This is the fourth part of my exploration of the parallels that I see between Ralph Stacey’s complexity-based view of the dynamics of organizations and the ideas expressed by Etienne Wenger in his book, Communities of Practice. This has been sparked by Stacey’s critique of Wenger’s perspective, in the 5th Edition of his textbook, Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics (reviewed here).
My view is that there is merit in emphasizing the similarities between these perspectives – if and where it's agreed that these exist, of course. In doing so, this strengthens the notional ‘coalition of support’ for a view of organizational dynamics which challenges the mainstream consensus. That is, one that highlights the centrality of everyday, local interactions in determining organizational outcomes.
This post focuses on what Stacey sees as Wenger’s failure to recognize and address the inherently paradoxical nature of organizations. This view of Wenger's work arises from the ways in which he discusses the concepts of “participation” and “reification” (below), which sit at the core of his theory.
Paradox is fundamental to Stacey’s conception of organizational dynamics – as it is to mine. To Stacey, a critical question to address is how particular theories deal with the simultaneous presence of contradictory and seemingly mutually exclusive conditions, ideas or forces that are characteristic of all organizations.
I used the following quotation of Stacey’s to introduce the Embracing Paradox chapter in Informal Coalitions:
“Paradox … cannot be resolved or harmonised, only endlessly transformed.”
From this perspective then, paradox cannot be dealt with through ‘either-or’ choices or even in a ‘both-and’ way (where both conditions are present but occur at separate times or in different places). Instead, paradox requires these apparent contradictions to be thought of in a ‘both-and at the same time’ way.
It is here that Stacey most strongly challenges Wenger. He focuses, in particular, on the way that Wenger talks about what he calls “participation” and “reification” in organizations. Wenger describes the former as the active process of people in interaction. And he sees the latter as the process through which meanings are abstracted from everyday experience, labels attached to them and artefacts created from them. Wenger describes these two processes as a duality. But Stacey reads this as meaning that these two processes of engagement operate in a “both-and” way – at different times and in different modes of existence. In other words, they don’t satisfy the “both-and at the same time” criterion, which Stacey sees as the essence of a paradoxical relationship.
The perceived problem here rests on Wenger’s statement that “participation and reification are dual modes of existence through time. They interact but they exist through time in different realms. … In moments of negotiation of meaning, they come into contact and affect each other… They unfold in different media until they meet again in new moments of negotiation.”
Given these statements, it is easy to see why Stacey should think this way. However, although Wenger doesn’t talk in terms of paradox (and despite the way that the above extract appears to contradict what I am about to say), I don’t believe that his description of what he sees happening is fundamentally different from Stacey’s view. I also think that what he is saying accords very well with my everyday experience of what goes on in organizations.
On the one hand, participation and some of the ‘products’ of reification do exist in what might be thought of as "separate realms" and have "different modes of existence". On the other, as Wenger also argues, these are intimately and inseparably interwoven into the fabric of ongoing interaction. Perhaps the paradox here is one of both separation and, at the same time, intimacy?
Looking first at the mode of ‘separate existence’, I would see the reifications of ongoing conversations as including those ‘things’ that make up (literally) the formal aspects of the organization, as well as others that remain ‘in the shadows’. The former include policies, strategies, structures, systems, procedures, visions, values statements, and so on. The covert and informal reifications of ongoing conversations might be reflected in the stories and folklore that are passed on; the in-jokes that are told; the objects that are retained as mementoes (+ve) or ’evidence’ (-ve) of past happenings; personal notes of meetings; cartoons and pithy statements on office walls; and in the ways that “the culture” is spoken about ‘behind closed doors’. Many of these will have originated in forums (scheduled meetings, corridor conversations and so on) that are separate from those in which they are subsequently taken up by others. These are then (re)interpreted and acted upon (or not) in the particular context of the various local circumstances in which people find themselves. I believe that it is in this sense that Wenger talks about participation and reification existing in separate domains; and about these specific reifications providing a focus for ongoing participation.
One example of this might be a statement by a CEO, which sets out a new approach to a particular issue and which is circulated throughout the organization. This would itself be the reified ‘product’ of local participation. Wenger would see this as providing a focus around which people would then organize themselves locally; negotiating its meaning according to their specific circumstances, and their characteristic ways of thinking and acting. This does not seem to me to be a million miles away from Stacey’s notion of such a statement representing a “gesture” by the CEO, which evokes a range of “responses” from people at large, according to their local interactions. This statement would not cease to exist as soon as it was taken up in local conversation. It would persist over time and, as is often the case, might be referred to on many subsequent occasions, to inform ongoing meaning making – albeit always from the different perspective of the here-and-now.
Moving on from this view of participation and reification as separate, Wenger also talks about the two as being intimately interwoven in everyday interaction. Unfortunately, for my current purposes, he describes these as “a fundamental duality”. And "duality" is the word that Stacey uses for non-paradoxical "both-and" thinking.
However, Wenger explains this fundamental duality as “a single conceptual unit that is formed by two inseparable and mutually constitutive elements whose inherent tension and complementarity [my emphasis] give the concept richness and dynamism.” He make five points to emphasize this:
- “Participation and reification are a duality, not opposites … they take place together; they are two constituents intrinsic to the process of negotiation of meaning, and their complementarity reflects the inherent duality of the process … there is no partcipation without reification … [and] no reification without participation.”
- “Participation and reification are two dimensions that interact; they do not define a spectrum … both elements are always involved [my emphasis], and both can take different forms and degrees. In particular, there can be both intense participation and [at the same time] intense reification.”
- “Participation and reification imply each other; they do not substitute for each other. … reification always rests on participation: what is said, represented or otherwise brought into focus always assumes a history of participation as a context for its interpretation. In turn, participation always organizes itself around reification because it always involves artefacts, words and concepts that allow it to proceed.”
- “Participation and reification transform their relation, they do not translate into each other…. Participation is an activity that has been described as not just translating the description into embodied experience, but renegotiating its meaning in a new context … Reification is not merely giving expression to existing meanings, but in fact creating the condition for new meanings [to emerge through participation]…”
- “Participation and reification describe an interplay; they are not classificatory categories. … In a duality, what is of interest is understanding the interplay, not classifying. The duality of participation and reification is not a classificatory scheme. It does not classify meanings, thoughts, knowledge or learning as tacit or explicit, formal or informal, conscious or unconscious, individual or collective. Rather it provides a framework to analyze the ways in which they are always both at once [my emphasis].”
All the 'right' notes ...
So, to recall comedian Eric Morecambe’s classic retort to André Previn’s criticism of his playing of Grieg’s piano concerto, I believe that Wenger is “playing all the ‘right’ notes, but not necessarily in the ‘right’ order”!
Other posts in the 'series':
#1 - Stacey's "Complex Responsive Processes" meets Wenger's "Communities of Practice"
#2 - Ralph Stacey and Etienne Wenger #2: On systems v processes
#3 Ralph Stacey and Etienne Wenger #3: On Wenger’s use of abstract concepts