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Stephen Billing

Another great summary, well articulated as usual Chris.

I am interested in your concept of deep culture. I will think about this further. At first blush, I am concerned that it could contribute to the reifying of culture as something outside the interaction of the people concerned.

So I will be thinking more about what you've written about deep culture.

Cheers, Stephen

Chris Mowles

I agree with much of this, Chris, great post, although sometimes you have a tendency to talk about conversations in a reified way, as though they were happening and self-organising somehow independently of the conversationalists! I don't know if GH Mead's idea of gesture and response is helpful here. It is not just conversations that are happening in organisations (although I have to say that I really admire Deidre Boden's The Business of Talk). But we are continuously gesturing and responding to each other in ways that create the fluctuating patterning of power relations between us. Conversation is one such gesture, but the signs, symbols, e-mails and artefacts are also contributors.

Tom Gibbons

I like your post very much Chris. I was just getting ready to write my monthly post, this one on the topic of 'problems with the creative tension model' but after reading yours I'm now leaning more to the 'hero with a thousand deaths' topic. Perhaps an example of the gesture response process Chris Mowles mentions... :) I'm leaning now to the latter topic since your post is a great summary of some very, very tough changes that managers are being pushed to make. My own experience of coming to grips with these changes was very much like a death of a worldview and for a time feeling like there was nothing to replace it. It was not at all comfortable.

And I guess I'll just write about what a mess you can make with the creative tension model next month!


Chris: I'm still trying to figure out where the 'edges' are on this. I'm reading your book and so far haven't found out where we disagree. But I pretty much disagree with the lines you've taken throughout this piece.

I think this says that the 'edges' of reality are somewhere in this space...because it's where the divergence occurs.

I was having a conversation recently with someone also not from OD...and they too notice a pattern in where OD'ers draw the line. It was because of the line I refused to go into advanced education in the field...because it did not accomplish the most critical aspect: design.

I'm still trying to unravel it all. For the time being my insides bristle when I hear terms related to 'managing'. I'm pretty sure that my arguments I use for "knowledge management" apply to people to. You can't "manage" people any more than you can "teach" them anything (you realize the whole education system is in an upheaval over the latter word, as well?).

Indeed, "management" is the antithesis of Enterprise 2.0. The goals we're looking to achieve there are to bypass the 'barriers' management introduces. So by that standard, I'm fundamentally opposed to all principles of management.

Chris Rodgers

Many thanks Stephen, Chris, Tom and Paula for your comments. They’re much appreciated.

It seems that I'm broadly ‘on the same page’ as the first three of you, as regards the meaning and dynamics of self-organization; with, perhaps, one or two nuances of difference that I will refer to below.

But you, Paula, suggest that you see a fundamental difference between my views, as expressed in this post, and yours on design thinking and Enterprise 2.0 – even if the “edges” between our two perspectives are unclear to you. My primary focus is on organizational dynamics, which I see as universally applicable to all aspects and forms of human interaction. And I don’t think of myself as an “OD’er”, with lines that I’m not prepared to cross in relation to these dynamics. So I’m intrigued to see if there are any ‘black holes’ in my thinking that would account for your unease. However, to do your comment justice, I feel that I need first to reacquaint myself with your thinking. I’ll therefore look at your site and then respond properly to your comment. One other point. At the start of this post, I mentioned that I would be posting two entries on the topic, following the recent discussions on other blogs. If you happen to read the second one (which I’ll post later today), you’ll see reference there to “design”. This relates to classic organizational design and isn’t meant to be a response to your comments here.

So what of the other comments made and queries that were raised?

First, taking your point, Chris, about your perception that I seem to reify the idea of conversations, I welcome the cautionary note. I certainly don’t intend to shift attention away from the here-and-now of people in interaction when, for example, I talk about ‘organizations’ (oops!) as “dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations”. For me, people interacting are implicit in the notion of conversation: I can’t see that you can have a conversation without the active participation of “conversationalists”! Certainly, Informal Coalitions is written with that as its central proposition. However, I’ll try to keep a check on the way that I write about the process, provided that it doesn’t lead me to use unnecessarily contorted language. I’ll also say a bit more later about reification, in relation to Stephen’s comment.

I’m familiar with Mead’s gesture-response view of the conversational process (primarily via the CMC series of books!). And I feel that my thoughts on communication are broadly consistent with this. So, as I say, I very much see conversation as an active – and interactive – process. In this regard, I also agree with your point that we are continuously gesturing and responding to each other in a variety of ways. In Informal Coalitions, my primary focus is on what those in formal leadership roles (throughout an organization) might do to respond to the complex social dynamics of which they are part. So there, I suggest that ‘talk’ (in the broadest sense of the word) is their primary action tool: “… for our purposes, talk involves all aspects of interaction, including listening, gesturing, involuntary signalling through body language and so on, as well as talking itself. It also includes self-talk (i.e. thinking). For managers, then, talk is action …”.

I also make the point about the communicative power of symbols – especially the role-modelling symbolism of managers’ words and actions (including their silence and inaction!). Organizational artefacts, as the products and ‘imprints’ of past conversations, similarly impact upon this ongoing sense-making process. However, I would argue that meaning doesn’t reside in the managers’ behaviours or in the artefacts. In the same way that Ralph Stacey sees a CEO’s broadcast, say, as a gesture that elicits a response in the form of many ‘local’ conversations, I would argue that the same applies in relation to the various artefacts and symbols that abound. Their meaning is negotiated in, and emerges from, the conversations (including self-conversations) in which people perceive, interpret, evaluate and act upon them ‘locally’.

Finally, Stephen, you also raise the question of reification, this time in relation to my notion of “deep culture”. You might have read an earlier post of mine (at http://bit.ly/14M3q) in which I described a three-part conception of organizational culture. Within this, I see the formal strategies, structures, vision and value statements, physical artefacts and so on as providing the source material for the ‘official’ “culture as articulated”. This is certainly an act of reification. And there are also elements of the “culture as experienced” (folklore, myths, anecdotes, unofficial custom and practice, etc) that reify aspects of the ongoing interactions. It’s here that people would look to illustrate any claim that it’s “because of the culture” that things are as they are.

However, what I call “deep culture” comprises a dynamic patterning process, which is out of people’s immediate awareness. This doesn’t exist – can’t exist - ‘outside’ the conversations. Ideally, as I say in the book, “… the word ‘culture’ would be a verb, to describe this dynamic (literally verbal) process.” However, it is the expectancy created by this patterning of past sense making that tends to channel current sense making, imperceptibly, down familiar ‘pathways’. So the notion of “deep culture” does not reify this ongoing process of shared meaning making - at least not in the sense of suggesting that some ‘thing’ external to people’s interactions has agency over them.

It does, though, reify it in the sense of naming it. And therein lies the rub (as they say). We need to name things in order to talk about them, to ourselves and to others. For example, we can’t talk about the tendency to reify social processes without naming (i.e. reifying) the process that we (helpfully, I would suggest) call “reification”. The power that Mead vests in language wouldn’t be possible without the reification of ideas, feelings and so on into words. So I would say that reification isn’t all bad. In this important sense, it facilitates interaction and the social construction/negotiation of meaning. It only becomes a problem if the words, concepts, models and frameworks that are its currency take on a life of their own, abstracted from the everyday reality of people interacting with each other. Or if the complexity of that social process is not fully acknowledged. I recently came across the work of Etienne Wenger, who writes persuasively about what he calls the “duality of participation and reification” in relation to his interest in communities of practice.

Thanks again for your comments. As always, these have made me think. And, again as always, I’ve ended up writing more in response than I had set out to do. I guess that’s emergence for you!

Cheers, Chris

Stephen Billing

Hi Chris.

This is a stimulating conversation isn't it - going on across several blogs and comments all at the same time.

You raise an interesting point about reification. It seems to me that you might be equating reification with naming something. I take it that in drawing attention to this, you are referring to the phenomenon (not often considered) that the process of naming something as "this" simultaneously names everything else as "that." So if I call something a circle, then I am also calling everything outside that circle "not circle." So by naming "circle" I have actually created two categories, ("circle" and "not circle") even though I am only focusing attention on one category - the one I have named. The other category becomes almost invisible in this process. Is that correct?

I understand reification as something different from that - and perhaps you do too. I understand reification as being the process of taking something that does not really exist as a physical object, and treating it as though it were an object or a physical thing. In the same way that personification means to treat an object as though it were a person ("I remembered Sunday's mistake," as though Sunday were a person who could make a mistake. Or thinking of a storm as grumpy - as though it could have the kind of emotion a person has). I think of "reification" as meaning "thingification."

Naming the concept is perhaps part of the process of reification but does not necessarily lead to reification. So to use the word "culture" as an example, we could, having named the concept of "culture" then go on to treat culture as though it actually exists as a thing that can be managed, manipulated or changed by rational action, and that perhaps has properties such as direction and speed, in a similar way to how you could manipulate a ball and say that it has direction or speed. Of course, culture is not a physical thing that you can touch and discern its shape and direction.

At most culture is an abstract concept created by humans to help to explain certain social phenomena - i.e. the way certain patterns amongst a group, country or organisation seem to be continually perpetuated.

So to me, reification is something that we commonly do in everyday life and in many situations, this is useful to do as it helps us to understand certain things. It can also lead us to think of trying to manage and control such abstract concepts as culture, as though they were actual physical things, and this, to my mind is unlikely to be helpful and that is the danger of reification.

Will also look further into your notion of deep culture because I feel I don't understand enough about it.

By the way I'm looking forward to your next post in this conversation.

Thanks Chris.

Chris Mowles

The philosopher Axel Honneth who has made his name developing both Hegel and Mead's ideas on recognition gave a Tanner lecture in 2005 where he identified two problems with reification. The first is that in reifying and experience or a social phenomenon 'in the course of our practices we might pursue a goal so energetically and one dimensionally that we stop paying attention to other, possibly more original and important motives and aims.' In other words, we abstract from an experience, derive a goal or an intellectual schema from it, and forget about what it was that sparked out human response in the first place. The second danger is that we produce 'a series of thought schemata that influence our practices by leading to a selective interpretation of social facts (which) can significantly reduce our attentiveness for meaningful circumstances in a given situation.' We come across this a lot in organisaitons when people develop grids, or tools to understand what they are dealing with by abstracting from experience. Of course, schemata can be helpful but the danger is that they begin to take on a life of their own seeing regularities where no regularities exist. Chris

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