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2 How Is the Hermeneutic Approach Entering Enterprise?

The hypothesis about how the hermeneutical praxis is entering the enterprise and, through it, probably society at large, is that this is happening, somewhat ironically, thanks to the advent of ICTs, which were expected to allow enterprises at most to enhance their modern/cognitivist approach to knowledge. Considering that enterprise is one of the main realisations of the modern ambition to dominate nature (and also society), and that the prospect of fulfilling that ambition has risen amazingly since industry and science joined forces in the second half of the nineteenth century, enterprise itself would appear as constitutionally far away and also reluctant with respect to the hermeneutic exercise: it actually seems not to fit well at all with the entrepreneur's urge to take decisions without hesitating, and overcome complexity through innovation. To understand how that surprising event could have occurred, it is expedient to examine what took place within the communication circuits inside firms with the advent of ICTs.[1] Before then, communication necessarily required the intervention of the human factor, since the monitoring of automatic devices, based as they were on electro-mechanical technology, only worked in analogue mode, without any possibility of their being integrated into a complete monitoring system. Within this structural condition, the role of workers was also to make communication possible at the firm level, by translating (in the double sense of transferring and interpreting) the signals that were emitted by the different peripheral monitoring devices. However, this unavoidable human intervention means that communication at whole was pervaded by ambiguity, since individual mental habits[2] and related interpretative attitudes are idiosyncratic, not to mention that ambiguity can also be opportunistically produced (Cusinato, 1996). Even the most peripheral worker thus had at her/his disposal the power to condition the performance of the entire system, since s/he was able to affect communication, albeit at an infinitesimal level (Marcuse, 1964). It also becomes clear why (a) most of the top management's care was devoted to establishing detailed protocols in order to minimise ambiguity within the communication circuits (Alvesson, 1993; Sennet, 2006), and (b) the typical industrial enterprise assembled all productive phases within the same plant, the factory: if technical indivisibilities can explain the then large dimensions of plants, the proximity between technically divisible parts and phases of the productive process satisfied the need both to reduce the decay of informational contents and prevent free-riding within the communication.

The advent of ICTs has wholly upset this scheme. The fact that it is now possible fully to integrate the peripheral monitoring devices into a single “syntactic”[3] network thanks to the generalised recourse to digital language, has made the intervention of the human component in the codified communication circuits tendentially superfluous. It follows that for the first time it has become possible (and convenient) to materially disembed syntactic/'monological' communication circuits from the previously single circuit, within which this kind of communication was inextricably entwined with the human/'dialogical' communication.

This material separation has crucial consequences inside firms and industry in general. Firstly, the closeness between the human factor and routine activities is no longer necessary. Secondly, routine activities have become potentially foot-loose, except when there are technical indivisibilities. The major consequence has however consisted in the chance the firm now has to experience the higher creative potential of the human/'dialogical' communication, thanks precisely to its inherent ambiguity (which thus becomes a resource).9 The door thus opens to experiencing and eventually consciously adopting a hermeneutic approach to creativeness and innovativeness, and hence displacing focus from the material production of goods to the handling of those conditions that are suitable for generating “vision[s] to create something new” (Audretsch & Thurik, 1998, p. 23). When the hermeneutic chain has entered the firm praxis, boundaries between firms and the socio-cultural realm also become vaguer and more permeable than they where within a modern/cognitivist approach: rather, they become a new action-field for the firms themselves (Lash & Urry, 1994), and this is the possible way through which a hermeneutic attitude pragmatically enters society as a whole. If true, we could argue that, as often happens, the praxis also in this case precedes any theoretical achievement—“l'intendance suivra!”, strategists wisely say—, as if society were now harvesting the fruits of the dense and also dramatic debate on modernity, even plainly bypassing it entirely. So, in conclusion, we advance the hypothesis that the peculiarity of the knowledge economy does not 'simply' consist in the nonetheless indisputable dominance that knowledge-based activities have achieved within the economic system (cf., for example, Drucker, 1968; Foray, 2000; Karlsson, Johansson, & Stough, 2013; Machlup, 1962; Madanipour, 2011; OECD, 1996) or in the more sophisticated realisation that firms have interiorised the practice of relational learning (cf. Florida & Kenney, 1993; Gibbons et al., 1994), but in the pragmatic (i.e., maybe, unreflective) internalisation of hermeneutic practices as a core strategic activity.

  • [1] See Cusinato and Gibin (2009)
  • [2] In the sense Dewey (1922) gives this expression, as pragmatic routines and, more comprehensively, “energy organized in certain channels” (p. 76). Commenting on him, Bridge (2013) writes that habits are “[schemes of] implicit knowledge, repeatedly deployed to meet or select elements in the ongoing environment and developed through routine practices” (p. 306)
  • [3] The term is drawn from Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995)
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