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5 The differences between systemic process, strong or endogenous process and responsive processes thinking

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328  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics



properties and can act back on the parts as a causal force in their interaction, giving

meaning to the parts. In the organisational literature on systemic process, reviewed

in Chapter 8, the parts were defined as routines, core micro-strategies, micro-practices,

procedures and many similar concepts. In their interaction, sometimes called recombination, these parts are said to produce an activity system, or an organisation as

a system, which is a coherent pattern. The parts themselves may also be thought of

as subsystems produced by the interaction of sub-parts. For example, the sub-parts

could be individuals or the mental models through which individuals interpret the

nature of the organisational whole and its environment. In this systemic process

view it is some kind of system which is becoming what it becomes.

In strong process theories, identifying key terms and what is becoming

through process is a bit more complicated. Previously we have just drawn the

distinction between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ process perspectives. In a chapter in

the fourth volume in the series of Process Organization Studies (2015) Sandberg et al. argue that the concept of process is highly ambiguous in the literature and that the weak/strong distinction is not fine-grained enough: they

argue that it obscures as much as it reveals. Reviewing over 100 articles from

prominent journals and other targeted literature which deals with the process

in relation to concepts of identity formation in organisations, they produce a

typology of five different categories of process. These are helpful for thinking

about process organisation studies more generally. The first two categories –

identity as a transitional state or as sliding between one context and another –

are ‘weak’ process theories, which privilege stability over change; the entities

are people and things, and people are more acted upon than acting. The third

category – identity as narrative co-production (particularly present in Weickian

sense-­making) – is a hybrid where both stability and change are roughly equivalent,

and people create themselves in the social activities of telling stories with others. The

fourth and fifth categories privilege ‘process’ over substances, and the important entities are often no longer human beings but events or processes themselves. ­Sandberg

el al. point out some of the implications that these two perspectives, weak and strong

theories of process, have for ontology, what we take reality to be, and agency:

... human agency is replaced or, more precisely, decentered into a fluid network

of people, materiality and events that constantly create and reproduce process.

Agency then almost disappears into what may be described as ‘hyper-process’

reductionism in that process seems to be driven by a driverless perpetual motion

machine.(Sandberg et al., 2015, p. 337)

So to investigate in more depth the perspective of one of the prominent ‘strong’,

process-is-all-there-is scholars, Tor Hernes (2014), entities would be understood as

always being in the process of becoming. We come to discern entities, he argues,

drawing on Whitehead, because they stand out from other entities, but this standing

out only makes sense in relation to other entities or things, as part of a complex

whole. This complex ‘whole’ is a complex unity, it is ‘an ever-changing yet relatively

stable heterogeneous mixture of related things which has no specific composition’.

(p. 101). While entities might be recognised as being stable, this is not to say that

ontologically they are so. Each entity has a possibility of connection to other things,

and this possibility for connection is part of what a thing is. Hernes says that he

finds the idea that organisations have different levels a dubious one and argues that it







Chapter 12  Responsive processes thinking   329



militates against his wish to understand organisation as process through and through.

Instead he understands organisations to be constituted of meaning structures and

events, which comprise but are not reducible to the actions and interpretations of

human beings. Meaning structures do not just function as means of representation

but are also ‘objects of action’, that is to say they are capable of acting or being acted

upon: they are ‘performative structures created and sustained through acts of articulation’ (Hernes, 2014, p. 110). For Hernes, organisations provide acts with meaning,

and acts, which become meaning structures, constitute the organisation.

As Sandberg et al. indicated above, Hernes’ understanding of process pluralises

agency, or perhaps distributes it: an organisation is an actor, a meaning structure

is an actor, time is an actor and so too is what he describes as ‘event-objects’. An

event-object, which is constituted of other, previous events and so is bound up

with time, permeates the meaning structure and gives it historicity and ‘direction’.

An event is understood to be above and beyond the human actors who participate

in it:

It is assumed that the agency of an event depends upon the participation of individual actors, but is not reducible to the participation of those actors. Instead

what confers agency upon an event is the articulatory work in which individual

actors take part and the ability of the work to connect events during the present

associated with that event. (Hernes, 2014, p. 130)

Hernes articulates five modes through which events are articulated, including

through materials and objects. What is important to note, however, is the way that

he creates an entity above and beyond human participation and endows it with

agency and the ability to act to create new events. The ‘what’ which is becoming for

Hernes is the ‘spatio-temporal entanglement of events and elements’ (Hernes, 2014,

p. 151).

It is important that we do not take Hernes to stand for all scholars who work in

the tradition of process organisational studies since it is quite a broad church and

he lies at one end of the spectrum along with scholars like Nayak and Chia (2011)

for example.

From the perspective of responsive processes, however, the entities are embodied

human persons and the movement, the how, is the interacting, the relating, between

persons in their ongoing responding to each other. Process is understood as responsive acts of mutual recognition, where recognition is not simply good since persons

may recognise each other and themselves as superior or inferior, as attractive or

repugnant. The coherent patterns that are being produced in such interaction are not

‘wholes’ outside the interaction but the coherent patterns of the interaction itself, of

the process itself. Nothing is being produced above, below, behind or in front of the

patterns of interaction, of the process. Patterns of interaction simply produce further

patterns of interaction, individually and population-wide. What are becoming are

the individual and collective identities of the persons interacting. Furthermore, in

the responsive processes view, categories of pattern such as routines are instances of

more fundamental patterns: namely the thematic patterning of communication (see

Chapter 13), the patterning of power relations between people (see Chapter  14),

and the patterning of the ideologically-based choices people make (see Chapter 14).

So, in firmly grounding the notion of processes in interaction between human persons, the responsive process perspective makes central the iterative processes of



330  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics



c­ommunication, power and ideologically-driven choice. This perspective, then,

focuses attention not on abstract wholes or administrative procedures but on the

actual micro, local interaction between people in the living present in which people

may imaginatively construct ‘wholes’ felt as the unity of experience, especially the

experience of value (see Chapter 14).

Second, notice how the systemic perspective on process is based on a spatial metaphor of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’. The parts of an organisational system are inside the

whole system, which is outside the parts, and outside the system there is its environment. Of course, the activities of the parts take place in a physical, spatial setting,

but in a systems view they also take place in conceptual space: that is, the system

itself is thought of as a space. Furthermore, process itself is often thought about

conceptually as spatial. This can be seen in Chapter 8 when writers refer to what is

going on ‘inside’ the process. This conceptual spatial distinction immediately leads

to the notion of an observer who can perceive the system or the process from the

outside, as it were, and so can shape or influence the process and what goes on inside

it. This leads to talking about a process called shaping which shapes another process

called routines (see Chapter 8). In systemic process thinking there is a doubling of

process – some process shapes, influences or conditions another process.

In the strong process view which we have considered in this chapter, Hernes and

Nayak and Chia try to do away with an inside and an outside of process, arguing

that organisation is process through and through, and that novelty is inherent to

process rather than occurring as a response to something ‘outside’ it. However, and

at the same time, when recommending what researchers should do about investigating organisations from a strong process perspective, Hernes either takes refuge

in abstractions or he reinstitutes the inside/outside dualism against which he has

previously argued. So, for example, he recommends that researchers should find

ways ‘to describe the presence of institutions in such a way that their ingression into

processes becomes available for analysis’ (Hernes, 2014, p. 178). In this formulation

there is clearly an ‘inside’ of the process into which the institution, as reification,

intrudes and an outside. Articulatory processes, he argues, begin to shape organisational coherence and ordering. However, once this process of cohering begins, the

question for a researcher is how ‘it can produce itself or plant the seeds of its own

change’ (Hernes, 2014, p. 186). This is the problem that Sandberg et al. pointed to

earlier where process becomes a self-replicating perpetual motion machine. Earlier

he argues that researchers should learn to step into the flow of experience of their

research subjects and then step outside of it. In making these kinds of assertions

about research perspective and in appealing in his last chapter to a sense of organisational mystery to inform research, Hernes has found himself back at the start of

his inside/outside dualism which he has sought earlier to dissolve.

In the responsive processes view, although the activities of interdependent people

obviously take place in a physical setting, space, there is no notion of the activities

themselves being inside or outside of anything – mental activity, for example, is not

thought of as being inside a person as it is in systemic process thinking. Responsive

processes thinking is not based on a notion of conceptual space. Furthermore, there

is no external objective observer, only participants. Participation also means something completely different in the two approaches. In systems thinking, people are

thought to participate in a system, a whole. In responsive processes thinking, participation means direct interaction between persons in local situations in the l­iving







Chapter 12  Responsive processes thinking   331



present. So, the methodological position is a participative one rather than one based

on the objective observer. In responsive processes thinking there is no doubling of

process – there is only one process: namely, interaction between persons which is

creating the patterns in their interaction. Since persons can only participate in their

interaction with each other, there is no outside position from which anyone could

use another process to shape or influence the processes of interaction – any influence

is exerted through relations between people in the interaction itself.

Third, the spatial metaphor and the taken-for-granted linear theory of time renders time itself a relatively unimportant aspect of systemic process. Instead, the

systemic perspective focuses attention on routines, procedures and analytical tools.

Systemic process thinking is built upon a linear notion of time in which the past is

factually given, the future is yet to be unfolded and the present is simply a point

dividing the two. It is based on linear phases or stages of development.

Time is central to a strong process view of organisational research which critiques the simple, linear notion of time to be found in a systemic understanding

and suggests a more circular view of time where actions take place in the present

in interpretation of history and in anticipation of the future. However, Hernes’

understanding of time brings with it its own difficulties, borrowing as it does from

Whitehead’s notion of time as manifold, a concept he derives from mathematics,

where events are understood in three spatial dimensions with time as a fourth

dimension. The dimension of time links events in terms of their experienced connectedness, convergence and continuity. As we have seen previously, time itself

becomes a superstructure which begins to take on a life of its own in Hernes’

formulation. So for example, events take place in time, but it is ‘the ability of

events to connect to other events while reproducing the event formation ...[which]

confers agency upon them’ (Hernes, 2014, p. 98). An event regenerates itself at the

same time as being open to novelty, and although Hernes implies that this arises

because of ‘re-­interpretation’, human beings and what they are doing have largely

disappeared from view.

Responsive processes thinking, however, takes a circular, paradoxical view of

time. This means that the past is not actually given, but is being reiterated, retold in

the present in the light of the expectations people are forming in the present for the

future. Expectations for the future are affecting how the stories of the past are being

retold and those stories are affecting expectations for the future, all in the present.

In a sense the future is changing the past just as the retelling of the past is changing

the future, all in the present. The present is thus living in the sense that it has a time

structure incorporating both the past and the future. The living present, the present

we actually live in, implies the arrow of time because you cannot tell the same story

twice – you cannot return to the past. Systemic perspectives look for how the system moves over linear time, while the responsive processes approach asks about the

narrative patterns being created in each living present, how narrative patterns are

moving over time.

Fourth, in systemic process thinking, causality takes a dual form. The individuals

designing the system, with its routines and values, are subject to rationalist causality,

which means that the cause of their actions lies in their rationally chosen objectives.

The system itself is subjected to formative cause, which means that the operation of

the system unfolds the form already designed into it in a move from an embryonic

to a mature state.



332  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics



Strong process views of causality are rather hard to understand, depending as

they do on human beings who act and interpret their actions, but whose actions

and interpretations at the same time create meaning structures and event-objects,

which appear also to have agency all of their own. Human beings are the product

of their life histories and their experiences, and are never assumed to be acting

solely rationally and at the same time they contribute to, and are affected by,

these larger reifications which have agency. Hernes separates out intention and

emergence: ‘Consequential change comes about…as streams of related events, not

dictated or planned by supreme decision makers, but through contingencies that

are partially intended and partially emergent’ (Hernes, 2014, p.159). However, he

offers no theory of emergence, except that some variance happens which was not

there before.

Responsive processes thinking is based on a different theory of causality. In

responsive processes thinking, the theory of causality is unitary and transformative

in that patterns of interaction emerge as continuity and potential transformation at

the same time in the iteration of interaction itself. The future is thus under perpetual

construction in the interaction between people, and it is the processes of interaction

between differences that amplify these differences into novelty. The explanation of

novelty lies in the properties of the processes of interaction.

Fifth, it can be seen immediately that systemic and responsive processes thinking make completely different assumptions about human psychology. The former is

based on the individualistic psychologies of cognitivism, constructivism, humanistic

psychology or psychoanalysis, while the latter takes a relational, social perspective

on individual psychology, a point that will be explained in Chapter 13. The strong

process view of human psychology finds itself more towards to the social pole than

towards the individual, but at the same time it loses the paradox of the individual

in the social which we will be striving to maintain in this book. In privileging the

social and imbuing events and time with agency, the strong process view deprioritises human agency in favour of what Hernes calls ‘collective socio-material experience’ (2014, p. 61).

Sixth, in systemic process thinking, practice means the system of routines, cultural

traditions and so on that individuals use as tools in their practices or praxis. From

the systemic view, experience is the formulation and testing of hypotheses about an

objective world understood in terms of systems, where the system is outside experience, a hidden reality or given categories such as mental models.

In the strong process view of practice, actors are only instantiated through practices which are prior to them and greater than them: practices create individuals

rather than the other way round. Human actors arise temporarily through the connecting work they are performing as part of a wider network of connections and

events.

In responsive processes thinking, individuals are social practitioners through and

through in that their very selves emerge in social practice. Practice is the local activity of bodily interaction as communication, power relating and evaluative choice.

Generalisations such as routines and cultural traditions are to be found only in their

particularisation in local interaction (see Chapter 13). As for Hegel, experience is the

historical, social processes of consciousness and self-consciousness, the world we are

creating in our thought.



Chapter 12  Responsive processes thinking   333







Seventh, the systemic view places thought before action, while from the ­responsive

processes point of view there is no necessary sequence because interaction is continuous over time. This latter position would also be true of a strong process view of

thought and action.

Eighth, from the perspective of responsive processes, population-wide pattern

emerges in local interaction rather than being intentionally created by a plan. The

strong process view understands organisations as event-driven, where events seem

to have local instantiation but create a superstructure of event-objects at the same

time. The systemic process perspective takes the view that population-wide pattern,

understood as a system, can be intentionally planned, or at least the process producing it can be shaped from some external position.

The differences between systemic process and responsive processes are summarised in Table 12.3.

Table 12.3  The differences between systemic process and responsive processes



Systemic process



Strong process or

‘process-is-all-there-is’



Responsive processes



Entity



Parts of a system,

which could be

individuals, routines,

etc., and which can

be thought of as

subsystems, such

as mental models.

Psychological

assumptions are those

of individual-centred

cognitivism, etc.



Entities are made up of

elements, which are in

a complex relation with

each other and always

in a state of flux. Not

simply reducible to human

activities nor are elements

stable



Embodied interdependent

human persons. A social,

relational view of human

psychology is taken



Process



Interaction of parts



Entanglement and flux



Responsive acts of mutual

recognition by persons



What is

becoming



The system, a bounded

whole which exists at

a higher level than the

parts, has properties

of its own, and acts

causally on the parts



Temporarily stabilised

meaningful wholes open

to re-interpretation and the

creation of new eventobjects. Problem of ‘levels’

identified but unresolved



Coherent patterns

of interaction, of the

process itself. Patterns of

interaction produce further

patterns of interaction

and nothing else. These

constitute individual and

collective identities



Causality



Dual causality of the

rationalist, objectively

observing autonomous

individual and the

formative cause of

the system unfolding

a mature form of

itself imputed by the

observer



Linkages and connections

made through human

interpretation and activity

but also through agency

of events and ‘unplanned’

emergence



Transformative causality

in which continuity and

potential transformation

emerge at the same

time. The potential for

transformation arises in

the capacity of nonlinear

interaction to amplify

difference and in the

inherent possibility of

spontaneity in human

agents

(Continued)



334  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics

Table 12.3  (Continued)



Systemic process



Strong process or

‘process-is-all-there-is’



Responsive processes



Theory of

time



Linear view of time

where past is factually

given and future is

yet to be unfolded in

developmental stages



Time as the living present

but one which itself has

agency to affect future

events



Time as the living present

in which both accounts of

the past and expectations

for the future are

formed in the perpetual

construction of the future

in the present



Conceptual

space



Spatial metaphor of

parts inside the system

and the system outside

the parts



Space–time as complex

manifold of events: time

more important than space



No spatial metaphor in

that human action itself

is not inside or outside of

anything. So there is no

society or organisation at

a level higher than human

interaction



Emergence



Not central to the

process and, where

used, equated with

chance happenings

as the opposite of

intention



Central to the process, but

process driven by process.

Sometimes understood as

the opposite of intention



Central to the process of

human interaction where

emergence is understood

in terms of the interplay

of human intentions.

Emergence is not seen

as the polar opposite

of intention and what

emerges does so because

of the interplay of what

people intend to do, not by

chance



Doubling of

process



Autonomous individuals

can stand outside

a process, such as

strategising, and shape

it, that is, use another

process to shape a

process



Process is not reducible

to what human beings are

doing



No doubling of process

since there are only the

processes of human

interaction and no one can

take an external vantage

point in relation to this



Practice



Practice is a system of

routines, etc.



Practices are prior to and

create human actors to

the extent that they are

connected within practices



Practice is the local, social

activity of communication,

power relating and

evaluative choice



Experience



The use of tools and

techniques to make

decisions and act



Central to the

understanding of events

and the passing of time



Historical, social processes

of consciousness and

self-consciousness in

interaction with others.

The world we together

create in our thought



Organisation



A thing to be moved

around



Temporarily meaningful

wholes which can be

analysed and understood

as different interpretations

of identity and meaning

structure



Patterns of relating in

which one can only

participate



Chapter 12  Responsive processes thinking   335







12.6  Summary

This chapter has presented arguments for interpreting the relevance of complexity

theories for organisations from a responsive processes perspective rather than the

systemic process point of view discussed in Chapter 8 or newer understandings of

organisational process which are still developing.

Systems thinkers use the word ‘process’ to mean the interaction of parts of a system to produce that system, whether that system be real or a mental construct. In

human terms this amounts to the assumption that, in their interaction, people either

actually are a system or that they understand their interaction as if it were a system.

Here a macro perspective is taken, which we have signalled by using ‘process’ in the

singular when referring to systems views. It is easy then to reify ‘process’ and talk

about shaping and choosing it. In one manifestation of the strong view of process in

contemporary scholarship, process can again be reified in more sophisticated terms

and can be seen to be acting upon human beings as a superstructure of ‘events’ or

time. In responsive processes thinking, the interaction between persons is understood to produce further interaction between them. In responsive processes thinking,

people are thought of not as parts producing a system, or as products of practices

and connections in networks, but as interdependent persons producing patterns of

relationships, which produce them as selves at the same time. In the kind of responsive processes thinking we are recommending here, there is no notion of system at

all. In talking about this perspective we have used ‘processes’ in the plural to indicate

the micro perspective being taken, in which the macro emerges not in one monolithic

process but in many local processes of local human interaction which cannot be reified and talked about as if they could be influenced from the outside.

From a responsive processes perspective, there is also no notion of hierarchical

levels in human action, a notion which strong process theories identify as problematic but then leave largely unresolved because they simply replace them with another

form of reification. Instead of thinking that individuals produce organisations as

another level, or contribute to events, which shapes their identities, individual identities and the organisational are thought of as the same responsive processes. In

responsive processes thinking, people interacting are intrinsically social and what

they produce is further interaction with widespread, population-wide patterns, not

some higher-level system or whole. In systems thinking, emergence relates to levels in

that interaction at one level produces an emergent system at another level. In responsive processes thinking, relationships are emerging in relationships and the question

of levels does not even arise.

Responsive processes thinking involves moving away from any form of systems

thinking when it comes to human action and focuses on:

• The detail of local interaction between diverse people in the living present as patterning of experience, emergent identity and transformation.

• Interaction in the form of conversation and how it patterns experience in narrative-­

like forms. This emphasises the importance of the informal and the narrative

rather than the prescriptive and instrumental.

• Ideology as the basis of evaluative choices made by persons.



336  Part 3  Complex responsive processes as a way of thinking about strategy and organisational dynamics



• The importance of conflicting constraints emerging as power and the dynamics of

inclusion and exclusion and the links to how people deal with anxiety.

• The emergence of population-wide patterns in the local interaction of interdependent persons.

• The simultaneous emergence of continuity and novelty, creation and destruction,

in the iteration of nonlinear interaction and its amplification of small changes.

By patterns of interaction, then, we mean the activities of interdependent people

and these activities can be categorised in many different ways. For example, such

patterns may take the form of routines as in the process- and activity-based literature, but now they are thought of not as systems but as the patterns of activities of

human persons iterated over time.

We argue that a perspective along these lines forms a coherent way of thinking

that directs attention to the narrative forms of human experience. The focus is on

lived experience in local situations in the present, paying particular attention to

the diversity of relationships within which individual and organisational identities

emerge. The practical implication of such a move is that we focus attention directly

on patterns of human relating and ask what kind of power relations, ideology and

communication they reflect. We ask how themes such as planning or routines are

becoming in ordinary daily life. We look beyond the already given, beyond the tools,

to the ordinary, everyday nature of human interaction in organisations.



Further reading

The arguments presented in this chapter are explored in Stacey et al. (2000) and Stacey (2003,

2005, 2012) and Mowles (2011, 2015a). Also see Stacey (2009). Further information on the

differences between Kantian and Hegelian thinking can be found in Ameriks (2002). For a

view of the emerging strong theory of process organisation studies the edited volume Hernes,

T. and Maitlis, S. (2012) (eds), Process, Sensemaking and Organizing, Oxford: Oxford

­University Press is useful and the book discussed above in this chapter is Hernes, T. (2014),

A Process Theory of Organisation, Oxford: Oxford University Press.



Questions to aid further reflection

1. What do the terms ‘systemic process’ and ‘responsive processes’ mean and what are

the key distinctions between these notions?

2. How would you articulate different notions of process, practice and experience in

human action generally and in organisational life in particular?

3. In what traditions of thought are the notions of systemic process and responsive

­processes located?

4. What does it mean to reason by analogy?

5. On what analogies with the complexity sciences does the notion of responsive

­processes draw?







Chapter 12  Responsive processes thinking   337



6. What do the concepts of emergence and self-organisation mean to you and how

would you take them up in thinking about human action?

7. Elias argued that change in societies is unplanned and emerges in the interplay of

intentions. Would it make sense to think of organisations in the same way?

8. What difference would it make to thinking about the nature of organisations and the

strategising of managers if you think in terms of responsive processes? For example,

would it be possible for a leader to change the culture or values of an organisation?

9. In your own experience, can you trace out how what actually happens in organisations

emerges in the interplay of many intentions?



Chapter 13



The emergence of

organisational strategy

in local communicative

interaction

Complex responsive

processes of conversation

This chapter invites you to draw on your own experience to reflect on and consider the

implications of:

• Thinking of organisations not as things,

systems or even processes, but as

dynamic patterns of relationships, good

and bad, between people.

• Understanding patterns of relationships in

terms of ordinary, everyday conversation

between people in their local interaction

with each other in which they form their

intentions to act and make their choices.

• How the attributes of being human pers­

ons – consciousness, self-consciousness,



spontaneity, emotion, aggression, choice –

arise in the social conversation of ges­

tures and what difference this makes to

thinking about the activities of strategis­

ing in organisations.

• The difference between the sender–

receiver model of communication found

in the dominant discourse and the under­

standing of communication as conversa­

tion in the complex responsive processes

perspective.



For more than 50 years now a vast literature on strategy and organisation has been

explaining, organising and strategising in a particular way and presenting prescriptions for success based on these explanations. This dominant discourse, described

in Part 1 of this book, is based on the assumption that an organisation can be

thought of as a system for which leaders and managers can more or less choose

the strategic direction and/or design, influence or condition the process which will

­determine that direction. Over this period there has been an enormous expansion in



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