Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Deep Thought: Existentialism, Lumiere and IT service

Jean-Paul Sartre addressing students at La Sorbonne, May 1968 Claude Dityvon

Today I'll be mainly blogging about philosophy. It’s a viscous subject, especially for those who don’t roll that way naturally, but it’s the method by which we get to the deepest understanding of things and I guess it is for that reason that it will always be there, behind the scenes; at the back of things . Anyway, in this piece I hope to use philosophy to arrive at insights about my work approach Lumiere, and a little bit about work in the IT service industry. We love a bit of diversity here!

Some of you will have heard me bang on about the way in which workers are characterised in deterministic terms by the work models which are used today. However, the truth is that as workers (and people), we remain in actual fact, free. That is, we possess the human freedom of the kind that Immanuel Kant and Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about in some depth. In everyday terms, we can translate this into idea of the freedom that we still enjoy to tell our boss to stick his or her job, and that to choose poverty instead of comfort, self-respect instead of self-imposed wage-slavery, and authenticity instead of what the existentialists call "bad faith".

Not too many of us (in modern western societies at least) are willing to live in this manner, and the subtext of many philosophical texts – including Kierkegaard and the twentieth century existentialists - is an exhortation to us to find the necessary courage to do so. Despite cowardice, myopia and other excuses that we may make, this human freedom remains available to us whether or not we exercise it in the ways in which these thinkers would think admirable.

In effect, the philosophers above are seemingly asking each one of us to live a principled life - not to take the easy option, but to be true to one’s own self. Such an existence could reasonably be described as living according to our values, eschewing compromise in this respect. Indeed Sartre suggests that compromise always bites you on the arse in the end. His philosophy was in large part about choice. Authenticity is a choice (the correct one, according to his way of thinking) and bad faith is its opposite. Bad faith is described as refusing to stand up for who one is. It's the hope that one can simply merge into the faceless masses, and therefore to avoid making the difficult choices about the truth of one’s being.

Sartre argues that this attempt to hide from oneself via the anonymity of the crowd is folly. This, he suggests, is because the strategy of attempting not to choose will result in one being forced into a position anyway; one which you did not choose and perhaps would not have taken at the start of things.  Such ideas are at heart the reasons why existentialists urge us to be authentic. A choice is going to be made anyway, so pick the option that's really you.

In other words: live according to your values.

In order to attain this existential authenticity we're going to have to start thinking about will and reason. To achieve anything worthwhile, philosophers (and schoolteachers and parents) have often argued, that one needs to submit to one’s own will. If you want to slim, you will need to exercise self-control to break that addiction to sugary snacks. Indeed the act of choosing one course of action (and sticking to it) is an exercise in will and reason. Existentialism is great, because it means that by such little actions, the small choices that we make in each instant, we can shape our futures.
"Every moment of your life can be the beginning of great things" - Juan Mascaro
This process could be described as being based on control. Self-control yes, but still a form of control.

As a post-graduate student, I spent several months examining different forms of freedom (examples include freedom of ends and freedom of means). Following my recent dialogue with the brilliant Liam Barrington-Bush, as well as others at talks that I've given, I'm coming to the conclusion that to really understand Lumiere, an attempt should be made to investigate different types of useful control as well as different forms of freedom. Self-control is one instance, but there are other, externally-situated, examples. I have immense respect for anarchist thinking, but I'm fairly happy with my position that at least some external control is necessary in society and the workplace.

Indeed if this point regarding the necessity of control is considered in the respect of self-control, I think it would be difficult to disagree with the premise. I also believe that there are many instances where submitting oneself to the will and direction of others is a good thing. The alternative is solipsism! To me these situations are the most human of moments; where firmly held beliefs or opinions are relinquished despite the protestations of one’s own ego. Some of those with anarchist leanings argue that external control is only applicable when one chooses to be directed by another. However, my response would be that the effect is most profound when you do not wish to take that guidance, and would not choose to, but are coerced. Then, despite the initial truculence, you are still transformed.

In my own personal life I can recall examples of this in regard to simultaneous equations, pizza, and opera music. But these are tales for the pub.

My truck with control is something around permanent institutionalized control, such as that represented by the hierarchy, and it also has something to do with the final purpose of the control. I haven't fully fleshed out my thinking in this regard yet, but it’s at the centre of my explorations for my next book The Teleology of Customer Service so I’ll leave this topic here. However the point is this: to develop the self positively in ways in which existentialists and others describe requires control.

None of my discussions of philosophy would be complete without at least a passing mention of Immanuel Kant. I invoked his august presence in the first paragraph, but a little more depth won't hurt. Kant also subscribed to ideas about the importance of human freedom. Humanity for him was located somewhere at the junction of freedom and will and ‘the moral law within’. He also believed that we should use that freedom to choose in ways which enhance our humanity, and that - for him - was a moral way. Kant was also big on ideas of duty and self-control (not least in his own life), which once again point to the idea of the importance of that thorny concept, control.

I could say much more about this, and in doing so discuss the work of psychologists including Barry Schwartz and Mikhalyi Cziksentmihalyi, but some of this is covered in far greater depth in Making Light Work (Johnson, 2014; available at all good booksellers). However, I'm sure that the astute among you will have noted that I have introduced the three key concepts of my Lumiere approach (it's not a model, it's a mindset - a prescription even) in the discussion above. That is, control, chaos (freedom) and values.

Chaos (i.e. freedom) and values (i.e. principles or morals), play an explicit role in existentialism and the work of Immanuel Kant. The idea of control is far less overt, but nevertheless is hinted at throughout, following on as it does from the idea of human choice and thus will and other related constructs. Values are that which inform the choice (for Sartre, authenticity; for Kant, moral correctness), freedom is the psychological environment which enables the choice (consider animals – some would say that they are at the mercy of their instincts in a way that we are not). Finally, control is the power that makes the choice concrete, as opposed to an idle dream. Recall my example of the would-be dieter above.

We're a very long way from IT service here. But in a way that’s the point really. Everything is connected. If you work in IT service (or healthcare or whatever), you do so not in some psychological and emotional bubble, far removed from the rest of your life. The same you who is found answering those service desk calls is the same you who was getting leery and loud on Saturday night. It’s the same you who  is inspired by great art, the same you whose moments of greatest self-actualisation came during that year you spent travelling - getting high, making new friends and watching sunrises.

Work is not the same as fun (as discussed with the amazing Andy Swann), but it is part of our lives, and as Liam Barrington-Bush argued, it should not be separated off into a silo of ‘professionalism’. Via this critique, Liam was taking aim at the weird pretend workface which presupposes that we can be someone different at work. It doesn’t make sense - the psychological research (see Schwartz, 2012) shows us that values are not situation-specific, they are used across the vista of our lives to allow us to judge le bien from la mal. Therefore expecting workers to sing from a different song sheet between 9am and 5pm is folly. They may pretend to do so for reasons of expediency, but deep inside, they still are who they are.

For me the ideal workplace is comprised of the three Lumiere elements balanced in a particular harmony. Currently, our models of work are overwhelmingly dominated by ideas of control. Management is control, best practice is control, process is control, measurement and regulation is control (yes, and that includes big data). We’ve thoroughly overdosed on the stuff. As was hopefully made clear from the preceding paragraphs, control is an essential aspect of the useful life and in that I find conformation of this in the work of the respected philosophers referenced earlier. However in the lust for the doing capability of control, our models of work make the great mistake of ignoring the arguably more important elements: the why of values and the enabling ether of freedom.

Indeed these two oft-neglected elements are conceived of as luxuries within our workplaces, to be enjoyed only by the privileged few at or near the top of the hierarchy, or by the rest of us only occasionally: “you can leave at 4pm today”, or “add your own objective to list of the ones given to you by your manager”. The average worker is expected to don that work persona, and to mute their own values and principles. They are required to submit to the control which is the very beating heart of most conventional organisations.

It’s a philosophically ridiculous position, not least because all workers are in actual fact free (as I begun this essay saying). When things go wrong, managers are surprised and confused that their systems of control did not prevent the error, and so they heap yet more controls, and things keep going wrong. What they are failing to acknowledge is the human freedom of staff and clients. I firmly believe that the inability of many to see beyond control-only workplaces causes enterprises to lose out in terms of innovation, agility, novelty and humanity. The workplace that learns to balance chaos, control and values will be unique and successful in the modern world. Even more than that, it will be a human and satisfying environment, which in many ways is more important.

Unlike some, I’m the first to acknowledge that the point of work is to get things done, and all my theorising is in respect of that aim. In my utterances about work I consider how it would be if the work I was talking about was life and death stuff – subsistence farming or nomads erecting their tents on a daily basis. It’s easy to be louche, hidden away in the anonymity of a corporate payroll, but would our new ideas about work still, er, work if our lives depended on the stuff getting done? Nevertheless, if we’re really serious about understanding this subject, then we need to go to the heart of it, which will inevitably mean examining life. Therefore new ideas need to be based on something considerable; a philosophy even. Such was the path that we took en route to the concepts in natural science that have proved so useful over the past three hundred years.

And any philosophy of work (as with a philosophy of anything else) comes back to teleology, to humanity. Work is not the end, it’s a means to an end. What’s the final end? Well that’s what the next book is about, but I’ll tell you what it’s not about. It’s not about materialism, profit, trinkets. The deepest meaning of all our lives is something beyond that. It’s humanity, morals, relationships, family; love and life. The trinkets are only the enablers of the above. When our ideas about work – be that in IT service or any other field – acknowledge and integrate this then I think a better future is in sight.

Some of you won’t care for any of this. You just want servers that don’t crash. Or stable services supplied to clients, or just a sizeable pay cheque at the end of month. If so that’s fine; no problemo if such are the final ends of your existence; it’s cool. However there are some amongst us who aim for a little more. We are those who want to continue that trajectory of human and social progress that homo sapiens have been working at (not always fruitfully) since our earliest origins. We are those who believe that this human stuff is not a veneer layered upon the real business of making profit and running enterprises. Rather we think that making profit and running enterprises are in fact a patina on the real business of human existence.


Johnson, P. A. (2014). Making Light Work: Rethinking the service organisation. Sheffield: Fairday Books.

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An Overview of the Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).

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