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Bas Reus

Chris, thanks for discussing Wenger and Stacey in these five posts. When I read the 'Communities of Practice' book of Etienne Wenger, I had a hard time understanding his abstract theories. Reification for example is a difficult term to grasp, and that's just one of all the terms. It only helped when discussing it with others. And that's exactly what you are doing here, reasoning your own understandings of the theory. It's great reading them.

Deb Booth

Chris

I have very much enjoyed reading your blogs showing how Wenger’s work adds weight to Your and Stacey’s challenge to mainstream thinking about organisational dynamics. I think you show very clearly that, except for what seems to be a fundamental, and critical difference of attitude to the use of abstract concepts, the concepts used by Wenger and the use he makes of them are indeed compatible with Stacey’s thinking.

Re the different views on the usefulness of abstract concepts I think you pinpoint a major criticism of Stacey’s approach to advancing management knowledge. Abstraction (and by implication, reification) are normal human responses to the need to generalise learning from one context to another, and that they are therefore both ubiquitous and inevitable seems a more helpful way to understand the origins of abstract words and their distribution in different communities and societies. They seem to cluster in greater frequency around things percieved to be of cultural importance ie. things likely to be discussed more frequently. (Does Stacey prohibit ALL abstraction or is his work a polemic against previous writers who have removed the agent from the organisation by describing the organisation as if IT moved, did things, spoke and even had feelings. I notice your quote referred only to ‘abstract macro processes’ ? I don’t know Stacey’s work well enough to answer this question, but I also wondered if ‘complex responsive process’ is itself an abstraction of the prohibited sort).

Wenger’s most valuable contribution to understanding organisations is itself a result of the reification Stacey despised. In your book, Informal Coalitions you say,

'Besides participants’ overt conversation with each other, they are each also engaged in a conversation with themselves (ie. thinking), which is shaped by (and further shapes) their personal frame of reference.' (p.131)

'ongoing sensemaking and use-making processes are influenced by the existing patterns (plural) of assumptions that operate within the organisation. In turn, these conversations further strengthen – and potentially change – the underlying pattern of assumptions.' (p. 92)

Now Wenger has shown us both how the interplay between participation and reification (what he calls the negotiation of meaning) not only influences the future outcomes of each of these processes but also how it creates cumulative meanings and history (P1>R1>P2>R2>P3…etc).

Wenger has advanced our understanding of the specific mechanism by which patterns of thinking in organisations are both influential and influenced in and by every conversation and how their interplay shows us the cumulative nature of both relationships and patterns of thinking and acting (as you acknowledge in Informal Coalitions). What he has done is to show us how a community of individuals come to create and reproduce a communal culture through their dyadic interactions. This is a hugely important insight for both Social/Organisational Anthropologists and their close cousins, those who take your own Informal Coalitions approach to organisational dynamics.

Wenger’s contribution to our understanding arose from his ethnographic approach to the development of knowledge, just as your own did. Can we begin a new informal coalition whose members acknowledge the need for, and existence of, empirical support (in the form of ethnographies, case studies etc) for hypotheses which may increase our understanding of organisations and their dynamics? Such a coalition would be self-reflexive about not only the sources of its knowledge (empirical research) but also about its own cultural values and ancestry. I believe we should look to other disciplines, such as History and Social Anthropology which do not aim to create Predictive Theories (‘scientific’ in Popperian terms) but Interpretative ones.

Should one invite most current leading edge ‘organisational theory’ to ‘live by the sword ‘or ‘die by the sword’ of empirical support I suspect your own work , Stacey’s and Wenger’s may be amongst the few left standing.

Deb Booth

Chris Rodgers

Hi Bas and Deb,

Many thanks for your supportive comments on my attempt to link the work of Ralph Stacey with that of Etienne Wenger.

As with Stacey's writing, Bas, Wenger's desire for academic precision can sometimes make the book a challenging first read. However, I've found that, having read various extracts a few times - and critically reflected on these at the time - the result has been well worth the effort. I have to say as well that, having persevered with Stacey's (possibly even more challenging) writing, I was much better placed to make sense of Wenger's arguments. This also helped me to see the potential points of overlap, both with Stacey's perspective on organizational dynamics and my own informal coalitions viewpoint. I see things differently to both of them in places. However, I do believe that we are all, broadly speaking, 'singing from the same song sheet'. This is particularly the case in relation to the emphasis that we all put on the critical role played by everyday conversations and interactions in determining organizational outcomes.

I found your comments very pertinent, Deb. I think it is true to say that Stacey’s aversion to reification is precisely for the reason you suggest. He rails against the tendency for people to talk of concepts such as organization, culture and so on as ‘things’ that have an existence of their own. Besides being a feature of everyday language (we read today, for example, that “Whitehall revolts over ‘brutish’ PM”, “Kraft to raise offer [for Cadbury]”, and so on) it is also characteristic of Systems Thinking, with which both Stacey and I have problems. Stacey has been very forthright in his criticism of Systems Thinking over recent years; and it is for this reason, I believe, that his aversion to reification is so strong. Whilst embracing the conventional conception of reification, Wenger extends its meaning to include any form of abstraction that takes place in the process of day-to-day interaction - most of which he sees as necessary and valuable. I made a similar point about the inevitability of reification in an earlier post (The reified world of everyday organizational reality, at http://bit.ly/D6RA7).

Interestingly, Stacey has introduced the twin notions of what he calls “immersion” and “abstraction” into the discussion of organizational dynamics in his latest book, Complexity and Organizational Reality. I look forward to reading this and seeing to what extent these concepts mirror those of “participation” and “reification” in Wenger’s terms.

Cheers, Chris

Adrian Raynor

Hi Chris,
Thanks for this series of posts and the issues you address here. I found similar parallels, though less well drawn, in my own book 'Individual Schools, Unique Solutions' in 2004. I found Capra's view of the tensions between design and emergence very useful for this (in 'The Hidden Connections'). I think the 'design for' idea of Wenger's aptly summarises how we need to look at design. I feel it modifies our approach, and expectations, rather than denying any value in designing.

Chris Rodgers

Thanks, Adrian.

I'm glad that the series of posts made sense to you and resonated with your own thoughts on the subject.

In Ralph Stacey's latest book, "Complexity and Organizational Reality," he introduces the notions of what he calls "immersion" and "abstraction". To me, these strongly echo Etienne Wenger's thoughts on participation and reification, which I commented upon in an earlier post in the series.

Also, in his criticism of systems thinking, Stacey is keen to draw a distinction between what I would describe as seeing organizations as systems ('bad') and recognizing that organizations have systems for managing certain processes and functions ('good'). This is a distinction that I share and a 'good/bad' conclusion that I agree with. So, for example, he supports John Seddon's criticism of public sector management and the type of 'systems thinking' that he applies to this. This sets out to improve work flow and the capacity of the system to handle the demands placed upon it. As part of this, he would recognize the part played by design in arriving at a better (management) system.

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