From Intent to Execution

Somewhere, can't put my finger on it just now, Alfred Schutz remarks that sociological theory treats its subjects like programmable automatons. The input is social norms and other information, and the output is predictable given the input. But hold on a minute? Is life ever really like that?

Over on Savage Minds, a familiar controversy has arisen. On one side are those who see people putting what they have learned by studying anthropology to work in business, the military, or some other profession deemed equally damnable as evil. On the other are those, myself included, who see attempts to apply anthropological knowledge to practical situations, which may or may not involve "applied anthropology" per se, as an opportunity to test the limits of what we know and encounter suggestions that may improve it. The following is my latest contribution to that threat. Enjoy. Rage. Whatever.

Existence for an express purpose is one thing. Use for that purpose may be another. Serendipitously, I am reading Cross, Rob and Andrew Parker (2004) The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Harvard Business School Press. Among the interesting observations I have discovered so far is the need to distinguish between awareness, access and energy networks. These represent respectively the networks indicated by answers to the questions (1) Are you aware that X knows Y? (2) Can you find out Y from X? and (3) Does contact with X leave you feeling energized or dispirited?

I am currently informally consulting with a Japanese friend who is working on a dissertation on the possible benefits of introducing greater diversity into Japanese medical device company R&D teams. This kind of thinking seems directly applicable.

Let’s suppose that a company hires a bunch of Chinese, Indian, Eastern European or even USAnian researchers. How will the members of existing R&D teams find out what they know? Even if members of existing teams are told about the new peoples’ expertise, how easy will they find it to get at it? There may be all sorts of organizational or physical barriers in the way. Let’s suppose they can get to these new people. Will they and the new people be comfortable working together? Will their mutual encounters spark new ideas or leave people on both sides feeling, “Never again”?

Rick has nailed it. The fact that information exists is no guarantee that people know about it, want to know about it, will be stimulated by it, or do what we hope they will as a result of that stimulation. Get used to looking at the work in this more contextualized way and you begin to realize how fetishized and magical a too typical intellectual’s relationship to knowledge can be. I have to admit that, in my own case, it wasn’t until I started working in advertising and learned about communication and media strategies that I woke up to the fact that value isn’t a property of books or journal articles. Their value, if any, lies in what people do with them, and between intent and execution there’s a lot of ground to be covered.

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