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Published: November 24, 2009
 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57

 
 

Fernando Flores Wants to Make You an Offer

Having moved from political prisoner to cognitive scientist to Chilean senator, this uncompromising philosopher of communication is now educating business leaders for the world of social media.

Spend any time with Fernando Flores and he will assess you. He may make an offer, which you are free to accept or decline. If you accept, he will make a commitment to fulfill his promise. These simple words, or “speech acts,” form the vocabulary of a set of practices that he has deployed across three continents. Their purpose is to help organizations realize improvements in productivity, coordination, and culture — by codifying and making effective the directives and agreements at the core of business conversation.

Call it “commitment-based management,” “conversations for action,” or “ontological design”; Flores has used all three terms, never quite settling on a single name for his special blend of philosophy, neuroscience, and linguistics. His ideas may be rooted in dense texts most people don’t touch outside grad school, but companies as diverse as IBM, ABB, and the Mexican construction materials giant Cemex have found Flores’s insights quite useful in practice.

But wait a minute; espérate. Who is Fernando Flores? Cue the biopic movie trailer and it’s 1970. An engineer, just 27 years old, is tapped by Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist president, to be minister of finance. Cut to September 11, 1973, when Allende’s government is overthrown in a coup: Bombs rain on the presidential palace, and Allende takes his own life as the junta storms the building. Flores is whisked away to a secret island gulag in the Straits of Magellan. He passes three years in confinement, while his wife and five young children scrabble to survive in Santiago.

Dissolve to the Flores family being rescued by Amnesty International and reunited in northern California. Fernando Flores enters the computer science program at Stanford University and coauthors a seminal book on human cognition and artificial intelligence, a book still used in college classes today. He completes a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley; starts a software company, an executive-training school, and a global consulting firm; and then steps away from them all at the peak of their success and returns to Chile in the early 2000s. There he runs successfully for the Senate and becomes a vocal crusader against the country’s divisive politics and entrenched corruption.

Flores, who is now 66, has kept headline writers at Chile’s dailies busy for years, but he is best known around the world for his research into organizational behavior and his prescient insights about social networks. In the early 1980s, when he proposed that communication and commerce should be channeled through informal connections, few people understood what he was talking about. Now the moment for his ideas seems to have arrived, and Flores is returning to Berkeley to capitalize on them. He is starting a new company that aims to incorporate education, networks,  entrepreneurship, and virtual reality.

“What Fernando was talking about then is how Web 2.0 works,” says Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology and visiting professor of engineering systems at MIT. “The ’80s didn’t have Web 1.0, let alone 2.0, but that’s what you expect from Renaissance men and women, and Fernando seems an example of a Renaissance man.”

At the heart of Flores’s work is the realization that most communication between individuals consists not of pure information, but of prompts for action. This concept was first articulated by Cambridge University professor J.L. Austin in a series of lectures published posthumously in 1962 as How to Do Things with Words. Just in the act of saying something, Austin proposed, people can create tangible change, as when the starter at a race shouts “Go!”

 
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Resources

  1. Chalmers Brothers, Language and the Pursuit of Happiness (New Possibilities Press, 2004): An accessible guide to using speech acts in the workplace and elsewhere.
  2. Lawrence M. Fisher, “The Ambassador from the Next Economy,” s+b, Autumn 2006: A Creative Mind profile of Joichi Ito, the Japanese “venture activist” who sees World of Warcraft as a model of organizational design.
  3. Humberto R. Maturana and Francisco J. Varela, The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Shambhala, 1987): Underlying Flores’s work, and that of many others, is an emerging understanding of cognition as evolutionary and behavior as plastic.
  4. John R. Searle, Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (Cambridge University Press, 2008): Scholarly, seminal essays representing 40 years of research and insight.
  5. Robert C. Solomon and Fernando Flores, Building Trust: In Business, Politics, Relationships, and Life (Oxford University Press, 2001): Flores’s most recent book, coauthored with philosopher Robert Solomon, on the role of trust in modern society.
  6. Charles Spinosa, Fernando Flores, and Hubert L. Dreyfus, Disclosing New Worlds: Entrepreneurship, Democratic Action, and the Cultivation of Solidarity (MIT Press, 1997): Guide for cultivating strategies and skills to be a more effective participant in larger systems, like businesses and societies.
  7. Abriendo Juego, Abriendo Mundos, www.fernandoflores.cl/: Fernando Flores’s blog, posted entirely in Spanish.
  8. For more thought leaders, see the s+b website at: www.strategy-business.com/thought_leaders.
 
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