The Business Use of Allegory

by Nico Scopelliti

There are those among us we can label life-long students. These are people who exhibit an ever-present and growing desire to learn and find answers, only to find that knowledge can be likened to the hydra:  for every answer uncovered, three questions spring up in its place.

[Image left:  Nico, Pasquale, & Anthony at DuPont's Longwood Gardens in Chadds Ford, PA]

I like to think of myself as one such person. But as life-long students go, I'm an especially fortunate one. Not every one of us can count on a life-long teacher the way I can. I am blessed by a close, tested, and tempered relationship with my father—a scholar, polymath, and life-long student himself. We've been through a lot, and not only has he always been there for me, he always brings with him the right lesson for me to learn.

Recently my father began teaching me his gently adapted and modernized version of Dante Alighieri's model for understanding and applying "allegory." Here's Merriam-Webster's definition of the term:

noun al·le·go·ry \ˈa-lə-ˌgȯr-ē\:

a story in which the characters and events are symbols that stand for ideas about human life or for a political or historical situation

While some stories—like Dante's "Divine Comedy," Plato's "Cave," and the "I Ching"—are written with the express purpose of depicting life lessons symbolically, others are much less poetic. Some are quite direct and unembellished, but that's not to say great wisdom and power can't be wrung from them if we pretend they are allegorical and meditate on them as though they were.

So, my father shared with me his recent use of Dante's model for the interpretation of allegory. It breaks down like this:

⦁    Literal
⦁    Symbolic
⦁    Moral
⦁    Spiritual

The first level of interpretation is "Literal," which is simply to consider the presentation of the story as fact. In "Inferno," Dante finds himself at the age of 35 pursued by hungry beasts in a dark wood. It's the night before Good Friday, and he is lost. Taken literally, it's not difficult to imagine a man in his thirties lost in the woods and fleeing predators on a given Thursday night. His life is in danger both from the elements and from creatures looking for dinner, and he's unable to find his way to safety. Suddenly, Virgil appears and offers Dante help. Thus, it's a tale of human survival. 

[Image Left: Gustave Dore, Virgil leads Dante out of the dark wood]

The second level of interpretation reveals more depth. The "Symbolic" interpretation considers these elements and facts each as representations of something else. Dante is 35, halfway through life, which represents a turning point and a choice, and the possibility of rebirth into a new life in the second half of one's earthly existence. The dark wood and the beasts that pursue him represent the danger of a life lived making the wrong choices. And that it's the night before Good Friday directly relates to Christ's last supper the day before he is crucified. Thus, it's a religious tale.  

The third level of interpretation seeks to find the "Moral" significance of the story. Dante's present circumstances are an example of our choices catching up with us. If you've taken the wrong path, you will eventually find yourself lost and surrounded by peril. Continue as you have been, and you will surely perish. But even at the darkest and most dangerous of moments, there is still hope. A guide will appear. Thus, it's a tale of good and evil.

The fourth level of interpretation is the "Spiritual." The darkness of the wood and the beasts that pursue Dante are sin. And it is not Dante's person in peril, but his very soul. The Bible teaches that Christ died for the sins of mankind. Surely Dante's soul is at gravest risk the day before that event is to be commemorated. But not all is lost. Virgil appears, and Dante chooses to follow him out of the dark wood. Each of us has reached or will reach a point in life where our next decision will determine the fate of our soul. Thus, it's a tale of salvation.

Among allegories, "The Divine Comedy" is the epic granddaddy. You could delve even deeper than I have in the application of the four-part model. But as I mentioned, the model can also be applied to the less poetic—the more "practical"—and my next challenge is to do just that.

The Allegory of Supply Chain and Logistics

The Four-Part Model of Allegory is a method of philosophical interpretation that stretches back to Dante (of "Inferno" fame) and before. I've yet to encounter a better means of finding deep meaning in what might be otherwise wrongly dismissed as insignificant. Most of what we Practitioners do isn't glamorous, but the impact we make is tremendous, and there is deep meaning in our arts if we look at them from the right perspective. Last week, I used the Four-Part Model to interpret the meaning of the art I'm most familiar with: Recruiting. Let's look at it as applied directly to Supply Chain and Logistics.

⦁    Literal
⦁    Symbolic
⦁    Moral
⦁    Spiritual

Literal: As diverse and varied as the functions and roles of supply chain are, there is a deceptively simple way to boil it all down. To quote We Are the Practitioners founder David Schneider, "Logistics is the fine art of getting stuff from Point A to Point B." That is, ultimately, what we do. We move stuff. We move stuff because not everything we need can be found where we need it. Consider the building you're in. You may be at the office, or you may be at home. Either way, the materials used to build your present shelter were sourced elsewhere and then transported there to be used in construction. And unless you built office furniture from the trees they may have felled to make space for the building, just about everything inside the building was brought there from elsewhere as well. We don't even need to discuss the material, parts, and components used to build the computer or device you're reading this on.

In other words, almost everything we interact with on a daily basis needed to be moved there. We Practitioners are charged with making that happen.

 Symbolic:  Life is motion. Compare a bustling forest with a frozen tundra. The latter isn't lifeless in an absolute sense, but the lack of motion makes it feel that way. The only way to be perfectly still—motionless—is to be dead. If you're alive, your heart pumps and blood flows whether you want it to or not. Life moves, and as it does so, it grows.

Our work as Supply Chain Practitioners is symbolic of life itself. Life must move, and we must move things in order to live.

Moral: As something grows, it tends to get better. That said, the moral judgment of good versus bad can't be strictly applied to growth: that crops grow is good, but that tumors grow is bad. Nevertheless, life has a tendency to correct itself, to improve and evolve.

Compare today's society to that of a mere few decades ago. I don't believe a second Holocaust would be possible in this day and age. That's an improvement, a movement away from evil. Likewise, advances in technology and medicine have yielded significant improvements in living standards throughout the world. We suffer less than we used to, and there is more opportunity for happiness than there used to be. Overall, it's safe to say this growth is good.

Nothing makes the world grow faster than optimized supply chains. The wealth of nations is driven by cumulative, productive knowledge and resources, as I theorize in this article. But how to bring that knowledge together and put it to use? How do we accumulate those resources and leverage the collective power of many to accomplish a single, monumental aim? It all comes down to moving stuff from where it is to where it needs to be. If growth is good, then he who clears the way and brings together the necessary elements of that growth is doing a morally good thing.  

Spiritual: The ongoing development of society itself relies entirely on logistics. No war was ever won without good logistics. War may be man's greatest destructive force, but like the fire that cleans the forest floor and makes way for new life, it is our means of slowly rooting out our own evil.

Over the past two centuries, transportation—both personal and commercial—has opened up the world to us physically. More recently, supply chains have made computers possible, along with the great network of them called the Internet, which puts people and information across the globe within instantaneous reach.

Logistics makes it possible to ship food, medicine, and supplies to regions ravaged by disease, famine, and natural disasters. And even a supply chain dedicated to the production of consumer electronics has inherent goodness in it. Smartphones and tablets, for example, may not seem as noble as polio vaccine, but consider the impact that industry has on the global economy. As the tide rises, so do all ships with it. We Practitioners play a crucial, necessary, and deeply meaningful role in the forward advancement of civilization. It may sound grandiose, but it's unarguable. We may not be the source of life, nor the force that inspires its growth, but we are gardeners and shepherds, protecting that growth from destruction and directing it toward the good.

The Allegory of Your Life's Work

My challenge today is to find a "practical" application for the Four-Part Model of Allegory, one that relates to our everyday lives. Well, I think I've put my finger on something that will resonate with you.  While the majority of people reading this message are Practitioners in the Supply Chain disciplines, I come to our art form by way of recruiting. That is to say that I'm an Executive Recruiter as well as Marketing Director at David K. Schneider & Co.

So my first application of the model is inspired by what I know best:  the people factor in the Supply Chain equation. Let's go there first, and next time, apply it directly to Supply Chain. And while you may not be a recruiter, if you've ever had to hire somebody or have ever been hired by somebody (I guess that's just about everybody), then this applies to you, too!
Here's the model again:

⦁    Literal
⦁    Symbolic
⦁    Moral
⦁    Spiritual

What do we uncover when we apply it to Recruiting?

Literal:  There are two principal dynamics in Recruiting. In one fell swoop we: 1) move professionals to new and better career positions, and 2) find the professional talent that companies must have to succeed in their mission.

Digging in, on the candidate side, we support individuals in the analysis of their careers, we guide them toward new opportunities, and we help them secure positions at companies where they will be fulfilled. A candidate's life is no different from anyone else's—full of chaos. It's extremely difficult for them to succeed in their work, deal with everything else in life, AND also manage their career. They know how to work in their career, not on their career. That's where we recruiters offer incredible value.

On the company side, organizations have urgent needs for talent. A company is defined by its people and its talent base, thus we support organizations not only in their growth but their very existence. It's a highly competitive market, and there's always a war for talent. A hiring manager struggles in the same way a candidate does. They're stuck within the walls of their company, with countless responsibilities and deadlines. Recruiters spend every day in the market, and we help companies win.

Symbolic:  Anyone who's thought about their job and wondered if there isn't anything better out there knows how difficult it is to research and identify opportunities. Even if you do find something, the question is:  should you pursue it, or should you wait in hopes that your current situation improves? Quitting your job and taking another is risky. What if you're jumping from the frying pan into the fire? Alternatively, if you quit without your next job solidly lined up, you lose significant power when negotiating during the offer stage (the perspective of your potential employer is that your current income is $0/year). And what impact will the move have on your résume and your long-term goals for your life?

Hiring managers can find themselves in as risky and anxiety-provoking a position as a job-seeker. You have the responsibility of building a team. What if you hire the wrong person? What if you let the right person get away? There is a tremendous cost involved in hiring, on-boarding, and training a new employee. If that person can't or won't perform at the level the company needs, or doesn't fit into the team or the company culture, or worse, causes strife within the organization, who is going to shoulder the blame? But the positions have to be filled; the talent and the manpower is needed urgently.

[Image: Engraving from Dante's Paradiso, "The Souls of the Just Become More Resplendent" — Gustave Dore, 1868]

The work a recruiter does brings order to chaos. We bring clarity and security to an otherwise opaque and risky process. This is critically important to professionals and companies alike. 

Moral:  There are ethical companies and there are unethical companies. There are "right" jobs and there are "wrong" jobs. There are good people and there are bad people. The morality of Recruiting can be found in these simple, often subjective judgments. No one can argue with the proposition that the best companies with the best careers deserve the best people, and vice versa. So, when we recruiters take a good person from the wrong job at an unethical company and match them to the right job at an ethical company, we've not only succeeded in making a placement, we've done a GOOD thing. We've not just brought order to chaos; we've brought a moral order to it.

Spiritual:  Why are we here? What is the meaning and purpose of life? Every religion has its own take on the answer to that question, but the common denominator among them all is that we are here to make the world a better place.
We are fortunate in that improving the lives of others is the means by which we improve our own lives. To match a good person with an ethical company and to bring moral order to a world full of chaos is indeed a righteous vocation. When you help a good person in their career, you improve not only their life, but the lives of their family and friends and all their connections. Likewise, when you serve an ethical company and find the talent it needs, you affect not only the hiring manager, but an entire organization of people who have committed themselves to the company's success. Everyone there—and everyone who will be hired there in the future—benefits from your work.

There are powerful parallels between Recruiting and Supply Chain, which will be the subject of a future article.

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