Fieldnotes: Stabilization is the seedbed of disruption
So tonight I’m taking a few steps back to draw out and expand upon some of the ideas discussed in last night’s post.
However, I first want to thank everyone who read and responded to that piece. There were some great responses that, as usual, helped spark my thinking and helped me better see how to move more deeply into the material while keeping it purposeful and relevant.
Entities V Processes
One piece that’s becoming clearer for me is a better understanding of the distinction between entities and processes in organizational thinking. To back up a bit, yesterday I cited Hernes (2014) who wrote
In mainstream organizational theory, organizations are commonly conceptualized as entities…adapting to an environment that changes between successive stable states. (p. 39)
A key point here is that one of the most enduring—and often unconscious—assumptions about organizations is that organizations themselves are solid, monolithic entities from which all processes arise.
Put more plainly, if I work at the XYZ Widget Company, I will most likely assume that the processes involved with working there arise out of the solid structures that are the company. It sounds silly, but I might even envision an array of “processes”—such as strategic planning, policy formulation, annual budget cycles, etc., etc.,–being churned out of the organization much like the widgets themselves.
Organizations: slower-changing configurations of relationships
But process thinking sees all of this quite differently. As Nayak and Chia (2011) pointed out
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)
Quite a mouthful, no? Also, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. In one sense Nayak and Chia seem to be saying “If you think the organization exists before the process, think again buddy!”
Now at this point someone could respond, “Do you mean to say that the annual budget cycle exists before the organization? That makes no sense! How can a budget cycle exist before the board of directors even hires a CFO or builds a fiscal department???”
Here we need to step back and take a moment to think about organizations and processes a bit more broadly.
A broader view of processes
In the passage above Nayak and Chia (2011) aren’t just thinking about specific, structured organizational processes such an annual budget cycle. They are thinking on a much broader, process scale. They’re looking instead at the broader social and cultural processes that generate imbalances and needs that in turn generate certain desires and opportunities. Such desires and opportunities can, in turn, result in the creation of specific entities such as the XYZ Widget Company.
As Nayak and Chia (2011) might put it, The XYZ Widget Company is the manifestation of an idea that began and is sustained by the public’s desire to exchange their money for a high quality widget. That desire prompts sustained public action that in turn fuels dependable financial processes which the founders of XYZ were able to tap into in order to create and grow the company.
In this way, we’re able to see how the thing we think of as solid—The XYZ Widget Company—is actually a reification of arising from “sustained regularizing of human exchanges”. In short, before there was the XYZ Company, there was the process.
So allow me to quickly open the discussion a bit further on two points about stabilization:
Point 1: Stabilization – at home in temporality
First, Nayak and Chia (2011)–in carefully drawing out this notion of “slower-changing configurations of social relationships”—highlight the importance of the temporal dimension. Time, specifically seeing process as an experience that unfolds across time, is critical.
Within such unfolding, some entities move quicker and some move more slowly. Those moving more slowly are typically assumed to be the more stabilized.
(For example, I recently visited the Grand Canyon. It appeared pretty stable to me, but any geologist will confirm that those rocks are still very engaged in a process of change. It’s just a very slooooooow process.)
Point 2: Stabilization – the seedbed of disruption
Second, Tor Hernes recently wrote (2014) that
A stabilizing configuration [such as an organization] is about connecting and re-connecting elements into a meaningful whole. How connections develop and how they feed into the surrounding world cannot be determined at the outset, nor can they be fully controlled by those involved. (p. 41)
This point is crucial. This force of uncontrollable uncertainty that Hernes refers to is the kernel from which phenomena we refer to as “disruption” burst forth.
How that happens and what we do in response are incredibly important questions that no one has yet attempted to answer with empirical evidence.
That is the research I am now planning.