C3 Research Memo: Assumption Hunters by Grant McCracken
edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira
Now available on the C3/FOE website:
Assumption Hunters: A New Profession for the Corporation in the Throes of Structural Change
A C3 Research Memo by
Consulting Practitioner, Convergence Culture Consortium (C3);
Futures of Entertainment Fellow
Download the entire research memo.
In this, the penultimate C3 research memo, C3 consulting practitioner Grant McCracken takes us on a journey through decades of seminal organizational and management theory (as well as cultural anthropology, economics, etc.). In doing so, McCracken places the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program curriculum (with its commitment to theory) and the Convergence Culture Consortium's "practice" model in their rightful place at the center of a discussion of how best the corporation (when attempting, by necessity or crisis, to enact structural change) should recognize patterns and excavate assumptions embedded within the culture of an organization.
McCracken argues that MIT CMS theory and C3 practice (deeply rooted in the liberal arts, the humanities and the qualitative social sciences) are a vital institutional locus and methodological framework, respectively, for the continuous recognition of these patterns and for the hunting down of these assumptions.
Throughout the memo, Grant references thought leaders, public intellectuals and authors from a variety of disciplines. Due to the variety of professional backgrounds and academic disciplines of the C3 readership, some references may not be familiar to everyone. As a result, the format for citing works and authors throughout the memo is as follows: authors are referenced by their name (at times simply by their last name) and a year of publication in parentheses (xxxx).
"Henry Jenkins (1992) changes the way we think "media" mediates. Another industry is upended. Richard Florida (2003) says creativity is not an ancillary of the marketplace, but its prime mover."
A "Works Cited" section has also been provided (organized alphabetically) at the end of this memo.
I read recently that the thing that keeps CEOs awake at night is "discontinuous innovation" of the kind Clay Christensen (1997) describes. This struck me as odd because Christensen's discontinuity isn't hard to recognize or anticipate. (His model says: an incumbent offers more value than customers want, and a competitor responds with products that are cheaper but "good enough.") Scary, to be sure, but how does it count as a sleep stealer? There's nothing particularly mysterious or unmanageable here.
Surely, the scarier thing for a CEO to discover is that the world has changed in a way that defies his or her deepest assumptions. This change is hard to detect. And when detected, it is hard to respond to. I would have thought that in a Schumpeterian (2009) world of creative destruction, this is more likely and the more problematical event (Handy 1991). Let's call it "structural change."
Every corporation, every act of commerce, is predicated on a set of assumptions. These are the infrastructure of all thought and even the most instrumental action. Every enterprise is, as Drucker (2006) and Levitt (1960) demonstrated, shot through with assumptions, some witting, most not. 
These assumptions aren't just technically invisible. They are deliberately invisible. In turns out that some knowledge is more powerful the more deeply it is assumed. (So says Gregory Bateson .) Indeed, the more we use an idea, the more completely it disappears from view. Thus do our deepest ideas "go without saying." Semi-deep ideas can be evoked with a single 'buzz word." They are "built in" or, as Richard Foster and Sarah Kaplan (2004) prefer, "locked in."
In a perfect world, these assumptions would float to the surface upon expiration. As fish do. But they don't. So we keep using them. These assumptions are deeply implicated in the way we see the world. They can be and have been stuff of our best hunches and most powerful intuitions. Breaking up is hard to do.
What provokes assumption failure? Where does structural change come from? Some of it comes from the ceaseless innovation of the world. Dupont introduces something called "plastic." James Black finds a new way to make pharmaceuticals. Or Mr. Newmark invents Craig's List. We doze for a moment and there's a fast food industry. We doze a moment more and there's a slow food movement. (American markets are like the weather, or for that matter the markets, in Ireland. Wait a moment, they will change. ) Even as these innovations make themselves visible on the surface of the marketplace, in a less obvious way they attack our deepest assumptions
Some structural change comes from the academic and the management literature. The authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto (2000) say "advertising is not messaging, it's conversation." An industry turns on its ear. Henry Jenkins (1992) changes the way we think "media" mediates. Another industry is upended. Richard Florida (2003) says creativity is not an ancillary of the marketplace, but it's prime mover. Joseph Pine and James Gilmore (1999) say, "You are not making products or services. You're making experiences."
Whatever else they do, these ideas contradict a fundamental assumption of capitalism, that the business of business is making things. Each in their way, Drucker (2006), Michael Porter (1998), Thomas Stewart (2001) and others anticipated this assault on literalism. We are not "making things to make money," they said. We are "creating value to capture value." And with this fundamental change, new process and practice is set in train, and the world begins to drift.
Structural change also comes from practice. It emerges from things happening in the marketplace, the corporation, or the world of the consumer. This change is not created or officiated by experts. (Unless of course that expert is Oprah.) It comes swimming up out of the interactions of many parties, driven by various motives, parties who may not be aware of the intentions or even the presence of others.
Take the case of the American "great room." In the last 25 years, millions of Americans knocked down the walls between kitchen, living room, and dining room. They spent many hundreds of millions of dollars, in the process turning their homes into construction zones. The great room did not from the design community or even an Oprah episode. It came from Americans, flying by the seat of their pants, trying to figure out a way to accommodate emerging notions of children, childhood, child rearing, domesticity, parenthood, feminism, informality, media consumption, dining, hospitality, weekends, entertainment, cooking, serving, and food. So much for our assumptions about the American family.
There are several steps the corporation can take to protect itself from structural change.
Scan the horizon
Watch for changes in the world that will test and perhaps overturn the assumptions in the corporation. The disintermediation of the supply chain, what will this mean to our assumptions about distribution? More specifically, what happens when Amazon.com begins to eliminate bricks and mortar retails and the Mall? Is there a "New Normal" that defines consumer taste and preference and what would it mean to our assumptions about what consumers want? The corporation needs to examine the future, and to anticipate how it will challenge present assumptions (McCracken, 2009).
Excavate the assumptions of the corporation
These models sweep through the corporation with some frequency: "excellence" from Peters and Waterman (2004), "reengineering" from Hammer and Champy (2004), "built to last" from Collins and Porras (2003). These models, with their key phrases and characteristic points of view, reform the corporate culture and the minds of managers (Collins 2000, Davenport and Prusak 2003, Gray 2003, Hindle 2008, Martin 2009, Micklethwait and Wooldridge 1998, Sapir 1977, Sutton 1997).
There is no "sunset clause" for management models.
We may stop using the model, but rarely
do we repudiate it. The model is
still there, passive and invisible. Occasionally it will "reactivate" without warning. Someone will object to "strategy A" on
the grounds that "I can't see what this has to do with excellence." Everyone
recognizes the term. They know it
as a value that corporation once valued. So people are inclined to defer. "Excellence. Good
point. Let's move on." Too bad. Because "strategy A" was a good idea.
The local culture of the corporation has many sources: the vision of the founder, ideas introduced through mergers and acquisitions, cataclysmic events in the history of the corporation (public ones like the depression of the 1920s, and private ones like the time the CFO decamped with the corporate "playbook"), and the culture of the locality (Silicon Valley vs. New York City vs. Austin, Texas). Here too we have a variety of old and new ideas pouring into the corporation. The old live on. The new recruit vigorously. The corporation hums with a variety of ideas, some visible, all active.
There are many professional paths to the business world. People come up as engineers, MBAs, entrepreneurs, accountants, industrial designers, graphic designers, liberal arts graduates. Each of these professions imbues the graduate with a certain way of seeing the world, of solving a problem (Khurana 2010). (I did a project for a Canadian telecom and the marketer expressed her frustration with the engineers with whom we were working, "Every time I leave them in a room together, they start building a machine!") In a perfect world, the corporation would achieve a miracle of ecumenical cooperation. More often, certain professional cultures are given more influence than others. So we need the various professional assumptions and the value hierarchy that distribute their power.
Every industry has characteristic ways and means. The car culture of Detroit, the start up culture of Silicon Valley, the P&G method as it has influenced the world of CPG (consumer packaged goods), the engineering cultures of IBM and GE, the new approaches emerging from the likes of Etsy and Zappos. Furthermore, every industry is various. Some part of the financial world sees itself as "white shoe." Another is "Florsheim." Still another is "hush puppy." These assumptions need mapping. To be sure, they build consensus and confer strength. But they also create vulnerability when change happens.
The world of business has certain shared assumptions (Kanter 1993). We are inclined to share a certain way of defining the actor, the action, the motive, the objective, the unit of analysis. These appear to be matters of simple rationality. But of course the differences between Japanese, American, and Canadian business practice tell us that cultural choice shapes this rationality. Furthermore, there is a range of choice within the rational. There are many ways, in that horrible phrase, to skin a cat.
The key problem: one rationality may conceal another, as they discovered recently at IBM. Kevin Clark, then Director of IBM Alumni Relations and the Greater IBM Connection, noticed that IBM was insisting on the boundaries of the corporation perhaps a little too literally. The fact of the matter is that Information Technology is a small world. Sooner or later everyone in the industry is going to work for IBM. And this means that it's wrong of IBM to treat outsiders as outsiders. Clark noticed, for instance, that when people left IBM, IBM was inclined to severe the relationship. Clark believed the more sensible approach was to treat them as "temporarily relocating," and to keep the relationship alive.
The culture of business encourages the corporation to insist on an emphatic boundary when indeed something more porous is sometimes called for. Only the retrieval of business assumptions renders this opportunity visible. The task here is to find the assumption and to release the corporation from its thrall. This is what Henry Jenkins' did with his notion of "transmedia." We can see how many ideas take their powers of illumination and the ability to create value from their ability to transcend the assumptions of the moment. This category has many examples including, again, Henry Jenkins' (2008) notion of "transmedia," C.K. Prahalad and M.S. Krishnan (2008) on the notion of "cocreation," Charles Handy (1984) on the future of work and Warren Bennis (2009) on the nature of leadership.
Who will do this? Who will dig out assumptions for the corporations? The Liberal Arts ought to be a superb recruiting ground for this new profession. One could argue that the ability to find and scrutinize assumptions is the great gift part of the liberal arts education. But of course this part of the university continues to sneer at anything attached to commerce as beneath its dignity and corrupted by gainful motive (Nussbaum 2010). The move to post-modernism compounds the problem by insisting on the instability of knowledge and the inscrutability of the world (Swaim, 2010). A.G. Lafley (2008) has called for a "hard headed humanist" but hard headed humanists are in short supply.
The management consultant may not be the right person to undertake this work, but we have much to learn from the Bains and McKinseys of the world. The consulting houses are good at working from faint signals and approximate measures, at living with noisy data sets and problems that might as well be shape-shifters they are so fluid and changeable. We need to learn these methods and approaches, which is another way to say that we need to learn how to deal with the world when it is merely ignited by ideas and not very much comprehended by them.
A profession of this kind will need an institutional locus. To be sure, there are inklings and experiments. Henry Jenkins and William Uricchio (2010) have created something remarkable at CMS, and Henry Jenkins' experiment continues at the Annenberg School at USC. David Kelley is creating something interesting at the Design Program at Stanford as is Joel M. Podolny at Apple University. Peter Drucker left behind an inclusive experiment at the Claremont University business school named for him. 
If we dolly back a little further, another opportunity emerges: the creation of a consulting house that makes the pattern recognition of the arts, humanities and social sciences an integral part of the advice it gives to business. Here too there are inklings and experiments. And a question: why only these?
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Thanks to Daniel Pereira for his thoughts on the original version of this C3 Research Memo.Grant McCracken holds a PhD from the University of Chicago in cultural anthropology. He is the author of Big Hair, Culture and Consumption, Culture and Consumption II: Markets, Meaning and Brand Management, Flock and Flow, The Long Interview, Plenitude: Culture by Commotion, and the forthcoming Transformations: Identity Construction in Contemporary Culture. He has been the director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum), a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge and he is now an adjunct professor at McGill University. He has consulted widely in the corporate world, including the Coca-Cola Company, IKEA, Chrysler, Kraft, Kodak, and Kimberly Clark. He is a member of the IBM Social Networking Advisory Board.
 Drucker, Peter F. 2006. The Practice of Management. Harper Paperbacks, p. 50. Levitt, Theodore. 1960. "Marketing Myopia." Harvard Business Review 38:45-56.
 "In public policy, a sunset provision or sunset clause is a provision in a statute or regulation that terminates or repeals all or portions of the law after a specific date, unless further legislative action is taken to extend it." Anonymous. n.d., Sunset Provision. Wikipedia entry.
 "Reflecting the Drucker philosophy of management, we believe that management is a human enterprise—an art as well as a science—that integrates perspectives from the social and behavioral sciences, from philosophy and the humanities, from history and technology, and from religion and mathematics. This liberal art of management brings together the complex realities of the world in which we live, our diverse cultural, institutional, and intellectual backgrounds, and our ethical responsibilities." Anonymous. n.d. "Mission and Vision." Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management: Mission and Vision Statement. Claremont University. http://www.cgu.edu/pages/290.asp (Accessed September 6, 2010)