Technical rationality has deep roots in the human psyche. There is a natural human desire to bring order out of chaos. Managers are employed not just to resource the production process but to keep it running smoothly.
Technical rationality attempts to reduce professional practice to clear, precise procedures that can be measured and managed effectively. The goal is to eliminate surprise. As organisations grow larger, front line staff must be able to respond, in the moment, to whatever confronts them, confident that they know what to do. Proper procedures ensure that their response is on message, and meets required standards.
But all of us probably know of circumstances when everything has been done by the book and it still goes wrong. Despite all the training we can still be caught by surprise. Sometimes the incident is brushed under the carpet, or it may be reported to the occupational standards committee to be incorporated in the next edition of the procedures manual. Instead of facing the questions that arise from the unexpected outcome, new procedures are created to guide the practitioner through the next occurrence.
When we treat surprises as exceptions rather than the norm, people become numb and no longer pay attention (until the really big disaster occurs). Systems of control are increased and procedures “improved” rather than questioned, as if the complexities of the workplace can be accounted for by increasing the size of the company manual. But proceduralisation can be suffocating. Donald Schon pointed out almost 30 years ago that managers and staff become involved in games of control and avoidance of control, sapping creative energy from the system. In what appears to be a paradox, standards fall as procedures and control increase.
Am I carricaturing current practice? Only slightly. It is not that the book is wrong, but it is never enough. What is wrong is the assumption that by technical rational means alone we can eliminate the unexpected. Whatever you do to try and eliminate surprises, they won’t go away.
There is another way of handling surprise, however, one that can move us from technical rationality to become true artists of our practice. Those surprises occur as cracks in the surface of reality when the underlying assumptions are under stress and need to change. Rather than pasting them over with a new procedure, they can be seen as the visible presence of deeper questions.
As we struggle to make sense of situations like this our practice will change, bringing greater alignment between the way we think about the world and the way the world is. Graceful action, I suggest, is not the domain of people with certain personality traits but the fruit of patient, appreciative attention to each moment.
Put succinctly the artful practitioner is responsive to surprise, working it into their performance. The knowledge hidden in the cracks is often tacit, difficult to articulate or pass on. But masters of their craft have learned how to engage in critical conversation with the situation, and communicate it to others.
In all its various forms – Best Practice, Evidence-based Practice, Competence-based Training, etc – technical rationality is an attempt to eliminate surprise. On the other hand the master craftsman engages with it, learns from it and remakes a part of their practice world as a result.
Schön, D. A., (1983) The Reflective Practitioner. New York, Basic Books.
Schon, D. A., (1987) Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Jossey-Bass.