might happen? Scholars talk about ideas that describe the basic mechanisms shaping managerial history—bounded rationality, diffusion of legitimate forms, loose coupling, liability of newness, competency traps, absorptive capacity, and the like. In contrast, experiential knowledge focuses on a particular context at a particular time and on the events of personal experience. It may or may not generalize to broader things and longer time periods; it may or may not flow into a powerful theory; but it
provides a lot of understanding of a particular situation. A scholar’s knowledge cannot address a concrete, highly specific context, except crudely. Fundamental academic knowledge becomes more useful in new or changing environments, when managers are faced with the unexpected or the unknown. It provides alternative frames for looking at problems rather than solutions to them.

His ideas on friendship and love reflect the influence of Kierkegaard's idea of a "leap of faith"

We justify actions by their consequences. But providing consequential justification is only a part of being human. It is an old issue, one with which Kant and Kierkegaard, among many others, struggled. I once taught a course on friendship that reinforced this idea for me. By the end of the course, a conspicuous difference had emerged between some of the students and me.

They saw friendship as an exchange relationship: My friend is my friend because he or she is useful to me in one way or another. By contrast, I saw friendship as an arbitrary relationship: If you’re my friend, then there are various obligations that I have toward you, which have nothing to do with your behavior. We also talked about trust in that class. The students would say, “Well, how can you trust people unless they are trustworthy?” So I asked them why they called that trust. It sounded to me like a calculated exchange. For trust to be anything truly meaningful, you have to trust somebody who isn’t trustworthy. Otherwise, it’s just a standard rational transaction.

He argues for the value of being foolish

That paper sometimes gets cited—by people who haven’t read it closely—as generic enthusiasm for silliness. Well, maybe it is, but the paper actually focused on a much narrower argument. It had to do with how you make interesting value systems. It seemed to me that one of the important things for any person interested in understanding or improving behavior was to know where preferences come from rather than simply to take them as given.

So, for example, I used to ask students to explain the factual anomaly that there are more interesting women than interesting men in the world. They were not allowed to question the fact. The key notion was a developmental one: When a woman is born, she’s usually a girl, and girls are told that because they are girls they can do things for no good reason. They can be unpredictable, inconsistent, illogical. But then a girl goes to school, and she’s told she is an educated person. Because she’s an educated person, a woman must do things consistently, analytically, and so on. So she goes through life doing things for no good reason and then figuring out the reasons, and in the process, she develops a very complicated value system—one that adapts very much to context. It’s such a value system that permitted a woman who was once sitting in a meeting I was chairing to look at the men and say, “As nearly as I can tell, your assumptions are correct. And as nearly as I can tell, your conclusions follow from the assumptions. But your conclusions are wrong.” And she was right. Men, though, are usually boys at birth. They are taught that, as boys, they are straightforward, consistent, and analytic. Then they go to school and are told that they’re straightforward, consistent, and analytic. So men go through life being straightforward, consistent, and analytic—with the goals of a two-year-old. And that’s why men are both less interesting and more predictable than women. They do not combine their analysis with foolishness.


Well, there are some obvious ways. Part of foolishness, or what looks like foolishness, is stealing ideas from a different domain. Someone in economics, for example, may borrow ideas from evolutionary biology, imagining that the ideas might be relevant to evolutionary economics. A scholar who does so will often get the ideas wrong; he may twist and strain them in applying them to his own discipline. But this kind of cross-disciplinary stealing can be very rich and productive.

It’s a tricky thing, because foolishness is usually that—foolishness. It can push you to be very creative, but uselessly creative. The chance that someone who knows no physics will be usefully creative in physics must be so close to zero as to be indistinguishable from it. Yet big jumps are likely to come in the form of foolishness that, against long odds, turns out to be valuable. So there’s a nice tension between how much foolishness is good for knowledge and how much knowledge is good for foolishness.

Another source of foolishness is coercion. That’s what parents often do. They say, “You’re going to take dance lessons.” And their kid says, “I don’t want to be a dancer.” And the parents say, “I don’t care whether you want to be a dancer. You’re going to take these lessons.” The use of authority is one of the more powerful ways to encourage foolishness. Play is another. Play is disinhibiting. When you play, you are allowed to do things you would not be allowed to do otherwise. However, if you’re not playing and you want to do those same things, you have to justify your behavior. Temporary foolishness gives you experience with a possible new you—but before you can make the change permanent, you have to provide reasons.

Of course, all these can be questioned and someone like Richard Dawkins would probably make mincemeat of ideas like the "leap of faith", and March recognizes the potentially tragic consequences of such foolishness

It’s all a question of balance. Soon after I wrote my paper on the technology of foolishness, I presented it at a conference in Holland. This was around 1971. One of my colleagues from Yugoslavia, now Croatia, came up and said, “That was a great talk, but please, when you come to Yugoslavia, don’t give that talk. We have enough foolishness.” And I think he may have been right.

I suspect Hume saw the relationship between the passions and reason better than anyone else. Whether we like it or not, passion governs us- nobody ever chose to refrain from suicide because of a cost-benefit analysis. We live on because we like
living, and can ask for no other justification.

The poem "As I walked out one evening" by W.H. Auden seems apt.

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