Blanket terms - hiding the truth

By Thane on Wed 09 November 2011

The definition of a "blanket term" from Wiktionary:

A word or phrase that is used to describe multiple groups of related things. The degree of relation may vary. Blanket terms often trade specificity for ease-of-use; in other words, a blanket term by itself gives little detail about the things that it describes or the relationships between them, but is easy to say and remember...

The funny thing about language is its ability to take on a life of its own (from social constructionist and postmodern points of view, the meanings of words morph over time as society and people do).

There are a number of important examples of this. One example of this is "the organisation" or "the company", these being blanket terms to represent a group of people. As per this lecture by Rick Roderick on Derrida's deconstruction, words gain their significance in being able to act in the absence of things, not to refer to them (one does not need a horse in the room to talk about a horse). Thus, words need not refer to something of tangible substance.

This all seems quite obvious. But why then do we assume that an entity known as an "organisation" actually exists? Why do we spend so much time analysing and dissecting its dynamics and teaching these dynamics to people in business school? Surely an "organisation" is a blanket term used to refer to a group of people who share some kind of agreement of association in working together (or not working together)? Similarly, an "industry" is a blanket term to refer to what seems to be the collective actions of a variety of individuals with relatively common activities?

The problem I have with blanket terms is as follows.

  1. We construct a blanket term to represent a grouping of things in order to simplify reality (e.g. "organisation"), effectively giving the blanket term (and corresponding imagined entity) a life of its own.
  2. By observation and experimentation, we attempt to isolate the dynamics of this entity, which is actually just a convenient abstraction of reality (see my article on the process-oriented view of reality).
  3. We eventually become very comfortable with these entities as having lives of their own, treating them as such (we attempt to control or direct these entities towards our ends), inventing a variety of frameworks along the way towards these ends (e.g. "organisational design", "change management", "industry forces", "financial accounting", "corporate strategy").
  4. We get so comfortable with the frameworks that companies fail and/or fail to create value for society, primarily because we didn't understand the composition of the organisation that is truly amenable to the applied frameworks. We assumed this "organisation" thing to have a life and character similar to other "organisations", where in "reality", there were two quite dissimilar groups of people - individuals with their own unique characters, motivations, hopes and dreams, and power dynamics between the people, heavily influenced by culture and background.

Perhaps some frameworks cannot be applied to certain types of groupings of people? Perhaps we should be interrogating the underlying assumptions of all of our frameworks and defining domains and/or situations where these frameworks are applicable? Many frameworks attempt to factor in culture or background, but most of them seem to do so rather weakly.

This, unfortunately, does not bode well for those who want to construct "organisations" as perpetual money-making machines/systems. Forever more, as per Derrida's thinking, our philosophy (and thus the implementation thereof) will need "tidying up".

And, you will never, ever, ever escape the detail - reality is complex, and we need to be careful of how we talk about it, in case we inadvertently harm each other's children, or children's children, by way of our careless, lazy chatter.