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7.4 A New Perspective on the Study of Management Philosophy

A vast number of books, papers, and essays on Japanese management philosophy written by scholars, journalists, consultants, and practitioners have been accumulating since the 1950s. This seems to be, so to speak, a well-thumbed subject, to which nothing new could possibly be added.

However, our anthropology of administration multidisciplinary study group realized that a basic question had been overlooked: what management philosophy was all about. This was not a matter of definition but an ontological question (see Sumihara et al. 2008: Introduction). We questioned under what conditions one can say that a given organization has a management philosophy. It could be claimed that the criterion by which conventional studies determined the existence of a management philosophy was whether a management philosophy was stipulated by the organization. We considered this criterion too simple because we had encountered a case in which the management of a company claimed that they had no “management philosophy” despite clearly having specific values that, though not stipulated, were shared by most members of the small company because they were consistently propounded by the president and top managers (see Iwai 2008). We believed this kind of company to be quite common in Japan.

We thus determined that the ontological substance of a management philosophy was whether particular values were shared and actually practiced within an organization, even if not stipulated, in the way a preliterate tribal societies share cultural values. Conversely, when a management philosophy is clearly defined and stipulated but neglected or not shared, it can be said to not really exist. In our view, the real existence of a management philosophy lied in the “process” by which it is interpreted and reinterpreted in its application to daily management and business practices.

This ontological view of management philosophy has several merits, one of which is allowing us to avoid an unfruitful search for a written definition of “management philosophy,” which so many studies have conducted in vain. The more important merit was, we found, that it allowed us to focus on the dynamic “interaction” between management philosophies and the practices based on them.

Searching for the dynamic interaction between values and practices is exactly what cultural anthropology has been pursuing. However, there is a significant difference between “culture,” which cultural anthropologists have long studied, and management philosophy: culture is much more abstract and all-inclusive and not necessarily verbally expressed, whereas a management philosophy is relatively clear and easily stipulated. Thus, management philosophy may correspond more to the rules of games such as chess or the grammar of a language, as both are more concrete than culture is.

It occurred to me that Wittgenstein's “language game” could serve as a theoretical tool for analyzing the relationship between management philosophy and management/business practices. Wittgenstein simply asked what it meant to follow rules in games, speech actions, and in daily life. I thought the same question could be asked about what it meant to follow a management philosophy in daily organizational life. Although it is important to remember that a management philosophy is not a “rule” per se, as deviants are not likely to be penalized, it is still a restraining framework within which members are supposed to act.

Fully reviewing the complex language game theory is beyond our scope. Rather than draw upon the theory directly, I thought it more practical to draw from Anthony Giddens' interpretation and account of it; he applied the language game to his social theory of the relationship between system/structure and individual action (see Giddens 1979).

Both language and all kinds of play feature rules such as grammar, spellings, and meanings. The striking notion in language game theory is that although these rules impose “restrictions” on action, one can act and speak freely within the framework of the rules. Thus, while action is restrained by the rules, those very rules also “generate” infinite ways of following the rules or of freely expressing oneself through speech and writing. One can play chess in ways different from those of others despite the fixed rules. Without rules, there is no such thing as chess in the first place.

In this context, Giddens invokes Noam Chomsky's idea that new sentences and expressions in language are infinitely generated despite the limited number of words and grammatical rules. Giddens (1979: 18) calls this paradox “rule-governed creativity,” following Chomsky. The rules deprive us of freedom, but they also provide us with the new freedom to play games and use language. Paradoxically, then, it is because of, not despite, the restrictions of rules that the freedom of creativity exists, because the absence of rules would make meaningful speech or plays impossible. In this sense, rules can even be regarded as “resources” for creativity precisely because of their restraining power.

Likewise, a management philosophy could be regarded as both a restriction and a resource for action. There are infinite ways of following a management philosophy, some of which would be impossible without it, as some meaningful actions can be generated only if certain restrictions are set by the philosophy.

Our multidisciplinary study group was interested in this dynamic interaction between management philosophy and management/business practices, based on the assumption that management philosophy is both a restriction and a resource (see Sumihara et al. 2008; Sumihara 2014a).

I have mentioned that management philosophy is both a brake and an accelerator; language game theory suggests that they do not work separately but that, rather, the accelerator works as a generator and the brake as a restriction simultaneously. This is a significant difference from an automobile, in which the accelerator and brake are supposed to function independently.

An example taken from our research findings concerns a long-established wholesale paper dealer in Tokyo that had started to collect wastepaper in the 1980s, when the throwaway culture had entered in Japan. Other paper dealers denigrated the wholesaler by describing it as a long-established shop that had become a recycling business and then a low-status industry. The business had also been in the red for years. However, the old shop owner/manager did not stop collecting wastepaper because he believed that even a wastepaper was precious, not as a commodity but as part of nature, or even the deity. His philosophy was shared by his employees. In the early 1990s, when scrapping confidential documents emerged as an important industry, the old dealer, who had developed an advanced scrapping system, had a prominent competitive edge. Although it may be said that this happened by chance, the old dealer's belief, or value, was both a restriction and the generator of a new business opportunity (see Shiozawa and Sumihara 2014).

Another example concerns the Sumitomo Group, one of the oldest of Japan's three major financial combines, or zaibatsu. Founder Sumitomo Masatomo (1585– 1652) expressed his business philosophy in Monjuin Shiigaki, in which he warned his employees not to seek easy money and encouraged them to take a long-term perspective and pursue careful planning. Even today, employees are taught to apply this policy as an evaluation standard when choosing and growing a business. This policy may work as a restriction, due to which one may need to let a chance pass by, but the policy may also have led the company into industries and businesses that require long-term planning and hard work.

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