Why don’t we (e-)learn – over emphasis on rationality and defensive routines

Work on the PhD thesis is currently going slow. There are many reasons for this, one of them is I keep following interesting streams of literature beyond the needs of the thesis. I can rationalise that most of these extra-thesis streams do connect with the work I may be doing into the future, though that doesn’t necessarily help feel good about the thesis. (aside: I continue to be amazed by the folk who haven’t learnt that the one question you do not ask someone in my position is, “How’s the thesis going?”).

Over the last month or so I’ve been focusing on historical perspectives around technology-mediated learning and the nature of organisations. This has become really depressing as it illustrates just how prone to reinventing the wheel we are in organisational practice – even in universities. This post talks about one of those streams of literature that strikes really close to home in terms of universities, e-learning, the limitations of current practice, and how we don’t learn from the past.

Blindsided by the elephant

What I’m reading at the moment is a book review by Guy Adams (1994) titled Blindsided by the Elephant (this link will let you see the first page). The title draws on the parable of the blind men and the elephant to make some points about organisations, management, organisational research and learning.

'Blind monks examining an elephant' by Itcho Hanabusa

Much of the first page tells the story about the Challenger space shuttle disaster and how engineers made management aware of the problem, but how management overrode the logic of the situation and disaster flowed from that apparently less than rational decision. This is connected to the “blind men and the elephant” parable by suggesting that researchers into organisations are the blind men and that the elephant is the organisation.

In particular, Adams takes issue with the over use of the assumption of rational behaviour

The modern age is an age of technical rationality, and our culture is therefore one that predisposes us to see human behaviour through scientific-analytic lenses that give us overly rationalised accounts of organisational life.

He then draws on work by Argyris and Schon (1978) where they identify a predominance of Model 1 behaviour in organisations. I’ve summarised the governing variables and matching action strategy in the following table.

Governing variables and matching action strategies of Model 1 behaviour (adapted from Adams (1994))
Variables Action strategy
Define goals and try to achieve them Design and manage the environment unilaterally
Maximise winning and minimise losing Own and control the task
Minimise generating or expressing negative feelings Unilaterally protect yourself
Be rational Unilaterally protect others from being hurt

The suggestion is that it is questionable that Model 1 behaviour works well in conditions of certainty. In situations characterised by uncertainty, Model 1 behaviours tend to prevent learning and become dysfunctional and self-sealing. The following quote is from Argyris and Schon (1978, p116) and is used in Adams (1994)

In a Model 1 behavioral world, the discovery of uncorrectable errors is a source of personal and organisational vulnerability. The response to vulnerability is unilateral self-protection, which can take several forms. Uncorrectable errors, and the processes that lead to them, can be hidden, disguised, or denied (all of which we call ‘camouflage’); and individuals and groups can protect themselves further by sealing themselves off from blame, should camouflage fail.

What’s worse is that these behaviours are their norms are undiscussable, invisible and cannot be talked about.

Organisational defenses

Adams (1994) is, in part, a review of Argyris (1990) – Overcoming Organisational Defenses: facilitating Organisational Learning (the reader comments on the Amazon page are interesting). Adams (1994) describes the organisational defensive routine as

  1. Craft messages that contain inconsistencies.
  2. Act as if the messages are not inconsistent.
  3. Make the ambiguity and inconsistency in the message undiscussable.
  4. Make the undicussability of the undiscussable also undiscussable.

This routine certainly reminds me of a number of example from my experience as does the following description from Argyris (1990) of what Adams (1994) describes as the fundamental flaw of rational and functional theories of organisations.

Because all functional disciplines have at their core a set of technical ideas and procedures to accomplish productive reasoning, the theory seems plausible. The problem is that the technical ideas an procedures are not self-implementable. Human beings do the implementing. Once people become involved, they bring with them their capacity for skilled incompetence and the organisational defenses, fancy footwork, and malaise that follow. But none of these are likely to be activated unless the correct implementation of the functional disciplines is embarrassing or threatening. At that point, the defenses will blunt the value-adding potential of the functional disciplines – ironically, at the very moment the organisation needs them most.

I’ve seen this within the field of project management, especially around information technology projects. Project management seems to make sense. However, the implementation of information technology within organisations, especially those as complex as universities and especially when around learning and teaching, raise also sorts of difficult and threatening problems. So, the seeming rational processes soon suffer from the organisational defensive routine described above.

Application to e-learning

It’s my belief that the practice, implementation and support of e-learning suffers from the same over emphasis on scientific-analytic lenses that Adams (1994) suggests that organisational research suffers. The very nature of research training in most disciplines leads to this emphasis, which then seems to infect most training given to professionals in those same disciplines. This predominance creates the same problem, there is a large component of e-learning that is invisible. Institutional implementation of e-learning, as with anything else, suffers also from the organisational defensive routine described by Argyris (1990).

The alternatives mentioned briefly in Adams (1994) and Argyris (1990) and his other work seem to offer some interesting insights and avenues for more research. This book by Noonan (it’s also on Google books) seems, at least according to the Amazon customer reviews, to offer a useful way to get started.

Any work arising out of this around e-learning would seem to enable us blind folk see more of the elephant.

References

Adams, G. (1994). “Blindsided by the Elephant.” Public Administration Review 54(1): 77-83.

6 thoughts on “Why don’t we (e-)learn – over emphasis on rationality and defensive routines

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