Lessons from Organisation Theory

Chapter 4

Lessons from Organisation Theory

In the field of organisation studies, some theorists have begun to utilise a process metaphysics to argue against what they describe as a tendency towards reification. By means of a deconstructive analysis of organisation they are beginning to challenge approaches to organisation theory and management that view organisations effectively as outcomes of forgetting (as constituted by conventional wisdom but pre-existing our experiential knowledge of them) and argue for a refocusing on the practices of organising rather than the features and effects by which we define organisations (boundaries, environments, goals, strategies). Here, we find evidence of an increasing processual awareness of organisations as ‘loose and active assemblages of organizings’ (Cooper 1998), as ever-moving groupings of dynamic acts rather than static structures. Such an understanding, it is claimed, can help to foster a more constructive consideration of organisations than has been possible on the basis of ideas derived from the mechanistic and rationalist assumptions of Newtonian thought.

On this view, the problem as inherited is threefold: in the first place, Newtonian assumptions have now become ‘so firmly entrenched that they [have] led to the creation of a disciplinary self-image, whereby the field [has drawn] the boundaries around itself so narrowly as to exclude th[os]e ideas and practices … which [are] not modern’ (Tsoukas and Cummings 1997: 657); second, theoretical development is now underpinned by ‘progression’: there is an ‘assumption that we are part of a continuous progress in supplying ever more adequate unifying conceptions’ (Tsoukas and Cummings 1997: 663); third, ‘conventional analytical approaches adopted by mathematics and the physical sciences [have proved] impotent in helping us fully understand … [our] experience of change’ (Chia 1998: 349). This is because ‘commonly held notions of time and sequencing of events … [together with a] reliance on scientific systems for objective analysis fail to recognise [that] our experience of temporality and change is one of indivisible movement’ (Dibben and Pantelli 2000: 6). Of course it is true that, at one level, ‘formal organizations [do] accomplish through an architecture of constraints, … highly stable and discriminate types of behaviour’ (Kallinikos 1998: 372) but, in organisation studies at least, it is also quite clear that Newtonian terminology is gradually being replaced by a new, and ‘significantly less mechanistic than before’ (Tsoukas and Cummings 1997: 656), Aristotelian or Heraclitian style of thinking more in tune with a processual understanding of the world. This newer way of thinking both encourages a consideration of how a subject may intervene upon the experience of the object and discourages a view of chaos as antithetical to organisation; instead, there is a growing awareness of the importance of unpredictability, multiplicity, novelty and surprise. In sum, such a view cultivates ‘awareness of dynamic processes; it encourages a positive attitude toward unpredictability and novelty; and it invites us to rethink the character of human intervention in the social and natural world’ (Tsoukas 1998a: 292–94).

Thus, we find a significant shift in organisation studies from thinking of organisations as entities to a ‘more ontologically and epistemologically aware understanding’ (Dibben and Pantelli 2000: 6) of the process of organising as:

a complex and dynamic web of interlocking visual acts of arresting, punctuating, isolating and classifying of the essentially undivided flow of human experiences for the purpose of rendering more controllable and manipulable such phenomenal experiences of the world.

(Chia 1998: 366)

and the act of organising, as ‘an interminable ontological quest of carving out a version of reality from what would otherwise be an amorphous and indistinguishable mass’ (Chia 1998: 365).

Chia maintains that those ‘common organizational attributes’ that positivists and realists allegedly discover are in reality only ‘mirror images of their own deeply-entrenched thought structures’. Alternatively, commitment to a ‘process-based becoming ontology’ would open up possibilities for ‘rethinking’ organization in terms that better reflect its essential characteristics as a process of ‘world-making’ (Chia 1997: 685). This alternative approach ‘draws its inspiration from a vastly different set of ontological and epistemological priorities and … is more epistemologically robust’ (Chia 1997: 687). He identifies six enduring ‘instincts’, characteristic of positivistic thought:

First, there is an emphasis placed on the idea of empirical verification or some variant such as ‘falsification’ … Second, positivists … believe that what we can see, feel, touch or sense directly provides the best foundation for all forms of knowledge. Third … When one event follows another in a regular predictable manner, a causal relationship is said to exist. Fourth, positivists see the task of science as enabling the prediction of events … Fifth … primary importance is placed on observable reality … Finally, empirically untestable propositions … belong to the realm of idle speculation …

(Chia 1997: 688–89)

These six instincts provide the ‘epistemological justification for a positivist view of scientific inquiry’. However, this positivistic epistemology clearly derives from a set of ‘ontological commitments’ that has it roots in a Parmenidean cosmology:

First, reality is made up of discrete, self-identical ‘things’ … which exist, independently of our perceptual apprehension. Second, these things or entities are primary to process … Being precedes and is primary to becoming … Third, the state of rest, stability and equilibrium is a natural state. Movement only occurs when things are ‘disturbed’ … Fourth, an external force is required to initiate change, … Finally, the commitment to a being ontology precipitates a subject-predicate mode of thought … deemed to be more able to accurately ‘capture’ and represent reality as it is in itself.

(Chia 1997: 690)

Chia maintains that contemporary organisational theorising tacitly presupposes this notion of the necessary pre-existence of enduring presentational forms in that it more or less assumes an entitative conception of reality, in which ‘clear-cut, definite things … occupy clear-cut, definite places’; that is, a style of thinking ‘in which the “thingness” of things, social entities, and their properties and attributes are taken to be more fundamentally real than … interactions and relationships’ (Chia 1997: 690). Nonetheless:

this very act of ‘foregrounding’ organizations as clearly circumscribed, legitimate objects of analysis, whilst at the same time denying the status of the network of organizing from which this theoretical object has been abstracted, is itself an ontological act of organization … Only by a dogmatic and intellectually convenient process of ‘forgetting’ its ‘other’ can positivistic organization theory proceed in the way it has done.

(Chia 1997: 691–92)

We can see how this ‘forgetting’ happens from an explanation that Steve Woolgar (1998: 68) provides. He identifies a five-stage ‘splitting and inversion model of discovery’ in the scientific research process: (i) first, there is the production of (often speculative) documents; (ii) this is followed by the projection of the existence of that object that will become the legitimate focus of investigation; (iii) at the same time, perception of this ‘object’ grows until it attains an existence of its own, independent of all notions of it; (iv) next, the relationship becomes inverted, and the idea forms that it is in fact the object itself that stimulates attention towards it; (v) and, finally, this inversion becomes so embedded in the research process that stages (i)–(iii) are either ‘forgotten’ or denied. Woolgar believes that this model is sufficiently robust as an explanatory device to be generally applicable and useful for understanding the practice of all forms of representational thinking. Chia maintains that any ‘findings’ obtained in this way will simply mirror the tendency to think unquestioningly in static, structured and discrete ways, thereby reinforcing a belief in the validity of those findings.

This is precisely the point that Michael Baxendall makes in relation to Kenneth Clark’s account of Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ:

[W]e are at once conscious of a geometric framework; and a few seconds’ analysis shows us that it is divided into thirds horizontally, and into quarters vertically. The horizontal divisions come, of course, on the line of the Dove’s wings and the line of the Angel’s hands, Christ’s loincloth and the Baptist’s left hand; the vertical divisions are the pink angel’s columnary drapery, the central line of the Christ and the back of St John. These divisions form a central square, which is again divided into thirds and quarters, and a triangle drawn within this square, having its apex at the Dove and its base at the lower horizontal, gives the central motive of the design.

(Baxandall 1985: 5)

The point is that Clark’s use of language represents not so much a description of the picture as a representation of his own thoughts about the picture and his attempt to provide an explanation of it. For Chia, if we really want to understand the complexity of the world, we need to acquire a more dynamic understanding of complexity that will improve our awareness of the indivisibility of movement and change, the interpenetration of past, present and future. He suggests embracing a qualitative awareness of duration as an indivisible flux and becoming, a fusion of heterogenous instants; a corresponding relinquishing of the dominant spatialised conception of time that conceives of movement as a set of rests along the line of a trajectory. To think complexly is, he claims, ‘to avoid the seductive appeal of the metaphysics of presence, to resist the overwhelming tendency to think in terms of simple location, and to recognize the immanent, enfolded and implicate character of phenomena’ (Chia 1998: 357).

Nonetheless, social life becomes possible only when it is seen as ‘simple location’, when entities are in fact posited as discrete isolated systems existing in space-time. Understood in this way, organisation becomes a simplifying ontological activity in which ‘subjective phenomenal experiences are simply located, fixed, externalized, and objectified into isolatable elements ready for reconstitution by the intellect’ (Chia 1998: 365). That is, we perceive the world as the outcome of an organising process: ‘All our belief in objects, all our operations on the systems that science isolates, rest in fact on the idea that time does not bite into them’ (Bergson 1911a: 9). However, the point is that we need to balance this realisation with a deeper one, thinking in a complex way that will overcome this self-imposed simplification.

In various contributions to organisation studies, a number of writers have adopted Henri Bergson’s thinking to present a fresh challenge to the notion that punctuated equilibria can ever form an adequate basis for understanding radical novelty or creative advance. Their arguments indicate that, whereas Bergson’s thought on the importance of intuition as a form of knowing allows normative concerns for the production and use of knowledge to be reconceived in terms of essentially dynamic movements of enfolded meanings relating all things at all places and times, organisation theory has failed to take this into account. For example, Martin Wood (2002), proposes: