Using complexity analogies as a way of exploring knowledge and practice

cropped-picture-of-dunes-22.pngI have been asked to give a presentation to a group of doctoral students in the Netherlands on how we might use complexity as a way of understanding what we are doing in organisations. I was asked to prepare an abstract which I will share:

Traditional management theories have a tendency to focus on general terms that might include ‘culture’, ‘leadership’, and ‘strategy’ etc and use these to create models and frameworks to explain the present and predict the future. In doing so there is a reification, namely the way of relating to these terms as if they were fixed entities. We can trace this back in Western thought to the work of Kant.  Here the emphasis of understanding includes a dualism between people and organisations, the collapse of contradictory but ever present tensions that people deal with and a formative process of causality that implies an understanding of the future based upon the unfolding of pre-set factors.

Considering the work of Stacey and others (Stacey et al., 2000) we can challenge this approach and their assumptions. Stacey is a management theorist who uses the sciences of complexity as an analogy to explore everyday interactions between people and how these come to develop into organising themes (for which the US pragmatist philosopher GH Mead (Mead, 1934) developed the theory of ‘the generalised other’). Here we can pay attention to the dynamics between: the interaction of people as they interpret the themes they notice and experience; and, how these themes themselves come to be developed from everyday interactions of people. From the interweaving of novel and established patterns transformation is possible in a process that is emergent. Empirically the approach draws on people’s routine work collected in a series of narratives often spanning several years and critically engaged within a learning set alongside organisational literature (Warwick and Board, 2013).  This has been the approach of the Complexity Management Centre based at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, in their long running doctoral programme.  This way of studying organisations and our presence as part of them enables a richer understanding of the dynamics of reified terms, for example what we might call ‘culture’.

They have termed this approach complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey et al., 2000) as a way to draw attention to the temporal nature of the processes of which we are all participant and from which no one is separate. Rather than Kant, it is influenced by Hegel’s (and those who draw on his work) notion of process and how, in our ‘rubbing along’ with each other, novelty emerges. Issues of power and paradox are explored. Power in the sense of an interconnected mesh or figurations (Elias, 1978) of which we are all part of in known and unknown ways. And paradox to give voice to ever present contradictions faced in organisations for which reconciliation is not possible. These are factors that people face daily as they go about making decisions, trying to sense plausible next steps in conditions of increased uncertainty.

For the doctoral student or academic this forms a contribution to knowledge and practice. With respect to knowledge first-hand accounts that address issues of power and how people reflexively respond are rare particularly amongst senior groups  (Warwick and Board, 2012). When it comes to practice, the individual becomes more reflexive (Cunliffe, 2009) understanding their own place in the mêlée in which they are a part. Of particular note are the power relations within ones habitus (Bourdieu, 1990) that become available for noticing thus enabling more thoughtful choices to be made as part of the paradoxes that are present in everyday decision making.

The literature I have drawn on:

Bourdieu P (1990) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Cunliffe AL (2009) The Philosopher Leader: On Relationalism, Ethics and Reflexivity–A Critical Perspective to Teaching Leadership. Management Learning, 40(1), 87–101,

Elias N (1978) What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.

Mead GH (1934) Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago University University.

Stacey R, Griffin D and Shaw P (2000) Complexity and Management – Fad or Radical Challenge to Systems Thinking? Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Warwick R and Board D (2012) Reflexivity as methodology : an approach to the necessarily political work of senior groups. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 37–41.

Warwick R and Board D (2013) The Social Development of Leadership and Knowledge: A Reflexive Inquiry Into Research and Practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.


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