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Paper prepared for the Conference on Social Innovation in Global Management organized by the Weatherhead School of Management of Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, November 1989)
Abstract: After stressing the possibility that inadequacies in global management may in part be due to poverty of imagination or imaginal deficiency, the paper points to the value of metaphor in facilitating comprehension of much richer and more dynamic policy patterns. The power of such metaphors is illustrated by three examples: an ecosystem of species interrelated by food webs offers insights into possible relationships between seemingly incompatible and policies; traditional rotation of agricultural crops in a field suggests that it might be more appropriate to work with a cycle of quite different policies to ensure sustainable development; a configuration of quite distinct and possibly incompatible policies, can be fruitfully explored using insights from chemical molecules structured as resonance hybrids. Considering that the electoral cycle of governments precludes coherent long-term policies required for sustainable development, such metaphors are used to argue that it is more feasible and appropriate to aim for a sustainable ecology of development policies than for any particular, politically unsustainable, development policy.
This paper is based on the assumption that it is useful to question whether the many existing approaches to global management, however successful, are sufficent to the challenge of the times. Individually they may indeed be necessary and adequate to particular challenges, but there is every possibility that they may collectively be insufficent to the larger challenge.
For space reasons, the paper first briefly explores some major constraints on global management and innovative approaches to it. Experience of past development decades indicates that implementation of desirable institutional innovations is likely to remain limited however much lip service is paid to them. Part of the difficulty would seem to lie in imaginal deficiency on the part of both the innovators and of those to whom the innovations must be made credible. There is merit therefore in exploring radical approaches to ways of configuring the conceptual elements which are the basis for any social innovation -- and relating them to the forms of imagery currently favoured (for good reason) by politicians.
Examples are given of much more powerful metaphors, and sets of metaphors, as providing a more appropriate conceptual scaffolding to deal with the complex issues of global management. Consideration is then given to the further work required to develop this approach and to determine its limitations.
This paper results from long-term explorations of the significance of information collected on the networks of some 20,000 international bodies described in the Yearbook of International Organizations, and on the 10,000 "world problems" with which they claim to be concerned, as described in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential.
Discussion of the following characteristics of the social condition is inappropriate at this time, even if space permitted. They have been noted by many authors in different ways. For the purposes of the subsequent discussion they can usefully be treated as design constraints. The list, which can also be viewed as a list of assumptions, is not necessarily comprehensive but it does include:
These constraints are presented in order to stress that although many current initiatives are necessary, even vital, it is important to question whether they are sufficient to the dimensions of the challenge with which society is faced. It is healthy to assume that they are not sufficient and to consider more radical approaches to social innovation for global management.
In the light of the above contextual constraints, it is useful to act on the assumption that the inadequacies of existing strategies are partly due to poverty of imagination -- namely to imaginal deficiency at the policy level. This is not the place to argue this case in detail. Some indications are provided in this section to contrast with richer possibilities presented in later sections.
The question to be asked is whether there is some pattern to our thinking which effectively limits the complexity of the policy options which tend to emerge, especially at the international level.
(a) Geometrical metaphor: As a first and very basic illustration, consider the language in which policy arguments are made. In any policy debate, much reference is made to the "points" made and occasionally to the "line" of argument. Agendas are structured in terms of "points". It is important to recognize that metaphoric use is being made of the most primitive geometric elements -- points and lines.
It is true that within geometry much can be constructed with points and lines, because of their fundamental nature. But it is also true that any such construction depends on clear recognition of intermediary structures such as surfaces and volumes of various well-established forms (polygons, conics, polyhedrons, etc). In the policy world occasional vague reference is made to "areas" (of specialized activity) and to "spheres" (of influence). But it clear that the kind of understanding required in architecture to move from such basic geometric insights to the construction of the simplest arch required for the most basic forms of building is totally lacking at the policy level -- except in the intuitive understanding of the need for "checks and balances". Any discussion of "bridge building" policies to link two opposing factions therefore tends to lack the conceptual scaffolding through which effective bridges could be constructed.
This may help to explain why the principal means of describing and designing organizations is the organization chart which is normally a hierarchical tree structure -- quite primitive in geometric terms.
Is it not appropriate to ask why no exploration has been made of the potential implications of more complex geometrical objects as a scaffolding for new forms of policy ? "What might emerge from endeavouring to structure an agenda, a declaration or a set of resolutions into a polyhedral form of some appropriate degree of complexity ? Through such a form, relationships between "points" can be defined more explicitly. "Areas" can be identified with precision. But potentially of the greatest significance, the assembly of points, lines and areas form a volume. In this way conceptual scaffolding is provided for an integrated whole, which is not the case with the normal jumble of policy recommendations. It is much to be regretted that the implications of Buckminsters work, especially on tensegrity structures, have not been explored in the design of more appropriate conceptual, policy and institutional frameworks.
(b) Positional metaphors: Much current policy discussion is based on identification of the "position" taken by each party, to the point that each is called upon to make their position clear. It is assumed that a reasonable debate can only take place if parties take up a "stance" on some position. Shifting "position" is perceived as recognition of the weakness of that policy position. Such static metaphors reinforce the static quality of policies and prevent the emergence of more dynamic policies which might be of requisite complexity to contain dynamic problem situations.
In life, only plants occupy fixed positions. To survive animals need to shift position and take up different stances according to the changing challenges of their environment. One insightful book on policy by Geoffrey Vickers, is entitled "Freedom in a Rocking Boat". On rocking boats, fixity of position is associated with instability. What kinds of policy might emerge if policies were debated in terms of dynamic positional metaphors such as "walking" or "dancing" ?
(c) Tool metaphors: It is quite amazing to note the way in which unimaginative use is made of the simplest tools to illustrate what are supposedly the most critical and sensitive policies. The saddest examples relate to military strategies as defined by nuclear "umbrellas" and "shields". Such thinking is reflected in the naming of military programs and defense systems, for example "trident".
Such metaphors raise the question as to whether there are not more complex tools which could provide the conceptual scaffolding to understand richer policy options.
(d) Domestic metaphors: The power of the metaphors used by politicians may effectively distract attention from the poverty of imagination. This is best illustrated by Harold Macmillan (former British Prime Minister) in attacking Margaret Thatcher's privatization policy as being a case of "selling the family silver". This powerful indictment of a complex policy was deflected by Thatcher's subsequent acknowledgement that she was indeed "selling the family silver", but that she was "selling it back to the family".
Again are there not more complex features of domestic life which could be used to open up a wider range of policy options ?
(e) Use of metaphors in business: Very extensive use of metaphors is made within the business community. Such metaphors are almost entirely based on military or sporting situations: "zapping the competition", "target audiences", "advertising ammunition", "keeping the ball in play", "scoring points", etc. Politicians have recently taken to declaring "war" on problems (cf "war on want"). Such terms, and especially "mobilization", have been taken over by intergovernmental agencies, even when their aims are ostensibly cooperative and peaceful.
But whilst western managers base their metaphors on a more mechanistic understanding of such sports, it is interesting to note that both the Japanese and Chinese make use of a more non-linear, organic or poetic understanding of such sports. A standard Japanese management text is concerned with the art and strategy of swordsmanship. It is appropriate to ask whether the use of richer metaphors is not a major factor in the continuing success of Japanese business strategies. Conversely the relative economic weakness of some societies may in part be due to the inappropriateness of the metaphors through their entrepreneurial initiativesd are contextualized or to their metaphoric impoverishment.
(f) Fiction: It is intriguing to note the kinds of policy-making environment envisaged in science fiction for the distant future. But even million of years hence, there is an unfortunate similarity to the dynamics of board meetings today, just as they themselves appear to bear a strong resemblance to those in Roman times. It is interesting that even in such distant futures galactic councils are envisaged as operating under some variant of Robert's Rules of Order.
It is not a question of the hardware through which information is presented, be it clay tablets, holographic or telepathic presentations. Rather it is a question of the conceptual scaffolding via which viable policy alternatives of greater richness can be comprehended and via which richer patterns of relationships can be woven between factions with distinct (or opposing) perspectives.
One of the basic "points" implied by this paper is that to a large extent the patterns of understanding appropriate to social innovations for global management cannot be effectively presented in the conventional linear mode of which this paper is an example. It is indeed possible to present a highly articulated argument, but the exercise bears some resemblance to the classic attempt to describe a spiral staircase verbally. The description, although exact, is not meaningful.
To be consistent with the argument, the kind of insights to be gained from metaphors is presented using selected metaphors as examples of relevance to global management. The metaphors are presented in some detail as annexes. In Annex 1 (https://www.laetusinpraesens.org/docs/metcoop.php) is given a review of 12 metaphors through which the successes and failures of cooperation over the past three development decades may be explored. The possibilities of richer metaphors are explored in Annexes 2 to 4. These are based on:
A total of 80 such examples have been explored in a special section in the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential
There is a widely held academic view that use of metaphor may be valid for rhetorical and illustrative purposes but that its use for any serious purpose is to be considered highly suspect. It is not the purpose of this paper to repeat arguments demonstrating how basic metaphor is to concept formation in the most respectable disciplines. This has been done by others. Nor will any attempt be made to justify the use of metaphor as an aid to creativity and social innovation. Again this has been done by others. Space will also not be devoted to exploring subtle distinctions made in the humanities between metaphor, analogy, allegory, parable, symbol etc as literary devices. Such explorations do not seem to have empowered people to make more effective use of metaphor (however defined) in policy-related situations.
The key question requiring further discussion is whether metaphor can in reality be effectively used to enhance innovative policy-making for global management. The question is whether metaphors, used non-rhetorically, can provide the conceptual scaffolding for new policies and the structures resulting from them.
An imaginative stimulus for such investigation is provided by a science fiction scenario explored by a number of writers. It focuses on the challenge of comprehending high degrees of complexity calling for decision-making under operational conditions (as is the case in global global management). The problem is that of piloting or navigating a spacecraft through "hyperspace" or "sub-space", as imagined in the light of recent advances in theoretical physics and mathematics. Because of the inherent complexity of such environments, writers have explored the possibility that pilots and navigators might choose appropriate metaphors through which to perceive and order their task in relation to qualitative features of that complexity - for example, flying like a bird, windsurfing, swimming like a fish, tunneling like a mole, etc. The mass of data imput derived from various arrays of sensors, and otherwise completely unmanageable, is then channelled to the pilot in the form of appropriate sensory inputs to the nerve synapses corresponding to his "wings" or his "fins". Perception through the chosen metaphor is assisted by artificial intelligence software and appropriate graphic displays. The pilot switches between metaphors according to the nature of the hyperspace terrain. Such speculations do at least stimulate imagination concerning a possible marriage between metaphor and artificial intelligence in relation to governance.
Although it could be argued that successful entrepreneurs and leaders may in effect use some such metaphoric device already, as a way of ordering their strategic perceptions (even without the high-tech devices), the question as to whether more fundamental use can be made of metaphor in policy contexts can only be effectively answered by further work along the following lines:
(a) Design: Investigations are required into the way extended metaphors can be designed as an aid to governance. Such investigations should cover the following:
The design challenge should be explored in terms of the need for a set of complementary metaphors that can be used under different conditions to contain the problematique in question. Of special interest is the facility with which the shift from metaphor to metaphor within the set can be accomplished.
It is important to bear in mind that because metaphor is used extensively in many cultures in formal processes, skill in the use of metaphor in such circumstances may have to be acquired from them by those who attempt to use metaphor-free Western languages in development planning and implementation.
(b) Education: Educational techniques on the practical use of metaphor should be documented. The question is what media and other techniques can be adapted to facilitate access to the use of metaphor -- bearing in mind that most people, especially those without a formal education, appear to make extensive use of metaphor. Metaphor may be natural to the language in the culture in question or associated with traditional (or emergent) symbol systems. The problem is thus one of encouraging and legitimating an existing skill rather than of implanting a new one.
(c) Development of metaphoric indicators: Irrespective of whether enhanced use of metaphors is encouraged, there is a need to develop aids to the recognition of what might be considered metaphoric "aggression" or "entrapment". In the terms of Jacques Attali, people open themselves voluntarily to "seductive" truths by which they may subsequently become entrapped. At what point, or to whom, are metaphors to be considered aggressive -- to the point of violating a sense of identity or cultral integrity ? The misuse of advertising and political propaganda should be reviewed in this light.
Indicators are also required of metaphoric poverty to aid in determining vulnerability to metaphoric aggression and as a warning that information may be relatively incomprehensible in that form. The bureaucratic use of metaphor-free texts, especially within the international community, should be reviewed in this light.
(d) Engaging and disengaging from a metaphor: Effort should be made to articulate the skills required to "take-on" an extended metaphor to guide understanding of complex issues, whether individually or in a group -- especially where concrete action is called for. Corresponding effort is required to develop the skills which make it posible to "take-off" the metaphor, possibly in order to move to a more appropriate metaphor. Of special concern is developing the ability, when working within one metaphor, to determine that it is no longer as appropriate to the circumstances as some other meaphor might be.
Investigation and development of this skill is vital to any effective systematic use of sets or patterns of metaphors within which an individual or group may shift according to the nature of the conceptual challenge. It is especially important to further understanding of how to develop cyclic, or even rhythmic use of different conceptual scaffoldings.
(e) Empowerment in relation to social problems: The metaphors to which people have access should be examined to determine to what extent these are empowering or disempowering. The question is whether it is possible to design, or bring about the emergence of, empowering metaphors.
There would seem to be a strong possibility that the alienating quality of life, as experienced by increasing numbers, is in part due to imaginal impoverishment. The effort to compensate for this results in various forms of substance abuse, excessive television viewing and other activities which stimulate the imagination (however anti-social they may be).
Clearly, if there is any chance that new ways of using metaphor might open up new ways for people to relate to society then further investigation is appropriate. Especially if this may prove relevant to such intractable issues as youth unemployment, drug abuse, overpopulation and cultural impoverishment.
(f) Identification of metaphors of specialized agencies: As pointed out in an earlier paper, it is not recognized, when advocating or imposing the use of particular sets of values, needs or programmes, that these effectively compete as functional substitutes in traditional societies with other sets of qualities and modes of action symbolized by hierarchies of gods or spiritual beings governing those qualities. The fundamental sets society now attempts to implant, whether embodied in the Specialized Agencies of the United Nations or the equivalent government ministries, are indeed designed to perform many of the regulatory functions previously ascribed to supernatural beings or potencies. Given the ersatz quality of the academic and administrative approaches to legitimating such initiatives, in contrast with the cultural richness popularly associated in the past with pantheons or Camelot, for example, it is not surprising that public information programmes have relatively little success in arousing enthusiasm and generating "a political will to change".
The question is therefore how such agencies could make creative use of the metaphoric and symbolic dimensions to counteract their superficial and "bloodless" images, and give credibility to their initiatives. Given the criticisms of inefficiency and fragmentation, such investigations could uncover ways in which the metaphors governing agency action could be seen as components of a self-organizing organic pattern of fundamental significance - even to the governance of the planet as a whole. Such investigations could highlight the necessary functional complementarity between the metaphors in any such pattern;
(g) Investigation of problems as metaphors: It is seldom realized that a societal problem, as such, is a problem (at least to some degree) precisely because it escapes any attempt to encompass it within any conventional set of categories. Such problems cannot be "defined" in any scientific way. Global modelling initiatives do not model problems. Any problem emerges from human interpretation of the significance of the relationships modelled under certain conditions - they are not embodied in the model. As a psycho-social reality, people claim, however, to perceive problems. But as abstractions escaping definition, such problems could well be better understood as metaphors. It is indeed possible that metaphors offer a more fruitful way of handling them. It is arguable that the Chinese currently, emphasize this approach. Investigation is required into the strengths of this approach and its weakness (possibly as illustrated by Reagan's "evil empire" metaphor). Of special interest are the metaphors through which the global problematique may be perceived. Extremes include the "billiard ball" metaphor, the "network" metaphor, the "field metaphor" (with characteristic analogous to electromagnetic fields), and the "wave metaphor" (with problems emerging into prominence and then disappearing, as with political issues). Better metaphors, or more developed metaphors, could suggest more coherent strategies;
(h) Investigation of metaphors implicit in development action: It is seldom realized that a significant proportion of organization vocabulary results from innovations made by the Cistercian Order of monks after the 12th century in an early form of transnational organization. The notions of "assembly", "commission", "constitution", "agenda" and "ballot", for example, derive from that context. Given the key role played by the limited vocabulary of international action and development action in general, it would be appropriate to explore what metaphors are hidden in that vocabulary - "organization", "programme", "congress", "in the field", etc. In some cases tracing the metaphor may enrich