Small Brained Managers- Are They Out There? Porac and Tschang

So, my friend and collaborator, Ted Tshang, have this short essay in the Journal of Management Inquiry.

It is really good!

Unbounding the Managerial Mind : It’s Time to Abandon the Image of Managers As ”Small Brains”, is the title (link to pdf) and it comes in the section called “Provocations,” which is exactly the kind of creative format that makes me enjoy JMI so much.

In a nutshell, the essay points out that the idea of “bounded rationality,” so famous and groundbreaking for organization science (especially the “Carnegie School“) has run its course in part because it puts too restrictive of a model on our operating metaphor of cognition.  As the put it so eloquently, the boundedly rational manager ALWAYS faces a world more complex than his (poor little) brain can comprehend either because of limits on what we can know (capacity) or learn (acquisition).

However, recent work in cognition at the neurological level, or even in the more novel “cognitive archaelogy” which tries to study how brain and culture co-evolve, has shown that neither clear invariant limits to what we can know (capacity) or learn (acquisition) conclusively exist.  It is not that we can learn everything quickly!  Of course not.  Rather, the complex ways we think, consciously or unconsciously, in patterns, in distributed cognition (across networks or even organizations), with heuristics and symbols, and using various constructions like optimization math, all mean that managerial thinking, so much like human thinking ( 😉 ), can be AS complex as the complex environments that it emerged from and that now also turns its attention towards in the effort to live and organize, to decide and manage.

I enjoyed all the references to various scholars whose work supports this view of cognition as what they describe is certainly how I see human cognition.  And, of course, like any org scientist, I think we are always in the middle range between theories of the individual (microfoundations) and of society (macro stuff).  Hence, it is valuable to update our core ideas at those two levels that form the sandwich cookie goodness around our yummy oreo-org theory middle layer.

As they wrap up, Porac and Tschang point out that the urge for a more realistic model of rationality cna lead to enumerations of types of rationality (March had 14 at one point?)?  This reminds me a little of tow other conclusions by other scholars.  First, Howard Gardner‘s “multiple intelligence” work, love it or hate it, made the idea of a multidimensional intelligence more accepted.  Second, in some parts of Weber (yes, that one, the Economy and Society guy), I have  a hazy memory that he starts trying to get into various rationalities in addition to formal rationality.  One is value rationality- that is, letting your values shape which ends you will use- and this, in my idealist-pragmatist mode, can leave room for a Weberian sociology without the “CLANG” of the inescapable Iron Cage.   Is it useful to think through a typology of cognitive or Weberian rationalities?  I don’t know.

But the idea of rationality and institutional logics seems important to me.  I keep describing logics as an internalized set of criteria for legitimacy;  I think I am recycling parts of Weber here and what he called rationality where rationality is expected means-ends chains.  Praying to the sun god for sun is not irrational if you believe the one leads to the other.  From Weber, I inherited that we are no more or less “rational” in our prayers to technology or formal rationality.  We act “as if” we believe in a set of ends-means and the belief is legitimacy.  And, hence, various logics can provide other sets of legitimate criteria.  A manager in a virtual world, if she believes it is a play world, acts rationally in one way that is different than she acts if she believes it is legitimately a “profit” world.  Bottom line: I think there is some deep connections between Weber and legitimacy and what Porac and Tschang are pointing out about types of rationality that humans posses (or use).

Seeing how Ted linked “unbounding” cognition to appreciating how managers can think like designers was also helpful as the design idea pops up in some current work: to use a virtual world, for example  managers need to think of its design (and even how design structures a la Giddens- it constrains AND enables).

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Filed under organization studies, organization theory, Orgs Stuff (theory, science, studies), social theory

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