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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Any Old Key Will (Not) Fit the Lock

Thomas has done quite a bit of painstaking work on one of the most famous anecdotes in the field of Organization Studies.. I've been following Thomas's work on this for quite some time. Briefly, Karl Weick, a guru of this field, plagiarized a poem by Holub from the TLS. The poem recounts the probably apocryphal anecdote of a group of soldiers in the Swiss Alps who get lost and find their way back home with the aid of a map: a map of the Pyrenees, a completely different mountain range. The idea is that "any old map will do." In other words, you don't need a map or plan that corresponds to anything in reality itself.

Aside from the plagiarism itself, the use of this anecdote raises other issues. What if I were trying to enter a locked room in a strange house and took out a random key from my pocket, on the theory that it doesn't matter what key I use, as long as I have a key in my possession. You would probably think that is ridiculous, since a key is designed for a specific lock. The whole point of a key is its uniqueness. Otherwise I could get into any house or office with any key. Or if I used a Polish dictionary to decipher a text in Spanish, because "any old dictionary will do." Ridiculous, but to about the same degree as the anecdote of the wrong map. What if I set my GPS to a random destination instead of where I really wanted to go? What if I made (or tried to make) chicken soup using a chocolate chip cookie recipe, on the theory that "any old recipe will do."

In other words, you have to think very precisely about the critical and theoretical tools you are using, and distinguish between hammer-like things (a hammer is good for just about every nail) and key-like objects (a key only fits one lock, a map is only good for the territory it maps).

8 comments:

Andrew Shields said...

And you haven't even talked about how Weick took an image from a poem and pretended it was a fact.

Jonathan said...

Sure, because any old story will work, whether it is true or not.

Thomas said...

Out of curiosity, I just Googled "any old map will do". Your posts here are #1 and 2 at the moment. This post is number three. It's a telling example of how the story circulates. First, note the title of the post: "A true story". Well, that's a stretch at best. But then notice that first paragraph. He tells the wrong story. So even if Weick's (i.e., Holub's) version had been true, this guy's story would not be.

And notice that portentous last paragraph. It sounds like what Karl Rove would suggest to get us out of the financial crisis.

Jonathan said...

That third post is truly sad. The Rove comparison is apt.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

This would require actual fact checking, but I wonder if roads and settlements in mountainous territory tend to follow predictable patterns. If so, it might really be the case that any map would do. If you wanted to get to Milan rather than Barcelona, that would be a problem; but if you just needed to find a road to a town that would put you on a bigger road to a larger town, then you just need the general pattern. It's a more abstract notion of "reality."

Also, if you weren't actually using the key in the lock, but talking someone else into letting you in, any key (or key of a general type) would work as circumstantial evidence (oh, I've been having trouble with the lock lately, really must lubricate it, would you mind just buzzing me in). I guess "no key" could be explained as having lost a key, but I think you get the drift: it depends not only on the tools but on how you think of the job.

Thomas said...

@Dame Eleanor: Weick makes that argument here (paragraph beginning at the bottom of the page). "If you've seen one mountain range you've seen them all," he says. Henry Mintzberg (et al.), who is also a titan in organization theory, and who has some experience as a mountaineer (in the Alps, no less), has rejected this idea, though. "The possible safe routes in such rugged terrain can be so few and so obscure that the odds of getting out with the wrong map—as opposed to being led over a cliff—may be low indeed" (Footnote here). For some reason (politeness, I suspect) they are careful not to "dispute Weick's basic point", while at the same time emphasizing that "content does count, not only process" (which, to my mind, does dispute Weick's "basic point").

Thomas said...

Also, I was reminded of the importance of a map last summer when I took a solo hike in the Canadian Rockies. I had the right map, but estimated my own position on it wrongly (I thought I had arrived at a peak on a ridge when I had only arrived at a pile of rocks, so I was one peak further along on the map, than I was in reality.) I was using a map of the right general area but, having oriented myself inaccurately, I was, in effect, following the wrong map (a map of the area one peak up ahead, not of the territory I was in). So I came off the ridge too early. I was only able to notice the mistake because the territory below the ridge belied the expectations the map gave me. I then realized what I had done, and sidehilled into the right position. "Any old map will do is total bullshit," I grumbled under my breath. But I already knew that, of course.

Jonathan said...

I was in the little town Brevard NC this summer and was trying to get a map on line to see some nearby waterfalls. I found a really cool website from Brevard parks and recreation, but I could not orient myself. Then I read a warning about alligators. Something was not quite right, and I put my finger on it when I realized that there was a significant difference between Brevard NC and Brevard county FL. The map was no good to me because I had to see where I was in the map before it made any sense to me. Of course you could see the map as a kind of placebo, as Weick does. Take a random pill in the medicine cabinet, it is likely to have some effect. "Any old pill will do." Or do you want the pill for your specific ailment?