The book is a collection of six essays dealing with the complexities of organizational change in large organizations and most of the contributions are written by consultants or managers close to the education and research programs of Professor Ralph Stacey from the Business School of the University of Hertfordshire who appears as contributor and editor of this volume.
The first essay is from Ralph Stacey and it provides the theoretical underpinning for the rest of the book’s contributions. It starts with a critique of the uselessness of system theory (inclusively complex adaptive systems theory) for studying human interactions as overly mechanicistic and claims that “interaction of human agents is not a system at all but further patterns of interaction both locally and globally at the same time” (p. 22). Instead, he proposes and alternative theory, that of “complex responsive processes” which describes “processes of communicative interaction, power relating and ideological evaluation in which local individual selves/identities and the global patterns of the social emerge at the same time, each forming and being formed at the same time” (p. 30). This is the key theoretical theme underlying the book. Basically, what Stacey proposes is that there are no hierarchical levels in human interactions — especially no permanent and relatively stable boundary conditions — just a plain process of interaction where at the same time people enable and constrain each other while acting. According to the logic of Stacey’s theory, social and cultural aspects of human interactions are thus created and recreated in the real time process. This argument not only runs against the basic logic of systems theory but also against standard sociological, institutionalists and anthropological thinking. Cultural values, beliefs and symbols that are characteristic of a society are changing at a much slower rate than dynamics at the level of individual interactions, and therefore, they represent relatively stable boundary conditions which constrain human behavior. In the organizational context, the specific “culture” of the firm acts in an analogous way and therefore represents a higher level constraint.
Stacey draws from Herbert’s Mead the notion of “social objects” as “generalized tendencies, common to large numbers of people, to act in similar ways in similar situations” (p. 35). The notion of “social objects” is close to that of institutions regarded as rules, habits and norms that constrain human interactions and emerge in a society both spontaneously and by deliberate design (Rutherford, 1996). Institutions, whose characteristics depend upon a broader cultural context, must change at the slower pace than interactions themselves in order to be able to provide stability for human interactions. Therefore they represent a higher level constraint with respect to the latter. In the absence of slowly changing, higher level constraints — that of culture and institutions — human interactions would be lost in an unpredictable mess. The proposition of complex responsive processes theory that individual and social qualities and acts merge at the same dynamical level is, therefore, implausible.
If the first essay is provocative with its theorizing, the rest of the book appears quite uninteresting to readers who expect more than the organizational problems narrative, which here appears as the narrative in the literary sense, idiosyncratic and with no clear message to take home. I doubt that readers of E:CO will find much interest in reading the text which contains phrases like “Hi Clare, it is David Scanlon, we met at the diversity meeting,” which we find in the third contribution (p. 65). The narrative approach may be a valid method of exposing problems in social sciences when the issue narrated transcends the idiosyncratic, and when it tries to explain the phenomenon. However, the kind of introspective story telling that we find in the most of the contributions (especially in David Scanlon and Michael Nolan essays) does not meet this requirement. It is closer to fiction writing style than to social science style and this may be disturbing for those readers who are used to made distinction between the two.
The language used in the book is often unclear and imprecise to the extent that it loses any analytical meaning. In the sixth contribution “Technology as social object: A complex responsive processes perspective” written by Stig Johannessen and Ralph Stacey we find passages like “Mind then is the activity of a body experiencing a similar attitude, a similar tendency to act, as others do in response to gestures that body makes” (p. 154). I cannot tell whether the authors awkwardly use (quoted) Herbert Mead’s concepts in their discussion, and how relevant these may be for the discussion of the social use of technology. However, their conclusion that “technology and the wider resources and competences of which technology is a part can all be thought of as social objects” is confusing (p. 161). We already saw that the notion of social objects is close to that of institutions. Since institutions provide an operational social context in which technology is used, putting both of them under the same label is at least confusing if not entirely misleading.
There is nothing much to add for the rest of contributions as these reflect the major flaws of the book identified so far, which lay basically in the implausible propositions of the complex responsive processes theory and in the idiosyncratic nature of the narratives.
Overall, in my opinion the book is not worth reading as far as the readership of E:CO is concerned. Its potential contribution to the science of complexity as applied in the social context is most probably nil. The only message that I find worth mentioning is that one should be wary of applying complexity theory mechanically to social context, without taking into account cultural and behavioral peculiarities of humans. However, this important message is conveyed rather sloppy and superficially.
From my own managerial experience in a multinational organization, I find the contributions as being largely useless as far as managerial practice and insight are concerned. Perhaps the major problem of the book is that it pretends to overcome what the authors see as an inadequacy of application of system science to social and organizational context, and in that it fails completely, both in the plausibility of its critique and in proposing of an alternative theory.
- Rutherford, M. (1996). Institutions and Economics: The Old and New Institutionalism, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521574471.