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Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Peter Principle

I'm sorry to drone on about this, I really am, but RHB has banned me from complaining so here goes. I just read this:

Cowan suggests that learners are reflecting in an educational sense “when they analyse or evaluate one or more personal experiences, and attempt to generalise from that thinking” (1999: 18). However, as Biggs points out, “a reflection in a mirror is an exact replica of what is in front of it. Reflection in professional practice, however, gives back not what it is, but what might be, an improvement on the original” (1999: 6).

In truth, I read this several hours ago, but my head exploded and I've only just finished putting it back together again.

In a recent seminar on reflection, I was asked to describe a situation where my emotions impacted on my learning. I was able to raise my hand immediately.

"Yes? " said the 'thought leader' (and those words themselves are worthy of another whole issue)

"Well" I said " At this very moment, I am very angry, and that is 'impacting' my learning"

"Why are you angry?" said the TL in a surprised tone.

I'm afraid I was somewhat impolite and said something about unsupported, banalities masquerading as academic work.

And the sentence above about reflection not being a reflection but being some sort of future divination is the reason why I get so mad about this stuff. I might have mentioned in an earlier post that any paper including the word "Towards..." should be banned because of incompleteness. I should perhaps, at this point, draw the attention to those not working in the BA areas, that BA literature abounds with 'Towards....'. I should also point out, as may be equally unobvious, that I am, a huge fan of academia. To me, academics are the new Sex Gods. I often contemplate a teenage and early adult hood spent driving round the toilets of the UK's gigging scene and think to myself (NOT reflect because I dont then go and write a friggin journal about this..) "What the Hell where you thinkin?", because its way sexier being brainy than, I suppose. Because that - sexy - is what I thought it was. Contemporaneously, I realise that getting booed off stage and chased from Leeds by a convoy of MAD MAX lookalike skinheads just because our singer said they all looked "F***kin stupid" was not very sexy, just frightening, and what would have been well sexy would have been to invent the internet. Or work at CERN or invent wind turbines r something.

I pause, realising that I have diverted slightly form the original purpose of this post, which was to thank our New Year Visitors, toast absent friends and wish all well for the forthcoming year. It is somewhat late, so rather than a sophisticated literary device, I shall simply lurch back to the point at hand. Which is that "Towards ...." is bad, and rampant in my field(s). I should, despite the fact that there's no news in good people, salute a few of the brilliant writers in Humanities I have read - MacKeracher (Adult learning) Naiman (L2 learning), Ortner, Gupta and Mascia-Lees in feminist anthropology, Smith in history, just in case it seems that I moan all the time. In truth, the stuff I dont enjoy is a smallish percent of wpapers read. But its still annoying..................

Barry, D. and M. Elmes (1997). "Strategy Retold: Toward a Narrative View of Strategic Discourse." The Academy of Management Review 22(2): 429-452.
Using narrative theory, this article explores strategic management as a form of fiction. After introducing several key narrative concepts, we discuss the challenges strategists have faced in making strategic discourse both credible and novel and consider how strategic narratives may change within the "virtual" organization of the future. We also provide a number of narrativist-oriented research questions and methodological suggestions.

What is interesting about this is that RHB and I were, sometime around Christmas, discussing managers, and particularly, what lousy managers most academics seemed to be. I expanded on this:

"Actually, my sweet" I told her in my customary address " Its not just academics who make lousy managers. I think we can expand the category somewhat..."

"Pray tell, my dove" she sprake "Whatsoever do you mean? And pass the chocolates. NOW!"

There followed a moment of extreme violence, but having secured the dark chocolate truffle, RHB settled down to listen as I returned from casualty and my theme

"The truth is, my favourite little chocolate addicted psychopath, that the category can be expanded to include..." I paused dramatically ".....all humans. Simply put, we're crap at managing things. However, this is not our fault. It is, in fact, the fault of the construct of "management". In truth, most things, people, jobs and enterprises dont need managers, and are better off without them"

RHB looked at me adoringly, so I handed over the last box of Green's Organic Chocolate, and her adoring gaze ruthlessly followed the trajectory of the box. Seeing as she was otherwise occupied, I carried on, this time addressing the cat:

"It's true! Management is a myth. The occasional small group needs leadership - like a football team, for example, but on the whole, management is a redundant artificial construct who's only use is as an illustration of how societies invent overly complex solutions to their problems, thereby sowing the seeds of their own demise. And I can prove it..."

With that, I flourished an abstract that is co-incidentally based on a Canadian originated concept - The Peter Principle - as follows:

The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study

Authors: Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, Cesare Garofalo

In the late sixties the Canadian psychologist Laurence J. Peter advanced an apparently paradoxical principle, named since then after him, which can be summarized as follows: {\it 'Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence'}. Despite its apparent unreasonableness, such a principle would realistically act in any organization where the mechanism of promotion rewards the best members and where the mechanism at their new level in the hierarchical structure does not depend on the competence they had at the previous level, usually because the tasks of the levels are very different to each other. Here we show, by means of agent based simulations, that if the latter two features actually hold in a given model of an organization with a hierarchical structure, then not only is the Peter principle unavoidable, but also it yields in turn a significant reduction of the global efficiency of the organization. Within a game theory-like approach, we explore different promotion strategies and we find, counterintuitively, that in order to avoid such an effect the best ways for improving the efficiency of a given organization are either to promote each time an agent at random or to promote randomly the best and the worst members in terms of competence.

And there's plenty of supporting evidence:

Haslam, S. A, C. McGarty, R. A. Eggins, B. E. Morrison, & K. J. Reynolds, “Inspecting the Emperor’s Clothes: Evidence that Randomly Selected Leaders can Enhance Group Performance”, Group Dynamics: Theory, Process and Research 2 (1998): 168-18

If you follow these links, and chase up a bit of evidence of your own, what becomes obvious is that (and this is beyond the conclusions reached by the authors quoted above) not only does it not matter who is 'in charge' once a certain level of remove from functional operations is obtained, in point of fact, it does not matter what, if anything, is in charge. In point of fact, most CEO's could be replaced by a plantpot and no-one would notice.

"How", I hear you ask, "How the blinking heck does all, or any of this, relate to reflection and 'towards'? ". Well, in many ways it doesnt, I have meandered considerably. On the other hand, an academic work involving "Towards..." changes nothing. It is a Schroedinger's cat piece of thinking, neither alive or dead. Like managers, it does not matter a jot whether it exists or not. Reflection is similar - it changes nothing but the self-regard of an individual in very specific, non-repeatable circumstances. It is neither looking in a mirror, nor future casting, it is simply rumination, like what cows do - an evolutionary, cognitive, emotionally vacuous dead end. And with that, I promise, I will never mention it again.

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