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Fieldnotes: Organizational process precedes substance. So what???

July 24, 2014

Clearly I’ve not been writing or posting nearly as much as I did earlier in the summer. The reason is that I’ve been spending a great deal of time reading and wrapping my head around some very important—and game-changing—material on process philosophy and its role in organizational thinking.

For a while, I feared I was losing important momentum (and I was) and heading down a path that would prove a fruitless distraction (and I was not). The exciting part about reading this work is that it has opened me to ideas that clarify and cohere the entire thesis.

In essence, for my dissertation process philosophy has now become the organizing “glue” uniting the disparate strands of my argument (complexity, disruption, narrative, relationality, phenomenology, etc., etc.) into a single cohesive whole. That’s really cool.

But to make it all fit I’ve got to rethink each piece of the puzzle from a process perspective. That’s what I’m trying to do now.


Process thinking via Hernes, Nayak & Chia

With that, I’ll share several recent passages that have proven quite thought-provoking. The first is from an amazingly great new book called A Process Theory of Organization by Tor Hernes, Ph.D. Hernes is a process-thinking organizational scholar from Copenhagen.

The subsequent two passages are from Drs. Ajit Nayak and Robert Chia from their chapter “Thinking Becoming and Emergence: Process Philosophy and Organization Studies”.

A point emerging from these thinkers—and I think it’s an important one—is that our notion of ‘disruption’ is predicated on a view of the world that pre-supposes predictable outcomes and continuity. Hernes points out that such a view of the world assumes that “substance” is “real” and “primary”–meaning it exists prior to anything we may later consider a “process”.

Process thinking, on the other hand, holds a very different understanding of the world. From a process perspective, process is what is “real” and “primary”. This means that anything considered stable and solid emerges from process, rather than the reverse.

So from a process perspective, disruption in an organization is just part of the process out of which that organization itself arises and is constituted. (Mind bending, no?) From this way of thinking, we might say disruptions are not the aberrations; the aberrations, in fact, are the solid entities—such as the organization itself—that are socially constructed in order to facilitate action and sensemaking.


Changing patterns of relationship & event clusterings

So with this in mind, Tor Hernes writes:

In mainstream organizational theory, organizations are commonly conceptualized as entities…adapting to an environment that changes between successive stable states….From a process perspective, the focus is inversed: it is stabilization, and not change, that needs to be explained, because the world is continually changing and organizing consists of attempts at stabilization to create a predictable world amid multiple possibilities. (p. 39)

Then, in describing a process perspective, Nayak and Chia (2011) write:

…social phenomena are not be construed as solid entities with state-like qualities. Individuals, organizations, and societies are deemed to be epiphenomena of primarily fluxing and changing patterns of relationships and event clusterings. (p. 284)

Entities such as individuals and organizations are theoretical reifications that refer to slower-changing configurations of social relationships resulting from the sustained regularizing of human exchanges (p. 285)

 That’s taken a while for me to get my head around; actually, that process is still going on. I’m particularly intrigued by this notion of “changing patterns of relationships and event clusterings”. That seems like a very important area meriting further exploration. Later on, that is.


So what???

But now, the greater question at this point arises…So what???

Yeah, so what? I mean, it’s all very interesting, but is there really any meaningful practical application of any of this? Or is this just all some kind of hoity-toity navel gazing??

The truth is, I don’t know. But I’ve got a hunch.

I believe that there is practical application—potentially a lot of it–and it is most likely already in play. At least, that’s what I am hoping to find through my research. At this point, I’m moving forward on the premise that within organizations we’re already engaging in process-based responses to disruption—but we don’t know it. It’s something we don’t think about too much because we haven’t yet given it names and labels.

All over the globe, these process-based actions and routines are “just what we do” day-in, day-out to work together, respond to disruption, and get the job done.

My hope is that by learning more about this “just what we do” action, we can then start to draw it out further and develop it into more sophisticated approaches that help us all move more easily forward.

More to follow. Soon.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2014 12:17 am

    One challenge that might be encountered in practical applications is the tension between people’s need for certainty for significant action vs. the process view that you’re after a momentary resonance not a defined stable state. In other words, groups become activated through over-promises (the neo-con dilemma). This extra momentum carries them past the resonance point but also facilitates a counter-move.

    Application may lay in 1. greater awareness of leveraging decoherence (slow down) 2. finding a good (net) period for inevitable organizational oscillation, and 3. facilitating the timing so that sub-system oscillations have a greater chance of constructive interference.

  2. July 25, 2014 10:42 am

    If I understand you correctly, I aglree. Since I focus on therapy my model is the individual which he sees as an epiphenomenon. I say the same thing when I say personality doesn’t exist. It is something g that comes about through an interaction of states and traits between persons over time and it’s only durability comes from habit and our belief in its existence. Psychological diagnosis is another good example. The “so what” is that when we really understand this change can happen much faster. When change is focussed on the epiphenomenon it doesn’t work as fast because it re confirms the existence of the phenomenon by interacting with it. If u focus on the dysfunction as if it exists you reinforce it. Creating these illusory phenomenon are not bad so long as they are functional.
    The problem is that we are all largely blind to our own epiphenomena.

  3. July 25, 2014 3:08 pm

    Hi David,

    The work Inhave been doing with Denise Easton on disruptive experinces and the patterns of respinse at the individual, social, and organizational levels, totally fit with your research and thinking. I’d love to meet and talk with you over a coffee or two and share thinking. You can see more of our basic framework at and in the article “The World According to FLUX” that we published last year in the Journal for Quality and Participation.

    Be seeing you…


  1. Fieldnotes: Organizational Processes & Insider Intuition | gonna.grow.wings

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