Category Archives: Governance

Posts and discussion on the topic of governance and ethics.

Governance and the myth of the static

Here’s a word every college and high school student should learn: Governance. While it has that authoritative “govern”, it needs to be disarmed and understood as the instable farce it actually represents.

Much of my non-debating time in spent in a professional world known as “governance, risk and compliance.” While I try to limit the radiological exposure to the last term, the first and second comprise a lot of my interest and attention. To debaters who find epistemology and, in particular, meta-epistemology (which I define as the practice of creating meaning-and-interpretation production systems) interesting, this is a remarkably engaging place to work that is most likely not listed on your career survey listings. To give you a sort of aggressive explanation of governance and risk, let’s work with the idea that governance is what we do and what we get when we try to model out a system, based on our best estimates of how a system would seem to work well and keep itself well maintained, and risk is what you get and have to deal with when you ultimately fail at the former exercise. If you’re working for a Sandwich Artistry company, governance would be related to the effort to figure out what procedures and policies make sure you make good sandwiches, don’t give your customers food poisoning, and make sure you don’t over-compensate and cause the company to lose money and go out of business. Risk is the practice of dealing with how you might have gotten it wrong, either in what you did or didn’t realize might happen.

Notice I’ve neglected that third term: compliance. That’s the world of busy bodies with clipboards and checklists who check to make sure a governance approach that becomes promoted into the realm of sovereign interpretation (e.g. becomes a law or some sort of a regulatory requirement) is being practiced based on the interpretation of the clipboard police. While these people are vital to the functioning of systems, they tend to be arbitrarians who don’t understand the very nature of their existence. To them, the law is. It always has been. If you’ve seen the movie Pleasantville, these are the black and white types who are terrified of the ambiguity and complexity of color. They require certainty. The belief in rules assures that bad things will never, ever happen, just as long as all those deviant rule-breakers are punished and kept at bay. Compliance with rules is a very special thing, as it defines their sole purpose for collecting a paycheck. We subsequently find compliance professionals in the socially popular fields of speed enforcement, tax auditors and other folks who live within the mythology that the law is reality. While they might be dreadfully simple people, verging perhaps on the side of embracing totalizing ideas that gladly eradicate difference and exterminate those they can’t quite understand, we need these simple individuals when appropriately deployed to ensure that we architects of process haven’t made boneheaded assumptions that could crash the whole damn system.

Yet this presents a problem for us, especially for those of us who either deal with the creative act of governance construction, or work in the abstract “world of the gap” of systemic risk management. Professionally, we often struggle with our compliance peers as they take that which we constructed to be doxological truth (as if God passed the rules off to Moses and we are left to accept it without question). I’ll be the first to admit that many (most?) architects of process are guilty of inattention and distraction. Once something’s built, it’s no longer interesting. We need Ward Churchill’s “little Eichmanns” of compliance to monitor the heat of the engines we made, given the good chance that the whole damn thing will blow up if we didn’t get a little detail right. Or worse, reality changes on us (as it usually does). But who’s going to tell these nasty, anti-intellectual structuralists that the whole system has changed, let alone manage them? This is ugly business, indeed.

I first faced this “puzzle of the compliance structuralists” in 1999, when I was the head of service development for a mid-sized Latin America and Middle Eastern digital telecom startup. My boss, the chief operating officer of the company, would throw assignments at me that consisted of things like defining and constructing a new billing practice or a new network engineering practice out of thin air. Consulting with him on “strategic direction” (sort of a vision thing that you need to connect with to inform your approach), we’d make policies, procedures, standards, and other things that would construct the particular practice. Words became real.

A year after creating a billing practice, I encountered a problem. We’d hired a bunch of people from a former Regional Bell Operating Company (aka a phone monopoly) known then as US West (which became Qwest and, through the powers of other poststructural architects employed by capitalists in the realm of Hardt and Negri’s Capital, transcended to its current state of CenturyTel) and some of the mid-level managers were running in circles, all confused and unable to do their jobs. It turned out that something in the policy and procedure documents I had written the year prior was causing them serious grief, something unanticipated and quite normal as a company moves through supernormal growth and pushes even the best models you could create at the time. I recall joining the meeting in our large conference room and encountering “Joe” and “Marci” who were both exhausted with stress. They explained to me that they had run into a dreadful problem: they were trying to carry out some activity but it simply was impossible due to the fact that the policy prohibited it. They were absolutely stumped.

I responded “Well, it looks like we have to change the policy.” The reaction I got was akin to Moses saying “Well crap, it looks like that particular commandment sucks. Let’s toss it out and write a new one.” There was an implied sovereign diety implicated in each of the codified policies, according to Joe and Marcy. To change the law, or even question it, was an act of heresy. (Note: For those playing the home version of Radical Realism, the application of the potential to the real, this is a reason we study the problematic German philosopher Carl Schmitt in spite of all of his problems. Schmitt’s Political Theology, for instance, gives a remarkable accounting of how theological things we’d otherwise expect to be rational can be, such as governance and compliance processes).

I won’t go into the theories of why Joe and Marcy believed so faithfully in the “truth” of those policies (that’s an aspect of a lot of the theory I’m subsequently working on now), but I do want to share the realization from that conversation as it unfortunately seems to be consistently found across our various systems, practices and governance approaches. When I had the required humility to confess the failure of my best effort in constructing a particular aspect of the policy (specifically, a “policy control” I had engineered to attempt to keep some specific bad things we were worried about at the time from happening, and subsequently prevented a process from evolving through stresses that temporarily pushed that control space), I discovered I had two colleagues who felt as if they had just seen the Wizard behind the screen. They saw the glimpse of the fiction of governance, being told that this Sovereign Law they believed limited their very existence and practice was nothing more than a fiction that had become real. A mere hyperstition I got wrong.

Given the willing admission and confession that I blew it when my boss and I made that policy control, we quickly moved on and made the company better. But curiously, many controls and governance specifications we encounter in society are guarded by lesser creatures: incompetent policemen who know nothing of the originary fiction of the control’s half-assed narration. They’re the bureaucratic frauds who have assumed the mantel of a practice they know nothing respective to its original purpose, subsequently doxologizing the routine they inherited from their predecessors. Accidental movements become ritual: an incidental, accidental action constructed in response to a singular specific becomes a theological doctrine, imposed with the power of Inquisitional Authority by those who have an utter lack of comprehension of the actual purpose of the initial need.

The conclusion I’d suggest is this: every governance artifact, every rule, law, code, bylaw or expectation, is a consequence of someone else’s past. It might have been useful to them in their negotiation of reality in their time, but there is absolutely no certainty that it matters to yours. In fact, it may kill you, or make you seriously sick. In this world, you can’t coast. You can’t defer your responsibility for questioning the reality you’re confronted with and doing your best to build a model that seems to help you survive it. Failing to think, and assuming you live in a static universe where prior experiences predict the future, only ensures you will have an exceptionally painful and quite possibly fatal experience in a universe indifferent to the general laziness and incompetence of universalizing humans.

Think, engage, model and adapt. And never, ever assume the map handed down to you by a prior generation will get you through life’s minefield.

A Pragmatic Justification for Competitive Academic Debate

© 2010. James R. Saker Jr..
email: noise -at- thirdparasite . com
Distributed under Creative Commons License. Attribution Non-Commercial. Cc-by-nc.

With new debate programs under consideration in the Nebraska community, I wanted to share my support through the illustration of the value of the programs to the education and practice of corporate governance. The usual justifications of debate program proposals often advance the value of debate in expanding the student’s capacity for the development of argumentation theory, persuasive advocacy, analytical reasoning and research skills. While I certainly don’t mean to diminish these invaluable skills and concur with the accuracy of their identification with the competitive activity, I wish to highlight a less frequently identified aspect of debate which is both more relevant to the pragmatic “business orientation” of today’s secondary and post-secondary academic programs.

As a governance, risk and compliance (GRC) professional responsible for enterprise and technology risk management for a global financial processor, I coach, judge and advocate high school debate because of my recognition of the activity’s role in advancing the exposure and familiarity with critical thinking skills. Many on our regional circuit know me as one of the more “critical judges” (which derives from the critical theory label) which tends to perplex those who would expect a corporate type who debated during the 1980s to be of the traditional “policymaker” paradigm.

In my role as architect and leader for our risk management initiatives, I’m challenged with the responsibility of transforming the interpretation, integration and application of “risk thinking” across our global enterprise. Applying the emerging theoretical expertise from critical and post-structural theory, I’ve increasingly valued the pedagogical capacity of debate’s “critical thinking” aspect in the development of future young professionals who will possess the conceptual skills necessary in addressing a whole new set of problems. Globalization, busting economic bubbles, major global demographic shifts, the end of consumer anonymity and the failure of the regulatory model in preventing systemic market risk are all challenges our future professionals will immediately face in their careers. Yet little of our structured academic program engages our students with the awareness of the emerging systems of thought that provide opportunity for an answer to these new challenges.

While the core academic program will continue to produce candidates capable of functioning within the current system, critical debate provides a rare framework which delivers our future architects for advancement of our businesses, institutions and society. With the proposals for college CEDA/NDT debate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and considerations of program additions at Nebraska and Iowa school districts, I wanted to share a sampling of the application of this critical field of thought and illustrate some of the context and relevance our students experience through the practice of competitive debate. The following four issue areas represent a specific aspect of governance, risk and compliance, where a student with critical debate experience would obtain familiarity with concepts prevalent in the debate realm.


Do systems of corporate governance suffer from dynamics that facilitate the permanent erosion of authorized policy and procedure? Do our corporations engage in the autopoietic generation of quasi governance systems to a state where corporate policy is permanently extended and controls eroded? What is the impact to enterprise risk when the policy controls of the institution are systemically excepted?

Debaters familiar with Italian post-structural philosopher Georgio Agamben’s work are introduced to vital concepts that illuminate tendencies in governance systems to expand to the extra-legal state, often through the mechanism of exception. Although originally intended for the evaluation of political States, Agamben’s State of Exception provides exceptional theoretical foundation for this corporate governance analysis and the emergence of the existential threat from the expansion of the condition of exception to authorized corporate policy. Both descriptive and prescriptive, Agamben’s model is useful in assessing and counter-acting the erosion in policy controls within institutions.


Why do efforts to protect the economy and its consumers from systemic risk fail? Is this failure – illustrated by market meltdowns, exposures of systemic breaches in corporate ethics, financial accounting fraud or product safety nightmares – caused by a shortage of regulations and regulators? Or can it be blamed on the deficiencies in audit and accounting methods and procedures? Or is each failure a unique, unforeseeable occurrence society is unable to predict or prevent? Or is there perhaps a structural flaw that is inherent in our systems we don’t yet understand?

Debaters researching the 2010-2011 high school debate resolution will almost certainly encounter Hardt and Negri’s vitally relevant text, Empire, encountering an application of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. While Hardt and Negri evaluate the applied theoretical landscape of hegemony, imperialism and post-modern constructs of statehood, Luhmann’s underpinning model provides exceptional descriptive and predictive capacity for anticipating the failure of a regulator or auditor evaluating an assessed entity. Problems of second-order communication are of particular concern, and should Luhmann’s model be correct, neither more regulation nor additional auditors engaging through current second-order practices will have any meaningful change in the realization of unanticipated systemic risk and impact. Alternative methodologies will need to be developed and employed in order to respond to this phenomenon.


What is the role of the corporation in the safeguarding of consumer information? Should personally identifiable information, including consumer preferences, medical records, credit histories and other attributes that identify the behavior and orientation of a specific consumer, be further utilized for the advancement of product customization and the enhancement of the “consumer experience”? Are there risks in the aggregation of disparate consumer information sources that could incur reputational risk from consumer backlash? And through what framework – legal, ethical, moral, social or other – should the corporation evaluate this capability and commensurate risk?

Continental French philosopher Michel Foucault, who’s examination of the application of biopower in social service systems was predominant in the 2009-2010 high school policy debate season, evaluates at length the concerns of a surveillance system. Foucault, and numerous others who have followed his analysis, provides debaters with an invaluable orientation into the risks of surveillance and the role of authority in social systems. Debaters who become familiar with the works of Foucault and followers will likely possess greater understanding of the inherent perceptual risk associated with systems of surveillance, particularly as applied to the digital marketplace.


How is corporate transformation facilitated? Why do corporate cultures tend to decay to a state of regimented, stagnant, silo-structural dominance? Why do extensive hierarchies and vertical organizations tend to struggle in the globalizing marketplace, particularly when we’ve been led to believe that stronger hierarchies with increased central power are the solutions for problems in our economy as pronounced through a growing central government? If expansive hierarchies are not the solution to corporate and economic transformation, what are alternatives and how are they employed?

Philosopher Gilles Deleuze and sociologist Félix Guattari, predominant in advanced critical debate circles, provide ground-breaking theories on the relationship between hierarchical and decentralized structures. D&G’s analysis of rhizomic (decentralized) vs. arboreal (hierarchical) systems, the behavior of cultural territories, the conceptualization and application of multiplicities, and numerous other concepts are significant in addressing organizational transformation. Other predominant critical debate authors, including Continental philosopher Jacques Derrida, who is notable for his development of deconstruction as an approach for identifying and moving beyond systems of binary conceptualization, and Slovoj Žižek, notable for criticisms of capital particularly in a realm of increased globalization and interdependency, provide ample ground for the discovery of new methodologies for the re-engineering and ethical transformation of institutional process, program and enterprise.


Competitive debate, particularly oriented around the critical analysis of our society, systems, institutions, policies and cultures, provides an unparalleled educational experience for our students in the introduction and advancement of critical thinking skills and concepts.

Acknowledgment: I’d like to recognize a notable University of Nebraska at Omaha leader who inspired me in my practice of high school debate and encouraged me to look deeper in questioning the rules and norms of the institution, recalling deconstructive opportunities inherent in paths left unexplored at earlier forks in the road. To Dr. Otto Bauer, retired UNOmaha vice chancellor, published debate theorist, Air Force Academy debate coach and Northwestern University debater, I thank you the encouragement you gave to the many generations of debaters you reached.

Disclosure of Interests as a Mandatory Practice

Overview: In any assessment, the assessor/analyst/judge must openly identify the State of Relationship they possess to all assessed entities prior to carrying out the assessment activity. For debate, this places a burden upon the judge to expose this current state to both teams prior to the initiation of the round. For risk assessments, this mandates the disclosure in written and oral reports on the state of risk in an assessed entity.

My son Jay and I had a valuable experience tonight at our church council meeting. He’s had the valuable opportunity to serve as a representative even though he’s still a young man still in high school, something I believe is tremendously valuable in bringing forth perspective and discourse from a realm that is usually not appropriately represented. In the council meeting, we were discussing a financial decision regarding moving church investments from one bank to another. As the sole council member who possesses a financial education and professional background in risk management, the council looked to me to provide the majority of the technical guidance and recommendation.

Early in the council discussion, I disclosed my relationships to the entities assessed, explaining briefly my prior experience, engagement and bias with the financial institutions we were evaluating in this decision. The debaters that I judge on the Nebraska-Iowa circuit know that there isn’t a round where I won’t openly disclose my relationships to each of the teams I’m judging before the round occurs. While they may perceive it as a socializing moment, with me relating to where I last judged each team, the quality of the round, any trend in ballots (e.g. if you’ve been winning or losing consistently with me), or if I haven’t judged you yet, there is a deeper process occurring. This is my opportunity for both of us to bring forward my State of Relationship to those which I will be assessing, disclosing the current nature of that relationship to all in the round, and making all aware of that status. In other words, I’m dragging all of my latent perceptual bias, baggage and noise-inducing distortion before all of us so that I can, as the assessor of the round, correct for that error to the best of my ability and render the most effective decision possible given the limitations we face. I believe this is a practice that merits greater attention in both debate and in our professional engagements.

Exposes the Quality of Bias
In both cases, this gives the other parties greater information on how to assess the information I will present (mind you: a commitment to ethical practice is presumed here; this post doesn’t intend to get into the issues of malpractice due to unethical conduct). In this respect, this practice is far from unusual. You’ll hear people disclose their “potential conflicts of interest” in the professional world on a regular basis. Indeed, my attorney friends will often defer on making a commitment to provide representation until the firm has been able to verify that no conflicts exist which would preclude their capacity to give appropriate consultation. But there is much more to this process of screening, both from the screener’s and the screened’s perspective. Indeed, Heidegger contributes much thought here in “The Essence of Truth” (which is clearly beyond this blogpost but merits appropriate attribution).

Application to Debate
Recalling the awareness of the State of Relationship brings forward the emotional baggage that is latent within each of us, in the policy debate circuit, there are the teams that I always love judging and enjoy as individuals (specific Millard West, Fremont, Norfolk, Millard South and Indianola teams very much come to mind) as well as the teams that have struggled with me. As a debate judge and “expert” in the round (in that I sign the ballot, render the decision), it’s critical that I bring these biases forward, for contrary to what a debater might expect, it’s equally possible that my relationship to you will set a higher standard. I may be compelled to give “the new team” my ballot should your performance be 50% of the last round, should I not draw out this condition and force myself to evaluate simply the round before me. At NDI’s final round, I found myself emotionally angry at every debater immediately following their rebuttal speech, knowing deep down that Ashley, Kirstin, Shane and Tyler were all much more capable than the performance I was observing (noise, that terrible parasite, was showing up in that final round through the exhaustion of the debaters). But that noise registers on the judge. (It’s for this reason that I believe the tabula rasa paradigm is pure myth; noise disrupts the round in so many forms, and the delusion of blank slates is as absurd as are the presence of Plato’s Forms).

Application to Risk Management
In the professional world, this disclosure of the State of Relationship is even more foundational. As a risk manager, I’m asked to provide our executive management guidance on whether they should lose sleep over an issue, business unit, platform, etc. As an example, my employer has several “problem child” business units that have repeatedly experienced difficulty. Having visited each of the individually, learned of the people involved and the dynamic of that organization, the capacity for noise to distort my message is high. Once again, this disclosure of the State of Relationship becomes fundamental, not only in allowing the executives to filter for that error in my report, but for my own filtering in the analysis and assessment of that entity.

Paulo Freire on the Perception of Institutional Risk

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, philosopher and educator Paulo Freire provided an interesting insight into potential mechanisms that facilitate irrational risk taking:

A different type of false perception occurs when a change in objective reality would threaten the individual or class interests of the perceiver. In the first instance, there is no critical intervention in reality because that reality is ficticious; there is none in the second instance because intervention would contradict the class interests of the perceiver. In the latter case the tendency of the perceiver is to behave “neurotically.” The fact exists; but both the fact and what may result from it may be prejudicial to the person. Thus it becomes necessary, not precisely to deny the fact, but to “see it differently.” This rationalization as a defense mechanism coincides in the end with subjectivism. A fact which is not denied but whose truths are rationalized loses its objective base. It ceases to be concrete and becomes a myth created in defense of the class of the perceiver.
(Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 52)
Paulo Freire

As Freire proposes, individual threats or class interests create a condition where the objective facts become intentionally distorted and a myth of reality is created. This dynamic continues to be a factor in organizational risk, particularly when there is an agency theory conflict present within that of a organizational decision maker. For instance, consider the dilemma of a senior business executive faced with the following risk management decision:

The Executive Decision: Certain Personal or Uncertain Institutional Outcome?
As the head of a business unit that has established very aggressive revenue growth, the Executive is pleased that a new technology to which a brand new industry product offering is finally available. Like most new technologies, many of the early bugs aren’t yet worked out and indeed, some of the analysts have warned that some of the bugs could result in operational failure, technical error, or outright exploitation that would put lives, customer financial assets and reputations in jeopardy. However, to the Executive, these are possible risks, and none of the analysts have given him a firm and likely probability of them happening. Lacking a guaranteed number that declares these risks almost certain to happen, the Executive unconsciously embraces prospect theory and rationalizes the likelihood down to “nearly impossible.”

Corresponding to the risk assessment of the Executive is his own personal evaluation of risk. As a business unit head, hardly an hour goes by where he is not reminded of the aggressive revenue goals, launch commitments to business partners and ever increasing expenses being realized from the carefully-timed product launch. Indeed, there is no doubt that any significant delay in the product’s launch would have a certain personal risk to the Executive: termination, possibly unrepairable reputational damage, career track derailment and banishment to industry’s minor leagues. Immediately following such professional harm would be financial and personal impact, with the payment of mortgages, vacation houses and children’s college educations likely to be placed in jeopardy. Indeed, the prognosis for divorce risk from any delay in product launch is significant.

So should the vague and uncertain warnings of analysts (who are not part of the Executive’s circle of influence, are perceived to have no skin in the game, and certainly don’t share his awareness of pressures) to subordinate the almost certain and terminal personal risk faced? Given all that has been put on the line by the Executive, an analyst had better be absolutely certain, compelling and convincing of these risks before the Executive would give them meaningful consideration.

Instead, the Executive pursues the path of rationalization and myth making:

“Certainly our people are smart and they’ll figure out fixes to this stuff before it’s too late.”

“We can’t afford to fail – they know they’re going down before I am so they’d better invent a fix.”

“What are the chances this really will happen? If it was going to happen, it would have happened by now!”

“This criticism is but a small minority. My brightest product executives, our vendors, and the people in my circle assure me this isn’t a significant concern.”

“We haven’t had it occur before to any big degree – we’re still here in spite of previous mistakes, so they’re probably just alarmists. We always recover well if our backs are up against the wall.”

“If anything happens, it’ll probably occur after I’m long gone and cashed out. It’ll be someone else’s neck, not mine.”

Indeed, given the high degree of noise to the signal of risk forecasting, especially in the areas of technology and operations, the analyst is fortunate to derive any meaningful message from the signal. Precise and certain promises of risk are all but impossible and the risk analyst is left with a weak argument that rarely offsets the certain personal risk of the executive.

Prescriptive Advice?
Freire’s thought (as well as mine referenced here) provide mostly descriptive utility in letting us know we have a problem. It appears increasingly evident, however, that efforts to affect change in the perception of the Executive are most fundamental should we wish to correct this rather widespread but increasingly detrimental institutional flaw. In addition to instilling the practice of risk management within all areas of decision making (e.g. the guidance provided in ISO/IEC 31000), and tying executive compensation to risk-adjusted performance, governance programs must expand on the capacity to educate, assess and evaluate methodologies and techniques for expanding the accuracy in perceptual capacity within the decision maker ranks. Last but not least is the need to shift truth-seeking exercises from ineffective “truth as the correctness of statements” audit and compliance program, to a risk-centric “truth as the unhiddenness of entities” methodology (Heidegger, The Essence of Truth, 1931) in creating a greater linkage between subjective conceptual maps and the objective institutional terrain.

More on the latter topic in an upcoming post.

Daodejing on Summit Seeking Executive Behavior

Reflecting on my original blog entry on the nature of summit seeking executive behavior in inviting existential black swan risks into the organization, I found this morning’s Daodejing reading to be particularly illustrative:

It is better to desist
Than to try to hold it upright and fill it to the brim.
Pounded out to a point
Its sharpness cannot be long maintained.

When treasure fills the hall,
No one is able to keep it safe.
Those who are arrogant because of station and wealth
Bring calamity upon themselves.

To retire when the deed is done
Is the way (dao) that tian works.

Accept normal returns, control and provide for appropriate risk sought within the pursuit, and do not over-specialize. Prudent advice indeed for a time with a derivatives market with trillions in nominal value synthetic, highly leveraged financial instruments at risk.

Public Forum & Judging Paradigms

The world of public forum (PF) debate survived my judging this weekend at the Lincoln Northstar tournament thanks to a non-squirrel ballot in a well executed, highly competitive semifinals round. However, the experience only raised further question about the impact judging plays in debate. While I’ve judged more than 60 policy rounds and 16 Lincoln-Douglas rounds this year, this was my first PF one. As my earlier posts on the influence of judging on the quality of debate have examined, it’s been my conjecture that the debate community could embrace a more effective model of judge paradigm disclosure in order to further the values of education, enjoyment and real-world adaptation. Indeed, I’ve argued that the role of judge adaptation is enhanced through the development of more proficient judge classification models, more consistent pre-round paradigm disclosure, and post-round ballot disclosure with the explanation of the reason for decision through that paradigm lens.

I’ve contended that policy debate, in particular, suffers from the failure of the “pre-round judging paradigm exchange” and causes poor adaptation. The result is a mismatched round, where one or more teams may argue down the wrong path. The result is a surprising ballot which leaves teams feeling robbed and the debate experience diminished. For instance, several exceptional central Iowa teams were surprised by this judge’s particular view that solvency is still an affirmative burden, even when the round has gone critical on both the affirmative and negative. The result of this mismatch is a minimized learning experience, especially when post-round disclosure and criticism through the paradigm is not provided. Debaters fail to adapt, frustration increases and eventually alternative uses of weekend time are contemplated.

Adaptation’s Role in the Real World

I’ve suggested that there is a highly relevant real-world application of this judging paradigm issue that, through its application and development in debate, has a powerful educational capacity in the preparation of high school students for professional life. A year and a half ago, I struggled through “judge adaptation” with my then new boss, the Chief Information Security Officer of First Data – United States. A remarkably gifted and exceptionally insightful man, I initially found myself confounded in one-on-ones and meetings with my new boss as my presentations tended to only increase his confusion and raise further questions than answer them. After some significant agony, I remembered the role of judge adaptation and worked diligently to examine how my style of presentation was not corresponding to his paradigm. However, I’m confident that had I not figured that adaptation out, my capacity to be successful in my position would have been significantly impaired. (Many thanks to my friend Jarra Keskessa for his excellent advice that helped me in that particular adaptation exercise!)

So with this weekend’s PF judging experience, I’ve returned to revisit the paradigm question. As a debate format that embraces greater emphasis on presentation, understandable speaking speeds and laymen judges, PF seems like a great format that includes a larger population of students into the debate world. However, as a coach who has seen ballots written by soccer moms that advise my students that “You did a better job arguing but I just believe that alternative fuels are necessary for cars and just can’t vote for someone who argues otherwise” throws me into fits. Countless academic papers over 70 years about the harms of judge intervention in debate are thrown into the barrel for incineration.

Questions of the PF Judge Paradigm

With the preface that I’m certainly inexperienced at the PF world and know that it is coached and practiced with great results by some of my coaching friends and their teams, I would suggest that the format could benefit from further consideration of paradigm issues that, while not unique and exclusive to this format, appear to be significantly more prevalent to it:

1. No communication of judging paradigms before the round: This appears to be an explicit aspect of the PF culture, though it finds periodic placement in LD and policy. The team is left with no capacity to adapt to a judge, except for prior judging experience. A risk manager would suggest that this creates a distorted market where “winners win and losers lose” – indeed, I can vouch for this factor in the policy circuit and would suggest it is even more profound in PF. Also, cross-apply my real-world “boss adaptation” comments from above. We pre-disclose judging standards before risk assessments, university accreditation reviews and even set these expectations before a Wal-Mart auto technician conducts their “15-point checkup” on the car, yet leave this aspect mysteriously absent in many debates. The debate becomes an analog to an essay test graded on criteria not provided prior to the exam.

2. Lack of classical qualitative deconstruction in the judges examination of the round: How does the judge make his/her decision? As a policymaker, I closely integrate flow-based argumentation with the standards and theories of policy debate. However, I find many PF judges making minimal notes (or worse, purely aesthetic judgment inclusive of personal biases), and gravitating toward messages that resonate with their personal experience. Indeed, the round is decided on “which team made ME believe in their story,” a model which may have a value, but is arguably interventionist through the inclusion of self and allegedly harmful (Berube 1994, Day 1966) unless structures are provided to allow the debaters to know what ME they need to appeal to in the round. Granted, some degree of intervention must occur in the round, but Day and Berube have provided compelling justification to keep that to the greatest minimum, and in doing so, openly disclose that scope of intended intervention through the paradigm. This is a practice consistently found in the world of governance, risk and compliance, where the views of the expert assessor may have a detrimental impact if not carefully identified and disclosed.

3. Failure to disclose the judges decision in the round: On an emotional level, non-disclosure strikes me as a cowardly way to make a decision. It takes courage and conviction in your paradigm to disclose to two exceptional, closely matched teams after a heated semi-finals or finals round. “Real judges” put their paradigm to the test, and through this disclosure process, actually become part of the learning experience themselves. Yesterday’s comments after an outstanding varsity LD semifinals by the ever-sharp judge Adelle Burk caused me further examine my LD model (in particular, how I examine non-status quo negative alternatives), even though we both voted for the same debater. Without this disclosure, debaters are left guessing at how to reach the judge. Combined with the lack of pre-round paradigm disclosure, they’re left playing a game of process-elimination: keep trying things until you finally pick up a ballot, and then see if you can repeat the experience. Furthermore, disclosure itself facilitates discovery. In the business unit risk assessments I conduct for First Data, risk findings are communicated openly and honestly with the assessed business before presentation to executive management. This not only invites consensus, but expands the representation of reality beyond the assessor’s mind. This is a critical test in the discovery process and deserves a fundamental role in high school debate.

4. Absence of greater judging guidance: PF embraces the laymen judge, and in doing so, makes a tremendous assumption that a layman judge is more qualified to discover and discern quality in the round. This may be an appropriate assumption backed by educational research, but it should be disclosed as it is fundamental to the determination of winners and losers.

I’m determined to explore the PF world with greater intensity this next year as we will be expanding its role in our school’s debate program. In the mean time, these are several issues I’ll be wrestling with as I try to evaluate the role of judging paradigm.