Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology’


I have a fondness for connections that bridge seemingly disparate worlds. Examples? Well, early on in my programming career I read Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception in a bid to figure out how developer-written documentation might work better. I was also intrigued by the inventor of the Pomodoro technique®, a personal productivity system, claiming inspiration from Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method. I’ve even, on occasion, tried to get “personal development” types interested in stylistic similarities between language used in certain forms of hypnotherapy and the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.

In a similar vein, I’ve been intrigued by Hubert Dreyfus as a cross-world interloper. Dreyfus, an academic philosopher, had a surprise hit on iTunes with podcasts of his lectures (particularly popular with long-distance truck drivers, it seems). He has an odd double reputation in the world of computing. To some he is a hate figure on account of his critique, first made when he was at MIT in the 1960s, of rule-based Artificial Intelligence. This came from an insistence of the primacy of skilled behaviour over abstract cognition. His subsequent investigations into the phenomenon of skill acquisition subsequently gave him his other reputation: the “Dreyfus Model” is now used in parts of the industry for professional development. I’m sure there are people who don’t realize that it’s the same Dreyfus in both cases.

All of which leads me, in a rather meandering way, to another unexpected connection: business consultants who read Heidegger, specifically Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel B. Rasmussen of ReD Associates who’s book The Moment of Clarity: Using the human sciences to solve your toughest business problems was recently been published by Harvard Business Review. In it, they promote ideas and methods from anthropology and sociology as a way for businesses to do better by “getting people right”. They also draw on the so-called “continental” tradition in modern philosophy, centred on Martin Heidegger. Foucault, Gadamer and Dreyfus all get their mentions. (Nothing on Beckett: you can’t have everything…)

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Some years ago, at an “all hands” meeting at a company where I worked, the head of the company enthused at length about Jack Welch’s famous ruthlessness. At the time I said to various people that if I wanted to work for General Electric then I knew where to find them. I wasn’t joking: GE have an office in easy walking distance of my house. However, I never set foot in there until last night, when I attended a talk by Richard Berry—part of their series of “agile talks”.

The talk was about management and leadership, and the differences in management style (command-and-control vs. facilitation) and the importance of different personality types in how teams work. Management theory, then. (And yes, there were flip-charts, and a 2×2 matrix, and book recommendations at the end.)

I’ve seen some disappointment expressed about the content of the talk. Surely this is all rather old hat: no-one now believes that command-and-control is a sensible way to organize a software development team. I’d have two responses to that, the first of which is that overt command-and-control may be rare but that the common alternative—insisting that people “take ownership” without giving them any meaningful control isn’t really the same thing as facilitation.

My other response would be that even if the broad outline of Richard’s talk didn’t hold any surprises, it’s possible to do this sort of thing badly or well, and Richard did it well. The last presentation I saw that covered this rough area was given by some ex-marketing guy who seemed to speak largely in clichés taken from trashy pop psychology books (“don’t sweat the small stuff”, “change is the only constant”, etc.). Regardless of the big picture being peddled, there were telling little details in Richard’s talk that, for me, showed that he knew what he was talking about. This wasn’t an occasion for buzzword bingo.

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