The Experimenting Company

Methods for companies devoted to the truth

Methods for companies devoted to the truth

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The Experimenting Society

I just read The Experimenting Society, an essay by Donald T Campbell, the Social Scientist known for coining the term “evolutionary epistemology” and developing a selectionist theory of human creativity. In it, he lays out what a future society devoted to science, reason and truth through intellectual humility might look like. While reading his description of “the experimenting society” I couldn’t help but notice he was describing the way I have always imagined a great company should be run. To formalize this correlation I rewrote the introduction to his paper in terms of the “the experimenting company” to see how it fit.

Methods for the Experimenting Company

The experimenting company will be one that will vigorously try out proposed solutions to recurrent problems, which will make hard-headed and multidimensional evaluations of the outcomes, and which will move on to try other alternatives when evaluation shows one project to have been ineffective or harmful. We do not have such companies today. While all companies are engaged in trying out innovative products, few are yet organized to adequately evaluate the outcomes. Programs are instead continued or discontinued on inadequate or other grounds. This is due in part to the inertia of social organizations, in part to political predicaments which oppose evaluation, and in part to the fact that the methodology of evaluation is still inadequate.

It will be an active company preferring exploratory innovation to inaction.

While the experimenting company is not yet an actuality, there are in many companies moving in this direction. Microsoft, Netflix, Facebook, Amazon, Airbnb, Stitch Fix, and Faire come to mind as a few among the many firms in which such a company might emerge. In developing an experimenting company, the skills of the company scientist will be of utmost importance. What I am proposing here is that a few of us the world over now self-consciously dedicate ourselves to being “methodologists for the experimenting company”; that we now tool up for that future day by thinking through as well as we can the problems that will emerge.

The Experimenting Company

Before getting into the methodological details, a little more needs to be said about the nature of the experimenting company as an ideology for an economic system. It will be an active company preferring exploratory innovation to inaction. It would be a company which experiments, tries things out, explores possibilities in action (as well as, or even instead of, in thought and simulation). It would borrow from epistemology and the history of science the truism that one cannot know for certain in advance, that a certain amount of trial-and-error is essential. Faced with a choice between innovating a new program or commissioning a thorough study of the problem as a prelude to action, its bias would be toward innovating.

It will be committed to action research, to action as research rather than research as a postponement of action. It will be an evolutionary, learning company. It will be an honest company, committed to reality testing, to self-criticism, to avoiding self-deception. It will say it like it is, face up to the facts, be undefensive and open in self-presentation. Gone will be the institutionalized bureaucratic tendency to present only a favorable picture in executive reports. For many an analyst on both ends of Silicon Valley this freedom, to be honest, will be one of the strongest attractions of the experimenting company. The motive of honesty in economic reform, revolution, and personal heroism has been generally neglected until recently. It is of course now a dominant theme among our millennial employees, showing up in their standards for their own interpersonal relations and in their criticism of the cowardly hypocrisy, double-talk, and dishonesty of their elders.

It will be a decentralized company on all feasible aspects.

It will be a nondogmatic company. While it will state ideal goals and propose wise methods for reaching them, it will not dogmatically defend the value and truth of these goals and methods against disconfirming evidence or criticism. It will be a scientific company in the fullest sense of the word “scientific”; The scientific values of honesty, open criticism, experimentation, willingness to change once-advocated theories in the face of experimental and other evidence will be exemplified. This usage should be distinguished from earlier use of the term scientific in industrial planning. In this older usage, one scientific theory is judged to be established as true. On the basis of this scientific theory, extrapolations are made to the design of an optimal economic organization. This program is then put into effect, but without explicit mechanisms for testing the validity of the theory through the results of implementing it. Such planning becomes dogmatic, non-experimental, and is not scientific in the sense used here even though the grounds of its dogma are the product of previous science. In such planning, there is detailed use of available science but no use of the implemented program as a check on the validity of the plans or of the scientific theories upon which they were based. Thus economists, operations researchers and mathematical decision theorists trustingly extrapolate from past science and conjecture, but in general, fail to use the implemented decisions to correct or expand that knowledge.

It will be an accountable, challengeable, due-process company. There will be internal access to the data and records on which business decisions are made. Recounts, audits, reanalyses, reinterpretations of results will be possible. Just as in science, objectivity is achieved by the competitive criticism of independent scientists, so too the experimenting company will provide social organizational features making competitive criticism possible at the level of product experimentation. There will be sufficient cultural tolerance such that meaningful and difficult question may be asked of management out in the open. Employees not a part of the executive team will have the means to communicate with their fellow employees' disagreements with official analyses and to propose alternative experiments.

It will be committed to action research, to action as research rather than research as a postponement of action.

It will be an open company. It will be a decentralized company on all feasible aspects. Either through autonomy or deliberate diversifications, different product teams will try out different ameliorative innovations and will cross-validate those discoveries they borrow from others. The organizational independence will provide something of the replication and verification of successful experiments found in science. Semi autonomy will provide some of the competitive criticism that makes for scientific objectivity. It will be a company committed to means-idealism as well as ends-idealism. As in modern views of science, the process of experimenting and improving will be expected to continue indefinitely without reaching the asymptote of perfection. In this sense, all future periods will be mediational, transitional, rather than perfect goal states. Ends cannot be used to justify means, for all we can look forward to are means. The means, the transitional steps, must in themselves be improvements.

Concluding Comment

As we develop in detail the procedures, possibilities, and problems of the experimenting company, we will be acquainting ourselves with what it would be like as well as this can be done in advance. As this portrait emerges in greater clarity, it will be our duty to continually ask ourselves if we really want to advocate this monster of measurement and experimentation. We must share the developing picture with the most articulate and hostile critics of such a company and consider in detail their warnings. If it is not a future we want, who should know better or sooner than we, the ambivalent methodologists of the experimenting company?

You can read Campbell’s full essay here.