Complexity and the embodiment of power and identity in organisations
About the conference
The eighth annual Complexity and Management Conference of the University of Hertfordshire’s Business School will take place at Roffey Park starting at 7pm on Friday 3rd June 2011 and ending after lunch on 5th June. This event is a very informal conference where prepared papers and presentations are minimal and serve the purpose of introducing themes for discussion amongst conference participants. In organising this conference we seek to maximise the possibility of discursive conversation. The original purpose of the conference was to provide an opportunity for past, present and possible future participants on our MA/Doctor of Management programme to discuss their experience and ideas with one another, but over the years leaders, managers, consultants and academics who are interested in our work on complexity and emergence in organisations have also attended the event making it very vibrant and diverse.
This year’s theme
Much contemporary organisational literature is highly abstract and is replete with tools and techniques. There is very little acknowledgement that organisations arise from the interactions of thinking, feeling bodies engaged in conflict and co-operation in a particular context at a particular time. Somehow this central aspect of human experience is covered over, or denied. Does this partly arise because of the appeal to scientific method and the idea of management as science, with the assumption of the detached, objective observer? What has contributed to our suspicion of subjective experience and how possible is it to talk of ‘embodiment’ without in turn mystifying what we are talking about, or perhaps instrumentalising the body as a tool of management, in effect reaffirming Cartesian subjectivity rather than challenging it?
In this year’s conference we have decided to address what we consider this neglect of this core aspect of human relating and have invited Dr Ian Burkitt of Bradford University (Social Selves: Theories of Self and the Body, London: Sage, 2008; Bodies of Thought, London: Sage: 1999) to help us initiate our discussions on Saturday morning 4th June. In the afternoon Professor Ralph Stacey will respond to Dr Burkitt’s keynote with some reflections of his own. On Sunday morning Dr Karen Norman and Professor Henry Larsen will talk about a piece of work they have undertaken together using theatre and improvisation with groups of managers.
There will be parallel sessions following the keynotes, where conference participants will be able to explore themes which have struck them as being important in conversation with others. Between now and June we will be uploading posts on this blog to talk to the theme and to provoke discussion in advance of the conference. Anyone wishing to put forward ideas for parallel sessions is welcome to do so.
I was prompted by the comments on my last blog on management tools and techniques to write this blog as a reply. I am struck by how strong the belief in tools and techniques is so that even though agreeing with what I said, there is an immediate move to talking about dynamic tools instead of static ones and claiming that there is scientific evidence for certain propositions about the development of the human mind allowing standard patterns to be mapped and measured. Of course what I wrote is contesting all of this and is certainly denying the assertion of a scientific base allowing us to know as a fact. Another comment asserted everything we do could be described as using a tool or technique. In this blog I will try to explain why I profoundly disagree with that statement. Then there is a comment by Chris Rodgers, most of which I agree with. What I am trying to talk about, however, is not about different prescriptions or ‘shoulds’ but rather with a way of thinking about what people are already doing in organisations.
Some of the responses to previous postings on this blog reflect the widespread insistence on providing managers with a set of tools and techniques that will produce success. I think it is widely believed that there is a received body of knowledge on management concerned with the ‘big picture’ over the ‘long term’ for the ‘whole organisation’. What people usually mean when they talk about the long term, big picture for a whole organisation is a clear view of the purpose of that organisation and the direction in which ‘it’ is intended to ‘move’, ‘going forward into the future’, so that its ‘resources’, ‘capabilities’ and ‘competences’ are ‘optimally’ ‘aligned’ to the sources of competitive advantage in its environment as ‘the way’ to achieve ‘successful’ performance. It is also widely believed that there is a set of ‘tools and techniques’ which can be ‘applied’ to an organisation to yield ‘success’ and that there is ‘evidence’ that these tools and techniques actually do the job required of them. The tools and techniques are persuasive if ‘case studies’ can be presented of major organisations which have achieved success through applying them. When anyone critiques or dismisses accepted its tools and techniques then there is a powerful expectation that the critic will replace them with new ones in the belief that if managers do not have tools and techniques they will simply have to muddle through in ways that are completely unacceptable in a modern world. The expectation is that we need to focus on what decision makers ‘should’ be doing to make decisions in certain kinds of problem situations in order to ‘improve’ their organisation’s performance. This is taken for granted as obvious common sense and if a critic fails to comply then the critique is dismissed as impractical and so useless.
In the previous paragraph I have placed in inverted commas those notions that most people talking about management simply take for granted as if their meanings were all perfectly obvious. However, I find it difficult to see the use of trying to present new prescriptions without exploring just what we mean when we make such taken-for-granted assumptions. Furthermore, I find it difficult to match the continuing demand for tools with the major economic and political events of the past few years. It is hard to understand how anyone who has paid any attention to the events of global credit crunch and recession that we have all experienced since 2007 can continue to believe that there is a clear, reliable body of knowledge on management containing prescriptive tools and techniques for its successful application. Surely the great majority of major international banks and other commercial organisations have not been successfully applying tools and techniques over the past few years for if they were there would not have been such a mess. Furthermore, we must surely question why massive investments by governments in Western Europe and North America in public sector services, now governed on the basis of private sector management tools and techniques, have yielded such disappointing improvements, if indeed they have yielded any significant improvement at all. If a set of tools and techniques for successful management was actually available then governments must have been incredibly ignorant in not applying them so as to produce more acceptable levels of improvement. Continue reading →
The following post is by guest contributor John Tobin. John has served for many years as the CEO of a community hospital in the US. He earned a Doctor of Management at the Business School of the University of Hertforshire in 2003 and remains interested in the ongoing work of the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the challenges of bringing that perspective into everyday management practice in a community hospital setting.
Doug, in your first post, you touched on an issue that I find both fascinating and disconcerting, –the increasingly close ties between public officials and special interests, and the mostly unacknowledged role of public policy in creating the current financial mess, a dysfunctional health care system, and other problems. This interconnectedness is by no means limited to business CEOs and high ranking government officials. Anyone familiar with the political process in Washington knows that the place is actually run by platoons of bright, ambitious twentysomething congressional staffers. The staffers become the focus of lobbyists’ attention because they know specific issues better than the Members themselves. Many of these staffers will go on to careers as lobbyists or elsewhere in government, reinforcing those linkages. In my home state, legislators are closely tied to the public employees’ unions (the Speaker of our House of Representatives was an organizer for the Service Employees’ International Union before being elected Speaker). Organized labor is supposed to balance the power between workers and business owners and the professional managers who represent the owners’ interests. In a government setting, this worthy purpose is corrupted when the workers become the managers, and no one truly represents the owners’ (taxpayers’) interests. Getting government spending under control becomes next to impossible. Continue reading →
Last summer a group of economists at the London School of Economics felt impelled to write to the Queen in response to her question posed the year previously when she was on a visit to the university as to what had caused the banking collapse.
The letter explains that there was a ‘psychology of denial’ affecting all those concerned, and in a touching note of humility drawing attention to the fact that many very intelligent people were caught up in this collective denial, the letter goes on to explain that “it is difficult to recall a greater example of wishful thinking combined with hubris”.
“Everyone seemed to be doing their own job properly on its own merit. And according to standard measures of success, they were often doing it well,” they say. “The failure was to see how collectively this added up to a series of interconnected imbalances over which no single authority had jurisdiction.” (my emphasis added) 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 →