51. Getting It Done, Or Your Gift For Mine? – An Echo from the Philippines

On a stopover in Manila a while back, I wan­dered into a book­shop, look­ing for some­thing that could give me a fix on “the” cul­tural mind­set of the Philip­pines. This is a coun­try with which I have had only brief con­tact. It was a silly aim, like pick­ing up one of those books with a title like “Inside China” or “Under­stand­ing Aus­tralia, the Lucky Coun­try” or “Secrets of the Roman Empire”. What you always get is a car­i­ca­ture, an acci­dent of some writer’s meet­ings and prej­u­dices, even if it is a pretty car­i­ca­ture. But prob­a­bly that’s all we get out of life any­way. You have to start some­where. In this case, I picked up a vol­ume called “Becom­ing a Guru”, which turned out to be an elite insider’s wry view of admin­is­tra­tion in the Philip­pines. His core theme was the per­va­sive fail­ure of “imple­men­ta­tion” in the Philip­pines, as opposed to grand plans and announce­ments. The author was one Dr Ramon Katig­bak, whom I thought of writ­ing to in order to probe a lit­tle more deeply. Unfor­tu­nately, he had just passed away. I wrote my unad­dressed let­ter any­way, with a nar­ra­tive seep­ing out that had less to do with the Philip­pines directly than with the cussed­ness of human man­age­ment gen­er­ally – a favourite per­sonal topic that if gifted with an ounce of com­mon sense, I would have put aside years ago in favour of wine, women and song.

Let­ter to Dr Katig­bak
Sun­day, July 18, 2010, 4:31:36 PM

Dear Dr Katig­bak,

Recently I found myself in Manila briefly, and picked up your book by acci­dent. I bought it since a quick scan revealed strong res­o­nances with my own PhD dis­ser­ta­tion (though from a quite dif­fer­ent field). Like your D.B.A., my own much less dis­tin­guished effort was pro­duced rather late in life and reflected some real world expe­ri­ence. At first I thought the ‘guru’ in the title of your own book must be ironic, but real­ized later that you have a mis­chie­vous appre­ci­a­tion of human credulity. (So far from aspir­ing to guru sta­tus, my under­stand­ing of my own field seems to recede by the year, but maybe that is irrel­e­vant to one’s per­ceived mar­ket value…).

My rea­son for writ­ing this note is to pose a query, or per­haps offer a chal­lenge. Your con­cern with imple­men­ta­tion, as opposed to mere ‘plan­ning’, is admirable, and I have to take your word for it that the imple­men­ta­tion of your own plans has been gen­er­ally effec­tive. How­ever, as I read through your mono­graph I grad­u­ally began to feel that you had left the mech­a­nisms of imple­men­ta­tion crit­i­cally under­spec­i­fied. Have I missed some­thing?

Let me try to clar­ify my own start­ing point a lit­tle. I once began in a research career with a grand plan to explain the cog­ni­tive processes of lan­guage gen­er­a­tion, then ulti­mately decided that with the mere gift of one brief life I would hardly rate a comma in a foot­note, and ambled off into the sun­set. In fact I have wound up as an edu­ca­tor con­stantly teased by the chal­lenges of teach­ing, often to peo­ple one would not con­ven­tion­ally describe as ‘bril­liant’. The occu­pa­tion of teacher, in which I found myself by default, is not a triv­ial pas­time. In pre-lit­er­ate and semi-lit­er­ate soci­eties teach­ing had an exalted sta­tus (some of that may now sur­vive in a few rather empty rit­u­als of respect). In mod­ern mass soci­eties teach­ing is rarely asso­ci­ated with the best and the bright­est. Indeed it is often done badly and accord­ingly attracts lit­tle true soci­etal respect. For all that, the chal­lenge of effec­tive teach­ing remains as tan­ta­liz­ing as it ever was, and its mas­tery offers lessons beyond the class­room.

A teacher is a spe­cial kind of man­ager. “Man­ag­ing” another person’s learn­ing is only periph­er­ally about com­mand and con­trol, and cer­tainly not about self aggran­dize­ment. Teach­ing is mostly about the extremely sub­tle art of get­ting stu­dents to orga­nize and deploy their own resources in an effec­tive way. How­ever, sub­tlety is almost an oxy­moron in the con­text of mass insti­tu­tional edu­ca­tion, and therein lies a teacher’s dilemma, rarely com­pre­hended by those in sup­pos­edly more ele­vated branches of the man­age­ment forest. What is the point here of this expo­si­tion on teach­ing? Well, in fact the kind of sub­tlety known to gifted teach­ers is needed not only in school teach­ing. That is, the kind of civ­i­liza­tion we want is prob­a­bly one which is dri­ven by per­sonal enthu­si­asm rather than induced fear. Of course, fas­cism still has a large con­stituency.

The uncounted grad­u­ates of busi­ness schools world­wide prefer not to see them­selves as fas­cists. They will indeed par­rot mantras about the impor­tance of moti­va­tion, but when it comes down to office, fac­tory and gov­ern­ment prac­tice what we usu­ally see is a shabby resort to “pub­lic rela­tions”, spin, a.k.a. pro­fes­sional lying. Ulti­mately, that stuff is poi­son to moti­va­tion. Human beings are not entirely stu­pid all the time. Spin debases civ­i­liza­tion. If you want a lesson in gen­uine moti­va­tion, find the gifted teach­ers. Man­age­ment, as you note Dr Katig­bak, is the process of get­ting things done, and gen­er­ally seems to mean get­ting other peo­ple to do things in a pro­duc­tive way.  The argu­ment here is that good teach­ing makes a fine model for most kinds of man­age­ment. Teach­ing is the process of get­ting peo­ple to extend and develop their ideas to the best of their poten­tial, often against their own bet­ter judge­ment even if they have ‘enrolled in a course’ (since few peo­ple like to be dis­com­forted by new knowl­edge).

Back on the planet earth, self-named admin­is­tra­tive man­agers have usu­ally been a bane to my teach­ing man­age­ment. From the per­spec­tive of a teacher, I have to say that the gen­eral style of edu­ca­tional man­agers in the seven coun­tries where I have worked has been remark­ably obstruc­tive, and some­times destruc­tive. The neg­a­tive influ­ence of man­agers has grown from their dis­re­gard for, or incom­pre­hen­sion of teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity and stu­dent learn­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity. My doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion deals with this through a series of twenty case stud­ies. Thus in prac­ti­cal terms it has often been nec­es­sary to sub­vert the inten­tions of the so-called exec­u­tive class in order to achieve pro­fes­sional teach­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity, and that of course not infre­quently meant deceiv­ing var­i­ous lev­els of man­age­ment in quite per­sonal ways.

What are our tools for bolt­ing together the diverse agen­das found within all insti­tu­tions? You favour a nar­ra­tive tech­nique, which you rightly iden­tify as a pow­er­ful man­age­ment vehi­cle for expla­na­tion and per­sua­sion. Con­trolled nar­ra­tive can also be applied, post facto, to jus­ti­fy­ing a teacher’s pro­fes­sional deceit for hon­ourable pur­poses. I have attempted to illus­trate that exten­sively in my the­sis. The prob­lem of course, is that a nar­ra­tive process can be applied to jus­tify any­thing, up to and includ­ing pure evil. In fact, this is almost a nor­mal state of affairs. The win­ners, as they say, get to write the his­to­ries. It is a dilemma of com­plex civ­i­liza­tions that the law can make scoundrels seem like bene­fac­tors, and good men into knaves as they nav­i­gate the treach­er­ous cur­rents of daily sur­vival. Per­haps it would have been tread­ing a lit­tle dan­ger­ously for you to offer Philip­pine nar­ra­tives of deceit intended to sub­vert the rich and pow­er­ful, even with benign inten­tions, although some­thing sim­i­lar of course is just the theme of many a TV movie.

Those admin­is­tra­tive man­agers who can put aside their hubris might also learn some­times from teach­ers. The teacher who can­not man­age the imple­men­ta­tion of his cur­ricu­lum can­not teach at all. It is true that teach­ing ‘imple­men­ta­tion’ fre­quently takes the form of teacher pre­sen­ta­tion and stu­dent regur­gi­ta­tion, which keeps the diplo­mas rolling out and makes admin­is­tra­tors happy. We can prob­a­bly agree that a such a zom­bie out­come rep­re­sents nei­ther true teach­ing nor true learn­ing. In the same way exec­u­tives, employ­ees or cit­i­zens who become merely skilled at mim­ic­k­ing rules and cus­toms with­out insight or con­vic­tion are not going to grow a com­pany or a coun­try.

For thirty-four years I have been either teach­ing Eng­lish lan­guage, or train­ing teach­ers to teach, or teach­ing about lan­guage (lin­guis­tics). As a prac­ti­cal prob­lem I am often faced with classes of young peo­ple who have lost much of their faith in their abil­ity to learn. If you think about it, that is not so dif­fer­ent from the clock-watch­ing employ­ees in orga­ni­za­tions, whether senior exec­u­tives or the most hum­ble work­ers, who have lost faith in their abil­ity to make a worth­while con­tri­bu­tion to the enter­prise. Nor is it so dif­fer­ent from the peo­ples of a coun­try who note that the wider world holds them in low regard as a ‘devel­op­ing coun­try’, and have lost most faith in their power to bring about sys­temic change for the bet­ter; (at best they may find solace and self-respect in their own fam­i­lies).

There is hope. Many years ago I made a dis­cov­ery about ‘imple­men­ta­tion’ as a teacher. Read­ing your book, I there­fore won­der how suc­cess­fully it might be applied at a wider soci­etal level in com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments. That dis­cov­ery came out of my early under­grad­u­ate work in social anthro­pol­ogy.

Here is the crux of stu­dent resis­tance to learn­ing: a) pri­mary school age chil­dren are a joy to teach, forever curi­ous and ask­ing ques­tions; b) by about 14 years of age they have had the joy­ful curios­ity beaten out of them, some­times phys­i­cally, more often by the cor­ro­sive deper­son­al­iza­tion of mass edu­ca­tion, the scold­ing of teach­ers who are afraid to look stu­pid, and the forced feed­ing from cur­ricu­lums that ‘have to be got­ten through’. By 18 most of these stu­dents are reduced to sul­len silence, or sly busy work that makes them appear to be ‘good stu­dents’, but leaves no trace on their con­vic­tions. Again, in this par­a­digm you may find some trace of the ‘grown up’ sit­u­a­tion amongst employ­ees in gov­ern­ment and indus­try.

The ‘dis­cov­ery’ I made is a very old tech­nique indeed. You could call it ‘rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion’.

Imag­ine meet­ing a man who, with­out ask­ing, gave you gifts of great value. At first you might be pleased, though a lit­tle embar­rassed since you had noth­ing of obvi­ous value to offer him in return. How­ever, this man had no inter­est in what­ever hum­ble things you might prof­fer any­way, but each day insisted on giv­ing you new gifts. Shortly you would prob­a­bly begin to resent the fel­low, and won­der if you were merely a vehi­cle for pro­mot­ing his glory (yes, there are echoes with reli­gion in this busi­ness too). The sul­len stu­dents that I meet have had the gift of edu­ca­tion shoved down their throats for most of their short lives. They are held cap­tive to receive this gift, and are con­sid­ered ingrates if they ques­tion it at all. The human spirit would be entirely dead if they were not sim­mer­ing with revolt.

Being cast as a men­di­cant is the health­i­est thing that can hap­pen to an arro­gant bringer of gifts. Monks picked up on this stuff long ago. The great attrac­tion for me of teach­ing in for­eign cul­tures is that I am reduced to com­plete stu­pid­ity. Arriv­ing as a teacher in cen­tral China, I walked the streets almost as a ghost. The bab­ble of voices around me was incom­pre­hen­si­ble, the streets were lined with sig­nage that meant noth­ing to me. In my place of work, things hap­pened with­out warn­ing or expla­na­tion, since of course every­one (except me) knew that they were going to hap­pen. For a teacher, this was the most for­tu­nate of sit­u­a­tions. My very sur­vival and san­ity depended upon help from my stu­dents. I attempted their bar­barous lan­guage and got greeted with gales of laugh­ter. I needed the sim­plest of things from a chemist shop or a hard­ware store. The shop assis­tants would gawk in incom­pre­hen­sion, until I enlisted the help of three gig­gling girls who yes­ter­day couldn’t man­age a sim­ple Eng­lish sen­tence, but who sud­denly became per­sons of ulti­mate author­ity. This descrip­tion may sound triv­ial, yet again and again my own igno­rance has been the key to trans­form­ing edu­ca­tional envi­ron­ments. Again and again I find that stu­dents who are allowed to offer some­thing of value to me, the teacher, are sud­denly open again to enthu­si­as­tic learn­ing. The uni­verse is back in bal­ance.

My under­grad­u­ate stud­ies co-majored in the study of myths, from bible sto­ries, to tales from the jun­gles of Bor­neo, to the world­wide oral tra­di­tions that have under­pinned human cul­tures from time immemo­rial. My pro­fes­sor in Vic­to­ria Uni­ver­sity of Welling­ton, New Zealand, was a Dutch anthro­pol­o­gist, Jan Pouwer, raised in the Euro­pean neo Marx­ist froth of post-WW2, and the ideas of the French struc­tural­ist, Claude Levi Strauss. I’m a nat­u­ral skep­tic, and the neat Hegelian the­sis-antithe­sis-syn­the­sis designs that this school found in all myths left me a bit dubi­ous. The Levi-Strauss argu­ment was that myth, passed from per­son to per­son across gen­er­a­tions, becomes stripped of any per­sonal con­tri­bu­tion, and only retains those pat­terns which are uni­ver­sal to human thought and action. It is a seduc­tive argu­ment, but prob­a­bly also open to much chal­lenge. It did how­ever sen­si­tize me to the exchange rela­tion­ships that per­me­ate all human cul­tures (their per­mu­ta­tions are infinite), and to the idea that exchange pat­terns ful­fill some deep human psy­cho­log­i­cal need. The rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion which I have found so pow­er­ful in teach­ing rela­tion­ships with stu­dents fits nat­u­rally into this wider par­a­digm.

Dr Katig­bak, you are accus­tomed to deal­ing with soci­eties on the level of grand schemas. You could argue that insti­tu­tions, com­pa­nies and gov­ern­ments are indeed involved in intri­cate exchange rela­tion­ships with indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens. My stu­dents are con­stantly reminded of their ‘duty to soci­ety’ by school lead­ers, and so on. It is water off a duck’s back. A very few care greatly about the ‘future of human­ity’, or fol­low what we choose to call world affairs. A slightly larger num­ber man­age to care about their coun­try, more of them again about their neigh­bour­hood, and nearly every­one about their fam­ily. When we think about rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion as an engine to action, and a balm to our sense of social bal­ance, as a teacher (in my case), or an insti­tu­tional plan­ner (in your case) we must always remem­ber to ask if the deal we are offer­ing, the exchange of val­ues, skills or infor­ma­tion, has psy­cho­log­i­cal real­ity for the peo­ple we are hop­ing to influ­ence. It is fatally easy to be care­less about this. When I for­get, my rest­less stu­dents quickly bring me down to earth, and once again I redeem their sym­pa­thy and care by enlist­ing their help. That is much harder if you work in an air con­di­tioned office, and the peo­ple you want to engage are ‘out there’ some­where in their mil­lions. So that is the chal­lenge I intended to put to you. Amongst all those whose lives you hoped to improve, how many felt that they were able to offer some­thing of value in return, and how often?


Ramon K. Katig­bak, Ph.D., D.B.A. (2008) Becom­ing a Guru – Intro­duc­tion to Advanced Research. Manila: Anvil Pub­lish­ing Inc.

note: this story is dupli­cated on my main web­site at http://thormay.net/unwiseideas/gettingitdone.html

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