More thoughts on Critical Management Studies

In the last post I began to outline some of the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies (CMS) following Hugh Willmott’s keynote at the CMC conference. I have chosen to engage with Alvesson and Willmott’s book Making Sense of Management, while at the same time as recognising that CMS is a broad church and that this book is a primer in CMS. Nevertheless, in this post I will continue the discussion.

Complex responsive processes shares with CMS a critique of the individualising tendencies of modernity and argues instead for a radically social view of human beings and their activities. However, I think this is different from what Alvesson and Willmott term ‘radical humanism’ as an alternative.  From our perspective we would side with both Mead and Elias in arguing that human beings are social through and through: there is no society without individuals and no individuals without society. Following Mead, mind, self and society all arise in social processes involving other social selves and our increasing abilities to take the attitudes of others to ourselves. This is not to deny any individuality but to emphasise how individuality is only possible in relation to other socialised individuals: i.e. society makes individuality possible.

For me, the idea of radical humanism still retains Kant’s idea of the rational, autonomous individual which is extensively taken up in cognitive psychology, and is manifest in the quotation cited in Alvesson and Willmott’s book from Burrell and Morgan about ideological superstructures driving a ‘cognitive wedge between man and his true consciousness’ (p60). If I understand this correctly then this is a form of essentialism which we would reject and which the authors draw attention to themselves in mentioning the various critiques of CMS, drawing on the post-structuralists . So this is a further critique of what I understand to be an essentialist and quasi-individualist position, but from a pragmatic and process sociological perspective.

Elias’ process sociology also takes a much greater interest in what he referred to as the ‘rising tides of guilt and shame’ which he argued have accompanied the civilising process. In other words, guilt, shame and anxiety are all feelings provoked in our thoroughly social selves because of our interdependence: we fear exclusion and lack of recognition. These feelings operate blindly because of the imperfect socialisation process that we all endure. It is the ‘internalisation’ of the external forms of control that we would have exercised over each other in former times and is experienced as a form of automatically operating self-discipline. This contributes to what he regarded as the rationally irrational dynamic in social life, and which we take up in complex responsive processes as a legitimate area of enquiry in research: many of our students on the doctor of management programme will describe the strong emotions that are provoked in situations they face at work. In drawing on the complexity sciences we would say that strong emotion also contributes to the ‘non-linearity’ of human interaction and again problematises the idea that there could ever be an ideal speech situation.

From a complex responsive processes perspective there is little emphasis in Making Sense of Management on the role of emotion in organisational life, particularly in the way that we understand anxiety, guilt and shame as social emotions, if you like ‘subjective’ experience called out by ‘objective’ social processes. We are not just interested in different discourses and how they play themselves out in the competitive struggle in organisations, but also in what effect this has on engaged, feeling human bodies.

On power

On the subject of Elias it may be the right time to explore the interest in power that we share with CMS. However, I think there is a distinction to be made between the way we would understand power, following Elias, and how Alevesson and Willmott write about it, where power and domination are often yoked together in the same sentence. I think we would agree with the post-structuralists that there is no separating  power and knowledge, but I think we would probably have a slightly different position particularly from the early Foucault. We find Foucault’s take on power particularly helpful for understanding contemporary organisational life, particularly what he terms ‘capillary’ and ‘granular’ power, i.e. it arises between us as we discipline and are disciplined by others. Much contemporary life, let alone organisational life, consists in surveillance, scrutiny and having our bodies disciplined, much as he describes in Discipline and Punish. However, I’m not sure that Foucault can ever shake off his Nietzschean heritage, understanding power as red in tooth and claw, although he states again and again that power both enables and constrains.

For Elias power is an integral element of all human relating: because we are interdependent and we need each other, so we have power over others as they do over us. Our need for recognition, respect, love, companionship places us in fluctuating relationships of power with others, which is another ‘non-linear’ aspect of human relating. We might claim that there is no ideal situation in which asymmetrical power relationships can ever be equalised. Again we would probably find ourselves agnostic about whether human beings could ever free themselves from dominating power relationships.

Like Alvesson and Willmott, we too are in favour of micro-studies, new forms of writing and research and working with managers sympathetically to make sense of their daily trials and tribulations. We agree that we should encourage new forms of practice and writing and this forms the core of what we are encouraging our students to do on the DMan. Students pursue their enquiry iteratively, and in a community of engaged enquirers. They write drafts of their projects, then rewrite them in response to the critique offered by their supervisor and their peers, and in relation to what they find themselves reading in other discourses. Their thesis emerges, then, just as Dewey describes in the pursuit of trying to understand something better over time in a form of practical enquiry, linking theory and practice.

We would agree with what Alvesson and Willmott say in their book that there is nothing about CMS which suggests a particular approach, or a blueprint for doing management ‘properly’. Equally we keep rejecting the idea that arises from people coming to terms with the theory of complex responsive processes of relating that there is a way of ‘applying’ it. We do encourage our students to write about what they are doing at work using narratives in which they figure, but apart from that they can go on to use any method they like to research their organisations. Again, the point of what we are doing is to encourage the Deweyan (and  Hegelian) notion of researching experience from within experience itself. This is different from the usual Kantian research approach that the rational, autonomous individual chooses and epistemological stance vis-a-vis their experience, they choose a qualitative method, and by using this method they then write ‘about’ it. Instead,  we are encouraging students to write as far as possible from within their experience. This is not very far away from what Mats Alvesson refers to as ‘at home ethnography’, although we oblige our students to root their narratives firmly in their own experience and to write from the first person perspective. We share an interest in pluralism, multiple-perspectives, reflection and reflexivity, and reflections in particular on how all of this affects the researchers’ identity and experience of subjectivity.

Where we differ is probably in the notion that micro-studies are a prelude to, or are lesser than, macro- theorising about management and organisational life. For us there is no separation: ‘macro’ theories can only ever be found locally, in ‘micro’ interaction with others, even as we take up highly abstract ideas together. Nor would we see a study of the micro, or in our terms the ‘local’, as being somehow incrementally conducive of more thorough-going wholesale change. In taking up a non-linear view, we would not necessarily concur that change arises step by step since a small change can escalate into a population-wide repatterning, meanwhile a large intervention could result in very little change at all.

We would also  try to overcome the distinction that Alvesson and Willmott make between reconstruction and critique, which I mentioned earlier. If I understand what they are saying correctly, they are suggesting that first comes theoretical engagement, then practical involvement in trying to resolve problems. They suggest that there is an internal critique within CMS that the two concepts are only loosely coupled.  We are trying radically to problematise the notion that thought precedes action: rather we are suggesting that all action is already theorised and that action leads to more theory about action. There is no separation between thinking, acting and speaking: they are simply separate phases of the same activity.

Summary (for now) of similarities and differences

In his most recent book The Pragmatic Turn,  Richard Bernstein  draws attention to the way that German philosophy has appropriated many pragmatic themes: Habermas, Honneth and Joas have each drawn on the pragmatists, particularly Mead and Dewey. Indeed, Habermas calls himself a Kantian pragmatist in Truth and Justification (2003). These themes are to do with social theories of action, the role of communicative interaction, the role of values and processes of idealisation in human life, and questions of selfhood, truth, science and method. We have more common ground than not, it would appear.

So it may be that despite the many similarities of concern and interest, one of the principle distinctions comes down to the degree to which one leans towards Hegel rather than Kant. By drawing on Mead, Elias and Dewey as heavily as we do, we are clearly inclining more towards Hegel and the idea of the social self, method as the movement of thought, and paradox as a way of overcoming the dualisms of subject and object, self and other, thought and action, local and global. It was their insights into the paradoxical nature of complex adaptive systems which display stable instability and predictable unpredictability that first impelled Ralph Stacey and Doug Griffin to make the link between the sciences of complexity and Hegel’s ‘system’ of thought. By drawing on Mead, Dewey, and Elias we have tried together to develop the ideas of dialectic and paradox throughout the body of work describing complex responsive processes of relating as a critique of orthodox management theory. The latter largely rests on assumptions of the rational, autonomous individual manager ‘applying’ systematic theories to organisations understood as ‘systems’.

In sum, the things that I noticed as different in Making Sense of Management from what we are struggling with are the following (this is accepting what we have in common and just focusing on what I think we might disagree about):

  • we are more agnostic than CMS about the possibilities of emancipating others, even given the subtle and critical way that Alvesson and Willmott engage with their own emancipatory intent, although we may be in total agreement that emancipation might be a state devoutly to be wished for, for many of the groups and themes which they describe.
  • We are just as convinced as they are about the centrality of power in human relating, but less convinced that it is always linked to ideas of domination, or that asymmetric power relations are always necessarily distorting, or can be escaped.
  • We are would be tempted to render some of the dualisms that they work with in their book into paradoxes: so reconstruction and critique, micro and macro, thought and action are for us inseparable, mutually constituting poles of the same phenomenon.
  • We would not consider the study of the micro as being lesser than, or a prelude to, more thorough going critiques of figurations of power between groups, but as an equivalent and helpful way of understanding how broader abstractions become functionalised between particular people in particular contexts. (see paradox above)
  • We would not describe our position as radically humanist, but radically social.
  • We also idealise communicative interaction, but from a perspective of enquiring then enquiring further. We would not aspire to consensus in communicative interaction, but to enough consensus which we would expect to be continuously ruptured and punctured through the continuous encounter with otherness.
  • We take greater interest than Alvesson and Willmott in strong emotion as a social phenomenon and its role in organisational life.

The discussion continues…

11 thoughts on “More thoughts on Critical Management Studies

  1. gecko1000

    Fascinating articles. I can see this work informing – and perhaps even structuring – coaching interventions in the workplace. I am wondering how I might adapt and adopt your work Chris, or if others have been there before me in a coaching context.

    1. Ari-Pekka Skarp

      I have been trying to write something about how to use the thinking of complex responsive processes in coaching context. You can find some examples and introductions from my blog:

      Feel free to comment what you think about it.

  2. Chris Rodgers

    Thanks, Chris, for a clear and helpful statement of what you see as the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies (based on Mats Alvesson and Hugh Willmott’s book, “Making Sense of Management”).

    Having listened to Hugh at the CMC, in his keynote talk and in some ‘open space’ conversations, as well as reading the book, I think that the differences tend to outweigh the similarities. In particular, it seems to me that the main ‘project’ of CMS is realization of its “emancipation” agenda. As such, its critique of conventional management practice morphs seamlessly into criticism of what it sees as the currently oppressive nature of all things managerial. That is to say, its primary focus is on questioning the validity of the purpose and goals of organization and management – very much in a ‘left-v-right’ sort of way. If you like, its attention is more on content and desired outcomes than on process.

    In contrast, I see those who adopt a complex responsive process perspective as concerning themselves much more with the ongoing process through which such agendas (whether ‘left’, ‘right’ or agnostic) emerge and are played out in practice. That is to say, “complex responsive process” describes the (complex responsive!) process of everyday interaction through which CMS has come into being, is currently sustained, and is further developing (as in Hugh’s emphasis during the conference on the increasing impact of “financialization” on management practice). And it similarly explains the dynamics of how the emancipation agenda will be realized over time – or not. However, the reverse is not the case. By this I mean that CMS does not seem to provide an explanation as to how any perceived failures arising from the currently dominant management discourse might be challenged in a way other than on the basis of ‘left-v-right’ ideology.

    On a separate point, your penultimate bullet point includes your oft-repeated statement that the purpose of communicative interaction, from a complex responsive process perspective, is inquiring in order to inquire further. It occurs to me that this might sit comfortably as an academic research methodology, and/or reflective and reflexive approach to the development of leadership practice. But I believe that it underplays the potential insights that the theory of complex responsive processes (and similar, social-complexity-based perspectives) might bring to managers’ day-to-day engagement with the broader conversational life of their organizations, through which ‘outcomes’ are continuously emerging.

    Cheers, Chris

  3. Chris Mowles Post author

    You might find some of the publications on the Recent Publications page helpful, Gecko.

  4. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi Chris,
    I think your argument in the second to last paragraph suggests that somehow the perspective of complex responsive processes is above the fray and is ‘merely’ descriptive (echoing a famous Prime Minister who said: ‘not left, not right, but what works’?). Of course Hugh disputes this and points out that there is nothing so ideological as a point of view which claims not to be ideological. We are continuing to discuss and think about this.

    I agree with your last paragraph that ‘outcomes’ are always emerging, as far as anything can be thought of as an outcome, but they are not always ones that we want, or even ones that we recognise. I suppose the caution here is to avoid the claim that taking up this perspective can necessarily ‘improve organisational performance’ – I know you recognise this danger.


  5. Chris Rodgers


    Sorry if my language was a bit loose in the penultimate paragraph of my last comment. I didn’t mean to suggest in any way that the complex responsive process perspective sits in some way ‘outside’ the ideological debate. Perish the thought! On the contrary, I was trying to make the point that the complex responsive process of everyday interaction is the way in which such ideologies emerge and come to be recognized as such. I’m conscious that Hugh challenged Ralph’s statement, in his latest book, that the theory of complex responsive processes is not an ideology but that it provides the means through which other ideologies arise. Ralph conceded at the conference that, as a coherent collection of ideas, the complex responsive process perspective could indeed be described as an ideology. And he was clear that, in their enactment, all complex responsive processes of human interaction are unavoidably ideological. But the point that I was trying to make in my comment (and which I think was at the core of Ralph’s original statement in his book) was that the theory of complex responsive processes is, by definition, concerned with the process of interaction and not the ideological ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of what emerges from that process. In that sense, I see it as a more fundamental perspective on organizational dynamics than that provided by CMS. No doubt Hugh would disagree!

    As regards the final comment in my last response, I share your concern that this approach should not be read as the latest prescription for ensuring organizational success. In my own practice, I always make it clear to clients that, although they can act with intent, they can have no certainty as to what might emerge. I try to make the same point in anything that I write.

    As you say, “ideal[izing] communicative interaction” is not about prescribing particular ways in which people should interact (in contrast, for example, to Habermas’s “four conditions of communicative action” that Alvesson and Willmott cite). It simply recognizes that conversation is the essence of organization. Within this, though, you do privilege a reflective and reflexive approach to people’s participation in such interactions, with the aim of them “enquiring then enquiring further” into the dynamics of organization and their own practice within it. And, since the complex responsive process perspective is essentially describing what’s actually going on in organizations, you are at pains to state that it is not some ‘thing’ that can be ‘applied’ in an instrumental way to management practice. At the same time, I do believe that there is one, widely applicable insight that can be drawn from what are essentially the ungeneralizable specifics of complex responsive/social processes. That is, that conversation matters!

    However, the vast majority of conversations, through which organization is continuously (re)constructed, take place well away from the forums in which a deliberately reflective and reflexive approach might be encouraged and/or facilitated. Many, if not most, take the form of transient, informal and unstructured interactions between ‘ordinary’ people (at all levels), as they seek to make sense of what’s going on and decide how they will act. And many take their sense-making cues from their observations of ‘significant others’, both within the formal hierarchy and beyond it. Particularly significant within these relationships is, typically, that with their line manager.

    This was the central point of my argument in “Informal Coalitions”. And, if conversation matters in general – as the process through which meaning is perpetually co-created and what are deemed to be ‘outcomes’ emerge – it must matter, in particular, to those in formal leadership positions throughout the organization. However, as I also acknowledged in the book, this runs counter to conventional management ‘wisdom’, which privileges action above ‘talk’. Hence my proposition that ‘talk’ was a leader’s primary action ‘tool’ (sorry, Ralph!) and the broad agenda for leadership action that flowed from this. Of course, no-one (not least formal leaders) can control this process. However, if leaders recognize the importance of actively engaging with these everyday conversational dynamics – that is, they become aware that the conversations ARE the work, and not an irritating distraction from what hitherto they have considered to be “proper management” – it might at least mean that they are playing the ‘game’ on the ‘right pitch’.

    Cheers, Chris

  6. Chris Mowles Post author

    I note your observation that people in organisations take their cues from significant others. I found myself wondering the other day about the way in which Nick Buckles, the CEO of G4S, had influenced the kinds of conversations which were possible in his organisation. What was interesting to me was the combination of Buckles’ claim to have created a ‘no excuses management culture’ at G4S and the fact that he didn’t know that his company would be unable to provide the 10,000 security staff that he had committed to provide until early July. It made me wonder if the so-called ‘no excuses culture’ had prevented staff from bringing him the news that he clearly needed to hear before the beginning of July. Maybe if he had followed your advice in Informal Coalitions he would have spent more time engaging in conversation every day in his organisation and would have had a better understanding on what was going on.

  7. Ari-Pekka Skarp

    Interesting post. I’ve been trying to integrate the thinking of complex responsive processes to my work as a coach (and organizational developer) for few years now. I have both been trying to find out “compatible” practices that can be used in this work and also integrating the thinking to these practices. While it is perhaps a little misleading to talk about “practices” I think that there are at least some frameworks that one can use to make sense of what is happening. I’ve wrote some thoughts about that in my blog:

    I find it very important to study the experience within the experience. For me this must be happening both in the moment of the communicative interaction happening and after it. I’ve found particularly the dialogical & narrative frameworks coming from the family therapy tradition to be very helpful in this work. I think it is possible to look at the ongoing dialogue that I’m participating myself and use my knowledge and experience of the dialogical frameworks as “tools” which can affect the course of the dialogue. In practice this means that I have experience on how to engage in the dialogue in a ways that call forth multiple perspectives – polyphony of narratives. It also means that I have experience on what to look for in the dialogue and how to attach myself to it in creative ways.

    However, this doesn’t mean that I would be able to predict or control where this dialogue is leading. It just means that I have a possibility to affect the course of it. My experience also is that often my identity as a coach, as well as my experience of working with the dialogue and narratives, gives me greater possibilities to affect the conversations. In that sense the understanding of complex responsive processes and dialogue can be used as “conversational tools”. It simply means that these tools affect the power relations in the conversation. And by that I just mean the power to enable and constrain some viewpoints in the discussion. All the other participants use power also, which means that the outcome is always unpredictable. Very important thing is also to negotiate an identity that makes others to see you as a “significant other”. If you are external consultant this is quite easy to achieve, if you are internal coach the relationships can be more complex.

    Another important practice I have came to value is writing down / discussing the micro narratives of what is happening and has happened. This can be done in many ways. Therapeutists have used supervision already a long time and other professionalists are using it also more and more. In business world we talk about coaching and mentoring. I think it is practically a same thing. One can also write down his experiences and reflect those by himself or with some other people. All this can lead to new ways of thinking that also changes the ways of working.

  8. johnthornburn

    Chris, I found your post be engaging and helpful in my search for truth. I am somewhat curious about how to build vision while not creating asynchronous power relationships that prevent creativity and healthy dissonance. I found this post because of the Ralph Stacy tag. I was searching for Ralph Stacy because the HSD institute has adapted the model of ‘landscape design’ that tries to balance the emancipatory result of power through an awareness of unintended consequences and the results of agreement and certainty in our approach to careful planning. You can read more on my post here:


  9. Chris Mowles Post author

    Hi John,
    probably you and I are coming at this from different perspectives. I am not sure that I would agree with you that ‘asynchronous power relationships..prevent creativity and healthy dissonance’ firstly because I think power is always unequal and secondly because I think that power both enables and constrains. I am not sure what you mean by ‘healthy’ dissonance, unless you mean disagreement that we think we want, or disagreement that is not too disruptive. From your comment and from you blog it seems as though you think managers/consultants have more control over interactions between people than I do.


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