Johnnie Moore

What is an organisation?

Johnnie Moore

Johnnie Moore

I’m Johnnie Moore, and I help people work better together

Dave Snowden has just posted online a book chapter he has written with Cynthia Kurtz called Bramble Bushes in a Thicket. It’s about the “relationship between narrative and learning networks. It also explores some key issues in respect of the complex issue of Identity.” For me, that doesn’t quite do justice to the dense riches you’ll find within. Dave has an indecently large brain and this is a tour de force on his and Cynthia’s part.

I enjoyed their contrasting of idealistic and naturalistic approaches to understanding – and attempting to change – organisations.

In the idealistic approach, the leaders of an organization set out an ideal future state that they wish to achieve, identify the gap between the ideal and their perception of the present,

and seek to close it. This is common not only to process-based theory but also to practice that follows the general heading of the learning organization. Naturalistic approaches, by contrast, seek to understand a sufficiency of the present in order to act to stimulate evolution of the system. Once such stimulation is made, monitoring of emergent patterns becomes a critical activity so that desired patterns can be supported and undesired patterns disrupted. The organization thus evolves to a future that was unknowable in advance, but is more contextually appropriate when discovered.

They come down in favour of naturalism (count me in) and go on to look at the impact of narrative (ie storytelling) within learning networks. If you ever needed an academic explanation of just why blogging has mushroomed, you’ll find plenty of stuff here.

They look at three different ways of understanding multiple identities inside organisations, citing work by Martin and Meyerson.

According to the integration perspective, organisational identity is strongest when it is shared and reflects the goals and beliefs of its founders or managers. From an integration point of view, “alignment” between expressed values and informal beliefs is desirable, leading to increased loyalty and coherence. This perspective is particularly prominent in the popular literature on culture and leadership. By contrast, the differentiation perspective highlights subcultures and sub identities within the organisation, derides efforts at false unification, and believes that it is necessary to recognize differences of class and power within the organisation to make sense of its identity. The ambiguity (or fragmentation) perspective views the organisation more like a web in which coherent subidentities are always appearing and disappearing and in which fluctuating elements of organisation-wide identity form and dissolve on particular issues. Martin and Meyerson emphasise that no one of these perspectives is entirely correct, but that all three must be considered when viewing the organisation. Thus an organisation is a coherent body (integration) that is divided against itself (differentiation) and always changing (ambiguity). In other words, organisations collectively manage multiple types of coexisting identities.

I found this very helpful, as I think a lot of people view organisations only through the integration viewpoint and miss out on the subtleties and paradoxes that the other perspectives show us. One of the most interesting I find using Improv actitivies is it that they illustrate how teams do something much richer than aligning with some notional set of values, and that the richest and most satisfying moments embrace differentiation and ambiguity.

They go on to rethink the old complaint about silo mentality, with a delightful section that says that this gives silos a bad rap they don’t deserve. Apparently real world silos are rather brilliant things and we could learn a lot from them when figuring out how we want groups and teams to share their knowledge with each other. I haven’t even got into their insights on storytelling. I won’t abstract more, but recommend you chew over the whole thing, it’s worth it.

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