In a recent post, I suggested that I could see many parallels between Etienne Wenger’s writing on communities of practice and Ralph Stacey’s “complex responsive process” view of organizational dynamics. This runs counter to comments made by Stacey himself, in the 5th edition of his Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics textbook.
The first criticism that Stacey makes relates to Wenger’s use of what might be termed “systems-based” language. And it’s this to which I want to turn in the second post in this mini series.
A matter of language?
First, it is true to say that Wenger does, on occasion, use system-style language in his book Communities of Practice. However, nowhere does he talk of organizations as ‘nested systems’ of parts and wholes, in the way that most of the people do who would call themselves “systems thinkers”. Indeed, Stacey himself acknowledges that Wenger “mostly talks in terms of the process [my emphasis] of negotiation…”.
As part of his criticism, Stacey draws particular attention to Wenger’s use of the term “boundary”, to describe the split between those participating in a particular practice and those who are not. And he also cites his reference to local and global “levels”. Here again, I feel that Stacey’s reaction to the language is obscuring the similarities. For example, he himself talks at various times about the dynamics of polarization and the creation of “in-groups” and “out-groups”. Implicit in this is the everyday notion of a ‘boundary’ between the two; even if he never uses that term and he is talking about the patterning of psychological, emotional and behavioural responses. I would also maintain that the same can be said in relation to the interplay of the “local” and “global”. We would both argue - I believe - that global (i.e. 'organization-wide') outcomes - such as formal designs of structures, strategies, procedures etc, and generalized patterns of thinking and acting - emerge from local (i.e. one-to-one and small-group) interactions. And also that these global designs and patterns impact, in a reflexive way, on the ongoing local interactions. I have come to avoid using terms like “levels” to distinguish the local and global, in large part due to Stacey’s influence on my thinking. However, in common-or-garden terms, “local” and “global” do signify different conceptual levels. And, to my mind, this can be done without having to embrace (or even make concessions to) a systems-thinking view of organizational dynamics.
Management systems v a systems-based view of organizational dynamics
Finally here, I believe that a similar argument can be made in relation to the use of the word “system” itself. For example, John Seddon makes an excellent challenge to some of the absurdities in the way in which elements of the public sector have come to be managed. He refers to his view as “systems thinking” (as in the title of his recent book). But he is talking there about the management systems (or systematized processes!) through which the work is organized and managed. He is not using the phrase to refer to a multi-layer, systems-based view of organizational dynamics. Nor, I believe, is Wenger. To me, he is using the term in a much looser and less ‘philosophical’ way than Stacey infers. In other words, I do not believe that his talk of [management] systems is, of itself, incompatible with a process-based view of organizational dynamics.
Other posts in the 'series':