29 August 2009

The Colour of Autopoietic Organizations

These past few weeks have been filled with a trip back through the literature. This week in particular was really heavy reading, the type of headache-inducing concentration on very abstract ideas that defy common sense. For those who know me, you'll know it's the type of stuff I like. Before that, I finished up with an interesting book The Firm as Collaborative Community. Its first chapter is a good description of some of my findings, essentially describing attributes of organizations that shape themselves as communities that are informed by values, in which trust and collaboration dominate. At first I had that heart-stopping experience of my research being scooped. However, the more I read, the more I realized that their book is the Thomson model of organizations, and I've done the Rutherford experiment, developing the Bohr model, from which I derived the Valence Theory metaphor.

The book finishes with the description of a program that many companies are using, run by a couple of Harvard professors. It’s a very clever packaging of several useful processes for organizational change that I learned about as Organization Development interventions. They wrap it together and call it a Strategic Fitness Process, and it is supposed to effect better collaboration and the creation of community in a traditional command-and-control type of organization. It is a bit of appreciative inquiry and a whole lot of action research wrapped around David Bohm’s process of dialogue , with a smattering of polarity management thrown in for flavour. A very clever packaging of what are standard tools in a contemporary OD practitioner’s toolkit. I can see how they would be able to make an awful lot of consulting money running these sorts of big interventions, and have fodder for Harvard Business Review articles and HBS case studies.

The more challenging, but fun (in a perverse way) stuff was getting down and dirty with Niklas Luhmann’s autopoietic organization as a social system theory. I will have to cover this extensively, as I am proposing more or less a similar idea – a Valence Theory organization is an autopoietic (literally, self-producing) social system, and a lot of the language is similar. However, Luhmann argues that people are not actually elements in an organization. Luhmann’s theory is very specific about the nature of human beings, and their role in social systems. Luhmann considers humans as combinations of organic and psychic systems, the latter being a meaning-constitutive system whose events manifest as thoughts (like the events of a social system manifest as communication). A person, according to Luhmann, is a construct by a social system that interprets the perturbation of these agglomerated organic and psychic systems as being that of a specific person: “the social identification of a complex of expectations directed toward an individual human being” (Luhmann in Seidl, 2005, p. 20). Psychic systems and social systems are mutual environments that are distinct, and coupled via the structural adaptation of language. The distinction between psychic and social systems (despite their complementary and symbiotic relationship) enables the consideration of human beings as the environment of social systems, rather than their constituents, thereby supporting the notion that people are not part of organizations; rather organizations are emergent from the environment of people (Seidl, p. 19-22).

The specific communication events that give organization structure are decisions, and even decisions in his terminology have a weird meaning (See Seidl, p. 37-41). Organizations as autopoietic systems are defined by Luhmann as “systems that consist of decisions and that themselves produce the decisions of which they consist through decisions of which they consist” (Luhmann in Seidl, p. 43). Theoretically, assuming you can twist your head around the self-referential, recursive definition, it holds together: that definition more or less works to be able to understand the mechanisms of organizational activities, organizational culture and, according to Seidl’s book, organizational identity and transformation.

However, it’s not all necessarily good. Among the problems for me (and I am about to read another couple of sources on this stuff to make sure I more or less understand it) is the inclusion of a very particular and limited form of typology for “decision premises” (chains of interconnected prior decisions that impinge on a current decision), and one other minor detail: the exclusion (or to be more precise, dismissal) of people as social projections of meaning on agglomerations of abstract autopoietic systems. That an organization creates and regenerates itself in interconnecting processes (decisions tied to chains of prior decisions that lead to future decisions) is not a bad theory as theories go. And, it is consistent from his foundational premises about autopoietic systems. But it seems to me to be a theory that is not well rooted in a historical context, or to be more direct about it, not rooted in a context of a human history that recounts anthropological, sociological and even neuro-psychological evolution that accounts for the macro-world of interactions in which we live. In particular, it seems to be at odds with Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate (UCaPP) conditions: Luhmann’s language is dependent on creating distinctions between one organizational system and another, and among those and the “outside” environment. His theory of organization seems to be about fragmentation and dividing whereas UCaPP is all about creating connections and tactility in complex ways. And, its other deficiency is that, while it can explain macro-phenomena in a consistent fashion (that is, it doesn’t have to make up too many exceptions to explain observed behaviours and dynamics), it is difficult for lay people to apply in a commonsensical way to practical matters.

I agree wholeheartedly that an autopoietic model is a useful way to explain continually morphing organizations. It is far better than the currently in vogue Structural Contingency Theory that essentially creates deterministic organizational responses to a variety of external stimuli, selected from a fixed typology suggested by one of the guru-professors-du-jour. SCT does not adequately explain processes of significant organizational change (aside from prescriptive methods like the Strategic Fitness Process), and that, in my book, amounts to a form of organizational voodoo. And, autopoietic models would tend to account for informal and non-formal organizations in a way that more deterministic, typology-based models do not; in other words, it provides for a more general model, and that’s always good. And, autopoietic models account for complexity, while deterministic models deal with complication. Our world is in enough trouble as it is; I would rather not suggest dealing with complex problems using complicated approaches.

Valence Theory accounts for an organization as an autopoietic system without eliminating people as its primary elements. Autopoiesis occurs through processes of relations that are, admittedly, of specific types. However, Valence Theory does not necessarily rely on those types being exclusive: the theory applies if the five particular valence relationships that I’ve chosen (Economic, Knowledge, Identity, Socio-psychological, and Ecological) are swapped out and substituted by another set that could also account for observed phenomena and the dynamics of organizational change (that is, having both the equivalent of fungible and ba forms). It is analogous to the various ways of designating colours in different contexts: red, green, blue, for light and cyan, magenta, yellow for pigments, noting, of course, that each set of primary colours is the set of secondary colours for the other set.

And, after all, what I’m setting out to do is to shed a whole new light on thinking about organizations.

  • Adler, P.S. & Heckscher, C.C. (Eds.), The firm as a collaborative community. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Seidl, D. (2005). Organisational identity and self-transformation: An autopoietic perspective. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.

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