Can leaders change organisational culture?: alternatives from a complexity perspective.
Whenever there is an organisational crisis, conventionally we come to explain what is unfolding in terms of failing leadership and/or inadequate organisational culture. This is a way of speaking about culture as a thing a discrete organisation ‘has’. It is assumed that culture exists within organizational boundaries and is a thing identifiable, manipulable and improvable by leaders and senior managers, sometimes even by politicians; it can be commanded, shaped and optimised, often at a distance. There are all manner of diagnostic tools and techniques available in management and organisational literature for analysing a deficient organizational culture which can then be remedied by taking a number of steps towards prereflected ends. There may even be metrics for measuring whether the culture change has successfully taken place in the transition between the current imperfect reality, and the often idealized prediction of what it ‘should’ be. During culture change initiatives there is often a grand appeal to values and the symbolic imagination.
This year’s Complexity and Management Conference will complement last year’s treatment of leadership by enquiring into the theme of organisational culture. We will discuss the extent to which the concept, in migrating from the discipline of anthropology, has been instrumentalised and trivialised. To what degree does the attempt to rationalise social life bring about organisational irrationality: the exact opposite of what is intended? If another way of thinking about culture is as the habitus, to what extent can this be manipulated and improved by anybody?
The keynote speaker in June next year will be Professor Ralph Stacey. Ralph is well known to many regular attendees at the CMC, but for those unfamiliar with his background he has worked in the construction industry, as an investment strategist in the finance industry, as a management consultant, a group therapist in the NHS and for the last 25 years as an academic. He has published many books and papers including Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics: the challenge of complexity to ways of thinking about organisations and The Tools and Techniques of Leadership and Management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. Ralph will explore culture from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating between people who enact and re-enact culture in the present, interpreting the past and in anticipation of the future.
Next year’s conference will be informal and highly participative, as in previous years. More details will follow in the New Year: the conference fee, when we agree it, will include all accommodation and food. It will be held at Roffey Park Institute in the UK: http://www.roffeypark.com .
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. Read the rest of this entry »
At this year’s conference Hugh Willmott, Research Professor of Organization Studies at Cardiff University, gave a key note on the financialized organisation during which he made a strong argument for the rehabilitation of political economy as a focus of research in organization studies. Additionally, he began engaging with complex responsive processes noting similarities and differences with critical management studies (CMS).
In this post and the next I will try to continue this discussion, noting points of overlap and contrast as a way of exploring the difference that makes a difference. One of the difficulties of doing this is that CMS is a broad and diverse church which contains a spectrum of opionion. So the basis of the exploration will be the latest edition of Hugh’s book co-written with Mats Alvesson, Making Sense of Management: a Critical Introduction. This post develops the input I gave at the June conference. Read the rest of this entry »
There are still a few places available for the CMC conference entitled Complexity and ethics: practical judgement in everyday politics where the guest speaker is the distinguished critical management scholar Professor Hugh Willmott.
There will be a variety of fora to have lively discussions about ethics as well as opportunities to explore the similarities and differences between complex responsive processes and critical management studies.
To book please access the payment page here.
In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .
In the first I was told,
‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.
In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,
‘not being used to being managed’
‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
I want to continue with two more postings about the deepening crisis of leadership and ethics, and thought that I would put this up first for those who might not be familiar with the how we are motivated by the complexity sciences in our research on managing, leading and organizational change at the University of Hertfordshire as opposed to others who are directly importing concepts from the complexity sciences into understanding human social interaction. Richard Bernstein makes the point in his recent book The Pragmatic Turn that thinkers like Mead and Dewey were far ahead of their time. We would argue with Bernstein that the time is very much now and further argue that the complexity sciences have made an important contribution to opening the way to rethinking the uniqueness of human communication and local interaction. This is very different from those who seek universal laws of complexity which can be applied, continuing the instrumental rationalism of the currently dominant paradigm. The natural sciences, including many of those appealing to the complexity sciences, face the challenge of rethinking their metaphysics of the laws of nature as an important key to a radical shift in how we think about ethics in the social sciences. The following is taken in part from the preface to Ralph’s Stacey’s recent book Complexity and Organizational Reality, which works out in detail some of the main ideas we will be presenting in these blogs posts.
Most management consultants and people in organizations, including senior executives, the vast majority of textbooks, business school programs and research projects around the world, most professional management and leadership development programs in organizations, 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. Read the rest of this entry »
This post will try to engage with some of the ideas that Ralph has set out as a way of keeping the discussion going and as a further invitation to anyone else to join in. Of course, the thoughts below are only what struck me from his post.
Without actually using the word in this piece, I think Ralph is pointing to the ideological nature of the dominant discourse. By claiming that a lot of management is practised according to taken-for-granted assumptions which are unreflectively taken up there is an implied ideological hold. The dominant managerial discourse becomes pervasive by being taught in a variety of different edcational contexts and is replicated every day by managers who are graduates of business schools as well as by consultants who have been similarly educated. It permeates daily practice.
In trying to understand how the dominant discourse comes to dominate, how it becomes ideological, I have found the philosopher Alasdair McIntyre’s definition of ideology helpful when he says that ‘ideology is the mask worn both by the dominant orders and by order itself.’ So this helps explain something about the taken-for-grantedness of many of the management concepts which are so pervasive. In order to join the management club, to play the game, it is a requirement to demonstrate a fluency with the concepts and language of the contemporary management discourse. More and more management graduates make the game more widespread and pervasive. This leads to a kind of isomorphism: organisations which carry out very different types of work, be it public, private or voluntary sectors, begin to look and sound alike. A facility with the concepts allows for the kind of mutual recognition which enables more and more people playing the game to locate themselves in it, to find a way of participating with each other and to be successful in the game. If one begins to talk about management differently it can appear as though one is not taking the game seriously, or even that one is calling the game into question. There follows the charge of somehow being ‘anti-management’, an accusation that I have heard on more than one occasion levelled at the body of ideas we are calling complex responsive processes of relating. The moment one has a stake in the game it becomes much harder to call the game into question, as participants on the DMan course discover. Read the rest of this entry »
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. Read the rest of this entry »