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Believing in the world
A very short and snappy course in phenomenological thinking for managers by guest editor rik maes

balanced score cards or other management reporting systems by and large continue to believe – against their better judgement – in this “objectivity”. They thereby pass over in silence that the definition and the recording of the same figures were processes full of

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omputerised data are objectified representations of reality; at least, so the story goes. Managers reasoning from figures taken from spreadsheets,

goes back to a philosophical tradition starting with René Descartes, the “founder of modern philosophy”. The only indisputable knowledge according to him is based on a man’s thinking, in this manner discarding his senses and perception as a source of knowledge. This disconnected way of reasoning culminates in August Comte’s positivism, stating that the only authentic knowledge is scientifically proven knowledge. Believers in objective figures behave as if philosophy has since died out. Believers in reality know better! Edmund Husserl, generally regarded as the founder of phenomenology, re-established experience as the source of knowledge. Objectivity, in his reasoning, is not the absence of subjectivity, but the consensus of subjective experiences; sharing these experiences is part of our subsistence.

interpretations, understandings, compromises, etc and that the very use of these figures proactively influences their actual value. How on earth can this unconditional belief in “objectivity” and the subsequent detached way of behaving be explained? Investigating this prevalence more profoundly reveals that it is deep-seated in western thought and

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Starting from this world view, management can no longer refrain from engagement: knowledge is in the encounter with the real world, not with its image in whatever thinkable format. Managers should leave their sterile headquarters and the virtual world of their information systems in order to gain and share realworld experience. They are themselves part of the world; they are in the world and not above it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty elaborated on Husserl’s philosophy by investigating our perception of the world. In his view, perceiving is an active encounter with reality, intrinsically ambiguous and dependent on our understanding of and involvement in it. Our perception of the world is “believing in the world”. Managers should be aware, according to Merleau-Ponty, that objective data simply don’t exist, since data are nothing but frozen perceptions. More specifically, information managers should be aware that any attempt to build information systems from generalised, disengaged business architectures are doomed to fail. Hans-Georg Gadamer is another philosopher in the phenomenological tradition worthwhile considering. The essence of his philosophical investigations, known as hermeneutics, is that continuous interpretation is at the heart of real living. No interpretation stands alone or is a priori better than any other. All the more so, no interpretation is final or can claim to be objective. Truth is not the truth of the facts or the data, but the truth of the actual interpretation. The corresponding managerial attitude should be one of listening, contemplating and dialoguing, trying to find answers to questions preceding decisions. Figures are nothing but the temporary representation of previous interpretations; they are always tentative and objects for further interpretation. Emmanuel Lévinas, for his part, starts from the experience of our encounter with the other: every encounter is a privileged phenomenon, an invitation to

affirm or deny, but never to take hold of. We are fundamentally responsible for the other and the pursuit of knowledge is subordinate to our duty-to-the-other. Lévinas’ ethical stance is the most radical one: he leaves any manager with the basic concern for the other above the chase for profit or any other ephemeral achievement. Along Lévinas’ lines, any management is responsible management. No treatise on phenomenological thinking, however short it may be, can bypass Martin Heidegger as an influential and, at the same time, obscure and controversial thinker. Here we limit our exposition to his vision on technology as managers’ deep belief in figures goes hand in hand with an implicit vision of technology as a reliable, passive source of information. Advances in the direction of business intelligence, digital dashboards and other applications of data mining are just symptoms of their basic belief in ICT as a means to their own ends. According to Heidegger, however, they are

fundamentally mistaken in this: technology, and ICT in particular, is neither neutral nor a passive tool under their control. The essence of ICT is in its infrastructural nature, as Claudio Ciborra has demonstrated: a vast system of organisation that includes us, rather than standing objectively and passively ready for our instructions. Humans’ control over technology is an illusion, is Heidegger’s deep caution, shaped (“enframed”) as our destiny is through the technology we are using. This tour of five prominent phenomenological philosophers might appear confrontational, if not shocking. It isn’t. These thinkers aren’t first and foremost warning us against false impressions, but offering perspectives worth envisioning. Authentic engagement and a sense of own relativity, they tell us, are key values for any human being, not least for any manager feeling responsible for his organisation and society in general. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of their insights?

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