Friday, 6 January 2012

How Vision Can Create Community and Culture

I think the most important single thing I have learned from studying leadership in the context of learning in the humanities is how important vision is to any cooperative enterprise. I want to show briefly how a vision can be a powerful tool to encourage cooperation, provide some examples I have come across, and show how Kenneth Burke’s methods can be helpful in its development, communication, and execution. A well-defined vision can focus individual efforts towards common goals and provide the motivation which persuades a highly individualistic population to think in terms of ‘we’ and ‘ours.’ As John Dewey writes in “Search for the Great Community,” “’we’ and ‘our’ exist only when the consequences of combined action are perceived and become an object of desire and effort” (151). A vision contains those desired consequences of combined action and the means whereby they can become reality. When this vision is consciously sustained and nurtured we get what for Dewey would qualify as a community. The values and practices this community adopts to achieve that vision is what we would call ‘culture.’

                Culture has become a buzz-word in modern business. As Human Synergistics International notes in “Culture Makes the Difference in Business Objects and Crystal Decisions Merger”: “Constructive cultures are worth the effort to develop as they are positively correlated with high levels of motivation, cooperation, performance, and quality” (2). In “Building Your Company’s Vision” James. C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras claim: “The dynamic [or culture] . . . is the primary engine of enduring companies. Vision simply provides the context for bringing this dynamic to life” (77). In other words, the vision by itself does nothing. However, the vision can create the framework and direction to channel subsequent action if the community accepts the vision and aligns itself to it. The vision outlines a way of life and a way of thinking. As Collins and Porras claim, “When you have a superb alignment, a visitor could drop in from outer space and infer your vision from the operations and activities of the company without ever reading it on paper or meeting a single senior executive” (77). We can infer from these statements that creating and communicating a vision, and aligning the company culture to it, are some of the most important tasks a leader has. I will show how a study in the humanities can provide valuable skills to assist in these endeavours, because the humanities chronicle centuries of experience with the same work of human motivation and identification.

                In First Democracy Paul Woodruff describes how a democratic culture was created and nurtured by shared experience, rituals, theatre, and public speeches. The culture created by Athens’ heroes lived longer than their progenitors, and the essential democratic virtues of humility and harmony were central themes in plays and poems. The Blithedale Romance chronicles the collapse of a common endeavour due to a weak vision which never fully translated into the culture of the community, and thus did not have the strength to hold the community together in the face of individualistic ambitions. And the work of Kenneth Burke is focused on “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols” (Rhetoric 43).

 Kenneth Burke offers some of the best insights on how language can be used to induce cooperation, and his theory of dialectical transcendence directly describes the mechanisms of a persuasive vision. As he writes in “I, Eye, Aye: Emerson’s Early Essay on ‘Nature’: Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence,” transcending is “the building of a terministic bridge whereby one realm is transcended by being viewed in terms of a realm ‘beyond’ it” (877), and “insofar as things here and now are treated in terms of a ‘beyond’, they thereby become infused or inspirited by the addition of a new or further dimension” (880). The vision provides a greater reference point which infuses the individual tasks of a worker with meaning. According to Collins and Porras, a vision is both discovered (core ideals) and created (envisioned future, purpose, etc.). Burke’s method of dialectic transcendence can work both as a heuristic to develop a vision (seek to go from particular to more general and abstract ideas) and as an analytic tool to discover ideals implicit in the symbol system of a community. With the help of Burke’s method of indexing, it should be possible to chart the relationships which uncover the structure of a symbol-system, including which ideas are more important and have greater transcendent value than others. Because of the limited scope of this paper, only a brief explanation will be given for this method: In “Linguistic Approach to Problems in Education” Kenneth Burke outlines his method of indexing. The steps of this method would be to first find the terms that regularly occur together in a text, mapping which words are socially inferior or superior, and finding from this the verbal pyramids which contain words of higher abstraction which subordinate or gather other words. He believed this method could uncover the ‘personality’ or, if you will, ‘culture’ of the text. He also claimed that this method could be applied to all human communication as well as literary texts. This same method can be used to evaluate alignment to the vision that has been outlined, for, as Collins and Porras claim, when a company has perfect alignment to vision “a visitor could drop in from outer space and infer your vision from the operations and activities of the company” (77). Such alignment to vision should leave a clear linguistic trace which can be tracked from internal communications.

For a vision to be effective it is essential that it is communicated clearly to all the members of the community, and that they in turn are persuaded to adopt the vision as a guide for their actions. If their individual tasks are linked clearly enough to a desirable and shared vision they are likely to be more motivated to work towards its fulfillment. In “Rhetoric – Old and New,” Burke claims that “a rhetorical structure is most persuasive when it possesses full dialectical symmetry – or, otherwise put, dialectical symmetry is at once the perfecting and transcending of rhetoric” (204). In other words, the rhetorical structure will be most effective if there are clear steps and connections between the transcendent purpose and the particular actions of the individuals in the group. In order to make this clear to understand one could create a graphic way of displaying the ‘verbal pyramid’ which connects particular tasks (lower steps) with the transcendent vision (higher steps). W.L.Gore and Associates, a company which has a strong focus on developing their culture, have designed a graphic where the vision stands at the core and is surrounded by layers with greater degrees of abstraction closer to the core.

At the core we find “What We Believe” followed by “Guiding Principles”, “Core Values”, “Key Disciplines”, and finally ending with “Practices.” Terri Kelly, the CEO of the company, explained the importance of this model at an MIT lecture titled “Nurturing Culture to Drive Innovation”:
Because the culture is such a rich part of how we communicate in our organization and how we want to drive both actions and behaviours, you will find a poster like this in probably every plant conference room at Gore, and the reason is we want it to drive our conversation. So, with a lot of companies you hear about their values and you hear about their culture, but if it’s not an integral part of how you make decisions and how leaders talk about how we get the work done, it really becomes pretty superficial.
I am currently writing my master thesis about the method of indexing and dialectical transcendence. This course has made it clear to me how these methods could not only be useful but extremely valuable in a market context. In one instance mentioned by Human Synergistics International, a clear evaluation of company culture and the reformulation and communication of a vision basically doubled the value of two companies over a short period of time (“Culture” 3). The valuable work of Kenneth Burke, along with that of many other humanists, can give fresh insights to business because its line of inquiry starts with different premises, which are more based on human nature than mere profit. As the focus of the business world shifts from capital and property to productivity and innovation (which Richard Lanham claims are the new wealth-creating activities) concepts like culture, community, and vision will become even more prominent. More efforts will be made to understand human nature and the discovery, creation, and communication of knowledge. As such, I feel very confident that the Humanities will become a more prominent and desired source of knowledge for society. We just have to communicate what we have to offer.