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Blogs > Office Jotter

Process modelling at the Prado
Roger Whitehead By: Roger Whitehead, Director, Office Futures
Published: 18th October 2011
Copyright Office Futures © 2011

I doubt the value of any management technique that leaves out people. The following piece, which I wrote six years ago, expands on that feeling of mistrust. It was one of my occasional contributions to the online magazine of the now-defunct Business Process Management Group (BPMG). I hope you enjoy it.

Great artists tell us truths

While on holiday in Madrid, my wife and I went to The Prado museum. Among the many wonders and masterworks on display were two I was particularly keen to see. One was Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights; the other was Diego Velázquez’ Las Meninas (“The Ladies in Waiting”).

Bosch’s work is the earlier. He painted it in 1504 or so, probably in his home town of s’Hertogenbosch (“The Duke’s Forest”), in the Netherlands, after which he named himself. His given name was something like Jeroen (Jerome) of Aachen, after the now-German town of his birth.

The picture is a triptych, a hinged set of three wooden panels that can close to conceal its contents. These typically went above the altar in a church or private chapel, so were usually on Christian themes, as this one is. Bosch was a religious man even by the standards of those times and a member of an influential group called the Confraternity of Our Lady.

In effect, the triptych is a detailed and superbly executed visual lecture on what happens if you engage in lustful behaviour. On the left panel is the Garden of Eden, as serene, bountiful and wholesome as any you could wish to see depicted. Adam and Eve are, of course, its only human occupants.

In the large central panel, Bosch shows the earthly realm, with not just two but hundreds of people. All of them are up to no good, sometimes with beasts.

On the right panel, he shows us his vision of the hell that awaits these sinners. Machines appear for the first time, inflicting pain on the fallen in ingeniously horrific ways.

Bosch displays astonishing craftsmanship throughout. He also lets his imagination run amok, producing scenes and creatures of a surreal and hallucinogenic quality centuries before Surrealism and LSD were invented. The effect is astonishing and, metaphorically at least, transfixing.

I spent a long time looking at these panels, usually close-up; Bosch paid plenty of attention to the minutiae. You can get a (muted) idea of the panels’ appearance here.

Unfortunately, the significance of many of the symbols Bosch used and the references he made are lost to us today. It is, so to speak, written in a partly lost code. The work’s early history is now unknown, too, along with many details of Bosch’s life.

We do know that about 90 years after its completion the triptych came into the possession of King Philip II of Spain. He was then also ruler of much of the modern Netherlands. It went into his palace, El Escorial. The work was acquired for The Prado in 1939.

Las Meninas

The second painting, Las Meninas, was painted in 1656 for Philip II’s grandson, Philip IV. Velázquez was his court painter from 1623 until he died in 1660, becoming the king’s friend and confidant.

This was extraordinary at a time when painters were seen as mere artisans (and before bakers thought that meant “special”). Mainly they were required to crank out formulaic paintings on religious themes. Velázquez overturned this convention, too, becoming a revolutionary in the way he depicted people, especially commoners.

Las Meninas is an example of this. A large (roughly 10 feet square) painting of the royal household, it reduces the king and queen to smudged reflections in a distant mirror.

Closest to you is a large, sleepy dog, normally the lowest member of the hierarchy. Then come two dwarfs, commonly found at that court. Centre stage is the young princess, the Infanta Margarita, flanked by a pair of serving maids.

On your left is the painter himself. Dressed to the nines, like a plumber in a dinner jacket, he looks back at you quizzically, appraisingly, challengingly, with brush in hand and head cocked to one side.

Could he be you, or are you instead one of the mirrored monarchs? Is the canvas he is working on this one? And why is he so far away from it? The picture raises many such questions.

I spent an even longer long time in front of this painting. Guidebook in hand, I went backwards and forwards, looking at this detail or that, usually seeing just random-looking blobs and streaks of colour when I did.

During one retreat I found myself at a point, some distance from the canvas, when these matters didn’t matter and the painting disappeared. Instead, specifics were replaced by a sense of being part of the scene, of silently and instantly being absorbed into it.

Commenting on the effect, the poet Théophile Gaultier reportedly wondered aloud, “But where is the painting?” How Velázquez carried out this wonderful trick defies full analysis, and many experts have tried.

As with The Garden of Earthly Delights, I felt privileged to have been allowed to see this painting — one of the pinnacles of Western art. Also, as with the Bosch work, there is no room here to go into a comprehensive description of it. You can see another image of it here, with comments from Sir Kenneth Clark.

Links to management processes

What has all this to do with Business Process Management, you might wonder? Thinking about these two masterpieces afterwards, it came to me how the differences between them symbolise the differences between looking at the mechanistic aspects of business processes and at the human aspects.

I have summarised them here:

The Garden of Earthly Delights Las Meninas
Finely detailed Impressionistic
Needs close inspection to reveal all its information Looking closer tells you little or nothing more
Tries to show you everything as you progress through Gives you the main content in one look
Mostly imaginary Based on reality
Involves the use of machines Entirely human
Conforms to and exaggerates existing orthodoxies Subversive, of social and technical conventions
Normative in intent; sermonising (and negative) in tone Explanatory in intent; humane and embracing in tone
Explicit about causes and effects Conveys subtle messages about relationships and power
The observer is detached (as in Newtonian science) The observer is part of the situation and affects it (as in modern science)
Dependent on a particular, and largely obsoletable, symbology Universally understandable and timeless

Finally, in case you are thinking this is a ‘knock the techies’ diatribe, I ended up by asking myself two questions:

1. Could we manage with just one or other way of looking at organizations’ systems? Answer: No.
2. Would our understanding be poorer without one or the other. Answer: Indubitably.

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