Researching Research: The Blind Spot of Objectivity

Researching Research: The Blind Spot of Objectivity

There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity” be.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In modern organisational practices, those who claim to offer objective, ‘fact based’ advice have become the self-appointed visionaries of consultancy, replacing traditional, experience-based beliefs with the abstract and ‘impartial’ models of analysis. According to Theodore Porter, in Trust In Numbers, this uncritical view of objectivity has led to a misguided faith in the authority of ‘quantification as a way of making decisions without seeming to decide’. In adopting a more critical perspective on this state of affairs, we are reminded of the historical influence of Plato’s Theory of Forms, its reified objectivity, divorced from the lowly particulars of everyday life. The modern day equivalent is the top-down theoretical model and its tendency toward abstraction, giving rise to frequent and problematic gaps between the re-assuring analytics of ‘reality’, and its dynamic, unpredictable nature in ‘events on the ground’.

The challenge facing 21st century organisations, is to first acknowledge that all uses of knowledge are never objective but socially motivated, a good basis for thinking critically and continually adapting to the sheer volume of information and infinite complexity in 21st century life. In avoiding the expedient but expensive ‘objective’ view of the consultant, who will no doubt provide expert re-assurance; organisations can choose a different path by developing a capacity for forming their own perspectives and insights that emerge from the ‘lowly particulars’ of their everyday work, thus re-connecting to a previously unknown reality of their situation, no matter how unpalatable that may be. If we draw an analogy with the ancient martial arts, adaptive organisations will benefit not from Platonic Forms, but the Forms of combat, which are in every sense forms of practice – attitudes, approaches, engagements – a knowledge of what works that can only be obtained through intelligent action, and continually refined through the dynamics of a given situation, as Bruce Lee observes, ‘All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns’. The objective truth, as Nietzsche implies, is a perspective that changes with the historical infrastructure of life, and those who think it lies in the realm of meaning have lost the capacity to gain real insights.

The key to creating innovation is to avoid general terms like ‘culture’, ‘society’, or the ‘organisation’, all of which tend toward the abstract model, and instead engage with the consistency of events; the everyday details, procedures, practices, interactions and behaviours that take place between and through the multiplicity of parts. These very combinations cannot be generalised, are always changing, and require new tools – Forms of approach and application – such as the SPACE framework, that enable us to grasp the material objectivity of people and things in an environment of constantly changing relationships and points of view. In practice, these are often combinations of social, cultural, commercial, and educational perspectives, which find their place within various types of organisation but do not necessarily respect their boundaries.

In a historical sense, we can begin to understand the evolution of value in similar terms, by asking how a localised set of subjective situations, work together in a given organisation as a consistency of residual, dominant and emergent practices. A commercial organisation will strive to shape its identity through a dominant set of practices, which at any one time, will also form a working relationship with older practices and emergent ones. The discrepancies between old, established and emergent practices, will potentially lead to conflicting perspectives, which may be amplified by rapid advances in new technology, knowledge sharing, and the need to connect with the customer, who ‘on the outside’, becomes the new creator of value in the fluctuating perspectives of the market place.

When conflicting perspectives cause problems inside the organisation, the reflex response is to either resolve it according to existing internal procedures, or to call upon an external consultant for the ‘objective’ view outlined above. The consultant’s perspective of general critique works implicitly with a pre-formed model for observing, diagnosing and solving problems, its recent historical form being highly influenced by scientific management, and tending toward the deductive method for solving problems. As an ‘outside agency’, external consultancy is the dominant discourse in commercial diagnostics, despite the problems in methodology that stem from the disconnect between discourses in ‘objectivity’ and the consistency of events. The organisation’s confidence in the external diagnosis is underwritten by a misplaced belief in the ‘objectivity’ of the outside agent, since, like the scientist, they apparently have no vested interest in the outcome, and as such the consultant’s objectivity is generally taken-for-granted as impartial. A tendency toward deduction but in general terms, and through a standard model of diagnosis means that the ‘findings’ become an effect of the consultant’s discourse and, (there is probably very little empirical research to prove it), may only serve to reproduce the discourse itself, with little or no relation to the complexity of events ‘on the ground’.

The emergent perspective of Create Innovation, employs the principle of reflexive design, using the SPACE framework as a tool for enabling the production of local and connected external critiques, internally. Steve Jobs often said that it was better to know how something works rather than how it looks, as breadth of experience overcomes the false linearity of ‘solutions’, ‘the broader ones understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have’. Realising multiple and external perspectives from within the organisation itself, is the opposite of the external ‘objectivity’ of the consultant, it is both specific and subjective, and thus engages in an authentic telling of truths that does not anticipate outcomes. The best solutions are open ended, non-linear adaptations that emerge from the organisation’s infrastructure, once its creative research methods – Forms of Practice – are acquired by active agents working together in research cells. The outcome is a subjective truth, formed in the substance of people and things, which in practice is highly objective and empirically testable; the perspective process of ‘researching research’.