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

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.

1                     From the perspective of complex responsive processes we would agree with the idea that managerialism is a particular ideology, which has evolved historically and privileges particular groups. In Elias’ terms, the development of managerialism both arises from and supports the particular power figuration in which we currently find ourselves in the early 21st C. It is the latest twist in a century-long quest for recognition of management as an intellectual discipline. Understanding managerialism in these terms is not the same as being ‘anti-management’ despite the fact that when we talk to groups of managers this can sometimes be their accusation. Calling into question the usefulness of the ubiquitous tools and techniques of management is not the same as saying that people do not need to be managed, and pointing out that strategic plans are highly likely to be of limited value is not the same as encouraging people not to plan.

In agreeing that managerialism is ideological, I think we would only be using the term in the weak and descriptive sense, after Geuss (1981), rather than implying anything pejorative by it. And in taking up the term descriptively, this also makes the theory of complex responsive processes an ideology in the sense that it makes a claim to be a coherent body of ideas offering an explanation as to how ideologies arise between people and are invoked perhaps to oppress or liberate people, depending on what the ideas are and how they are adduced.

In the domain of ideology and power, which I will return to below, from a complexity perspective we are less exercised about the capacity for ideology and power to ‘distort’ human relationships than is CMS, whilst acknowledging that it is an interesting question to think about how power and ideological choices shape human interaction. We are in no doubt that it can tilt power relationships very heavily towards certain groups, however.

2                     Like CMS, we would also argue against the naïve taking up of the natural sciences in the study of organisations and would agree  that it can be used as a way of silencing dissent and disagreement. We would argue that there is little evidence for evidence-based management if we take experimental or quasi-experimental methods as the gold standard for developing such a body of evidence.

In providing reasons why this might be the case complex responsive processes still makes an appeal to the natural sciences as well as drawing on the social sciences. However, our appeal is to the non-linear natural sciences as one of the reasons why we think that management ‘science’ is very unlikely to produce a stable body of knowledge that privileges predictability and control. These ideas are extensively worked out by Ralph, Doug and Patricia in the 2000 volume Complexity and Management: fad or radical challenge to systems thinking, where an argument is put forward for ‘transformative causality’, i.e. a teleology that does not depend on linear cause and effect, and draws a parallel between the linear and non-linear sciences and the distinction between Kant and Hegel. The fad book problematises Kant’s regulative idea of parts and whole thinking and the way it has been developed extensively as systems theory, particularly in the sciences of medicine and engineering where it has proved so effective. One of the strong claims of complex responsive processes is of the inappropriateness of thinking of organisations as systems.

In the complexity and management group we are still discussing the extent to which we are or should be trying to retain a link to the natural sciences, or at least to make some claim to ‘rehabilitate’ the term science for systematic and reflexive enquiry into the social. However, I think we agree on the rhetorical importance of doing so, i.e. retaining the link to science, in the sense that it is helpful to demonstrate that the natural sciences are not monolithic. As with CMS, we are making an appeal to the importance of dialectic and critical engagement in the production of knowledge and would agree with placing emphasis on being ‘directly attentive to the presence of values and politics in shaping forms of knowledge’ (Alvesson and Willmott: 63) and of struggling against being ‘trapped in a nexus of scientism and technocracy’ (Ibid: 65). I think our strong affinity with Hegel makes us more interested in the processes of knowledge production than with knowledge ‘products’. The way we work on the Doctor of Management programme  is close to what the early pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce is pointing to with his idea of the progress of science being dependent upon a community of engaged enquirers. The creation of a learning community on the DMan is to encourage maximum reflection and reflexivity. To paraphrase George Herbert Mead, we are interested in the movement of thought, of questioning then questioning further as Gadamer put it.

It is interesting to note the way that scholars in the Franfurt tradition Habermas, Joas and Honneth all take up the American pragmatists extensively in their work.

3                     The reason for our interest in the pragmatists, the early and neo-pragmatists, is that they too value doubt and questioning, which is a perspective, and also a method, which is privileged in Alvesson and Willmott’s book.  Dewey in particular, and latterly Richard Bernstein,  write eloquently about doubt as a form of enquiry, and come close to what I understand the post-foundational position to be, i.e. neither foundational nor anti-foundational. My interest in both Dewey and Bernstein is that they try to retrieve the idea of scientific method from a more naïve interpretation (which goes back to the theme  mentioned above about the extent to which one might reclaim the notion of being scientific about the social). Dewey argues in Reconstruction in Philosophy  that ‘the scientific attitude may almost be defined as that which is capable of enjoying the doubtful; scientific method is, in one aspect, a technique for making a productive use of doubt by converting it into operations of definite inquiry’ (p182).

The distinction I would make between Bernstein and Rorty, his ex-roommate, is that the latter seemed to lose interest in unravelling what it means to be scientific, dismissing the discussion as ‘unhelpful’. I think this is an area of enquiry which still animates Bernstein, however.

Bernstein raises an interesting question, though, which brings us back to the discussion of the similarities and differences between CMS and complex responsive processes, when he asked ‘critique (or doubt) in the name of what?’. Perhaps this question is easier to answer from the perspective of CMS with its explicit emancipatory intent, where the reply would centre on the requirement to lessen the distorting effect of prevailing ideologies, power and domination towards greater autonomy and freedom of individuals and groups. I mentioned in my talk during the conference that Bernstein’s  view is that we should strive for an engaged, fallibilistic pluralism. The engagement points to the need to avoid what Bernstein refers to as ‘flabby pluralism’ where we are prepared to accept others’ point of view, while remaining distant from them. The commitment to pluralism as well as engagement means that we try to understand the viewpoint of others in the strongest possible light, but at the same time we do not fight shy of uncovering differences even if that means getting into conflict with others.

So answering the question ‘critique in the name of what?’ from the perspective of complex responsive processes, if it doesn’t necessarily mean emancipation, would involve our agonistic struggle to stay in relation with a variety of particular others as a way of continuing to open up possibilities and richness in human experience. This will inevitably involve dealing with fluctuating power relations and a struggle for recognition which may indeed include a degree of emancipation, but as a by-product rather than as an intended consequence. I think because complex responsive processes draws extensively for the sciences of uncertainty, with an appreciation of the laws on unintended consequences maybe this has left us more agnostic about the possibilities of acting with emancipatory intent, which does not mean to imply that we care any less about people’s oppressing circumstances.

In the next post I will address the separation that CMS makes  between ‘reconstruction’ and ‘critique’, which seems to imply a dualism operating in two phases, the former as the theoretical stage and the latter as the practical undertaking of moving on contemporary management studies.

So I would argue from all of the above that CMS and complex responsive processes both idealise communicative interaction, but in slightly different ways. While Habermas imagines an ideal speech situation which overcomes the distorting effects of power and domination, complex responsive processes, drawing on pragmatism, idealises the continuous engagement with and radical openness to others: it privileges the dialectical movement, and potential conflict, involved in staying in relation with others. In all honesty there is also an idealisation involved here: how it is possible to argue from a particular position at the same time as staying radically open to the opinions of others is feat more experienced in the breach than the observance.

4                     Further areas of similarity between CMS and complex responsive processes are to do with an appreciation of discourse, and the importance of destabilising existing narratives about what happens in the name of management, and to encourage pluralism of narratives. We too are broadly anti-cult, and anti-totalitarian and suspicious of experts. However, perhaps our attitude to the idea of cult is more nuanced or perhaps more paradoxical, but we would make an argument, drawing on Mead, that ‘cult values’ are also an important part of who we are and what we believe in (i.e. a belief in democracy, a belief in loyalty and duty for example). The extent to which the creation of cults is experienced as a form of domination depends upon how the cult is functionalised locally between people in a particular context at a particular time. I will take up this question of local and global again later on in the next blog.

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