Precarious Values

One of life’s puzzles is how to elicit desired behaviors. Managers, parents, leaders, what have you try out various schemes to address this puzzle. I sometimes characterise this as thrashing about looking for the right lever to pull. It’s not uncommon to see people deeply committed to a particular lever; metric management for example. The social sciences are replete with grand frameworks that outline a logic for this or that lever.

Somebody (thanks Chris) passed along this fun paper: “Organizational Adaption and Precarious Values: A Case Study” that frames up the problem in a nice way. “Precarious Values,” which I suspect was introduced (1956) here, is a lovely name for all the values which garner lip service but fail to attract supporting behaviors. That’s key. Members of this class are not in dispute, people agree that they are important and that they ought to acted upon; but they don’t actually get acted upon. They are precarious because it’s widely known that values that fail to be acted upon grow progressively weaker until they are extinguished entirely.

That something can be valued but then fail to garner it’s supporting behaviours is a delightful way of thinking about values. The puzzle of eliciting desired behaviors is situated right in the intersection between values and behaviors. Curiously it runs the other way; behaviors are quite skilled at attracting a portfolio of values to justify them. That’s a complementary problem, how do you bridge behaviors into well justified value?

So we have two problems. How are behavior’s elicited? How are values justified?

Not surprisingly I see the range of behaviors as being drawn from a highly skewed distribution and I’m mostly interested in the behaviors of groups. The value are, presumably, the stories the group tells about why it has adopted particular patterns of behavior. For example in open source communities we often tell the itch-scratch story and the many-eyes story to create a rational frame in support of common behaviors.  It’s notable that both those behaviors arose in advance of the values that latter explained them.

The precarious values are those with strong narratives, but which when mapped into the highly skewed distribution of behaviors are found in the lower middle-class. They get some attention but it appears that they don’t get attention in proportion to their supporting stories.

In open source such things might include obviously valuable activities such as testing, documentation, critical code reading, planning, design, accessibility, introductory examples, …    It’s a very long list, much longer than that, but then the lower-middle class is not a small population in any system.
Since behaviors are scarce there is competition between the values for supporting behaviors. There are patterns to that competition. The population of values is all struggling to negotiate out what behaviors will be elicited. Advocates for a particular set of behaviors are wise to seek allies. It’s a mistake to be too zealous in advocacy for one particular precarious value. Zealotry is not negotiation and it threatens all the other values. The other values maybe in competition but they can agree to band together to shun a particularly disruptive value in their community. Tempering the voice of a given value is difficult advice to take. A precarious value has – almost by definition – is broad consensus that it is valuable as it’s principle resource. Having voice but not action is an excellent climate for a storm of zealotry.

The case study in the paper is about adult education. The value that was made precarious, even to the point of extinction, was professionalism in the teaching staff. The story told is about how the state of California set out to provide a rich supply of continuing education. First to help emigrants to integrate with the large society more smoothly, but then to help assure that the citizens were better prepared to deal with the rapid rates of change in modern society (a problem that the economists sometimes describe as the need for high labor flexibility).

Structurally though adult education is a totally different beast from formal schooling. Adults are free, which youths are not. When the weather turns nice the adults tended not to show up. When running their finger down the catalog of course the adults tended to select course with more immediate pleasures (folk dancing, yoga) v.s. courses of a more professional nature (word processing, sales management). Meanwhile the instructors in youth oriented programs tended to be highly certified and thus well trained; while for many many reasons the instructors in the adult programs rarely were.

What’s fascinating about the story is that the precarious values in question (i.e. those of professional educators) were displaced. When the educational establishment advocated the creation of a large program for adult education they didn’t see it coming; but once the program had matured their professional values became first precarious and then finally entirely displaced.

Displacement is a natural fear for any given precarious value, but it isn’t the inevitable outcome. A precarious value can live on for years; since it has broad support. In open source, for example, both planning and documentation live on as precarious values. Both tend to elicit sufficient behaviors to keep them alive.

Recognizing that there is a struggle between values being played out in any community was quite enlightening but there is something more fundamentally interesting. It looks to me like the stories communities tell about their strong values are monuments to past struggles upon this plane. For example the itch-scratch story is almost a shrine we in the open source community visit to remember those days, now past, when the idea of letting some random user tinker with the code in an apparently whimsical manner was it’s self a precarious value.

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