In earlier posts, I have argued against the widely accepted position that organizations are "systems", which need to be looked at and managed ‘as a whole’. It is easy to see why this view is popular. It seemingly allows us, as managers, to ‘step outside’ this clearly bounded system and take control. From the vantage point of the objective observer, we can spot and design-out the flaws that are undermining organizational performance; we can identify and pull those few ‘levers’ that will unlock the sought-after levels of performance; and we can take steps to ensure that the intended outcomes will unfold as planned.
But what if, as in the fairy tale, this particular ‘Emperor’ isn’t wearing any clothes? What if this notion of organization as constructed by systems thinkers is as imaginary as the suit of clothes that was promised to the Emperor in the Hans Christian Andersen tale? What are we left with? Is it a case of all or nothing? If we reject the idea of an organization as a system, are we left solely with individuals operating independently and acting in isolation? Well, no!
What we talk of as organizations are social phenomena. They comprise people in relationship with one another. They are also constructed phenomena. That is, people get together and ‘make things up’ – making sense of what’s going on and, through this relational process, deciding what things mean and how they will act. Interdependence, interaction and interpretation are therefore fundamental dynamics of organizations. However, despite this interconnectedness, it does not follow that people are subservient to some imaginary, overarching ‘system’ – "the organization" – which decides and acts, competes and co-operates, succeeds and fails, etc on their behalf.
So if systems thinking cannot account for the dynamics of organizations, what can? What is going on?
Organizations as networks of conversationsFrom an informal coalitions perspective, outcomes emerge from the complex interplay of the conversations that make up everyday organizational life. As suggested above, it is here, in the give-and-take of day-to-day interaction, that people make sense of what’s going on and decide how they are going to act.
Some of the themes that emerge from these conversations are taken up in the formal arenas of the organization and become adopted as formal policies, strategies, structures and so on. Others remain ‘in the shadows’. They continue to influence the ways in which people make sense of and act upon emerging events, but are not openly acknowledged in formal settings.
All of these conversations – whether formal or informal, planned or ad hoc, structured or spontaneous - take place as one-to-one or small-group interactions between particular people, at particular times, and in particular places. However, in many cases, the immediate outputs of these local conversations will, over time, have wider impact than for those who are immediately involved - often much wider. This is because the themes that emerge from one conversation are likely to be taken up, embellished or challenged in others, as people move from situation to situation, and interaction to interaction.
It is in this way, through the widespread interplay of diverse local interactions, that more widespread outputs and outcomes emerge. This is a dynamic and self-organizing process, which takes place regardless of the design of formal structures, systems and processes. For this reason, in Informal Coalitions, I describe organizations as …
dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations.
A conversation is a uniquely human phenomenon, which takes place between people. This is the case even when an individual is talking to themselves (i.e. thinking!) This 'internal conversation' always -implicitly or explicitly - draws on the socially constructed themes and patterns of interaction in which the individual is participating on a continuing basis.
"Boundaryless" as an inevitable dynamic not a design parameter
An important corollary of this way of understanding organizations is that the conversations that people have with each other do not respect formal organizational "boundaries". We might choose to think of the world in terms of separate, boundaried entities that we call organizations and define them as such for legal purposes. But the underlying, conversational dynamics (and the outcomes that flow from them) are not confined by these artificially constructed divisions. The same argument applies to the ‘internal boundaries’ that we construct when we speak of separate divisions, departments, teams, projects and so on.
So, whereas clearly identifiable boundaries are a fundamental concept in systems thinking and organizational design, all ‘organizations’ are unavoidably boundaryless from a complex social process perspective.
In a couple of future posts, I shall look at some further implications of viewing organizations as complex social processes - rather than as complex systems - and of the dynamics of informal coalitions for the leadership of organizational change.