Or…how I started on a journey to close the gap between textbook theories and my experience in business. The process of changing my way of thinking took time and was unsettling.
By Tom Beakbane
In 1998 I wanted to write a manual for my marketing communications company; it would be called Total Quality Communications. At the time I thought it would take about three months and its purpose was practical. I saw how manufacturing companies were using a number of management approaches, including Kaizen, Lean and Six Sigma, to improve product quality, reduce waste and operate more efficiently.
As the owner of a marketing agency I figured that we should implement something similar. The field of marketing communications was changing rapidly, with TV advertising no longer working like magic and digital technologies advancing on multiple fronts. We needed to get ahead of the online revolution and make sure the communications we produced for our clients achieved their objectives as reliably as possible. In every case the approach to quality management begins with defining and quantifying precisely what is meant by “quality.” If you are a steel bolt manufacturer, you need to specify the dimensions and the tensile strength. Once the machine operators know how quality is defined, they can monitor their own performance without the need for management or the quality control department to check their work. As I had a degree in neurophysiology and biochemistry I hoped to spell out some general science-like principles about human perception that my staff could use to evaluate their work. By that time I had also had the privilege of working with some of the world’s leading packaged-goods companies and their advertising practitioners in London, New York and Toronto. I thought that if I bundled what I had learned together with scientific principles, my agency would be more successful.
I decided to start by taking a quick look in the most up-to-date marketing textbooks to harvest their best ideas. But nothing, literally nothing I found had any relevance to what my team was doing day to day. Every entrepreneur knows there’s no substitute for practical experience; nonetheless, I found a puzzling, large gap between textbook theory and the kind of information that is useful for business people. The books written by advertising and marketing practitioners, of which there are many, do not overlap with traditional marketing theory. It is the same with leadership.
Lack of formal marketing credentials never bothered me
Academic accounts of leadership theory are nothing like the skills needed to lead a group of people, nor are they like the approaches described in the biographies of great leaders. The gap between business theory and practice has been particularly apparent to me because, by North American standards, my route into a marketing communications career was unusual. I was never taught business in an academic institution. When I joined the marketing department of United Biscuits in London, I was no different from the other three recruits who were graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities with degrees in the equally un-business disciplines of geography, chemistry and politics.
My lack of formal marketing credentials never bothered me, because even before I graduated I had a string of marketing wins, which included promoting a photo-customization business; successfully launching the Durham University Industrial Society; and being awarded honorary life membership of the students’ union for running a student health food store, increasing its sales by 35 percent and working with staff so that it made a profit for the first time in its history.
Although I had never been taught business and marketing theory, if I ever came across anything I didn’t understand I’d read books and journals until, at the very least, I’d get a measure of my ignorance. Plus, I enjoyed reading about science and technology.
While preparing to write the marketing manual, I found marketing textbooks unhelpful, and the latest marketing research papers in the University of Toronto and York University libraries equally unhelpful. Nothing I read was relevant to my goal of making marketing communications more scientific. I needed to come at the task from another angle. When I studied neurophysiology at university, scientists had been making progress in deciphering how brains work. Twenty years on, I presumed there would be new discoveries, so I looked at all recently published books about the human brain. I enjoyed reading Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (1997) and other similar books, but these left me perplexed. In trying to explain how the mind works, he wrote: “Thinking is computation, I claim, but that does not mean that the computer is a good metaphor for the mind. The mind is a set of modules, but the modules are not encapsulated boxes or circumscribed swatches on the surface of the brain.” This is a literary conundrum rather than a scientific explanation. If thinking is computation, which is what a computer does, but the mind is not like a computer, then what is the mind really like?
Pinker muses about another conundrum: “Once we have isolated the computational and neurological correlates of access-consciousness, there is nothing left to explain. It’s just irrational to insist that sentience remains unexplained after all the manifestations of sentience have been accounted for, just because the computations don’t have anything sentient in them.” From this viewpoint, there is nothing left to explain, except that it is impossible to nail down what sentience means or how consciousness evolved.
Intuition can’t be counted on
After reading several books that describe the brain as a modular computation device, I retreated to university libraries to read papers on brain neurochemistry in the hope of figuring out the conundrums. The papers by frontline researchers described remarkable advances that in their own right made sense, but the brain-chemistry discoveries were strangely disconnected from what Pinker and other authors had to say about widely accepted explanations of human behaviour.
However, I discovered tantalizing insights in books by John McCrone and Michael Gazzaniga, who describe how our conscious mind could not be relied upon to report our motivations accurately. It was clear that the way we think we think is not how we think. The implication is that a manager’s intuition about human motivations cannot be relied upon. Books by Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio led me to the conclusion that emotions and reasoning — at the level of neurochemicals — are indistinguishable.
Rather than being able to understand what all this research was saying, I became progressively more confused. What had begun as a three-month project became an obsession. I spent days, evenings and weekends looking into what frontline researchers were reporting. I learned fascinating details about how the visceral nervous system was more complicated than the spinal cord, but also that this aspect of the nervous system had not been studied much. The gap between what was in the textbooks, what I was reading in the scientific journals and what would be helpful in running my business widened.
The literature on psychology was particularly puzzling. Dozens of jargon-filled journals with statistical gurgitations reported results of hundreds of student surveys, but the research approaches didn’t fit with the techniques used by the marketing research professionals I had worked with; they also ran counter to the observations of ethologists, who study the behaviour of animals in their natural habitat.
Alternative explanations are valid
That prompted me to study the history of psychology. I read several books by Kurt Danziger, including Naming the Mind: How Psychology Found Its Language (1997). This book describes how the categorizations used in psychology are not objective, a realization that first came to him when he moved to Indonesia as a professor of psychology. There, exposed to academics whose psychology was grounded in concepts of the mind from Eastern cultures, he realized that alternative explanations of the mind were just as valid and, in their own way, as scientific as the psychological explanations he had been taught in the West. Categories such as behaviour, stimulus and response are cultural. Danziger wrote, “Contrary to common belief, these categories do not occupy some rarefied place above culture but are embedded in a particularly professional sub-culture.” It is hard for us to see, but the language we use to categorize mental events is not the same as the mental event itself. “The entire investigative enterprise is so immersed in language that it is simply taken for granted and its role becomes invisible.”
Marketing professionals are particularly attuned to the peculiarities of different cultures. It goes without saying that the tone and terminology needed to address an audience of cardiologists versus an audience of lip gloss purchasers is completely different. The brief booklet on Total Quality Communications that I had planned to write for my agency was turning into something much longer. I was uncovering ideas that would be useful for every business manager. Three months stretched into two years.
The more I read, the more bewildered I became. It was like noticing a piece of lint on an old woollen sweater. When I tried to pick the lint off, I found it was securely attached to the sweater; so when I pulled, out came a length of wool and another question. Why are marketing textbooks so unhelpful? That led to another length of wool and another question. Why are there so many graduates publishing psychology papers that have zero utility to managers of organizations? I pulled at more lint and found this led to ideas in brain science that led to mysteries of sentience and consciousness. This led to me yanking on the wool leading to culture and linguistics.
End of part 1
Tom Beakbane is president of Beakbane: Brand Strategies and Communications, a company that has delivered over 20,000 projects to Fortune 500 clients since 1986. He resurrected the concept of consilience after attempting to account for the gap between textbook theories of human behaviour and his experiences creating marketing communications. He closed the gap by tapping into his passion for understanding developments at the frontiers of science. Beakbane earned an honours degree in biochemistry and neurophysiology from Durham University in England. He lives near Toronto, Canada with his wife. They have two daughters.