Complex responsive processes of relating and critical management studies

The following is an abridged version of the talk given at the Complexity and Management Conference on 6th June 2010.

What would it mean for the practice of management education and research if we were to take up the ideas in the body of thought we are calling complex responsive processes of relating? How do the ideas in complex responsive processes of relating compare and contrast with critical management studies, for example?

Drawing on an eminent exponent of critical management studies (CMS) such as Mats Alvesson as an example, we would find that complex responsive processes and CMS share a lot in common. Both are concerned to engage in critical reflection on institutions; both resist the strong pressures of normalisation; both would entertain the idea that all knowledge creation is political, value-laden and interest-based. Alvesson’s ‘4 I’ framework (identity, institutions, interests and ideology) is a very helpful way for organisational researchers to think about the research they are undertaking (how are identities being constructed in this episode of organisational life; how are people engaged in thinking about the institution; whose interests are being served and what does this say about the ideological claims?). Alvesson encourages reflection and reflexivity as a way of producing complex and rounded accounts of organisational life, accounts which are ‘rich in points’.

But there are some clear differences between perspectives as well. For example, Alvesson claims that CMS has emancipatory intent. The critical researcher tries to provoke, to draw on a rich repertoire of methods to call into question the normative understanding of those being researched. One of the researcher’s questions is to ask: ‘what is going on here, and what the hell do they think they are doing?’ While being sensitive to the context in which people are working, and trying not to beat people over the head with critical reflection which leaves them bruised and bewildered, Alvesson does not believe it is up to the researcher to work through the critique which has been offered. Emancipation, then, arises from the production of critical accounts of organisational life as a way of contributing to a wider body of knowledge from the point of view of CMS. The researcher produces knowledge for a community of researchers engaged in the same task.

From the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating, the researcher is not teleologically driven by knowledge, but enquires in order to enquire further. Questioning leads to more questioning. There is no ‘they’ about whom the researcher is perplexed. Rather the question arises as to who ‘we’ are becoming in the process of researching and working together. So as well as drawing on the critical theory from the Frankfurt School, researchers in the tradition of complex responsive processes of relating are also likely to draw on the American pragmatists. What interested the pragmatists, amongst other things, is the unity of being, doing and knowing. They took an interest in thinking in practice about practice. For John Dewey there was no separating the object from the experience of the object, and the task of philosophy was to find ways of describing both which made the object and the experience of the object more ‘luminous’.

For the tradition of complex responsive processes the community of enquirers (a phrase borrowed by the founding pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce) is broader than the academic research community. If there are emancipatory intentions, then these revolve around the ways in which ‘we’ can continue to stay engaged in discussion together. Staying in conversation, with all the conflict, co-operation and compromise that this involves (perhaps what we might term this the three ‘Cs’), and taking into account the otherness of others, involves an identity shift in oneself. We are obliged to adapt to those with whom we try to stay in engaged conversation. This describes a particular quality of reflexivity which is not just concerned to reflect in a detached way about how one might be thinking about others, but pays attention to the shifts in one’s own identity that arise in the necessary interaction with other engaged enquirers. The question of identity arises not just for ‘them’ but for us as we engage in a dialectical back and forth between self and others. This is one of the reasons why the self is regarded as an important instrument of research on the doctor of management programme (DMan) at the University of Hertfordshire , and why methods used on the course are predicated on discussion, reflection, writing, then more discussion and reflection.

Rather than separating out theory and practice, on the doctoral programme we consider the two to be two inseparable phases of the same experience. This is what Ralph Stacey is getting at in his most recent book when he talks about the inseparability of being immersed in experience and abstracting from it at the same time. However, I am arguing that experience, practice,  is prior. In the words of Peirce: ‘we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, vagabond ideas that tramp the public roads without any human habitation. We must begin with men and their conversation.’ We might go further and draw attention to our own conversation and the way we find ourselves talking about what we are doing. This is an intensely social practice where ethics arise in the dialectic of interaction.

So researchers taking up the ideas in the body of thought we are calling complex responsive processes of relating share a lot in common with CMS. We too are concerned about the ways in which the tide of technical ways of understanding threatens to alienate people in organisations from their experience and distorts human communication and interaction. To a degree, we would share with John Dewey the aspiration that it is possible to intensify working practices through intelligent reflection, and thereby remake both our practices and our institutions.

However, I think that researchers from the two different traditions would answer Richard Bernstein’s question, ‘critique in the name of what?’ slightly differently. I understand critical researchers such as Alvesson to be saying that it is important and necessary for researchers to develop a repertoire of ways of provoking the status quo; to disrupt, to question and to critique. To question, then, after Foucault, is to exercise ethical freedom and can result in knowledge, which may beneficial to a wider community of organisational researchers and perhaps to the objects of research.

For researchers taking up complex responsive processes of relating, ethical freedom is discovered in finding new and different ways of talking about the experience of organising or researching together. Knowledge is likely to arise in the discovery of new ways of going on together, but is more of a by-product.

This presents particular problems for finding ways of talking and writing about what we are doing in a world where management literature and teaching is often divided into two supposedly separate camps of practice on the one hand and academic theory on the other. The former is replete with grids, frameworks and ‘how tos’, the latter is often written in a language which is inaccessible to many managers.

The question of how to speak and write about the indivisibility of practice and theory and the implications for management education will be taken up in subsequent posts.

2 thoughts on “Complex responsive processes of relating and critical management studies

  1. Tom Gibbons

    This post struck a cord with me in that earlier this week we ran a web meeting with the topic being The Limitations of Systems Thinking. This topic was somewhat of a divergence from our typical web meetings and as a result we had a number of participants that had never participated in our web meetings before. We do our best to work through the ideology of complex responsive processes so the purpose of the web meeting was to question what we consider to be one of the unquestioned foundations of the OD world – systems thinking.

    We have talked about this in a variety of setting over the years and it is typically a challenge for some people to access what we are putting forth and they move to resistance quickly in a variety of forms. In this particular case a statement came forward that ‘we were bashing a straw dog’; the point being that the problem was not in the concept of systems thinking, but how people used it and thought about it. For me this is an example of the separation of theory and practice, and a problematic separation in this case.

    A critical challenge for us lies in the balance of accessibility to the ideas we have about the way we do our work (again through the ideology of complex responsive processes) and the significant challenge this poses to the dominant way of understanding organizations today.

    My concern is that if we try and make our ideas more accessible we run the risk of diminishing the challenge to the extent that our ideas are simply seen as another version of the dominant view.

    Perhaps we are positioned right between theory and practice and should move more toward practice in our case.

    Would there be any thoughts, experiences or ideas on this?

  2. Chuck Wallace

    My experience is that one must always practice the theory in a close coupled feedback loop. If knowledge is truly emergent, then it must be that the observer must arrive with the observed. As much as we like to study in our minds, it does no good to society without application.

    In the Tao, experience and observer are one.
    So I vote for emersion… total emersion.. For only in relationship can we find ourselves.. for we are meant to be cells of a larger body… and we cannot separate our knowledge from the experience..



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