Practically Useless

Michael Metzger

“We love these values. They really work.” When vice presidents at AES, an energy company, praised the firm’s values, founders Dennis Bakke and Roger Sant turned pale. Bakke and Sant know what works might not be practical. In fact, practicality was historically a two-sided coin. Americans assume practicality is one-sided – what works. This however makes practicality, practically speaking, practically useless.

AES is a global power company with generation and distribution businesses across five continents today. Bakke and Sant founded it in 1981. In launching the company, they worked hard at creating a unique culture. Colleagues loved it and in no time were praising the values. “They really work.” Uh-oh, Bakke thought. “Both Roger and I turned somewhat white and thought to ourselves, we have, in fact, done something very wrong.” The mistake was in minting one-sided coins.

In ancient times, practicality was a two-sided coin. In Ezra 7:10, we read of Ezra: “the gracious hand of his God was on him for Ezra had devoted himself to study the Law of the Lord and to practice it.” In Hebrew, study and practice are the same word. Study and practice are two sides of the same coin. Ezra studied the Law of the Lord – the definition of reality – to gain wisdom. Ezra practiced the Law of the Lord to grasp how it worked. Practice is the root word for practicality. Practicality is studying to discern what is wise. Practicality is practicing to determine what works. But you can only determine what works after discerning what’s wise. When executives praised AES’s values because “they work,” Bakke heard the clink of a one-sided coin. That’s American practicality.

“Most ordinary Americans don’t think about the power of ideas. We’re practical,” writes James Billington, Librarian of Congress. But with their practicality comes an inability to understand how ideas get legs and shape assumptions that shape institutions that shape cultures that shape people. Americans, in other words, are not especially wise. They’re pragmatic. They assume ideas are not all that practical. They assume practicality is only what works. It’s often heard in business, where executives have little interest in studying ideas. Their impatience quickly boils over: “OK, we’ve talked long enough about theories – now let’s get practical. How does this work?”

Bakke is one of the few executives recognizing how American practicality creates companies treating “culture” as functionality, efficiency, and profitability – what works. Of course, it is wise to remember that torture works. So do assembly lines. Or do they? In Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford recounts how Ford workers simply walked out when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913. It worked; but it wasn’t wise. “The new system provoked natural revulsion,” Crawford writes. At the close of 1913, Ford estimated they’d have to replenish the factory ranks with 100 workers. In fact, it was necessary to hire 963. The assembly line in Ford’s day didn’t align with the Law of the Lord. It wasn’t an accurate definition of reality or assessment of human nature. It wasn’t wise; but it worked.

Assembly lines exist to this day because Ford understood culture-making. He kept rehiring and slowly but surely, workers became habituated to this dehumanizing process. That’s the power of culture. Today, most assembly line workers think little about the drone-like drabness of their daily work. Some feel it – and trudge through their toils in the hope of “thirty and out.” It’s why economics was referred to in the nineteenth century as the “dismal science,” because of the dreary nature of factory work. But it’s not the way it ought to be. This kind of work is not wise.

Americans rarely appreciate how ideas and images and institutions constitute cultures that shape people. They lack a wise definition of reality. Practical leaders weigh culture on the cheapest of scales. Their bottom line is: “Does this work?” They unwisely parrot Milton Friedman’s practicality. The bottom line is increasing shareholder return, period. American practicality creates an overarching concern for increased profitability, robbing workers of a sense of transcendence and reducing tasks to toil. It’s the result of pragmatic leaders unwittingly shaped by a culture of American practicality.

A handful of companies do recognize practicality is a two-sided coin. They help colleagues unlearn the myth that an effective culture is simply what works. People who have seen culture used in companies merely for it’s utilitarian value are rightly skeptical of American practicality. One CEO recently recounted how many new hires are cynical of all this “culture stuff” because it’s been reduced to “it’s gotta be practical.” Ancient practicality recognizes that doing the right thing does not always translate into higher profits and happier people. It all depends on how a company defines practicality.

American practicality also presents problems for faith communities who measure success on the cheapest of scales – how many individuals attend church. According to Randall Collins, the most significant culture-making movements didn’t require large numbers. In his book, The Sociology of Philosophies, Collins notes that every culture-shaping movement is theorized before it comes into being. This work is not done by isolated geniuses but by networks of intellectual elites. These networks overlap with translators and practitioners, those who study to see what works. These networks define reality, what Ezra did in studying the Law of the Lord and practicing it. But here’s the kicker: Collins says the total number of theorists who are significant in world history is very small – no more than 2,700 individuals. Size doesn’t matter. Networks do.

The gospel is the Law of the Lord, once understood as a definition of reality. When we study it, we read of Jesus thinning the crowd. We read of God reducing Gideon’s troops from 22,000 to 300. In both cases, ancient practicality worked because it was wise.

“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” T. S. Eliot asked, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” American institutions “neglect the social, moral, and political infrastructure on which our well-being depends,” Matthew Stewart writes. Infrastructure is a twenty-dollar word for a company’s culture. Shalom is a twenty-dollar word for well-being. American business and faith communities rarely enact shalom because they embody “the subtle madness of a new and profoundly unbalanced religion of practicality.”1 It’s what makes them, practically speaking, practically useless.

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1 Matthew Stewart, The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), p. 76.

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9 thoughts on “Practically Useless”

  1. Mike,

    Thoughtful essay. It seems to me there is a connection to the assembly line role in dehumanizing that you describe and the reality of Detroit and rust belt areas today. Furthermore it is not just those that work in that situation who lose a sense of dignity and a higher calling of their “craft”, but it is those who create and perpetuate that mode of workplace who end up being dehumanized as well. To take your thought a step further, what is necessary to return “humanizing” to a place where this has occurred. I think Detroit and rust belt cities and places like the Pearl River area of China at some point in the next 25 years. Dwight

  2. Seems one sided to me. What would have been the outcome of WW2 without the assembly line?

    One important difference between the Detroit and WW2 assembly lines was a sense of common ownership and purpose.

    The dehumanization of the Detroit lines wasn’t inherent in the nature of the lines but the absence of common ownership and purpose.

  3. Mike,
    Great thought piece, as always. I wished you had delved a bit more into pragmatism as a worldview. Pragmatism reverse-engineers truth: what works must be what is true (i.e., wisdom). The assembly line is a good example of this. So is Wal-Mart. It wouldn’t be hard to draw a line from William James to Henry Ford. What the environmental movement is trying to point out, I think, is that what seems to work is not exactly the same as what works in the long run.
    Thanks for provoking (in a good way).

  4. Mike Metzger and Dennis Bakke make a great point of challenging the temptation to make “practicality” the highest good and benchmark for making business decisions. To begin with, defining practicality assumes a lot of underlying values and goals. Wisdom transcends that. But, what engages us to care and work towards that wisdom? Perhaps, we might begin by considering how to love as we would like to be loved and working that through in all the various ways we move through life and work.

    For reasons such as that, I would propose another model for a theology of work, namely a conflict resolution model that includes an incarnational perspective.
    An incarnational model can make room for all participants to come into the world of the others in the work place including coworkers, managers, owners, customers, suppliers, inventors, capitalists, entrepreneurs, family members and the community.

    As we vulnerably listen to each other and try to pay the price to meet each other’s needs, then we may find the motivation to do the difficult and unpleasant tasks that are part of work, study, meditation, innovation, team building, fund raising, manufacturing, distribution and customer service. That is because the “joy that is set before us” is greater than the effort, drudgery and risk we undergo to meet the needs of those we love.

    In that process, we can also learn from each other and discover more efficient and more humane ways to do that work. This is something similar to what some have tried through the creation of “quality circles” and other more democratic work methods.

    If we do work that takes all these relationships into account, I believe we will often do a far better job meeting market needs more effectively while basing the overall effort in a set of values that can be defined by our core issues of relationship building and conflict resolution reflect how God does that with us. Putting that kind of love, conflict resolution and need meeting into practice reflects wisdom. Being in awe of God and his loving ways is the beginning of that wisdom.

  5. Mike,

    Again you amaze me by how “easy” this all is. Of course we all think of ourselves as practical, but how do you know if you are working towards the right networks?

    My business dealings have been overshadowed with too much ($$$) practicality, that I am disenfranchised about sharing only to have it all sucked away in the name of profit. I find it tedious to always have to be concerned about covering my “six!”

    Troy

  6. Mike Metzger

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness that Chuck puts into this reply and would suggest that – contra Bob Moffitt – the dehumanization was indeed intrinsic to the process. That is exactly Matthew Stewart’s point. S I vote for Chuck for President.

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