Thursday, October 4, 2007

Two Cultures II: diversity vs. hothouse

Responding to thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on last post.

Beecham below, following up on my Snow analogy, rightly points out that most “two cultures” arguments assumes two cultures are bad, but don't explain why. As Beecham rightly remarks: Snow never really explains why a engineer should read Dickens. I love Dickens, and think you should read him if you like great novels, but that’s a point of taste and doesn’t answer the question. It’s a question, in fact, I’ve been puzzling over for a good long while, in both my previous life as a grad student and now in both my professional and public-sector (school-board) work.

These days, the “Two cultures” problem tends to get thematized as a problem of “diversity:” a problem because the working assumption is that diversity is good and a lack of it is bad in almost any category: the natural world, institutional and social life, the realm of ideas. In the social world, diversity has become the goal of of most progressive institutions. The arguments fall into two broad categories: diversity is either good for everyone (because it enriches all our lives and works) or good for the group considered a source of diversity (because it provides opportunities for the those who have been unfairly excluded in the past.) My own politics make me strongly supportive of initiatives to enhance diversity but I’ve always been more comfortable with the second argument: I recognize the drive for diversity as a political act: a social duty, civic responsibility and a source of long-term economic stability. Classic liberal, me.

The arguments that diversity enriches all of us is a little harder for me to follow. I see the point--we all have limited perspectives and exposure to new perspectives challenge and broaden our assumptions--but i've seen plenty of cases where this exposure only amounts to more sensitivity toward tolerance. Nothing wrong with that, to be sure, but not sure it leads to better ideas. In fact, rather than focusing on the politically charged area of progressive social policy, I’d rather focus on the argument in business circles, because, as Beecham suggests, it’s less well-explored and more relevant here. (For a politically-charged critique of the celebration of diversity, check out Walter Benn Michael's The Trouble with Diversity)

In biz culture, the argument that gets recycled every couple mounths is that a breadth of diverse perspectives leads to the faster generation of new and better ideas. It’s at the root of history as business case-study books like The Medici Effect. Again, I don’t know. I can think of examples where this is true, but just as many examples where the success of a project came from the assembly of a like-minded group of brilliant people in one place (or even, a strong and inspired leader). E.g., universities at a certain moment in their history (University of Chicago in the 50’s), or Vienna before the WWI or the early days of SNL that Malcom Gladwell has written about under the title of "Groupthink." I guess you could argue that these groups were diverse, but it seems to me that they were diverse within a pretty narrow range of physicists, and artists/social thinkers and comedians. This alternative--what you might call the hothouse--is a diversity of talent within a relatively narrow frame or focus.

In my experience, if the group is too diverse in their thinking (by which I mean, people start with such different assumptions on how to approach a task) it’s really hard to make any progress at all. You spend all your time trying to work back to the fundamental differences. It quickly stalls, like disagreements about religious faith.

I run a strategy group that includes a bunch of different kinds of strategists: experts in quantitative analysis and information architects and cultural theorists and traditional planners. You could call this a diverse group, and we all value one another’s perspectives, but even with all that good faith, we still spend a fair amount of time trying to figure out what we’re all talking about.

The truth about integration is that it is hard. And for it to bear fruit, requires understanding the assumptions that someone else brings to a problem or form of analysis. If my group was any more diverse, if, for example, we included a professional screenwriter or a military strategist, it might be cool to hear what they had to say, but it would be very hard to actually work together. It’s why creatives from certain agency cultures look at me like I’m totally insane when I start talking about purchase pathways and user experience as the source of the real brand experience. They just want to hear something that helps them make cool stuff that gets attention. Not sure that qualifies as turning Snow on his head, but it’s designed to be a skeptical critique.

Here's my position: In creative businesses we tend to think disciplinary boundaries are bad or limiting. But from my perspective, they are essential. They help organize our thinking and approach so know what were daoing. It’s why we call them disciplines.

Is it a market problem, Beecham asks? It can be, I think, but not because two culture organizations are bound to fail, but for the reasons I’ve suggested elsewhere (in a post on Walter Scott’s intro to Ivanhoe). We all tend to pigeon-hole talent in certain categories based on our experiences. We can say we have one or two or ten cultures but clients will have a really hard time seeing us that way, which tends to limit our pool of business. Every full service/integrated/fusion/diverse company out there is trying to crack this nut but there’s something in human nature that likes to compartmentalize.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen a rigorous sociological study on this subject, in which various so-called diverse organizations (the integrated culture) measured their progress or originality against so-called non-diverse groups of thinkers or creators (the hothouse), but I’ll go looking for one now. Send me something if you know of one.

1 comment:

Beecham said...

Great post. Two responses perhaps tangential to the discussion.

In your discussion of disciplines, you align them with rigor. I'd like to place the emphasis a little differently and (from Latin, disciplina instruction of disciples, discipulus pupil or disciple) stress the teacher-pupil component, the heuristic value of disciplinary thinking. And anyone who's been in a good classroom probably knows, rigor isn't necessarily what leads to the best teaching or even training.

And second, on the question of why read Dickens, I can't help but think that what you say is different from what you do (just looking back to the Ivanhoe post). You suggest that Dickens is an aesthetic pleasure and seem to shy away from any pragmatic value, but your use of literature is heading closer to the toolbox-for-life view. Having had a bank CEO tell me that he thought his employees would make better choices if they'd all read Macbeth (had HE read the play? what a choice!), I shudder at some of the extreme versions of this argument.