Herbert Simon and Chunking

David Wiles, Eaps 760


     Herbert Simon can be appreciated as a half century intellectual barometer of the changes in thinking about educational management (since l945). We read him earlier as a writer of municipal reform and decision making acting as a function of actual choice behaviors and scientific specification of the context ('" the conditions under which..."). Fifty years ago, the Herbert Simon attack focused on proverbs used to describe management and generalizations about decision making that were not issue specific. The assumption of the post world war two context was that a systematic process of collecting information on issues and options for choice would lead to the capacity to apply criteria for costs-to-benefits calculation for making optimum or maximizing decisions. Information was assumed to be a scarce resource so the more that could be gathered to portray a context for choosing the better the decider would be.

     By the late l950's Herbert Simon was using words like "satisfice" to argue how bureaucratic complexity constrained the collection and utilization of information in making specific choices. The classic rationalism of the mid l940's logical positivist was tempered by a decade of documenting how large, complex bureaucracies actually behaved. More important, the focus on information used to make choices made Herbert Simon among the first to acknowledge that the issue of making good or rational choices within an organizational context was not information scarcity but information overload and "factored" conditions.

     For the last thirty years Herbert Simon has analyzed organizational operations and routines designed to simplify the complexity of making choices. Using the individual human decider as a model, Simon has discussed the compression and regularity of decision options as "chunking" information. Information is not processed in single strands or discrete entities but as "chunks" of similar or equivalent data. Search behaviors do not wait for the clear and coherent presentation of detail but respond to tendencies and implicit patterning. Choices are made on accommodation and adaptation to the familiar and stress reducing as opposed to an externally imposed standard of optimum. Understanding such information utilization leads to an appreciation of the instrumental rationality of real-life decision making.

     In the l990's the appreciation of chunking information is a developed science of data "use-ability." Herbert Simon remains controversial as he challenges the basic assumptions of cognition; how we think and believe to make choices.

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