Monday, August 29, 2011

Reasoning about ourselves and our organizations

In this blog post: The tendency for individuals to reason about themselves has arguably increased. Is the same true for organizations ? Top managers are told to ask themselves 'what is this firm about', to become 'paranoid' about what their firm is and could be. Has such anxiety increased? Was there a time when firms had a fixed organizational identity that has now come to pass? 

The modern question: Who am I?
Anthony Giddens has suggested that 'the late modern age' we live in is distinct from the prior times in terms of how we think of ourselves. While previously our identities (who we consider ourselves to be) were defined by our family and our role in the society. Now, we constantly 'try on' different identities, burdened by the knowledge that whatever we are is just one choice out of many possible ones. Identity is a key topic we reason about: We consider whether our observations and 'facts' justify the self-conception we have, and we attend to reasonable implications 'justified' by the self-conception we have chosen. We use our identity to reason about what to do. 
A person may take refuge in a traditional or pre-established style of life as a means of cutting back on anxieties that might otherwise beset her. But, for reasons already given, the security such a strategy offers is likely to be limited, because the individual connot but be conscious that any such option is only one among plural possibilities. (Giddens, 1991: 182).
In late modernity, there is no choice but to reason about who we are, a source of burned and anxiety (and freedom, one may say). Does this apply to organizations? 

Reasoning about Organizational Identity
Just as our conception of ourselves is our identity, the conception an organization has of itself is its organizational identity. Organizational identity is pretty close to what many would understand to be strategy, but I'll use the former concept in order to keep with the argument by Giddens discussed above.Even though Giddens has no interest in organizaitons, we could make analogous argument: in early modernity, organizations were not too concerned to reason about themselves, in late modernity organizations are anxious to consider and reconsider what they are about.

In terms of reasoning, this thesis would mean that the range of beliefs subject to reasoning is broadening. In earlier 'simple times', managerial reasoning incorporated simple premises: how can we do whatever we are about in a way that creates growth or profits? Changes in identity emerged from 'diversification', which added new elements but did not raise thorny questions about the legacy. In late 'complex times', the complexity of reasoning is increased exponentially because the very premises of these prior questions are also subject to reasoning: Should we be this or that? Is there an identity we could assume that we are not aware of? Such complexity can make anyone nervous. Only companies with large irreversible investments are safe from questions concerning the optimality of their current business. 

In conclusion
This blog is just a thought experiment, leading to a rather dull-sounding proposition that 'things have gotten more complex'. But this line of thought may also suggest that managers are becoming increasingly anxious and paranoid. More generally, this implies that the range of topics managers reason about are defined by the broader societal context.  

My colleague Saku told a story behind the book. Giddens got remarried, and his new wife read self-help books. When spending time on the toilet seat, Anthony started browsing these books. They got him thinking about the constant quest to conceive and reconceive the understanding of self, which he associated with late modernity.

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. Modernity & Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age. Polity Press.

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