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Ontological Design and Commitment-Based Management

Ontological Design is a discourse developed by Fernando Flores in the 1980's and 1990's. In the late 1980's and in the midst of the huge investments in artificial intelligence (AI) research, Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd wrote "Understanding Computers and Cognition". The AI movement at that time was trying to create machines that operated like human beings but was using a 350 year-old interpretation of human beings as thinking, rational creatures who, to understand the world, manipulate representations of the world in their minds. AI wasn't making progress with this. Machines were unable to understand context. It was against this background that Flores and Winograd explored what computers are, what language is, and what the difference is between man and machine.

These discussions had been happening behind the academic walls of philosophy, cognitive science, literature, and computer science for decades. Flores united these conversations into a single practical discourse and applied his learnings to software design and management. My approach to the world, and to designing solutions in organizations has been shaped by this discourse.

Humans As Biological, Historical, and Linguistic Beings

What is it to be human? There are many different interpretations of this and many great thinkers who have dedicated their lives to this question. I don't pretend to give a better answer than them or to thought about and wrestled with this question with the depth that they have, but I am with this question. I believe this question - what is it to be human - is important for who I'm creating myself to be in life, for types of challenges I want to tackle, and for doing the work that I do in organizations.

In my understanding, human beings are biological, historical, and linguistic beings. In the end these three characteristics are the building blocks which shape how we learn, how we make sense of the world, and how we create the worlds we live in.

Biology: We are biological organisms. From the moment we are born to when we die, we are living entities. Taking from the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, what distinguishes us as living entities is that we are autopoietic systems - systems capable of reproducing and maintaining themselves. We repair and regenerate our cells on an ongoing basis, and can even create new versions of ourselves. This capacity for regenerating parts of ourselves and our whole self is true for all living things on the earth, down to single-celled organisms. It is what differentiates us from rocks, stars, factories and other non-living systems.

History: We are historical creatures. We are born at a particular moment, into a particular family and culture with specific historical traditions. We grow up becoming familiarized into a particular world; our values and the possibilities we might imagine are shaped by our historical situatedness. I am a very different person having been born as a woman in 20th century American than if I had been born a woman in Japan in the 1500's. How I interpret myself, my world, and my possibilities are shaped by my history. On top of this, we are physically embodied histories. Our nervous, muscular, digestive and other systems are shaped by our every interaction, whether physical injuries, eating patterns, education, and religious or moral values.

Language: We are linguistic creatures. We distinguish our worlds in language, make sense of them through it, and ascribe meaning to our lives with it. If you've ever spent time around infants, you probably had some fun with them as they point at some object and you tell them what it is. That bright object? "That's yellow." They point to another object. "Blue." This game can go on for a long time. What are we doing here? We aren't describing the world for the child. We are distinguish it, revealing something as separate and different from some whole by means of declaration. The distinctions that we have reveal the world to us in different ways. A trained architect, with their multitude of distinctions in design and structures see a very different world walking through a city than a botanist or a electrical engineer might. Our worlds are created by the language we are.