Category Archives: systems

On organisational culture change

There is a great deal of discussion in contemporary organisational life of the need to ‘change the culture’ in organisations. This is a way of talking that assumes that organizations do have discrete cultures and that they are manipulable, although the discourse can have it both ways with the term: on the one hand culture is known to be symbolic, intangible and abstract, on the other it can be the object of conscious and rational redesign and reframing. A good example of this way of talking about organisational culture can be found in the 4th edition of the eminent management scholar Edgar Schein’s book Organizational Culture and Leadership[1].

Usually a prime role is assumed for leaders or senior managers in making the changes to organizational culture because they are considered to have the necessary abilities and skills to diagnose what is wrong with the current culture and to design a better one: one which fits better with the environment. Schein states this very explicitly in his book: ‘In this sense culture is ultimately created, embedded, evolved and ultimately manipulated by leaders’ (2010: 3).  As a result of their leaders’ efforts, employees will be obliged to commit to a fresh set of values, or reaffirm an existing set which are thought to have become moribund, as well as demonstrating a suite of required ‘behaviours’ or new procedures. The new values and procedures are then set ‘at the heart of everything we do’, are vigorously communicated and disseminated and form the basis of widespread training programmes for staff, and are then subject to regimes of inspection and performance management. Such change programmes can consume weeks and months of organizational time and resources.

The whole process is a good demonstration of the systemic assumptions behind organizational realignment: values, behaviour, systems, procedures, training, communication and quality regimes are all supposed to line up and fit over each other and form a coherent whole. The emphasis is on integration, stability and alignment. It is a huge reduction of the complexity of what is at stake when attempting organisational change.

A book recently published calling for radical change in the NHS is a refreshing attempt to explain why ‘culture change’ in organisations is likely to be highly problematic. [2] Instead of assuming that whatever we might mean by the term culture is contained within one organisation, even one as big as the NHS, Ballatt and Campling, an ex-senior manager and psychotherapist within the NHS, explain why the institution reflects much wider conflictual social processes, as well as provoking profound questions about what it means to be human. That is, they try to bring together society-wide trends in social patterning in the UK and beyond in terms of their impact on changes in the NHS, and they wrestle with the profound human difficulties and dilemmas involved in professionalising the often spontaneous and improvisational human response of caring towards another human being in need. Though written specifically about the NHS, I think the book also raises important questions for anyone thinking about what is involved in processes of organisational change and echoes some of the themes from the perspective of complex responsive processes of relating. There are some key differences, however, which I will also explore below. Continue reading

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Thought collectives and the role of critique

As a way of adding to the discussion started by Ralph in the last post I want to offer some observations, additions, and questions to the idea of the thought collective and thought styles. I would like to reflect more on the stable instability of thought collectives and the way that they are at risk from transformation from within and from without. I want to suggest that they may be powerful and enduring, but they are never rigid being subject to their own ruptures. Although thought collectives undoubtedly try to exclude patterns of thinking which do not conform to a particular orthodoxy, and can sometimes do so with some violence as we will explore below, this orthodoxy often has its own indeterminacies and internal contradictions, and challenges to it are likely to occur regularly and in every day ways both from ‘within’ and from ‘without’. Together the gesture of critique and orthodox response incorporate each other and produce a movement through which other ways of theorising are made possible.

I want to expand further on how the processes of domination and resistance are mediated by power relations and will draw on some of Foucault’s thinking to inquire into the social relations of ‘truth telling’. That is to say, as well as considering the way that orthodoxies dynamically maintain themselves by excluding and denying, it is also important to think about how resistance is mounted, and by whom. Having done this I will question whether the discussion pattern that Ralph points to between systems theorists and their critics could ever thought to be ‘stuck’, although it may feel that way from a synchronic perspective, what I referred to in a previous post as the perspective of the swimmer. Continue reading

Repetitive Patterns of Communication: Thought Collectives and Thought Styles

There seems to me to be an interesting pattern in the comments on many of the blogs on this site, a pattern that I frequently encounter in many other discussions in organizations too. The pattern takes the following form.

On this site, and in most of our work encounters, colleagues and I are seeking to present a way of thinking about organizational life which departs radically from the mainstream or dominant discourse. We want to do this because we take the view that dominant ways of understanding organizations have failed to account for the glaringly obvious inability of leaders and managers to determine their futures, which the dominant discourse argues is what they are there for. The alternative way of thinking we are trying to articulate involves moving completely away from thinking of human interaction as constituting, or as if constituting, a system of any kind which it is then the role of leaders and managers to control. Any/every form of systems thinking is conducted in terms of spatial metaphors with parts forming wholes within boundaries. We argue against this way of thinking about human interaction / organizations because the spatial metaphor of systems abstracts from direct experience by positing an entity outside our relationships with each which is then easily reified and anthropomorphised. Systemic ways of thinking lead to separation in thought of individual and group and locates them at different levels, another spatial metaphor. We are articulating an alternative way of thinking which avoids abstracting completely from our experience and focuses our attention on the temporal responsive processes of our in interacting with each other as we deal with uncertainty and our inability to control. We argue that this complex responsive processes way of thinking is incompatible with systems thinking because in the former we are seeking to understand our experience from within our participation in that experience and in the latter people are seeking to observe and manipulate something outside of themselves. Moving from one of these ways of thinking to the other has important implications for what we do and how we think about what we do to deal with not knowing and it is this that we are seeking to inquire into.

One common response to the position we take is for a commenter to welcome what we are saying but then they go on to agree that some forms of systems thinking exhibit the drawbacks we identify (for example, first order systems) but that there are other forms (for example, second order  systems) that do not display these drawbacks. While agreeing then, the commenters present their own brand of system thinking as an exception, usually without explaining why it is an exception. The commenter may then proceed to talk about people drawing boundaries around their experience. In other words the commenter simply proceeds to rearticulate the dominant discourse without acknowledging any of our arguments against it.

Another commenter may then return to the message of the blog and point out that defining the boundaries of an organization involves us thinking of an organization as some kind of system that exists outside of us and that when we do this we are moving more and from our own actual experience of what is happening around us in the conversations we are engaged in. In other words the second commenter repeats the argument being presented in the blog.

The first commenter may then reply that the ability to see multiple, non-contradictory boundaries, or containers, is essential to making meaning and taking action; useful boundaries can be created and transcended at will. Here then, we are into the second repetition of a reply which simply repeats once again the basic tenets of the dominant discourse without engaging the argument.

And so the ‘ping pong’ goes on. The pattern is one of a commenter presenting the argument of the responsive processes view which elicits a rearticulating of the dominant discourse of systems thinking which calls forth another comment now simply repeating the responsive processes position which evokes a comment simply repeating the systems position. We are together co-creating repetitive patterns which are rather stuck and which block inquiring into the argument. This is a pattern which I frequently encounter in other forums too and I notice that leaders and managers in organizations  also often get stuck in repetitive patterns of this kind. So how are we to make sense of this kind of pattern that we so often co-create in which we each make claims about reality and the facts but do not really argue them through? I think a very useful way of understanding what we are getting into together is provided by an important book called Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact by Ludwik Fleck which was published in 1935.

In the years leading up to the publication of his book, Fleck, a bacteriologist approaching the age of 40, had acquired a considerable reputation as a scientist for his research in the areas of the serology of typhus, syphilis and a variety of pathogenic microorganisms. Fleck starts his book with a question: What is a fact? In answering this question, he goes on to say:

A fact is supposed to be distinguished from transient theories as something definite, permanent, and independent of any subjective interpretation by the scientist. … Epistemology often commits a fundamental error: almost exclusively it regards well-established facts of everyday life, or those of classical physics, as the only ones that are reliable … [this] is inherently naïve … [as a consequence] we feel a complete passivity in the face of a power that is independent of us; a power we call “existence” or “reality”.[i]

He is arguing that in taking the common sense view of what a fact is we lose sight of our own role, collectively and historically, in constructing a fact and developing a fact and this leads us to regarding a fact as simply something we have no alternative but to accept: it cannot be questioned. The purpose of Fleck’s book is to take a particular medical fact, namely syphilis, and explore how such an empirical fact originated, how it has evolved and what it consists of. He shows how before the end of the 15th century syphilis was not differentiated from other skin diseases such as scabies. It was not an independent fact. Around the end of the 15th century syphilis was identified as a new disease, labelled ‘carnal scourge’, which had arisen because of the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter under the sign of Scorpio which rules the genitals. Added to the astrological explanation was the religious one that the disease was god’s punishment of sinful lust. Syphilis was now the fact of carnal scourge. Fleck argues that any explanation of a phenomenon, including this one, can only survive and develop if it is ‘stylized in conformity with the prevailing thought style’[ii] and that it took centuries before developments in other sciences led to different ways of thinking about the disease. He concludes that:

Such entrenchment of thought proves that it was not the so-called empirical observations that led to the construction and fixation of the idea. Instead, special factors of deep psychological and traditional significance greatly contributed to it.[iii]

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Systems thinking and complex responsive processes – can they be integrated?

In a recent paper written by Luoma et al (Luoma, J., Hamalainen, RP. And Saarinen, E.  (2011) Acting with systems intelligence: integrating complex responsive processes with the systems perspective, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 62: 3-11.), the authors argue that there is very little disagreement between systems thinking and complex responsive processes of relating, the body of theories set out in this blog. What’s more, the authors put forward the idea that a complex responsive process approach could be integrated within their own method, which they term ‘systems intelligence’.

Systems intelligence (SI), according to the authors, is when a subject engages ‘successfully and productively with holistic feedback mechanisms of her environment.’ SI is exhibited by an individual operating in ‘systems settings’, and is influenced both by the positive psychology literature and by systems thinking. Thus SI ‘looks for positive opportunities and personal improvement actions’. According to the authors a system does not have to be an abstract ‘thing’ with a boundary. It might be ‘the context’, ‘the situation’, or ‘the environment’, amounting to ‘an integrated whole on a time axis in the process of becoming’. ‘System’ for the authors, is a meaningful unit of analysis worthy of attention, which calls out intelligent engagement. The authors claim a ‘liberal, broad and general interpretation of the notion of a ‘system’’, and not one that necessarily conceives of the subject in any way ‘outside’ the system. The broad notion of system is a helpful conceptual tool and human beings are natural systematisers: indeed, being able to systematise makes us human, according to the authors. Continue reading

Thinking about the nature of the ‘tools and techniques’ that people ‘apply’ in the serious game of organizational life

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.

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On Values

On values

This post sets out some thoughts provoked by my reading Ralph and Chris’ contributions. It is intended to provoke further conversation and act as an invitation to others to make a further comment.

The observations made by them that speaking about management differently can appear to others as though I am not taking ‘the game’ seriously or calling ‘the game’ into question can be seen as ‘anti-management’; that re-thinking the dominant discourse invites us to think of ourselves differently and therefore to question our identities as managers, and to rethink management from within the practice of management, resonate strongly with my own experience in my working life as a nurse manager. Hence, as I challenge many of the theoretical assumptions I had previously made about management, so my practice as a manager shifts because, quite simply, it no longer makes sense to do some of the things I was doing before. To try and explain more clearly what I mean. I shall write a short piece of narrative based on a conversation that struck me as interesting. Reflective narrative is an important component of the research methodology we are developing on the D.Man programme as part of the theory of complex responsive processes of relating. Continue reading

Organisations and the concept of systems

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.
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