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Recently I have been written a short series about the “Philosophy of Science in Organizations” (look at the end of this post for links). However, one might question whether there actually is such thing at all. Isn’t it so that consultants, OD experts, coaches and leaders are just professionals selling their services in order to get money? They don’t have to follow the “ethics of science”, right? They might also have biased viewpoints and the “science” is often used just as a marketing phrase.

Well, perhaps it isn’t quite so black ‘n white. The science can mean many things and even the recognized scientific institutions have marketing, biased viewpoints, resourcing and funding to worry about. So, let’s look at what science really means and how it relates to research and development in organizations.

What is Science?

Science, as commonly accepted concept, can mean multiple things:

  1. Science institution or research system
  2. Research activities
  3. Pool of commonly accepted research results
  4. Scientific methods

Now, if you think about business organizations, only the first one is out-scoped. There can be scientific research activities in organizations that use scientific methods and produce scientific results. So, are there any other differences between business organizations and science institutions?

When we look more closely to the scientific research and development there can be several different activities distinguished:

  1. Basic research that doesn’t seek to produce practical applications
  2. Applicable research that seeks to find applications to the different research results
  3. Research and development work that seeks to produce new products, production devices or services

Again, only the first one is out-scoped when talking about business organizations. Clearly business organizations can have scientific Research and Development activities and thus produce “science”.

The difference, if there are any, isn’t so much in the science itself. Science is clearly been done in many businesses like technology, chemicals and services. The problem is the scientific objectivity – the values.

Scientific objectivity – Freedom from values

In order to create trustworthy science, the researcher has to be objective. If he has his own agenda to play, how can we be sure that the methods and the results are scientifically objective? They might be biased towards the goals or ideologies of the researcher. This is a clear danger when somebody is selling products or services. But of course this danger is relevant also in academic research.

There are two kinds of values that needs to be distinguished:

  • informative values like honesty, openness, transparency, simplicity, probabilities and support from perceptions
  • non-informative values like moral, political and religious values.

The freedom from values is mostly a concern when talking about non-informative values. How to be sure they don’t influence the research in business? There are three different categories that can be separated on where to seek the freedom from values:

  1. Selection of research subject
  2. Acceptance of research results
  3. Application of research results

Each of these aspects of research can be subject to non-informative values.

Research on employee wellness

So, let’s have an example from business organizations:

Occupational Health Services division is conducting a research on work practices and well-being of employees in a technology company. The researchers are educated professionals (such as psychologists) who can use psychological research methods in their research. The research follows the principles of realism and utilizes surveys and interviews to gather data. Data is then analyzed with scientifically accepted psychological methodologies and given to the technology company with suggested actions to improve the employee well-being.

So, how can the scientific approach and freedom from values be ensured in this case? First of all, this research can potentially fulfill all the four meanings of science: The health care organization can be seen as scientific institution, it uses scientific methods in a research that produces scientific results.

When analyzing the research itself, we can quickly see that it is not basic research. We might say that this is RnD work in a sense that it seeks to develop the “production devices” which are the employees. However, the most fitting category here is applicable research, especially if they utilize some methodology that has been newly developed to study employee wellness. Let’s agree that this is the case here.

So, what about the objectivity? Only basic research can be said to be free from values so clearly there is a danger of value-bound biases here. As this is external company making the study, it is relatively easy to believe that they don’t have many biased viewpoints coming from non-informative values. They might actually have e.g. some political viewpoints, but probably the business ethics of health care business is enough to mitigate that. The most probable non-informative value would be coming from the morality – the doctors and psychologists probably meet many people who have had problems with overtime work, bad managers etc. This might cause value-bound viewpoints.

Next we could seek to find what phases of the research process these biases could affect. The research subject comes from the customer, so that is probably not a big issue. Still, they might focus the research on some specific aspects such as management practices or overtime work. Acceptance of research results is the most probable candidate for value-bound viewpoints. Health care company is selling the service and thus they will tend to accept their own results. On the other hand, the customer might not want to accept it if it would mean big investments to change something. The applicability of results is not an issue for the health care company as it is the customer that is making the decisions on that. Of course the health care unit might try to influence the decisions especially if they would gain some benefit from it (like regular occupational supervision for the employees). If we think that the customer is part of the research team here it is also very likely that political/business viewpoints are affecting their decisions.

As a conclusion, we could say that the research fulfills the criteria of science, but there’s a big danger of value-boundedness. However, this depends on the people involved. It is also possible that freedom from values is quite well met. But is this objectivity actually so important?

Is true objectivity even desirable?

Scientific objectivity isn’t only a good thing. Like Max Weber put it: “science is like a map, it can’t tell you where to go, but it shows a route to there”. In many cases it is very important to carefully think about what to study and what kind of results to publish.

Let’s say the customer wants to study the differences between male and female engineers in the work. Clearly this would be a subject of research that the health care organization should refuse to conduct. What if there would be some findings that would decrease the equality between sexes? It would be very dangerous to publish those results and thus it would be wise not to do such a research in the first place.

Philip Kitcher actually defined two different dangers that should be avoided:

  1. Politically non-symmetric belief as a research hypothesis: This means that if the research supports the hypothesis it would spread in the society, but opposite evidence wouldn’t reduce the belief anymore.
  2. Informationally non-symmetric belief: People would hold the belief scientifically more robust than it actually is.

In our example the research hypothesis could be at least politically non-symmetric – if there would be any evidence that male SW engineers are somehow more efficient than female engineers that belief would spread and it would be really hard to reduce that belief with opposite evidence anymore.

Conclusions

There are no reasons to think that consultants, OD experts or business driven organizations can’t make “real science”. The differences between business organizations and science institutions aren’t so big as one might think at first. Actually they are both subjects to similar dynamics – both need to struggle with non-informative values and ethics.

The biggest difference is that business organizations often lack the ambition (or skills) to do the research activities with scientific rigidity – especially if they study social phenomena. It is often thought that it is enough to use “common sense” and organize just simple surveys and discussion groups to find out things. That is fine, but one could do much better. Of course there are also many good approaches that aren’t commonly accepted as “real science”. However, I think that there is value in studying what kind of philosophies are used in those approaches.

In this series about “Philosophy of Science in Organizations” I have tried to highlight the fact that we are always using some philosophies in our thinking and if we are not aware of which ones – well, it can lead to trouble. Wise man is the one who reflects upon his own thinking critically and seeks to find the weak points of it.

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Here are the links to the other posts on this series:

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