non-linear sciences

Complexity and Management Conference, 6-8th June 2014

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Only one week to go before the close of the early bird rate for this year’s Complexity and Management Conference on organisational culture.

Book here.

Key note speaker: Prof Ralph Stacey

Good conversation, good food, great venue.

Complexity and Management Conference June 2014

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This is just a reminder about the Complexity and Management Conference (June 6-8th, Roffey Park, UK) with the title:

Can leaders change organisational culture?

alternatives from a complexity perspective.

Prof Ralph Stacey is the key note speaker.

We will be setting up a payment page on the university website in early February. As usual there will be discounts for early bird bookers. Fees for the conference will include all meals and board, and the conference is residential.

Complexity and Management Conference: June 6th-8th, 2014

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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: .

Working with the paradox of theory and practice

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In this post I will discuss some of the similarities and differences between scientific method in the natural and social sciences and question what it might mean to be scientific about the social. I will focus particularly on the nexus of theory and practice. This is important in the field of management where theories proliferate but where much less work is done to understand how these theories play out and evolve in organisational life, no matter what the strength of the prior claim that they have been empirically tested.

I doubt that anyone would want to make the case that what we are lacking in management is enough theories. Just to take the domain of leadership as an example, we are assailed with contradictory and competing theories, such as trait theories, behavioural theories, theories of transformational leadership, servant leadership, distributed leadership, and more latterly agile and sustainable leadership. An enormous amount of work goes into elaborating theories which are supposed to be ‘applied’ to organisations, accepting implicitly the dualism between theory, assumed to be the most important work, and practice, a lesser activity which has to be brought into line with theory. This distinction reaches back to the dispute between Plato and Aristotle, who disagreed as to the relative importance of each, with Aristotle arguing that in the field of human action, theories are necessary but insufficient:

[phronesis]is not concerned with universals only; it must also take cognizance of particulars, because it is concerned with conduct, and conduct has its sphere in particular circumstances. That is why some people who do not possess theoretical knowledge are more effective in action (especially if they are experienced) than others who do possess it.[1]

For Aristotle phronesis, or practical judgement, will always involve the interplay of the particular and the general, a broad idea about what one is engaged in tempered by the particular circumstances of the forum in which one is acting.

In the Academy, however, the majority side with Plato about the importance of universals, and much greater esteem is accorded to theorising about management. Doctoral researchers in organisational studies who embark on traditional PhDs are expected to make a contribution to knowledge, which can be narrowly understood as the development and testing of a new theory. This is considered to be a close parallel to the methods used in the natural sciences – anything else would be ‘unscientific’. However, scientific method and insights are not monolithic and there are specific differences between the natural and social worlds. In the next section I will rehearse how the analogies from the complexity sciences, which have informed the perspective of complex responsive processes, come to problematize the idea of theory-generation about the social. Read the rest of this entry »

More thoughts on Critical Management Studies

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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 »

Further thoughts on the similarities and differences between CMS and complex responsive processes

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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 »

Complexity and management conference 8-10 June 2012

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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.

On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

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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 .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

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’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

Read the rest of this entry »

Continuing the discussion on complexity – guest contribution by John Tobin

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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 »

The importance of the complexity sciences for management and leadership

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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 »