Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Some thoughts concerning a general theory of business 2: the two conceptual approaches 1

Posted in blogs and marketing, reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on January 11, 2016

This is the second installment to a series on theories of business, that I offer as follow-up to my having reached my 2002nd posting to this blog (see Part 1.) And I begin the core discussion of this series here by roughly dividing theoretical models and more specifically, generally formulated ones that would tie together wide ranges of phenomena, into two perhaps cartoonish categories, which I would identify as:

Compendium models: models that seek to describe and causally explain as much as possible, even if an overall single unifying theory is not available to tie all of this together (at least yet), and
Minimalist general rules models: models that seek to comprehensively predictively describe and causally explain such a universe of phenomena through application of a minimal set of general principles, rules or laws.

Put this way, bodies of developing knowledge and understanding might be expected to begin as emerging and progressively enlarging compendium models, which would then be transformed into more minimalist general models as a critical mass of detail is developed so as to make it possible to discern and in some manner validate some set of more general underlying principles, rules or laws.

Stepping away from business theory per se for the moment for a working example of this, the history of quantum mechanics offers a clear example of how this shift would take place. Early stage quantum mechanics arose and developed as a compendium of observable, seemingly unrelated phenomena and the context-specific rules that seemed to predictively describe and explain them, that were explicable on their own but that could not be coordinately described and explained in any single overall theoretical framework – at least at that early stage of development of this body of knowledge. Then overall explanatory models began to emerge, vying for prominence through more successfully proving themselves as being more capable of successfully predictively describing new experimental observations.

Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and a group of contributing colleagues, for example, developed what became known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. That has become one of the most widely used conceptual frameworks for understanding quantum mechanical phenomena – through a competitive process of proving itself as a perhaps better overall explanatory model than, for example, the Everett, or many-worlds interpretation, the De Broglie-Bohm interpretation and the quantum decoherence theory. Though given the way in which quantum phenomena experimentally, empirically behave so counter-intuitively, at least from perspective of our more every-day experience, as described in classical Newtonian physics, “better overall explanatory model” might mean “more readily understandable” at times, at least as much as it means more readily experimentally validatable.

The history of science offers a number of examples of theoretical models that have begun as compendium models and as collections of special case descriptive and predictive explanations that would organize the separate individual phenomena addressed in those compendiums, that with time and development are merged together under conceptually simpler through deeper more inclusive explanatory theory. And the emergence of these more inclusive theories mark major turning points in the history of science as a whole, for the way they open up whole new worlds of understanding and from the way they open doors to whole new realms of technological innovation.

The merging of our understanding of electrical and magnetic phenomena into a single overarching phenomenon and the resulting explanation of light as electromagnetic energy through the formulation of Maxwell’s equations comes immediately to mind as an example of that, and certainly in the context of quantum theory that I have been so briefly making note of here And when scientists realized what light was at this more fundamental level of understanding, they immediately realized that what they knew of as visible light must only comprise a small and even minute portion of a much larger and more inclusive electromagnetic spectrum that had been largely hidden from us – which subsequent experiment fully verified (including discovery of radio waves, microwaves, ultraviolet radiation and more.) And all of the points that I have been raising here by way of these well known physical theory examples, are so well known and so thoroughly assumed as to be taken essentially entirely for granted.

With that offered as a starting point here, I turn to consider three factors that enter into developing and then using more comprehensive theories and theory-based empirically grounded conceptual models:

• Consistency and change in their empirically grounding foundations,
• Acceptable levels of explanatory and empirically validatable accuracy, and
• Focus and usability, where actually applying these larger conceptual understandings in real-world contexts always means taking recourse to context-specific special case and organizationally restricted implementations – elements of a more compendium model type, even if we use them knowing they fit into larger conceptual understandings in the back of our minds as we use them.

I am going to continue this discussion in a next series installment where I will at least begin examining these issues and their implications. Then after developing this metatheory framework, I will more explicitly turn to consider business theory, applying this metatheory approach there in that context. Meanwhile, you can find this and related material about what I am attempting to do here in this blog at About this Blog. And I include this series in my Reexamining the Fundamentals directory, as topics section VI there where I offer related material regarding theory-based systems.


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