Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shop Class as Soulcraft: Implications for Strategic Management (Book Review)

By Dr. Suhaib Riaz.

What happens when a craftsperson gets a Ph.D. in philosophy, and returns to work as a motorbike mechanic? The resulting reflections are Matthew Crawford's "Shop class as Soulcraft", with an intriguing subtitle, "An inquiry into the value of work." While Crawford's views on several issues have been critiqued elsewhere, the implications of his unconventional and original work for disciplines such as strategic management are worth exploring.

Witness his insights on the relationship between knowledge creation and practice: 

"And in fact, in areas of well-developed craft, technological developments typically preceded and gave rise to advances in scientific understanding, not vice versa. The steam engine is a good example. It was developed by mechanics who observed the relations between volume, pressure, and temperature. This at a time when theoretical scientists were tied to the caloric theory of heat, which later turned out to be a conceptual dead end." 

How many examples can we think of, where developments in practice preceded academic ideas - where similarly academics were tied to theoretical dead ends for paradigmatic reasons? He goes further by questioning the very breakdown of effort between academia and practice, which has unfortunately become routine in strategic management: 

"Mike Rose writes that in the practice of surgery, 'dichotomies such as concrete versus abstract and technique versus reflection break down in practice. The surgeon’s judgment is simultaneously technical and deliberative, and that mix is the source of its power'.”

Could a similar argument be made for judgment in the strategic management discipline? Theoretical academic work divorced from practice is unlikely to lead to development of such judgment. In fact, current emphasis on quantitative rigor and "algorithmic" approaches at the expense of practice-derived judgment could be questioned following Crawford's arguments. He quotes an interesting problem:

"In our early work with HyperGami, we often ran into situations in which the program provided us with a folding net that was mathematically correct—i.e., a technically correct unfolding of the desired solid—but otherwise disastrous. Figure 7 shows an example. Here, we are trying to create an approximation to a cone—a pyramid on a regular octagonal base. HyperGami provides us with a folding net that will, indeed, produce a pyramid; but typically, no paper crafter would come up with a net of this sort, since it is fiendishly hard to join together those eight tall triangles into a single vertex. In fact, this is an illustrative example of a more general idea—the difficulty of formalizing, in purely mathematical terms, what it means to produce a ‘realistic’ (and not merely technically correct) solution to an algorithmic problem derived from human practice."

To Crawford, this example reflects a fundamental problem with knowledge-creation processes that ignore the 'craft' or 'practice' in a discipline:

"I take their point to be that the crafting problem is in fact not reducible to an algorithmic problem. More precisely, any algorithmic solution to the crafting problem cannot itself be generated algorithmically, as it must include ad hoc constraints known only through practice, that is, through embodied manipulations.  Those constraints cannot be arrived at deductively, starting from mathematical entities. It is worth noting in passing that this has implications for the theory of mind favored by artificial intelligence researchers, as it speaks to the “computability” of pragmatic cognition. It would be a task for cognitive science to determine if these considerations place a theoretical limit on the automation of work, but I can speak first hand to how one area of work is resistant to algorithmic thinking."

Is it not easy to recognize similar problems with strategic management and related disciplines - feedback from practice is often not pursued as part of developing academic ideas. However, when it is - in the case of a C. K. Prahalad or Henry Mintzberg, the results are ground-breaking and well recognized by both academic and industry peers. 

Perhaps Crawford's book could have been subtitled "Implications for Strategic Management" to draw the attention of academics and practitioners in this discipline! 

There are more reflections that capture the moment, such as the value of work in the financial industry and role of such "work" in the financial crisis. And some general career advice implications for students entering the workplace: think about your passions in terms of non-business contexts. Not just in terms marketing or finance: look beyond these. Do you like bikes? Do you like astronomy? Music? Sports? If you do, spend time understanding the context of those industries - what you like about them or what you want to change. Then join them. And see how you find and create value in your work.

*Dr. Suhaib Riaz is founding contributor of "Strategy and You."

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