Welcome to Orwell’s hell By Bill Bonner, Waterford, Ireland
This issue was originally published on 20 June 2013
Travel is tiring. Often, it’s our laptop computer that shows the signs of fatigue first. Yesterday, it got fed up and refused to deliver the mail. We could neither send nor receive mail, from either our laptop or our iPhone, which normally accesses our email account.
We should have been delighted. We were in Ireland. Now we had an excuse not to work. We could pay attention to our surroundings, and enjoy them.
But with no means to contact the outside world, we grew anxious. Who was trying to contact us? What important messages were we missing? And who was monkeying around with our email account?
The root of the problem was that our email provider had noticed some strange behaviour. We were apparently using our account from two places at once. It looked as though we were in Ireland and in the US at the same time. The provider suspected that our account had been hacked. It simply shut down the service.
We still walked and talked, we still took up space and breathed air, but on the internet we ceased to exist. We had disappeared. No forwarding address had been left. We could not communicate with anyone. We could not go onto Amazon and buy anything. We could not make travel arrangements or reserve a table for dinner.
This, of course, raises deep and disturbing questions about the nature of existence. If you do not exist on the internet, do you really exist at all? Do you exist fully?
We pass over those questions and go on to more practical, but no less worrying matters.
We thought, briefly, about putting in a call to the National Security Agency (NSA).
“Hello, I’m hoping you can help us. Our email account stopped working. I’m afraid I may have missed something. And I know you fellas make a habit of recording every communication, whether it is any of your business or not. So, would you mind sending my email from yesterday to another address?”
Upon further reflection, we decided not to make the call. They might have thought we were joking. They don’t appreciate jokes. At least, not jokes at their expense.
Thank you, Sol. It's a helpful illustration. I'm still a bit uncomfortable with this though: "I think Stacey is also saying that organizations are nothing more than the sum of these responsive processes"
I don't disagree. It's just the 'nothing more' bit. Complex reflexive processes built pyramids, empires, supersonic aircraft, etc. Or am I guilty here of 'reifying' organisations, of which Stacey seems to disapprove?
Thank you, Chris
Very happy with this ...
a way of thinking about human dynamics, including how identities are constructed, power is enacted, ideologies and dominant discourses are supported or critiqued
and with this ...
Stacey's interests and writings focus on what is going on between human beings while they come together to perform joint activity
Still puzzled by this ...
the dominant discourse about complexity needs to be challenged - I.e., the idea that a complex system is somehow external (real?) to the individual actors within it
External, no, certainly not. But real, surely. I found it a thrilling insight, during a group development workshop years ago, to perceive myself as a component of the larger entity, the group, in an organic way and not just as a member of it. Stacey seems to be asking me to surrender that.
His ... insights ... suggest that we step away from the idea that an organisation is a system and stop focusing on the individual
"stop focusing on the individual" Absolutely.
"step away from the idea that an organisation is a system" Why?
My understanding of why we should stop focusing on the individual arises from my appreciation that the individual doesn't make sense without the context of the system. Have you seen Owen Bader's presentation in which he discusses Thomas Thwaites's project? Thwaites spends months and thousands of pounds trying unsuccessfully to create a 5 Euro toaster from raw materials. I believe he is saying that the toaster is an emergent property of a complex system (like pyramids and supersonic aircraft).
So I entirely agree that the interesting bit is not the output but the internal processes and I think I am just struggling to grasp why I need to let go of the idea of a system being real.
I am sure there is something very important here because I know we have to understand how power works.
I haven't seen Owen Bader's presentation. I shall take a look.
In the meantime, my take on Stacey's stance against thinking of organisations as systems is he seems to be implying that to think of them as systems is to think of them as things that may be acted upon from outside. He continually uses the words 'pattern' and 'patterning' as alternatives. Perhaps it is a semantic distinction, and the important concept is this notion of local interaction producing emergent patterns at the population (e.g., organisation) level? You've got me thinking now. I shall scurry back to my references and see if I can dig up anything that might illuminate whether we might take his thoughts about systems with the proverbial pinch of salt!
Right. I'm taking a deep breath and diving into the semantic depths of Stacey....
He asserts that there is no need for concepts such as 'system', indeed the idea of a system outside of individuals 'dissolves' because he shifts away from the idea that people are independent and autonomous towards the idea that people are 'fundamentally and inescapably' interdependent: 'individual selves are formed by social interaction as they form such social interaction at the same time.'
For him the idea that an organisation is a system is to suggest that 'it' has properties of its own, at a higher or different level than an individual, that can act back on individuals as the cause of their actions. Taking the 'interdependent' route, he dissolves the distinction between individuals and organisations (i.e., in his terms the dominant discourse's 'system') by suggesting that population-wide patterns emerge in local interaction (relating & joint activity) - or the macro emerges in the micro - and that there is no distinction between 'levels'. This requires a different understanding - there are no distinctions between intention and emergence, unpredictability and order, individual or organisation - they are simultaneous, coexistent, not distinct or separate. Organisations are not systems but processes - processes of human interaction that produce patterns of interaction that produce further patterns of interaction.
What we are left with is focusing directly upon the responsive manner in which human persons interact with each other, the interplay of multiple intentions in many local interactions, and that organisational change can only really be understood as an 'articulated desire for the whole population' [e.g., organisation], and this can be understood as one of many gestures within the ongoing conversation and patterning of interactions. So all any one person can do, no matter how powerful a person is (or thinks they are), is engage intentionally and skilfully as they can in local interactions and continue to engage with ongoing consequences as they emerge.
What you describe, David, as your insight and experience of being a part of something larger than yourself, might actually be what Stacey is talking about - boundaries between yourself and the group seemed to dissolve in an organic way, perhaps you were getting a sense of your collective interdependence and the emergent property you were experiencing was not a 'level' per se, but a new 'whole' - even just for a moment/hour/day.
As for power - well, Stacey has much to say about this too as a cornerstone of human relating and dynamics - concepts about power are fundamental to his ideas about communicative interaction. Power is dynamic, relational and an emergent property of our interdependence as people - we are continually enabled and constrained by our expectations and demands of ourselves and others, thus communicative interaction becomes 'power relating as the patterning of enabling and conflicting restraints'. Stacey links ideas about power, ideology and the dynamics of inclusion-exclusion and discusses how these might impact local interaction and population-wide patterns (e.g., strategies) they produce.
First, thanks to all for such thoughtful reflections and erudite content. I'll try to do as well.
I've recently needed to go back to work I haven't looked at in a while, as part of a chapter on gestalt in coaching (psychology). The work is that of some notable biologists and physicists who found themselves interested in human 'systems'. The names of these folk are Maturana and Varela (biology), and Bohm and Capra (physics). I should probably also add Bateson (Gregory, anthropologist I think) and Lewin (Kurt), who was writing in the 40s and was allocated 'sociologist' and 'social psychologist'.
And, as you know (questionnaires will follow one day soon!) I am looking at metacognition in adult learners. The work above links to Stacey because it was important to many conversations when I was working with complexity ideas at the London School of Economics - I think they are foundational works.
So, of all the above extensive bodies of work I'd like to start with an observation that caught my attention the other day, and I found salutory, from Maturana and Varela. It is in a 1998 version of work that dates from 1987 (TheTree of Knowledge - the biological roots of human understanding), where they simply observe, 'Everything said is said by someone'. They also state, 'every reflection, including one on the foundation of human knowledge, invariably takes place in language. . . language is also our starting point, our cognitive instrument, and our sticking point.' And they are very keen on the reciprocal and ongoing process between action and experience: 'the knower and known are nutually specified.' From their work in the 1970s comes the term autopoesis (self-producing), which signifies a view of humans as living systems that constantly and proactively create themselves – so they are both the ‘product’ and the means of production.
I won't add the physicists and Lewin for the time being but happy to do so in due course if there is interest. They do all speak of systems (living systems, for example) and inter-relatedness between parts. And in various ways they also explain how it is that we perceive systems and parts. And they also highlight that the systems that we perceive are much less an objective reality than they are an ongoing processes. . . so, roughly speaking, they would be verbs and not nouns. Organisings, for example, not organisations. This conundrum doesn't arise so much for a non-living organisation that also has interconnected parts, such as a chair.
I suppose things are both particle and wave! Personally I find myself talking about systems although I mean it in a verby, interactional and co-creating way. Systeming, perhaps. Being embodied, as we are (I seem to think!), has all sorts of curiosities about it.
I very much appreciate this dialogue. It does take time though, doesn't it? How do you organise yourselves?
I thought I knew what erudite means but felt it worth checking. Seems it comes from 'not rude'.
I'm reasonably happy to substitute 'pattern' or 'process' for 'system', although push back strongly on the assertion that systems aren't real or don't have properties of their own.
I think there may still be an important gap in my understanding though as I'm mystified by the 'dominant discourse'. In my mind, the dominant discourse is the one that holds that a hierarchical pyramid is an effective ( the best? the only?) structure for an organisation and that voting is a satisfactory decision-making process.
Insight into inter-dependency and the unpredictability of outcomes has separated the systems thinkers into a 'minority discourse'. Ideas of complexity and chaos further illuminate the worldview of the systems thinker without making them 'wrong'.
"So all any one person can do, no matter how powerful a person is (or thinks they are), is engage intentionally and skilfully as they can in local interactions and continue to engage with ongoing consequences as they emerge."
I wholly agree with this but cling to the notion of a system as an extremely useful idea:
Seems to me that all these are challenging the dominant discourse. I don't think Einstein came along and said Newton was wrong, did he? Do I misread Stacey when I hear him saying this? I believe this is why I feel rubbed up the wrong way. (Very interesting sensation, by the way, as I know my own challenges to others can sound like this.)
I read Julie as weaving a bridge over this gulf. Is that right?
An interesting example of the complex responsive process of human interaction, methinks!
As a related aside, my review of Stacey's 2010 book, Complexity and Organizational Reality, appeared in the Spring 2010 edition of e-O&P. However, there doesn't appear to be a link to it on the AMED site. As I mentioned in the article, my own views differ from Stacey's only 'at the edges', despite their different origins.
It's important to recognize that, as Chris G says, Stacey is describing what he sees as the (complex social) dynamics of human interaction. He is not prescribing a particular way of leading/ managing, or arguing that the adoption of a particular approach, model, process, or whatever will ensure success.
By the way, the Sixth Edition of his textbook was published in November 2010. As always, it includes significant changes from the earlier editions. This latest edition contains a fulsome endorsement on the back cover - from me. What more proof do you need?!