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Very thoughtful post that surfaced some thoughts and curiosities. I wonder at the mechanistic language of "levels" and if what we really mean is "orientation" (local, global)? And when it comes to management and control, from my perspective we're often better off considering interaction and influence rather than control and management -- control for the most part seems to me an illusion. Systems and processes hang together - Systems to me are the inter-related parts while the process is the connective tissue. Not being familiar with Ralph Stacey's work, how do you think these language distinctions play out?

Chris Rodgers

Hi LaDonna,

Many thanks for your comments. I’m glad that the post made sense to you and that it sparked some further thoughts. I very much agree with your dislike of mechanistic language in relation to the dynamics of organizations and also your perception of management control as an illusion.

Although the word “level” is used extensively in the everyday language of management (in a hierarchical sense) I agree that it does not help to convey what I see as the essence of organizational dynamics. It is a scalar metaphor, which implies a linear relationship between the “global” and the “local”. Secondly, it ‘positions’ these in different ‘places’, so to speak; with the local positioned within – and subordinate to – the global. And, finally, by casting both of these as ‘things’, it implies that the global has a ‘life of its own’ that is independent of local interaction. Your suggestion that these perspectives might more usefully be thought of as orientations is much more congruent with my view of the dynamics of organizations.

As regards “control”, I talk in Informal Coalitions about managers being both ‘in control’ and ‘not in control’ at the same time. By ‘in control’, I mean that they can take decisions and actions within their formal authority (that is, they have the right to decide to close a plant; issue a policy; change a rule; or whatever). But they are not in control – and can never be in control – of the ways in which people at large perceive, interpret, evaluate and act upon those decisions. Nor can they be in control of outcomes, since it’s from the interplay of this myriad of local decisions and actions that outcomes ultimately emerge. As you suggest, therefore, it’s the interactions that are critical; so seeking to influence the pattern and content of these interactions is one of the central dynamics that can be identified in all organizations. It is for this reason that I argue that those in leadership positions, throughout an organization need to actively engage with this local sensemaking and action-taking process.

I am less comfortable (from a complex social process view of organizations) with your final point. In it, you identify systems as the “inter-related parts” and processes as the “connective tissue”. From a systems thinking perspective, inter-related parts fit together to form a system. The primary unit of organization from that viewpoint is the “whole system”, with the parts being defined by, and subordinate to, the whole. This, from my (and Stacey’s) perspective, falls foul of the local-global points that I mentioned earlier – amongst others. Your connective tissue metaphor for the processes of organization also causes some difficulty, because it doesn’t – for me at least –sufficiently convey the dynamic and complex nature of what’s going on.

Ralph Stacey’s latest book, entitled Complexity and Organizational Reality, has just been published. This provides an up-to-date view of his thinking. It is broadly consistent with my own perspective, as set out in Informal Coalitions and this blog, although we differ on a few things ‘around the edges’. You can find out more about Stacey’s book here: http://www.routledge.com/books/Complexity-and-Organizational-Reality-isbn9780415556477

Regards, Chris

Alice MacGillivray

Those engaged in this topic might be interested in a book review I wrote recently about Digital Habitats (Wenger, Smith and White) and complexity. I don't reference Stacey in it, but it relates to this conversation.

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