age of modernism, agile organizations, Coaching, complex responsive processes, dominant discourse, dynamic roles, leadership, Norbert Elias, Organizational development, Pierre Bourdieu, Ralph D. Stacey, reflexivity
I will start this post with a statement: Ways of thinking affect the processes of organizing, and society affects the ways of thinking. So, in order to understand organizations it is important to understand the ways of thinking in our societies.
How is the society visible in our organizations?
From modernism to postmodernism
The age of modernism, which started in the late 19th century and reached popular culture just before WWII, was heavily related to the growth of cities and industries. The thinking styles that developed used efficient/formative causality, which saw people and organizations as machine-like systems. The societies themselves were seen as machines that could be controlled with social sciences quite the same way as natural phenomena could be controlled with natural sciences. This was proved to be efficient world-view within the industry and it has lead western societies to gain great wealth and resources.
However, as the society grew more complex the old paradigm started to change. Instead of hierarchical and fixed positions and roles, the society started to create more flexible dynamics. It became possible for people to create connections globally and build multiple identities within the society. Postmodern society created networks instead of hierarchies, dynamic roles and identities instead of fixed ones and new kind of economy that was more about services and knowledge processing than material objects. This change has been a change of interactions between people. It has been a change in the social processes, which is reflected in the ways of thinking.
Agile as part of a Protest Wave
Ralph D. Stacey wrote an excellent analysis of Agile organizations. He concluded that Agile was just another name for decentralization and empowerment. However, Agile can also be seen as a social movement reflecting the wider western society. We could look at Agile movement as part of a Protest Wave.
The dominant discourse in organizations is still quite conservative. Organizations are seen to be machine-like systems, where people are the cogwheels that make it work. Managers are seen as outside observers controlling the organizations with orders and incentives. This is fully compatible view with the modernist thinking. However, as we saw, the society has been transforming and the modernist viewpoint has been challenged. The society is all about scattered networks, dynamic identities and knowledge processing. It is inevitable that this change of societies is reflected in the organizations also.
Especially in the SW development business it is easy to see how the traditional work has turned into knowledge work. It can’t be governed with the same methodologies that used to apply in the factory lines. So, it is no wonder that especially in the SW development industry there have been rapid development in the organizational development methodologies. These reflect the changes in the wider society. Some of the principles have been copied from Asian societies (e.g. Lean development) and some have been created in western societies (e.g. Agile development). The function of Agile development is that it seeks to replace the hierarchical command structures with decentralization. It seeks to replace the fixed roles and identities with empowerment, where it becomes possible to be flexible.
Like Stacey pointed out, decentralization and empowerment are old paradigms and there is nothing new about them. I would argue that these principles reflect the postmodern society and thus they have been promoted already many decades by different people. The difference is that Agile has been developed in the times when the society is even more ripe for postmodernism with e.g. all the social media entering popular culture. Furthermore, it has been developed in a field of work that is highly postmodernist knowledge work, with also the product segment focused on the new economy of services and knowledge processing. This situation has provided deep enough networks and social resources for the Protest Wave to emerge.
Agile has been functioning as the trigger for the Protest Wave and thus there will be new protests coming after it.
So, to conclude I think that we are now witnessing the times of postmodernism entering the business world, to the world of industry. To use Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology, this means that the “doxa” of old modernist thinking is evermore challenged by the postmodern society and this has created the state of “heterodoxia”. The dominant discourse is challenged by movements such as Agile and it has to be defended with “orthodoxia”. As this is a Protest Wave, the argumentation is more of a moral kind than scientific one. This is also clearly visible in the Agile movement. Nevertheless, it has the support of society which is going more and more towards postmodernism. This change in society will inevitably change the organizations too.