The New York Times ran an article on the difficulty of describing the strange ideas emerging from physics. In “Tongue-tied by Physics: The Ineffable Lightness of Being” (12 October 2003), George Johnson recounts an exchange between two eminent physicists in the 1920s as they hiked the mountains above Göttingen:

”How can we ever hope to understand atoms?” [Werner] Heisenberg lamented. ”I think we may yet be able to do so,” [Niels] Bohr replied. ”But in the process we may have to learn what the word ‘understanding’ really means.”

Johnson (2003) asserts that science’s vision is constantly expanding but language remains “frozen in place.” He contends that while new words are continually added, what is needed are the equivalent of “new grammars and syntaxes.” “New ways to think,” Johnson posits.

I remember this article because I spent six years reading, conceptually thinking about, empirically researching and writing about the concept of value. My doctoral thesis asserted that value is a language. Inadequately learning / understanding the language encourages partial definitions of value, leads to miscommunication and misunderstanding between stakeholders, and results in “value gaps” within and across company value chains.

Is it erroneous to compare language’s limitations in physics versus management? I think not. Both schools of science are characterized by terminology and expressions understood and increasingly interpreted by a select professional cadre of specialists with advanced education and training (in the physical or social sciences). Both embrace multiple diverse academic disciplines in an attempt to integrate and synthesize their respective theories into a system-wide viewpoint (of the cosmos or the value chain). Both contend with theoretical conundrums as academic disciplines intersect and/or converge.

For example, Johnson (2003) asks: “How could something like an electron simultaneously occupy several different states — assuming multiple positions or momentums or energy levels — and still be sensibly considered a thing? How could it be both a particle and a wave?” I similarly asked how value can be both subjective and objective. How can value be both an emotional perception and a quantifiable entity? What happens when value is also viewed as a transitive process of deciding between alternatives? How do the individual, the group, the company, and the value chain (interlinked companies) “reconcile” these alternative definitions to optimize value?

I asserted that value is a language (consisting of “value” defined as an adjective, a noun, and a verb). I also advanced the Integrated Value Process (IVP) framework showing how these three usages interact and how “value gaps” result whenever a partial definition is used.   Niels Bohr stated, ”We must be clear that, when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry.” Perhaps it is high time for management science to use properly the language of value so that business executives likewise learn to speak poetically and their organizations operate more effectively.

See also my other articles:

(Digital) (Knowledge) (Management): “Mind your words!” (2 March 2019)

“Value-added Knowledge Management: Whose value anyway?” (1 March 2019)


About the Author

Andrew Swan, PhD is a multidisciplinary and cross-functional integrator of strategy, processes, and information technology. His focus and expertise center on helping executives increase value creation and optimize value flows in business. Dr. Swan holds four degrees in Management, Accounting & Finance, Information & Knowledge Strategy, and Computer Science from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business,  the University of Bath School of Management, and Columbia University.

He frequently publishes articles on value chains, value streams / flows, and Integrative Value Management on his website Dr. Swan created the Integrated Value Process (IVP) Framework to help companies optimize the flow of goods & services, funds, and information across their respective value chains for multiple stakeholders. He can be reached at or at +1.773.633.7186.  He lives in Chicago.


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