Phenomenology and Business
Business, as an academic area of
study, is usually thought of as a specialist sub-set of the
social sciences. That is, the theories, assumptions and methods
of the social sciences (with their emphasis on statistics, hypotheses
and theories) are adapted and applied to the study of business.
The conclusions of these studies are then promulgated to business
leaders and managers as the answers to business management and administration
However, the social science approach,
while having brought many insights, often does not get to the heart
of what managing a business is all about from the manager's perspective;
and therefore these insights seem to many managers to miss the point,
or to be too theoretical to be of much use.
Phenomenology arose at the end of the
19th century, was first formalised by Edmund Husserl, and was developed
as a branch of philosophy with close ties to the emerging discipline
of psychology. Psychology has largely gone on to become subsumed
into the social sciences, but Freud initially took a fairly phenomenological
approach, and phenomenological approaches to psychology are still
used today (cognitive-behavioural therapy, for example, in broad
terms uses a phenomenological approach).
The basic suggestion of Husserl was
that we should pay more attention to the phenomena (hence
phenomenology) in our consciousnesses rather than getting
too quickly onto grand theories which often negate the conclusions
we would reach if we studied phenomena more closely. Phenomena
are what we are aware of when we contemplate our inner thoughts
and thought processes. Husserl suggested that we study these phenomena
closely, without worrying too much about what they stand for; to
take them as capable of giving us insights about who and what we
are and how we interact with others and the world around us.
Husserl's development of phenomenology
was initially aimed at solving some classic philosophical problems
such as whether and how we know anything (epistemology), but later
philosophers such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze and Emmanuel
Levinas sought, to a greater degree, to apply the phenomenological
method to human life - trying to answer questions such as: 'what
is it like to be a human being from the inside?', and 'what is relating
to others all about, from our perspective and theirs?'. In other
words, they tried to discern what life is all about from a subjective
perspective, by delving below the surface on which we ordinarily
live our lives to investigate what we are really doing and thinking.
Any lessons learnt from such an exercise
would clearly have a role in helping us to live better lives: a
better understanding of who and what we are helps us make better
decisions about future actions, leading to more fulfilled and productive
lives, with better relations with others.
Business is all about making decisions,
productivity and relationships between people; and better insights,
through the application of phenomenological methods, into what is
really going on inside ourselves and others, and in the lives we
construct at work, should, therefore, lead to us being able to create
better-performing businesses. In other words, greater understanding
gives a better basis for making the decisions which will improve
There are many phenomenological methods
used, depending on the area in which the method is applied and the
theoretical interests of the person who developed the method.
However, there are a few things which
mark out all phenomenological methods as being phenomenological:
- Qualitative rather than quantitative;
- Paying close attention to experience and
mental processes in oneself and/or in others, without taking
account of the realities lying behind those experiences and
- Suspending judgement, and putting aside
theories and preconceptions, in order to allow experience and
mental processes to be perceived without filtering them or obliterating
them - in order to allow us to perceive the actuality of what
- Looking at what is unique and what is
shared among others in experience;
- Examining our biases and preconceptions,
to try to eliminate or minimise them so that unfiltered experience
- The point of view is always subjective
rather than objective;
- Trying to directly enter
into others' experience, while suspending our own point of view.
The other white papers in this series
are all based on a phenomenological approach to some extent, particularly
the paper Innovation
and Repetition in Business Management. The starting point of
that paper is that we all have to fill our time at work in one way
or another, and describes some of the ways in which we do this.
Once we understand these ways, and the reasons for them, we are
in a position to control and influence these ways both for ourselves
and others, leading to higher productivity and greater innovation.
Phenomenology is an adjunct to other
ways of understanding business, and considers both different subject
matter and the same subject matter from a different perspective.
It has the advantage of not being over-burdened with theory or fixed
ways of looking at things, and therefore fits well with the actual
experience of business practice that most managers have.
Phenomenology also enables us to look
more deeply at what we do and why we do it, compensating for the
superficiality and fashion-chasing which characterises so much business
It is my contention that a phenomenological
approach has much to offer businesses looking for better performance,
whether that be greater innovation, more productivity, better decision-making
or solving problems in businesses caused by interpersonal issues.
Metamarketing can help you use the methodology
and insights of phenomenology to enable you to improve your business.
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