Teaching Paradigm Shifting in Management Education
Excerpted from: Chia, R. Teaching paradigm shifting in management education: University business schools and the entrepreneurial imagination. Journal of Management Studies, 1996, 33 (4), 409-428.
"When all the world know beauty to be beautiful Then ugliness exist"
                                                                             (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)
Paradigm-Shifting. In his discourse on the significance and meaning of the Order of Things, the French intellectual Michel Foucault starts with an amused and perplexed reflection of the writer Jorge Luis Borge’s description of a ‘certain Chinese encyclopaedia’ in which it is written that:

"…animals are divided into (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c)tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camel hair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that which from a long way off look like flies."

Foucault observes that in the wonderment of encountering this strange taxonomy ‘the thing we apprehend in one great leap, the thing that, by means of the fable, is demonstrated as the exotic charm of another system of thought, is the limitation of our own, the stark impossibility of thinking that’. The shock and strangeness of confronting a different cultural paradigm reveals the exotic chaos of order when we reach outside the conventions and codes that define western perceptions of the cosmos. The fabulous absurdity and stark impossibility of comprehending another culture’s ordering of the wild profusion of things threatens our commonly held distinction between order and disorder, chaos and cosmos. It is out of this shock, confusion and chaos that a new paradigm of understanding can be allowed to gradually emerge.

Paradigm-shifting begins with the loosening up of the thinking process away from a focus on things, entities and events to relationships, figurational patterns and interconnectedness. Away from a singular universal ordering of our human experiences to an appreciation of the culturally conditioned nature of human perception and therefore to a recognition of the possibility of dramatically different ways of seeing the world. From recognizing the chaos of order and the weakness of strong thinking to recognizing the blindness of our seeing and the ignorance in our current forms of knowledge. As Johnson puts it so succinctly, it is not our knowledge that cannot be taken for granted but our ignorance. She writes:

"Ignorance, far more than knowledge, is what can never be taken for granted. If I perceive my ignorance as a gap in knowledge instead of an imperative that changes the very nature of what I think I know, then I do not truly experience my ignorance. The surprise of otherness is that moment when a new form of ignorance is suddenly activated as an imperative."

It is only by ‘forgetting’ what we think we know and giving ourselves over to the powers of ‘chaos’, ambiguity and confusion that new and deeper insights and understanding can be attained. This is the precondition for any paradigm shift to occur. What pedagogical priorities will this entail? Johnson proposes that we deliberately ‘teach ignorance’ – a negative pedagogy which does not involve so much the transmission of knowledge as its deliberate suspension. In this positive sense of teaching ignorance, ‘the pursuit of what is forever in the act of escaping, the inhabiting of that space where knowledge becomes the obstacle to knowing – that is the pedagogical imperative’.

It is this paradigm-shifting educational strategy that is capable of producing entrepreneurial managers who are consistently capable of ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and of inventing new figurational patterns or order out of the chaotic unpredictability, volatility and dynamism of the current global environment. For this mental agility to become an intrinsic feature of the priorities of management education, we must turn to literature and the arts to provide the sources for this ‘aesthetic logic’ that is primarily concerned with frames of ordering and relationships rather than content knowledge.

Information, Meaning and Aesthetic Logic. The process of reading poetry and other literary texts instantiates the symbiotic relationship between information and noise. Paulson observed that when we read a poem for the first time, there are typically parts which we do not understand and which therefore we can only process as noise rather than information. However, when we read the poem, again, more of it translates into information because we are now able to read at a higher level of comprehension. Thus, what initially constitutes noise is in fact a potentially rich source of information. This is precisely the point emphasized by the information theorist Claude Shannon in his mathematical theory of communication. Shannon implied that disorder could be seen in positive terms as the presence of potential information rather than as simply an absence of order. Literature and the new science of complexity therefore share parallel concerns in seeking to complexify rather than simplify our thinking processes by sensitizing us to the subtle nuances of our social order.

The obsessive desire for simplification and systematization which characterizes our ‘instant-everything’ world manifests itself in the demand for structured, precise, parsimonious and universal explanation from the secrets of entrepreneurship to the secrets of inner peace. So much so that in our ‘haste of wanting to know’ we miss out on the richness of the ‘in-between’ which is the breeding ground for the entrepreneurial imagination, that is, seeking out the creative spaces between established conventional practices where ambiguity and contradiction exists and persists. Contrast for example the three sets of sentences:

"A key characteristic of effective entrepreneurs is the ability to respond swiftly and positively to change."

"Effective managers and professionals in all walks of life are skilled in the art of reading their organizational situations and of forging appropriate actions."

"The best conqueror does not take part in war."

Clearly each of these sentences have varying ‘informational value’ for the reader. However, because of the strong linguistic conventions that structure our sense of meaning, it is more than likely that the last of these sentences, which is taken from the Tao Te Ching, will appear more obscure to most readers. Its informational potential is high because there are a number of levels at which the sentence can be interpreted, each giving its own insights.

Such understanding of the value of aesthetic logic has already been used by enlightened organizations in the cultivation of dynamic entrepreneurial managers. The founder of the giant Japanese conglomerate Matsushita Corporation, the late Konosake Matsushita, masterminded a unique management development program involving 100 bright young Japanese hand-picked by himself to lead Japan into the twenty-first century. The unique feature of this management development program involved spending extensive periods in a retreat high in the mountains where these young men and women spend inordinate amounts of time learning to perfect the art of the tea-pouring ceremony and to observe the movement of carps so as to help them develop a keen sensitivity for the subtle relationships and recursive patterns intimated in these processes. It is precisely this aesthetic sensitivity that underpins the unfolding of the entreprenurial imagination.

Conclusion. Instead of writing about entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial imagination, I have chosen to demonstrate a ‘weak’ style of thinking which eschews the necessity for keeping to conventional academic disciplinary boundaries, and to demonstrate it as a rich and relatively untapped domain of intellectual life which business schools in general have yet to come to terms with. The experience of ambiguity, confusion and chaos are central to the relaxing (or weakening) of our boundaries of thought and the nurturing of the entrepreneurial imagination.


Johnson, B.  A world of difference.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.

Foucault, M. The order of things. London: Tavistock, 1970.

Paulson, W. Literature, compexity, interdisciplinarity. In Hayles, N.K. (E.d.), Chaos and order: Complex dynamics in literature and science. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Shannon, C. A mathematical theory of communication. Bell System Technical Journal, 1948, 379-423, 623-656.