Much of the current writing on organizations adopts the language of systems thinking - although what this means in an organizational context differs considerably from writer to writer. And management theorists and practitioners are not alone in viewing organizations in this way. Journalists, politicians, inquiry chairmen, and other commentators regularly refer to "the system", or "systemic failure" when pronouncing on events that hit the headlines. So seeing organizations as systems, which have the capacity to act in some way separately from the actions of ordinary people, appears natural and straightforward. But is it?
From an informal coalitions/complex social process perspective, what people think of as an organization comprises people interacting together for a purpose - or, more accurately, for a diverse range of purposes. Some of these are explicit, seen as organizationally legitimate and openly acknowledged. Others are implicit and/or covert. Some are mutually supportive. Others are in conflict. As people interact from moment to moment, both in conscious pursuit of these several purposes and habitually, various formal artefacts (such as policies, strategies, structures, processes, procedures, and the like) are constructed, named, and announced, before being interpreted, drawn upon, adapted, or ignored by others. The characteristic patterning of people’s thinking and acting (often reified as "the culture") similarly emerges from this same conversational process.
Organization (or rather the ongoing process of organiz-ing) is therefore an act of co-creation between human beings in the normal course of their everyday interactions. And this process is in constant flux. In other words, the reality of organization is being continuously (re-) constructed in the currency of people’s present-day interactions: A dynamic network of self-organizing conversations, which does not respect boundaries – whether those implicit in the notion of a formal organization or others which define the supposed limits of this or that "system".
Judging by comments made in many on-line and real-world exchanges, though, this conversational construction of organization seems to present two fundamental difficulties for those who see, think and talk of organizations in "systems" terms.
First, many practitioners and academics seem to find it difficult to conceptualize organization as existing solely in the currency of people’s day-to-day conversations. Consistent with (and further reinforcing) everyday discourse, they tend to think and talk of the latter purely in instrumental terms, rather than as the very means through which organization happens. Compared to the ‘heavy artillery’ of strategies, structures, systems and the like, which carry the stamp of formal authority and codify management intent, everyday conversations and interactions seem incidental and trivial - merely ‘filling-in the gaps’ between what is considered to be the legitimate focus of ‘proper’ management.
But it is solely through their ongoing, ‘local’ (i.e. small-group and one-to-one) interactions that people make sense of what’s going on and decide how they will act. Everything that happens in the world emerges from the widespread interplay of these everyday (essentially conversational) interactions. Nobody can predict or control what ‘outcomes’ will flow from these, because everyone else is similarly participating in their own ‘local’, interactional exchanges and doing so in line with their own intentions and assumptions. This is always the case, even though power relations are often significantly skewed in favour of those in formal authority. Some of the themes emerging from this sense-making-cum-action-taking process enter the formal arenas of the organization as formal propositions. Others remain ‘in the shadows’ – stimulating and being taken up in yet more shadow-side conversations, through which people make sense of the world and decide how they will act. And so it continues, in a never-ending, self-organizing process of conversational interaction.
So what about the formal ‘trappings’ of organization – that is, the policies, structures, systems and so on mentioned earlier? When formally announced, these represent generalized and idealized statements of what those with formal authority have endorsed as the official way to proceed - imprints of the past conversations through which such decision-making was carried out. But they are always made sense of and acted upon (or not) by people in the specifics of their local situation - whether in the executive suite, workshop, corridor or elsewhere. As such, these affect what happens only to the extent and in the ways that they are perceived, interpreted, evaluated and enacted by people in their current, local interactions. Although many of these formal artefacts will survive over time, it’s their perceived meanings and felt materiality that are important to what happens in practice, not the fact that these have a physical existence. And such meanings are constructed within the currency of people’s ongoing, local interactions. They are not embodied in the artefacts themselves, but rather in the ways in which these ‘imprints of past conversations’ are taken up by people in their current conversational exchanges.
Difficulty #2 – Without systems, you’re only left with isolated individuals
A second line of thinking advanced by those of a "systems" persuasion seems equally plausible and equally difficult to dislodge – even if it is equally invalid. The argument goes that, if you don’t accept the notion of organizations as systems, all that you’re left with is a collection of autonomous or atomized individuals acting independently. But this is not the case at all.
As I’ve outlined above, organization is, first and foremost, a relational phenomenon – a continuously emerging process of interdependent people interacting together. As they do so, they both enable and constrain each other in ways that facilitate movement in certain directions and inhibit it in others. They do this both habitually, through the characteristic patterning of their interactions that has emerged and become taken-for-granted ways of thinking and acting over time, and also through their specific, in-the-moment responses to the contingencies of the situation in which they find themselves there and then.
Seeing organizations in these terms - as the emergent patterning of power-related interactions between interdependent people - more accurately reflects and wholly encompasses the ‘real-world’ dynamics of organization.
Talking instead of systems
All of this means that there is no "whole" that exists in any way ‘outside’ people’s ongoing, ‘local’ interactions. Nor are there separate ‘levels’ of existence – such as the individual, the team and the organization – that have the capacity to act as independent entities. Individuals’ identities are continuously formed and re-formed in the same process of ongoing conversational interaction in which teams come to be recognized as such, and through which (the ongoing process of) organization emerges.
Since organization is (re)constructed in the currency of present-day interactions, everything necessary to judge what might be helping and hindering current practice and performance is present in those conversations – or else is conspicuous by its absence. There is no ‘higher-level’ system or the need to look for systemic explanations for what is felt to be happening here and now. Nor is it necessary (or credible) to imbue such imaginary constructions with the capacity to act in some way independently of those formative interactions in order to explain the more widespread dynamics.
In popular discourse and from a systems perspective, the emergent patterning of day-to-day interactions and behaviours is thought of as being a property of "the system" (i.e. the result of a "systemic" cause), which acts in some way ‘over and above’ the day-to-day interactions of individuals. But this patterning is recreated spontaneously in the moment of people’s current interactions. It is not stored anywhere. Past sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations create expectancy that similar sense-making and action taking will continue into the future - further reinforcing existing patterns of understanding and the generalized tendency for people to respond habitually. At the same time, the possibility (if not the likelihood) always exists for ‘pattern-shifting’ to occur and novel responses to emerge, as people continue to construct the future in the currency of their present interactions.
And so, instead of thinking in terms of imaginary systems and seeking to act on imaginary wholes, we might choose instead to focus on the complex reality of the conversations and interactions in which we are actually engaged. These are both products of and contributors to the contingent circumstances in which we find ourselves in the present. And these are also continuously influenced by our re-membered recollections of the past; our presently constructed expectations about the future; and the habitual patterning of our thinking and behaviour that reflects our past sense-making-cum-action-taking conversations.