Invisible dogma and learning organisations

I’ve been reading ideas from Mitch Ratcliffe and Frank Patrick on how the technology deployed in a business both embodies and is constrained by the hidden, unspoken mental models held by the sponsors, specifiers, implementers and users of the technology.

Reading this I was reminded of the work of Chris Argyris, particularly the “theory in use”/”espoused theory” difference and organisational defensive routines. I wonder how we might usefully combine insights and tools from those different perspectives?

In Invisible Dogma – Perpetuating Paradigms Mitch Ratcliffe explores how the hidden, unspoken assumptions in business affect the choices of technology we make and how in turn the technology freezes those assumptions in use, perhaps long after the real world has moved on… Just one quote to give a flavour:

“…Simply put, the source of dogmas is our own laziness about addressing systemic issues in our organizations and in recording the reasons we do things within a company. We opt, for instance, for “collaboration” software to make people collaborate instead of teaching them to work together respectfully and constructively. We fail to appreciate how these tools change the requirements when hiring new employees, and often blame the employees when they fail to thrive in the stunted learning environments we’ve created. If management wants to take credit for success, the institutionalization of critical thinking about our choices of information tools is absolutely essential to the role of a manager in the information age…”

Frank Patrick adds useful thoughts on the relevance of Constraints to this thinking:

It’s the paradigms (invisible dogma), policies (visible dogma or litany), and practices or processes (decisions and behaviors supported, and more and more institutionalized, by technology), IN THAT ORDER, that will define what an organization accomplishes in terms of fulfilling its purpose or goal. Technology must be subordinate to appropriate processes, which are, in the end, rationalized through the view of the current dogma

Chris Argyris has done enormous amounts of work on the unseen and undiscussable patterns in organisations that prevent learning (see here for a good summary and link collection). In Overcoming Organizational Defenses he sets out a practical approach for surfacing and changing these assumptions.

The question for me is how can we synthesise these various approaches to lead to a more effective way to specify technology solutions?

On the way to answering that I suspect we will have to answer some other questions:

  • What benefit might we get if we could examine the “invisible dogmas”?
  • What are the factors that prevent an honest examination of them?
  • What approaches to defining a business process/systems issue are likely to be most productive?
Julian Elve
Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change

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