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So here’s today’s question: If conversation constructs the organisation, and innovation is key to survival, can you afford not to take responsibility for the conversational habits that make up your enterprise?

One of the most useful tricks of the human mind is to take things for granted. It is very restful to treat sitting and watching television or sitting in a car on a freeway, or sitting 10,000 feet in the air as normal. But none of these things had been experienced by any human 100 years ago. Now at any point in time there are a million humans in the air!

How do we do such things?

By conversation. By the private conversations in our minds we call thinking. And by the conversations in which we coordinate our behaviours to collectively conceive, design, develop and deliver our built reality.

As with the taking for granted of flying, we take for granted the relationship arrangements

· the pooling of effort

· the subordinating of ourselves to others and to purposes

· the trading of money and goods for labour

that make up organisations.

But those relationship arrangements were only ever made in language – they only ever came to be because of people talking. Organisations themselves only ever eventuate because of conversation, and are only perpetuated and maintained by conversation. That means we are making the places we work – and that means we can re-make them as places that are more fit for their environment.

Organisations arise through conversation:

1. Because as human activity systems they cannot fail to reflect the way language works

2. By the explicit construction of new entities through purposeful talk

3. By the everydayness of talk being the way we get things done

The first one is the most foundational, but also as you might expect, the most technical to explain. So instead of my readers bailing out now, what if I deal with these in reverse order? Perhaps the mood of a thrilling countdown will keep you till the end!

#3: Organisations arise through conversation just because talk is the way we get things done

Its 20 years now since Alan Webber wrote in HBR: “Conversations are the way workers discover what they know, share it with their colleagues, and in the process create new knowledge for the organization. In the new economy, conversations are the most important form of work … so much so that the conversation is the organization.” (1) And if this was the only reason, it’s enough to warrant leaders paying far more attention to what goes on in language.

(2), (3)

#2: Organisations arise through conversation by the explicit construction of new entities through purposeful talk

The phenomenon of “organisation” in economically viable human activity systems – of being in a state of recognisable coherence in the face of complexity , is only ever a product of conversation.

As radical as it sounds in a world of mega-structures and mass computerisation, what my friend Anne Deane said back in about 1995 is still true: “All there is, is people and conversations.” In more technical terms,

Social structure is shared, repetitive and enduring values, beliefs, traditions, habits, routines and procedures. These are all social acts of a particular kind. They are couplings of gesture and response of a predictable highly repetitive kind. They do not exist in any meaningful way in a store anywhere but, rather, they are continually reproduced in the interaction between people.” (4)

This is a constant process in history. Where you head out the door to “work” in the morning, how long has your role existed? Your kind of job? Your kind of firm? Your kind of industry? Well, all those ways of organising had to be invented.

Right now, complex environments are seeing new forms of organisation arise. Take the organisational structures for “collective impact”, and the new organisational forms such as the “backbone organisation”. The term “collective impact” only took on currency in the public arena with the November 22, 2010 publication of a post bearing that title by John Kania, and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (5), and as of today, it still “only” has 257,000 references in Google. Yet the headlines of one of Kania & Kramers subsequent posts (Jan 21 2013) make the case: “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity. Collective impact is upending conventional wisdom on how we achieve social progress.”

And of course the technology that allows us to connect in a bewildering array of networked arrangements in so-called “social media” is also wall-to-wall conversation, however much we tend to see the shiny widgets and apps that conduct our presence. “What is transpiring is momentous, nothing less than the planet wiring itself a new nervous system. If your organization is not linked into this nervous system, you will be hard pressed to participate in the planet’s future. To be more specific, amidst the texting and Twittering and Facebooking of a generation of digital natives, the fundamentals of next-generation communication and collaboration are being worked out.”(6)

#3: Organisations arise through conversation just because as human activity systems they cannot fail to reflect the way language works

People talking together is what frames, forms and maintains the conventions and structures that support relationships. Conversational relationships are the only source of possibility for human meaning making (7)

Karl Weick observes: “The image of sensemaking as activity that talks events and organizations into existence suggests that patterns of organizing are located in the actions and conversations that occur on behalf of the presumed organization and in the texts of those activities that are preserved in social structures.” (8)

Viewed from this perspective, the apparent solidity of social phenomena such as ‘the organization’ derives from the stabilizing effects of generic discursive processes rather than from the presence of independently existing concrete entities. In other words, phrases such as ‘the organization’ do not refer to an extra-linguistic reality. Instead they are conceptualized abstractions to which it has become habitual for us to refer as independently existing ‘things’. ‘Organizational Discourse’, therefore, must be understood, … in its wider ontological sense as the bringing into existence of an ‘organized’ or stabilized state.”(9)

OK, you can leave now if you must. I’ve made the case. You want to be a credible leader in a complex world, you better have a language about language.

But if you want to hold your nose and jump, here is the next layer down of theory about the way organisations are formed by conversation. It comes from the world of sociology. And I’ll let Ralph Stacey do the talking, a helicopter review of George Herbert Mead’s arguments about thinking and language, taken up to address complexity in organisations

“Mead said that humans are fundamentally role-playing animals, by which he meant that rudimentary forms of thinking take the form of private role-playing, that is, gestures made by a body to itself, calling forth responses in itself. It is this private role-play that constitutes mind. Social relationships are, therefore, gestures made by bodies to other bodies and mind is the gesturing and responding of a body to itself. The process is the same in both cases, namely a “conversation of gestures” in significant symbols, that is, the body rhythms of feelings, and they both proceed at the same time.

Mead then argued that the gesture which is particularly useful in calling forth the same attitude in oneself as in the other is the vocal gesture….The development of more sophisticated patterns of vocal gesturing, that is, of the language form of significant symbols, is thus of major importance in the development of consciousness and of sophisticated forms of society. Mind and society emerge together in the medium of language, where mind is private, silent conversation and social is public, vocal conversation.” (10)

“Eventually, individuals develop the capacity to take the attitude of the whole group, or what Mead calls the game. In other words, creatures have now evolved who are capable of taking the social attitude to their actions as they gesture and respond. The result is much more sophisticated processes of cooperative interaction…. There is now mindful, social behaviour with increasingly sophisticated meaning and an increasing capacity to use tools more and more effectively to transform the context within which the interacting creatures live.”(11)

“Throughout this explanation, human society is emerging simultaneously with human minds, including selves. Mead consistently argued that one is not more fundamental than the other; that one could not exist without the other. The social, in human terms, is a highly sophisticated process of cooperative interaction between people in the medium of symbols in order to undertake joint action. Such sophisticated interaction could not take place without self-conscious minds but neither could those self-conscious minds exist without that sophisticated form of cooperation. In other words there could be no private role-play, including silent conversation, by a body with itself, if there was no public interaction of the same form. Mind/self and society are all logically equivalent processes of a conversational kind. Social interaction is a public conversation of gestures, particularly gestures of a vocal kind, while mind is a conversation of gestures between “I”, “me”, “other” and “group” in a silent, private role-play of public, social interaction.” (12)

What Mead presents in his theory of symbolic interactionism is complex, nonlinear, iterative processes of communicative interaction between people in which mind, self, and society all emerge simultaneously in the living present. Elias’ theory of process sociology presents processes of power relating in which social structures (habits, routines, beliefs) emerge at the same time as personality structures (ways of experiencing ourselves). Both Mead and Elias are concerned with local interaction in the present in which widespread, global patterns emerge as social and personality structures, as identity and difference, as human “habitus”. I have been pointing to how the complexity sciences model complex adaptive systems as generalised, abstract interactions that demonstrate the possibility and plausibility of the theories that Mead and Elias present” (13)

Are you perpetuating old conversation forms as though they are not something you are responsible for?

(1) What’s so new about the new economy? HBR 1993

(2) Flores quoted in Brown, J. and D. Isaacs Conversation as a Core business Practice,

(3) Cartoon by Michael Leunig

(4) Stacey R. D.,2003 Complexity and Group Processes: A Radically Social Understanding of Individuals Routledge, p65

(5) “Social Impact” Winter 2011. p. 36-41.

(6) Moore, Geoffrey – White Paper – “Systems of Engagement and The Future of Enterprise IT, A Sea Change in Enterprise IT”, http://www.aiim.org/~/media/Files/AIIM%20White%20Papers/Systems-of-Engagement.pdf

(7) The extensive literature around feral children and “the forbidden experiment” bears this out. Let alone create, we cannot live without language. To do language is to be human. In the 13th century, Emperor Frederick II of Germany experimented to see how children would develop without being exposed to language. He theorized that children would either develop the ability to speak Hebrew (the language which he thought was the original language of mankind) or to speak the parents’ language. Infants were fostered without having a word spoken to them – all the children he used in the experiment died. In a similar vein, the 16th century Mogul emperor Akbar experimented with infants to see if they would develop a “natural” religious faith without being in contact with people – the children grew up quasi-deaf and mute for life.

(8) Weick, Karl E. ; Sutcliffe, Kathleen M. ; Obstfeld, David Organizing and the process of sensemaking Organization Science, July-August, 2005, Vol.16(4), p.409

(9) Robert Chia Discourse Analysis as Organizational Analysis Organization: a debate on discourse 7(3): 513–518 2000

(10)Stacey 2003 p62

(11)Stacey 2003 p63. Eventually, these tools take the form of artefacts that in turn pattern our own behaviours, as described by Francis Cooren: Cooren, F. 2000 The Organising Property of Communication (Amsterdam, John Benjamins)

(12)Stacey 2003 p 63, 64

(13)Stacey 2003 66. This is Stacey’s critical contribution – the theory of complex responsive processes of relating that lead to organisations. As Stacey goes on to say ”with regard to human action, the useful concept is process rather than system.”

David Jones

Changing the ways people talk to get work done.

New work? New conversation! Change Conversation.