Kitchen logic (1): Holism

I guess we all experience awkward moments from time to time, seeing simple basic truths behind complicated explanations. Buzzwords like “circular economy”, “sharing economy” or “universal basic income” are most frequent examples. There is abundance of such buzzwords in management consultancy when an old concept slips into something that sounds new, fancy and clever but only complicates ancient wisdom. “Strategic management” becomes “change management” as if management would be something else than to manage change.

Nothing is wrong with new concepts and new insights. But if there is nothing new to be found behind such new buzzwords, then not only that we waste time but often also obscure simple/complex truths.

In following couple of posts I am going to show simple complexity behind often indigestible complications.

HOLISM

The case of holism is the most perfect story about how knowledge upgrades on one side and forgets foundations on another.

Medicine

History of medicine offers us perfect example. Term holism was introduced in medicine around 1970 to conceptualize psychosomatic phenomena. Instead of charting one-way causal links from psyche to soma, or vice versa, it aimed at a systemic model, where multiple biological, psychological and social factors were seen as interlinked. This opened a path to various types of new age alternative medicine practices that were and are still rejected by official western medicine as being non scientific.

This correct accusation of various alternative medicine practices drags us couple of centuries back. Renaissance period introduced scientific methods based on falsification principles not only to medicine but also to all other domains of human activities. Enormous success of scientific methods that force various scientific practices to isolate smaller and smaller details since it is fact that smaller (less complex) detail is easier to manage (treat or heal) aroused valid reflections that medicine forgot (complexity of) human being and treats diseases only. Western medicine is in fact not holistic but at the same time holistic medicine, as we know it nowadays is mostly not scientific.

Let us be clear: if contemporary holistic (new age) medicine is not scientific, than it is not truly holistic. The fact that western medicine got stuck in details not knowing how to deal with complex living entities does not entitle anyone to regress to pre-scientific methods of wodoo, Paracelsus or Galen. Science behind contemporary western medicine is as much integral part of humans as a notion that it is wrong for surgeon to decide about the overall status of certain individual. Holistic medicine should in principle absorb both of them (all of them).

Ayurvedic medicine might be a good example towards better comprehension of holism. Ayurveda doctors that undergo 5 years or even longer study would never treat broken leg or acute cancer with Ayurvedic methods. Such diseases are treated with western methods even in India. But this only proves that neither Ayurveda nor western method is holistic. We are still waiting for a method that would unify all existing medicines under the umbrella of a living creature that exists only for the reason that is holistic. (Death is an end of living creature’s holistic nature).

Science and philosophy

The main obstacle in comprehending what holism really means (in practice) lies in confusion about »complicated« and »complex«. Due to intoxication of mechanistic ideology (again introduced in renaissance) we live in dreams that when we will see/understand the smallest particle of complicated atom and even more complicated molecule (and so on) we will be able to digitally chart universal logic/construction. How come that we search for solutions on the path of complications while we on the other hand know that life rests on complexity.

The challenge thus is to implement scientific dissection of natural complications into intuitive/philosophical comprehension of life as complex/holistic entity. The challenge is to follow unavoidable basic principles all the time while not compromising with scientific scrutinization.

Kitchen

Such challenge is practice daily in the kitchen. We all know that chemistry behind cooking processes is extremely difficult and poorly understood. But this fact does not prevent master chefs from creating magnificent dishes. They follow holistic (analogue) principles (values) while in the same time they imply some tested/proven methods provided by contemporary science.

Integrated reporting

To conclude with holism in management and corporate governance practice I cannot but mention newly established Integrated Reporting. The word »integrated« signalizes ambition to develop such reporting that would integrate reporting and management of all processes that as a part of business model add to overall corporate value. IR ambition is at the moment still prevalently mechanistic. It rests on understanding a company as constructed by 6 capitals and integrating them in one report. Such concept still presupposes that it is possible to integrate mechanic entities back into totality like it is possible to decompose an airplane and then compose it back into same functional entity.

There is though one principle within IR that might support real holistic treatment of management and reporting: integrated thinking. One cannot really understand organization but as holistic entity, as complex entity; it follows then that one can only think organization as holistic/complex entity.

We are still quite far from solving integration of complications and complexity, but at least ambitions are to be seen finally.

Andrej Drapal