The comments on Chris’ last post refer to a dominant view of organisations and an alternative view presented by the notion of organisations as complex responsive processes. Questions arise as to whether one replaces the other or whether one can have both. In thinking about this we need to consider what the differences are. Mainstream thinking about organisations assumes that they either are or could most usefully be thought of as if they were systems.
I think there are a number of reasons for claiming that it is not helpful to think of organisations as systems – the claim is not that all forms of systems thinking everywhere are useless, as developed below but that it is not helpful to think of an organisation as organisation in terms of a system. The reasons are:
1 To think in terms of system is to think in terms of formative causality which cannot encompass novelty or creativity – a system unfolds the pattern already enfolded in its design, unless it is a system consists of diverse agents which give it the capacity to evolve. Most writing on organisations does not consider the last named and the practical difficulty is that the evolving system model of an evolving reality takes on a life of its own which will rapidly diverge from the evolving reality.
2 A system is a whole separated by a boundary from an environment and consisting of parts interacting to form the whole and themselves. A part is a part only in so far as it is necessary for constituting the whole. This means that if you think of a human being as a part of a system you are excluding from your theory of human agency all that is truly human such as the capacity for some degree of choice and spontaneity.
3 The conceptual act of separating a system from an environment or a context is an act of creating an inside of the system and an outside of the system. This immediately implies an observer. Indeed this is a central concept in all the serious systems thinking I have ever come across. The position of the observer as being outside the system was really recognised by Bateson as problematic and second order system thinking attempted to widen the boundary to incorporate the observer. However, as Bateson recognised, this led to infinite regress. Systems thinkers who recognise the problem of infinite regress use the ‘in practice it does not matter’ rhetoric to dismiss the point.
4 There is a strong tendency to reify a system and talk about ‘it’ having a direction, plans and so on. This is an abstraction from the ongoing experience of interacting people who are the organisation. It is striking how absent ordinary human beings are from discussions of the organisation as a system. Continue reading →
The vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, most management consultants and people in organization, including senior executives, all talk about how organizations should be governed, all making the same taken-for-granted assumptions. There is a dominant discourse in which it is assumed, without much questioning, that small groups of powerful executives are able to choose the ‘direction’ that their organization will move in, realize a ‘vision’ for it, create the conditions in which its members will be innovative and entrepreneurial, and select the ‘structures’ and ‘conditions’ which will enable them to be in control and so ensure success. The problem is that to be at all effective these activities rely to a significant extent upon the ability of powerful executives to know enough about what has been, is now and will be happening around them. Executives are supposed to know what is going on because they are supposed to be avoiding emotion and personal politicking so that they can make roughly rational decisions on the basis of the ‘facts’. If they cannot do this then, on the basis of dominant thinking, they must simply be pursuing only their own interests and gambling with society’s resources.
However, recent and current economic developments are making it clear that executives of large corporations and their management consultants, as well as politicians and their advisors, are far from sure of what has been happening and they simply do not know what is now happening, let alone what will happen in the future as a consequence of the actions they are taking. The contrast between the dominant thinking and our experience is striking. While people and their ongoing messy daily political interaction are absent in the dominant discourse, or feature simply as obstacles, they are the central aspect of our experience. In the dominant discourse uncertainty plays a very minor role and leaders know what is going on; in our experience, neither leaders nor anyone else really knows what is going on and few pay much attention to what they could know about, namely, what they are actually doing to live in uncertainty. In thinking in the dominant way, we are covering over the complexity and uncertainty we actually experience in our ordinary, everyday lives in organizations and we are positing capacities of foresight in leaders which they do not actually possess. Continue reading →