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20140723-140003-50403428.jpgIn the past I have studied the three different thinking styles that I have seen used in organizational development. These styles are complexity, systems thinking and mechanistic thinking.

It has always been fascinating to see how the different thinking styles are applied in different situations and contexts. Some people believe that e.g. systems thinking is the one and only answer to all organizational developers. Others believe that different phenomena can have different ontology, which means that different thinking styles should be used for ontologically different phenomena. For me, the multi-ontology theory has always seemed too simplistic solution to overcome the problem of different contexts. Thus I have taken the approach to treat organizations and social groups always as complex phenomena, even though in some cases also the other thinking styles seems to work. (The analogy being that even though Einstein’s theory of relativity is true, Newtonian mechanics is good enough when dealing with small velocities.)

Interdiscoursivity – nested levels of emergence

Recently I read an article by Brent Davis, who wrote about the vital simultaneities of complexity and education. One of them is the interdiscoursivity. In short, interdiscoursivity means that in complex phenomena there can be several levels of emergent patterns. These patterns are nested in a way that local interaction of agents on one level can cause emergent patterns on a more global level. However, it is important to note that this doesn’t mean a hierarchy of levels. The patterns on a more global level are happening simultaneously and affect the interactions of the micro level and vice versa.

Simple example would be living cells. When there are lots of living cells interacting locally a pattern called “organism” can emerge. That pattern can’t be studied in a reductionist manner by studying the cells, it can only be perceived in a level where the interaction has already created the organism. According to G.H.Mead, lots of living organisms interacting locally can create a pattern that we call “mind” or “consciousness”. That pattern can’t be perceived just by studying the organisms, but instead we need to perceive it in a level where it has already emerged – in a social level. Lots of locally interacting minds can also create emergent patterns on a more global level, which we can call social interactions – and on a more global level a culture. Again, the culture can’t be studied or perceived by perceiving individual minds or even individual social groups, but it can only be seen from the macro level. These emergent patterns on the macro levels are also affecting the patterns on the micro levels and this means that there is a continuous dynamic of development and transformation in all of these levels.

Interdiscoursivity means that there can be (or even must be) several different discourses applied to these different levels of emergence. Living cells can be studied in a discourse of biology, organisms in a discourse of anatomy or zoology, minds in a discourse of psychology, social interactions in a discourse of social psychology and culture in a discourse of sociology. All of these levels of emergence are happening at the same time, but we can’t capture them from a single discourse. Depending on our point of focus, we need to apply different discourses in order to be able to talk about them.

Interdiscoursivity in organizational development

So what does this mean for organizational development? It means that we can use several different thinking styles while we try to understand the different phenomena we are dealing with. Taylorism/metrics might be a plausible way to understand what is happening in assembly line – to try to see all the complex social interactions involved there might be extravagant from the point of view needed to make commission. Systems thinking might also be a good tool when trying to optimize how all the workers interact between different phases of the assembly line – taylorism would lack the concepts need to avoid e.g. suboptimization.

However, it would be a mistake to think that what is actually happening in those interactions between people, their tasks and personalities could be reduced to few different systemic laws. All of this is happening in a socially (and perhaps even materially) complex environment. Thus there will always be emergent patterns of interaction happening that can’t be captured by any systems design. Complexity thinking can give use even more perspective on what is happening and also explain why it is not possible to predict and control all of that.

We need to understand the workplace from a psychological, social and even sociological perspective.

So, what interdiscoursivity means is that in order to gain the best possible understanding of what is happening in the organizations, we need to be able to use and understand several different discourses. We need to understand the workplace from a psychological, social and even sociological perspective. We need to understand how the work is assigned from the individual perspective, how the interactions of people and work phases are designed, but also what kind of social phenomena are also emerging – what kind of power struggles, conflicting interests, narratives, individual goals, group phenomena, etc… are emerging.

All of this is impossible to grasp because the possible viewpoints and emergent properties of the situation are virtually endless. It is also important to understand that there are no objective viewpoints, but the viewer is always part of the local interactions and subject to interpretations. However, improving our skills to understand more and more about what is happening in the organizations can be a great asset to influence that what is happening. Expanding our capacity to perceive complex patterns means that we are growing our expertise and abilities for reflexivity.

For me, interdiscoursivity means that there are always room for different approaches and viewpoints in organizational development. There are people who grow their expertise on how to design effective assembly systems, or how to improve communication between the employees and leaders. Some people want to be able to move between different levels of emergence and influence several of them. That is challenging, but also rewarding as it requires very open attitude and willingness to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity.