………… Now I understand
What you tried to say to me….
How you suffered for your sanity …..
They did not listen, they did not know how
Perhaps they’ll listen now….
Starry, starry night…..
(From the song “Vincent” by
There are two reasons why Human Resource managers should
study the complex subject of “rationality” and
read Herbert Simon. One is the context of creative thinking
and the other is of change management.
Wall Street Journal of June carried the interesting story
of Dr. Umberto Meduri of University of Tennessee whose IQ
was questioned in an international conference for canvassing
a simplistic solution to a major problem. Dr. Umberto found,
albeit by serendipity, that the problem of sepsis and the
associated respiratory distress syndrome can be tackled
by administering steroids which cost under $50 per dose
than the known therapy costing $7000 a dose. In the US sepsis
kills 215,000 people annually – more than the combined
toll of cancers of the lung and colon. Dr. Umberto was derided
and yet there is growing evidence that he may be right.
This is all too familiar in history when people had to suffer
for their rationality and being more sensible than the world
was prepared to accept.
was charged with impiety, convicted and imprisoned in
Athens for teaching that Sun is a “red hot stone”
and that the moon was made of earth. Meletus had to suffer
for giving meteorological explanations to thunder and
lightning rather than the anger of the Sun god, Zeus.
Their guru, Socrates himself had to die for having “corrupted”
the youth. He was an advocate of a rational vision of
the universe and considered the intellectual component
of human nature to be the most important, holding reason
as the most powerful. He died by drinking hemlock
- none of his disciples was prepared to do administer
it - saying to the establishment “I would rather
die having spoken of my manner, than speak in your manner
Mohammed Bin Tughlak, is a classic case of suffering from
greater sanity, at least on occasions. He had contributed
significantly to later years wisdom. He was the first
to have enforced that all are equal before law and wouldn’t
allow the judge to rise even before the emperor; he had
brought even the emperor (himself) to be charged before
a court and prosecuted. When he first evolved a “famine
code”, it was a bit of a joke, which turned out
to be so critical that the British copied it for India
and is now extolled as the key historical differential
between the devastating African famines and the softer
nature of the Indian ones. He created new paths –
proving the Spanish proverb that there are no roads;
the path you traverse eventually becomes a road!
In public policy, choices are made by the bureaucracy
and the politicians based mostly on expediency but with
a contrived colour of rationality. The professional/objective
approach of maximizing welfare may point to a different
choice. But such an alternative is caricatured as impractical,
if not more crudely, as irrational or insane. In time,
yes-ministry overpowers what could have been more rational
and robust – the yardstick of rationality in such
a system becomes conformism and acceptability to the power
structures than call of duty, professionalism or socio-economic
welfare. As time passes, rationality/reason/logic becomes
a foreign body as the irrational becomes conveniently
rational. That is why irrational structures, activities,
systems, procedures, processes continue to thrive. People
wail, beat their chests and pull their hair but reforms
will not happen.
In the corporate world too we have occasions galore when
creative people had to face ignominy, derision and even
separation from the services for being creative. With
the result we face sunk costs for not pursuing the creative
suggestions but doggedly adopting the appealing “quick-fix”
solutions, only to come around and accept the creative
suggestion, of course, from another more “credible”
Take the case of downsizing. For years, we have been saying
that the cost-benefit analyses in many “VRS”
projects are faulty and there are often better ways of
achieving cost controls and greater effectiveness. Yet,
some of these corporations have lunged for costly grenade-type
VRS despite better alternatives suggested by some of the
employees or the unions. Such alternative solutions have
been termed as irrational only to be proved otherwise.
Look, also at the case of IT investment for HR, which
appeared rational for many organizations. People, were
criticized as obstructionists for pleading for a more
iterative approach. There is increasing evidence now that
the returns have been poor due to under integration of
HR systems with the computer capabilities, which leads
us to reiterate that HR reengineering must precede IT
The challenge for HR managers, of course, is to know as
to what is rational or otherwise. Henry Miller had said
that confusion is an order that is not understood
– irrationality, at times, can be just that. At
the same time, all irrational suggestions would not obviously
be shining stars. As some of the seemingly irrational
solutions and suggestions can turn out to be rational,
there must be a sieving process of debate, reasoning
and dynamic logic. The HR function has a role to
play in ensuring that the company has a culture of such
egalitarianism in which irrationality is stoked
at the idea stage before putting it through a sieving
process to bring out workable ideas. Do incubation strategies
combined with a culture of learning help, so that people
know how to listen and not let creative geniuses suffer
for their sanity and rationality? Does action learning
with the help of “set-advisors” be of use?
What do companies that thrive on creative ideas (like
the 3M ) do to ensure that there is adequate dose of “irrationality”?
Will greater openness to stakeholders, systems thinking
and learning strategies help in being more rational?
Resources Management assumes that people are rational
in their behaviour and construct strategies, systems,
and policies on this premise. It has hardly been able
to resolve the definitional issues and dynamics of rationality.
Rationality is a complex subject and transcends philosophy,
linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and in recent decades
economics as well. For the practitioner it has a lot to
do with change management, which is actually a fight against
what is believed as more rational.
can never be objective as it is usually founded on an
architecture of belief systems and entrenched interests.
Often, the definition of rationality is limited by a state
of self-fulfilling prophecies and self-interest. In the
end, the architecture of belief systems feeding on entrenched
interests construct a warped framework of rationality.
Hence, rationality is indeed “bounded”, as
Herbert Simon had written years ago. (Though Peter Senge
did not argue the Fifth Discipline from the perspective
of rationality, it is obvious he was referring to it when
he talks of “mental models” and the need for
meta-noia and systems thinking. The foundations of the
bounded rationality are also in the argument of Kurt Godel`s
Incompleteness Theorem of the 1930s.)
Simon has made tremendous contribution to the HR field
and yet his pioneering work on bounded rationality seems
to have bypassed the HR discipline. Herbert Simon, a political
scientist to start with, had worked and written extensively
in areas of municipality, public administration, personnel
management, industrial relations, econometrics, microeconomics
as well as psychology. In his wide range of work, the
outstanding contribution for which he eventually received
the Noble prize in economics in 1978, was on “bounded
Herbert Simon wrote about this first in 1957 while debating
the psychology of man, drawing upon earlier works
by Anderson and others. Simons work has been influencing
greatly studies of behaviors not only in organizations
but also more importantly, in the capital markets.
idea of bounded rationality was that not every individual
is an open system of rationality but is bounded in several
ways and limited in the framework of his construction
of rationality. Consequently, when all individuals are
so bounded by rationality, we have patterns emerging in
all behaviors, which indeed are bundles of bounded rationality.
Often, these may result in bundles of irrationality that
might affect welfare at large.
the IT technology taking charge of communications, perspectives,
and persuasions we now have a prospect of individual boundaries
of rationality getting expanded to make them more rational
for a larger set of people. Yet the downside is that the
same medium can influence definitions of rationality adversely
by the very same entrenched interests that the society
should be fighting against. This, indeed is the specter
of Aldous Huxleys call for Habeas Mentum (freedom of the
mind) in his Brave New World.
profession has to face the forces that influence and manage
the constructs of rationality among the employees –
this becomes critical for encouraging creativity as also
managing change dynamically. However, some believe
that rationality and HR managers are a world apart as
HR managers thrive on manipulating perceptions, situations,
and people and fight continuously against rationality.
If this view is not actually cynicism, then HR managers
must strive even harder to grasp the entirety of rationality.
A study of rationality will ensure hopefully that the
HR manager is saner than the rest to be able to manage
the madness – Is this a sane assumption at all,