All posts by philipjboxer

Defining sovereignty over task systems and sentient organisation

by Philip Boxer Bsc MBA PhD[1]

Open systems and their 1st-order behavioral closures
Individuals identified with an enterprise, the formal behavioral model of which is thought to be deterministic, believe that the enterprise can dictate responses to all events, which are believed to be completely enclosed within its boundary.  This formal behavioral model is denoted by the transitions between its sets of input and output symbols and is referred to as a first-order system. Such a system-of-interest is said to be over-determined if its structure over-determines its behavior in the sense of rendering it deterministic. Such a system-of-interest is a closed first-order system with a first-order structure.

Conversely, a non-deterministic formal model of behavior signifies an under-determined system-of-interest, the behavior of which is uncertain because there is more than one outcome possible from any given set of input conditions.  A first-order system that cannot be assumed to have all its inputs within its boundary is an open first-order system because we cannot know that its first-order behavioral closure is deterministic.  An open system is therefore one for which the first-order closure of its behavioral model is non-deterministic.

Sentient organisation and 2nd order behavioral closure
Consider now the elements of a system-of-interest with a first-order behavioral closure whose degree of non-determinism may be modified by an alteration to its behavior through choices exercised over the transitions available at each of its states, exercised through control of the behavior of its elements.  Any agency that so modifies the system-of-interest’s behavior must be outside the system-of-interest, and may be said to be controlling it. If the behavioral model of this controlling behavior is itself deterministic, then such behavior may be treated as further elements of an expanded system-of-interest through processes of mechanization. If the model of controlling behavior is not deterministic, however, then this agency may usefully be referred to the way the enterprise is organised, defining the forms of novel emergence that are possible with respect to the components of the system-of-interest with its first-order behavioral closure[2]. The relation of 2nd order organisation to 1st order structure is a stratified relation.

The characteristic of such 2nd order organisation is that it is sentient[3]. However, we may redefine the system-of-interest so as to include the elements (aka people!) of its sentient organisation that are the sources of controlling behaviors, defining a second-order system-of-interest referred to as a socio-technical system. The boundary of a second-order system-of-interest whose behavioral closure can be made deterministic is its perimeter.

Each deterministic second-order closure that may be constructed by the exercise of sentient organisation may be considered to be a point in a model space, just as each state of a first-order system is a point in its state space. Each possible modification by its sentient organisation of the structure of the first-order system-of-interest that changes the nature of the second-order deterministic closure is a transition in that model space. The behavior of the enterprise may therefore follow a set of possible trajectories through model space which together comprise its repertoire of possible deterministic second-order behavioral closures. While some changes to sentient organisation may reduce the variety of these possible trajectories of the enterprise through model space, this is unlikely to be the case given that the elements of a sentient organisation are people, the controlling behaviors of whom are not going to be (‘reliably’) deterministic.

Sovereignty and 3rd order behavioral closure
To remove this non-determinism in the second-order behavioral closures, a further form of agency, a governance process, will be needed to restrict the set of trajectories through model space.  The power to impose such a third-order closure through a governance process is the power of sovereignty over the 1st order structure and 2nd order sentient organisation of an enterprise. We may again re-define the system-of-interest to include the elements of the governance process (again, people), referring to it as a third-order system.  If this governance process is able to make the 2nd order behavioral closure deterministic, then it defines the perimeter of the enterprise.  This allows the enterprise to be defined as a system-of-interest in which its governance processes have the power to impose third-order behavioral closure, i.e. single trajectories through model space. We may say that the enterprise can be identified with a 2nd order system-of-interest, but its behaviors are realized through the way sovereignty is exercised over that 2nd order system.

What is frequently referred to as an ‘open system’ therefore, when used to refer to the way an enterprise is organised, is a third-order system, the behavioral closure imposed by which is deterministic.[4] Continuing with the example of Bob Martin, used in distinguishing emergence from hierarchy, clearly there was a need for 2nd order organisation to manage the 1st order systems of production.  But the maintenance of 3rd order sovereignty over all this is apparent in its continuing status as a family firm:

In 1938 Bob Martin’s opened a showpiece factory in Southport – it was to play an important role in providing vital medical supplies for British soldiers [during the Second World War] as well as in maintaining the growth of the company. Robert Martin continued to run the company after 1948 and maintained an active involvement up until his death in 1979. His son, now Sir Bruce Martin QC, took up the reins of the business in his turn and Bob Martin has remained a privately owned, family firm to this day.

Distinguishing edge from perimeter
If the enterprise must organise its behaviors differently as a function of different kinds of client-customer relationship, then its governance processes must surrender sovereignty to the particular relationship to some extent.  The relation across its perimeter will therefore be different for each different kind of client-customer relationship, becoming an edge. An enterprise may thus have many edges to the extent that there need to be many such ways in which it must surrender sovereignty in its interactions with its client-customers, the most interesting of which involves network formation within a larger ecosystem[5] – interesting because sustaining such surrendering of sovereignty demands asymmetric leadership.

The person and the enterprise
A difference between the person and the enterprise, therefore, is

  • the relationship of a person’s identification to their singular embodiment as a person, whereas with an enterprise, its 1st, 2nd and 3rd order systems provide multiple forms of support for identification by persons.
  • a person takes up a role in the life of an enterprise, whereas with an enterprise, it takes up a role in the lives of its client-customers.[6]

[1] This posting is based on a joint paper with Bernie Cohen on “Modeling and the Modeler”, July 2007.
[2] Novel because if the relation is one of weak emergence, then by increasing the resolution of the state space, then the behavioral model of the 2nd order system may be rendered deterministic. This is what is done to the business models of enterprises through the effects of digitalisation with its attendant de-layering of sentient organisation.
[3] Miller, E. J. and A. K. Rice (1967). Systems of Organization: The Control of Task and Sentient Boundaries. London, Tavistock.
[4] The biological systems from Maturana derived his distinction between structure- function-organisation are 2nd order systems with deterministic 2nd order closures of their behavior. See Lacan and Maturana: Constructivist origins for a 30 Cybernetics in Communication and Cognition (1992) Vol 25. Number 1 pp73-100.  For some of the issues facing ‘open systems’ thinking, see Leading organisations without boundaries: ‘quantum’ organisation and the work of making meaning.
[5] The formation of such networks around their social objects involves new forms of stratification aka novel forms of emergence demanding new governance processes that are incommensurable with the sovereignty of the existing enterprise as a whole. This gives rise to the challenges requiring a double alignment of ‘know-how’.
[6] Note that the implications of the word ‘role’ here are different, in the former use referring to an individual, in the latter a whole system-of-interest. In dilemmas as drivers of change I argue that this latter perspective requires a systemic view of the enterprise.

Distinguishing novel emergence from hierarchy

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

Some years ago, I published a paper titled: The stratification of cause: when does the desire of the leader become the leadership of desire”[1]. The paper’s aim was to understand an enterprise not so much in terms of its business model(s), as in terms of its being a response to an undecidability, experienced by its client-customers, in relation to which it created value.  The ‘desire of the leader’ had to give way to the ‘leadership of desire’ under conditions of environmental turbulence in which a highly connected environment gave rise to tempos of demand that quickly rendered any static business model(s) obsolete. The demands of client-customers had to be responded to one-by-one in how the enterprise created value.  This had to be a process of continuous innovation responding to the demands as the demands arose in their contexts-of-use.[2]

A persistent problem facing the way we think about how this ‘leadership of desire’ translates into the way an enterprise is organised is the confusion of hierarchy with emergence. The originating innovation (aka novel forms of emergence) of a new way of creating value became ‘fixed’ in the form of a business model subject to hierarchical accountability established by the originator of the business model, in order that it might be repeated.[3] Under conditions of environmental turbulence, however, such hierarchies are insufficiently dynamic.  The need for continuous innovation therefore requires that hierarchy be distinguished from emergence in order that the nature of originating innovations be grasped more effectively.[4,5]

The confusion of levels of hierarchy with emergent strata hides the fact that descriptions in terms of ‘levels’ are unable to account for the emergence of strata either as a natural phenomenon or as an artifact of the process of observation.[6] The emergence of strata can be defined, however, without invoking the prior concept of levels.  It does this through the use of the concepts of spatial and temporal scope, spatial and temporal resolution and state.[7]

Scope, Resolution and State
Implicit in the prediction of the properties of a system by a modeler is that modeler’s interest in that system as a system-of-interest. This system-of-interest is defined by boundaries derived from the properties of the system that are of interest. The modeler may provide an interpretation that maps symbols in the modeler’s model to observable phenomena in the world, but the boundaries around the modeler’s system-of-interest identify its scope, whether as it is modeled or as it is observed.  Saying of a model that “it is able to predict the properties” of a system-of-interest, is to say that the modeler considers the model to provide an adequately explanatory account of the system-of-interest to the extent that causal effects in the system-of-interest are interpretations of inferences in the model. In the following example, the properties that Bob Martin wanted of his conditioning powder led him to define the system-of-interest that could produce the powder: [8]

In his greenhouse in 1892, a 25 year old man called Bob Martin invented a conditioning powder for dogs. Whilst working for a local veterinary practice Bob Martin had become increasingly interested in basic healthcare for ordinary pet dogs. He constantly pestered his new employers with questions and visited local mining districts to talk about canine ills. Miners would show him their simple remedies and inspired him to conduct his own experiments. The new conditioning powder was intended to supplement the poor diet endured by many dogs at the time and to ensure that every pet could be kept in peak condition…

Spatial scope is defined by a spatial boundary. Spatial is used in the broadest sense of the word to include conceptual and formal, as well as physical spaces, provided the system has a physical manifestation (spatial refers to the set of components, in contrast to temporal, which refers to the dynamics of those components). The spatial scope of a system representation is the set of components within the boundary between the associated system and its environment. If an observer shifts from representing the system to representing a component, such that the component is now the system-of-interest, the scope of observation has narrowed. Conversely, when the scope is increased to include components that were previously part of the environment, the scope has broadened. There is also a temporal dimension to scope, temporal scope defining the set of moments of time over which the system is represented. In Jaques’ terms, therefore, a broader spatial scope of a system-of-interest defines a greater span-of-complexity, while a broader temporal scope defines a longer timespan-of-discretion.

Spatial resolution is defined by the spatial distinctions made in describing the representation of a system-of-interest. In comparing two alternative system representations, if a fine (high) and a coarse (low) resolution representation have the same scope, the fine resolution can distinguish a greater number of possibilities.[9]  Once the resolution is set, this determines the ‘size’ of the components that comprise the system-of-interest. There is also the temporal resolution of a representation, defining the duration of a moment in time, where longer moments represent coarser (lower) resolutions.

The State of a system is the information that distinguishes between alternative system representations at some spatial resolution and moment in time. A macrostate M and microstate μ denote states with two different resolutions and scopes, with macro-to-micro relations such that the macrostate has either a coarser resolution or a broader scope, or both. A property of a system-of-interest, then, is defined as emergent if (and only if) it is present in a macrostate and not in a microstate. This leads to distinguishing novel emergence from weak emergence.

Novel and weak emergence
A property of a system-of-interest is a novel emergent property if (and only if) it is present in a macrostate but not present in any microstate, where the microstates differ from the macrostate only in scope. In contrast, a property is weakly emergent if (and only if) it is present in a macrostate but not present in any microstate, and this macrostate differs from the microstate only in resolution.[10] A weakly emergent property is a limitation of the observer, therefore, and not a property of the system-of-interest.  There was novel emergence in the way manufacturing processes and supply chains were organised to enable Bob Martin to produce the conditioning powder – under no circumstances could the powder be the predictable outcome of the constitutent parts of those processes and chains.
This macrostate/microstate distinction allows us to define a minimal macrostate M* with respect to an emergent property, if the emergent property is present in M*, and is not present in any microstate μ with the same resolution and narrower scope (i.e. in any proper subset of the components of M*).  In the case of the conditioning powder, this would have been the irreducible core of the way the product had been defined. We can now return to the definition of the boundary of the system-of-interest:

  1. A system-of-interest is defined by the set of properties that characterise and identify that system.
  2. For each property, the minimal macrostate is identified, which associates that property with a particular scope.
  3. The system boundary is defined as the set union of the scope of each property.
  4. The resolution must be at least as fine as the highest resolution minimal macrostate.

This definition removes the effects of weak emergence in distinguishing systems-of-interest and their component systems.  In these terms, therefore, while the behavior of a system-of-interest exercising control relationships over the behavior of its component systems exhibit weak emergence (i.e. its components have an is-a-part-of relationship to the system-of-interest), the behavior of a system-of-interest with a stratified relationship to its component systems exhibits novel emergence (i.e. its components have an is-used-by relationship to the system-of-interest).[11]

In the case of Bob Martin’s powder, with its novel emergent properties, we can assume that he patented the means of its production (or kept it secret).  As the demand for the product expanded, however, and production was scaled up, while its production would have become standardised and routinised, its quality would have remained dependent on the way the enterprise was organised in order to generate novel emergent properties from its component parts:

… The Bob Martin range quickly expanded from the original conditioning powders to remedies and preventative healthcare products for a wide range of canine and feline ills. In 1938 Bob Martin’s opened a showpiece factory in Southport.

Distinguishing stratification and levels of hierarchy
In order to describe stratified relationships, we also need the parallel definition of a maximal microstate μ*, which is maximal with respect to an emergent property in M* if the emergent property is not present in μ* and is present in any μ with broader scope and the same resolution.  Stratified relationships between systems-of-interest and their component systems can be described in terms of the relationship between matrix 1 of maximal microstates and matrix 1b of minimal macrostates in the following set of matrices (in which all of the states are described at the same level of resolution):[12]
This stratified relationship between systems-of-interest and their component systems is based on a structural distinction between their representations.  This differs from a hierarchical relationship between systems-of-interest, levels of which are distinguished by the observer solely in terms of the modeler’s perspective and interpretation, independent of any structural distinction.[7,13]

Defining the first asymmetry – the technology is not the product
Remembering that the states in the above matrices are all defined at the same resolution, the importance in separating out matrix 1 from 1b is therefore because it distinguishes novel emergent behaviors of any given (composite) system-of-interest that “cannot be localized to any single component of the composite system but instead produce effects that arise from the cumulative action and interactions of many independently acting components.”[14] A novel emergence would be a ‘product’, the nature of which cannot be reduced to the ‘technology’ of its component systems. The first asymmetric dilemma, therefore is the fact that “the technology does not define the product”.[15] The following hints at this transition from a focus on organising the technological means of production to a focus on the business of selling the product, leading up to the opening of the showpiece factory in 1938:

His son, Robert, was born in 1901 and at the age of 20 followed his father into the family firm. Over the years he gradually took over the business side and was responsible for Bob Martin’s innovative advertising campaigns from the 1930’s onwards.

[1] Published in Psychanalytische Perspektieven, 1998. 32(33): p. 137-159. An earlier form of this argument was presented as a paper at the 8th International Conference on Systems Research, Informatics and Cybernetics in Baden-Baden on August 14th-18th 1996, sponsored by the International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics and the Society for Applied Systems Research.
[2] Failure to do this through processes of maladaptation was what gave rise to vortical environments. See Must we fall into the vortex?
[3] This is to be seen in The ideologies of Architecture, and the difficulties encountered in the impact of (inappropriate) governance approaches on system-of-system environments, as well as in the north-south bias in leadership qualities and the difficulties of leading organisations without boundaries.  This confusion is compounded by the work of Elliot Jaques in his work on hierarchy, which nevertheless makes a distinction between levels and pseudo-levels in arguing the necessary presence of 7 levels in all enterprises.  These levels are argued for in the differing nature of timespans of discretion/span or complexity.  I begin to disentangle Jaques’ levels from hierarchy in timespan of discretion and the double alignment of know-how. The double alignment is because there needs to be alignment not only to the founding assumptions of the enterprise, but also to its edges where it meets the demands of client-customers.
[4] This is an issue facing not only current ways of understanding the organisation of an enterprise in terms of what is happening to boundaries, authority and containment (the boundaries, authority, role and task (BART paradigm), but also to the way we understand authority itself.
[5] An originating innovation is what lies at the heart of a ‘network intervention‘, itself a response to a something lacking made present as a social object.
[6] Based on extracts from Alex Ryan’s paper “Emergence is coupled to scope, not level”, September 2006.
[7] Implicated also are the concepts of the observer’s perspective and interpretation that influence the representation of a system by an observer. Perspective is that through which some information at a particular resolution is hidden e.g. the state of internal organs to the naked eye; and interpretation allows for there to be multiple valid interpretions, not only in the sense of optical illusions, but also in the sense of there being multiple ways in which the representation of a system by an observer is itself structured by the observer-as-a-structuring-system – Miller, J.-A. (2009 [1968]). “Action of the Structure.” The Symptom 10(Spring). We will return to this in a later posting.
[8] This example is taken from Bob Martin History.
[9] A closely related concept is scale, which is a transformation by multiplication. The connection is that as a property is scaled up (multiplied) within a system, it can be detected at coarser resolutions. The distinction (which is rarely made) is that scale is independent of how the system is represented, whereas resolution is an attribute of the representation (scale is ontological, but resolution is epistemological).
[10] In essence, weak emergence assumes that the properties of a macrostate can be simulated on the basis of modeling the behaviors of its component systems if enough could be known about their behaviors and interactions. In effect, a presumption of weak emergence is reductionist. See Mark A. Bedau’s (1997) ‘Weak Emergence’ in J. Tomberlin, ed., Philosophical Perspectives: Mind, Causation, and World, Vol 11, Malden:MA, Blackwell. pp375-399.
[11] In evaluating platform architectures within ecosystems (modeling the supplier’s relation to indirect value), novel emergence was identified with structural holes of three kinds (corresponding to the three asymmetries) in the relations between component systems with their maximal microstates.  These are described in this posting, in stratifying relations of novel emergence subject to supply-side sovereignty, and in surrendering sovereignty – business platforms and K-type propositions. What this use of novel emergence adds, however, is a fourth asymmetry between the effects ladder and its associated demand situation and a something more that always escapes this formulation of an organisation of demand. This fourth asymmetry might be expressed as “what we demand is never what we desire”. This fourth asymmetry is between the effects ladder and its associated demand situation, which define a ‘pseudo value articulation’, and the embodied subject’s actual experience of value and of value deficit aka desire.
[12] Note that in Matrix 0, some of the states are considered ‘inputs’, while others are ‘outputs’.  This becomes significant when further layers of stratification are considered.
[13] For an earlier treatment of this issue in terms of the three asymmetries, see why is a stratification not a universal hierarchy?.
[14] See Fisher, D. S. (2006). An Emergent Perspective on Interoperation in Systems of Systems., SEI Technical Report CMU/SEI-2006-TR-003. Key here in the stratified relationship is the absence of dominant (vertical) control relationships over the component systems, allowing (horizontal) cause-and-effect relationships between component systems to become dominant in the generation of properties.The characteristics of these distinctions between different kinds of system are summarized in the following:
simple-complex-complicatedFor more on the distinction between simple-complicated-complex-chaotic, see the drivers of organisational scope.
[15] This is the first of the three asymmetries.

Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Title: Working forensically with toxic thinking: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Presented at ISPSO Annual Meeting Rome 2015

In an increasingly networked world, enterprises are being expected to organise around the individual needs of the customer. This is easy to say but difficult to do. Take, for example, the challenges facing the car industry. To quote a recent McKinsey interview with Bill Ford:

“It used to be that the auto industry, and the car itself, were part of a self-contained ecosystem. If there were breakthroughs, they were developed within the industry … that’s all been turned on its head; we now have disruption coming from every angle, from the potential ways we fuel our vehicles to the ownership mode. We have a whole generation that just wants access to vehicles as opposed to ownership … the reality is that we will not own, or develop, most of the connectivity technologies involved. So we have to be a thoughtful integrator of other people’s technologies and understand where we add value.” (Kaas and Fleming 2014)

In such highly networked worlds, collaboration is the new normal. The dilemma faced by Ford is between ‘developing our own technologies’ (i.e. going it alone) and ‘integrating other people’s technologies’ (i.e. collaborating), except that Bill Ford is arguing that the former approach will no longer work. A version of this dilemma experienced by a manager would be between ‘if I develop our own technology I know I’ll have a job, but it won’t be so good for the enterprise’ and ‘if I use that technology I’ll be working myself out of a job’. For the manager, other people’s technologies will be toxic to the organisation as the manager knows it, but the point made in the interview is that such thinking by the manager will be toxic to the survival of Ford. The manager’s response to what is perceived as a toxic environment is in defence of the organisation he knows, which supports his identity as a manager. Even though the ‘bad’ choice of using other people’s technology may not be dismissed directly as being toxic, it may still be excluded because it ‘feels wrong’ despite there being arguments in its favour. Choices that are felt in this way to be toxic to the organisation are killed off not by a single act of dismissal but rather by the cumulative effects of many small exclusions, micro-aggressions against forms of thinking and behaviour that are felt to be alien. The manager, in holding on to particular ways of judging what is appropriate for the enterprise, is reflecting the affect he attaches to its way of giving meaning to his work. The construction of this containing will use concepts supported by the manager’s particular ‘feel’ for what is right, the roots of which will be in his particular unconscious relation to it aka libidinal investment in that construction. Such thinking, however, can paradoxically be toxic both to his own future and to the future of the enterprise. The libidinal economy of an enterprise may thus unconsciously kill off good ideas that are essential to the survival of the enterprise. Working psychoanalytically in an enterprise to prevent such ‘murders’ therefore demands a ‘forensic’ way of working, in which careful attention must be paid to the way such dilemmas are contained, or not. This involves questioning the affects unconsciously attached to existing constructions that link them to their consequences for the enterprise – ‘forensic’ because the motives of such ‘murders’ are never obvious! The paper explores the difficulties encountered in challenging existing libidinal investment in particular ways of organising – the libidinal economy of an enterprise. To do this, it examines an example of an enterprise that stood accused of toxic thinking, in this case of institutional racism.

Download the full paper

The Governance of Specialist Care: a question of ethics?

Title: The Governance of Specialist Care: a question of ethics?
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Presented at OPUS Conference 2014

This paper describes a two-year intervention within an organization providing residential care for men and women with mental health disabilities. This intervention, in support of the CEO and senior management team, took place during the mid-90’s when the UK Government was engaged in de-institutionalisation, making the transition to Community Care and instituting internal market reforms. The intervention itself was concerned with supporting innovations in the way the work of the organization supported the lives of its residents. These innovations were necessary to the continuing viability of the organisation as a specialist care organisation. The paper is written from the perspective of 20 years later, making it possible to contrast the hopes and aspirations of both the consultants and the client at the time of the intervention with what actually happened to the organisation subsequently. The paper describes the way the authorisation of the consultants was drawn from the consulting approach. It describes the orthogonality that this demanded of the consultants, through which underlying dilemmas could be surfaced about the nature of the client system’s work. Three issues emerged from the intervention that are addressed by the paper: firstly, the nature and complexity of the client system in its networked environment and the extent of the innovation that this demanded (Trist 1977); secondly, the nature of the consulting approach involved in responding to this demand; and thirdly, the implications this approach had for the governance of the client system (Hoggett 2006). From the perspective of 20 years later, it is not a surprise that the social defences against anxiety won out over the desire for innovation(Long 2006). This gives rise to a fourth issue however: what change in the relationship to the unconscious was being expected of the governance of the client system, what kind of courage did this demand, and what were the unconscious dynamics underlying the Trustees’ refusal to innovate(Boxer 2013c)? The paper concludes by considering the nature of orthogonality and the change in the relationship to the unconscious that this demanded of the governance of the client system, a change that involved an ethics that could move from ‘defending against anxiety’ to ‘being true to desire’ (Lacan 1992 [1959-1960]; Lacan 2014[2004]). The paper concludes by considering the implications these ethics have for a different kind of group relations experience that can explore the existential impact of such changes, so necessary in networked environments.

Download the full paper

The Governance of Specialist Care: a question of ethics?

by Philip Boxer BSc MBA PhD

This paper, presented at the OPUS 2014 Conference, describes a two-year intervention within an organization providing residential care for men and women with mental health disabilities. This intervention, in support of the CEO and senior management team, took place during the mid-90’s when the UK Government was engaged in de-institutionalisation, making the transition to Community Care and instituting internal market reforms. The intervention itself was concerned with supporting innovations in the way the work of the organization supported the lives of its residents. These innovations were necessary to the continuing viability of the organisation as a specialist care organisation.

The paper is written from the perspective of 20 years later, making it possible to contrast the hopes and aspirations of both the consultants and the client at the time of the intervention with what actually happened to the organisation subsequently. The paper describes the way the authorisation of the consultants was drawn from the consulting approach. It describes the orthogonality that this demanded of the consultants, through which underlying dilemmas could be surfaced about the nature of the client system’s work. Three issues emerged from the intervention that are addressed by the paper: firstly, the nature and complexity of the client system in its networked environment and the extent of the innovation that this demanded; secondly, the nature of the consulting approach involved in responding to this demand; and thirdly, the implications this approach had for the governance of the client system.

From the perspective of 20 years later, it is not a surprise that the social defences against anxiety won out over the desire for innovation. This gives rise to a fourth issue however: what change in the relationship to the unconscious was being expected of the governance of the client system, what kind of courage did this demand, and what were the unconscious dynamics underlying the Trustees’ refusal to innovate? The paper concludes by considering the nature of orthogonality and the change in the relationship to the unconscious that this demanded of the governance of the client system, a change that involved an ethics that could move from ‘defending against anxiety’ to ‘being true to desire’. The paper concludes by considering the implications these ethics have for a different kind of group relations experience that can explore the existential impact of such changes, so necessary in networked environments.

On stratification

by Philip Boxer PhD

Why the interest in stratification?
A colleague, Simon Western, referred me recently to Actor-Network Theory and the work of Bruno Latour in the context of a conversation about the behaviour of health care networks.

  • His point was that the value of this approach was in the way it focused on ‘following the interactions’, including in a network anything that “modifies a state of affairs by making a difference”.[1] Physical objects that constrain or enable interactions are thus just as important in defining a network as are human actors.  His observation was that standardisation, while restrictive if it became overly prescriptive and bureaucratic, could be liberating, “underpinning all successful business networks”.  Just enough standardisation was the key, for without minimal standardised interfaces, nothing happened.  His examples were:
    • Ryan air- the biggest airline in Europe, grown from nothing on the basis of standardisation creating behaviour change from all stakeholders, to grow a huge network of passengers and air travel;
    • McDonalds- standardised processes, fueled by entrepreneur franchise ownership + fantastic supply chain networks
    • Facebook and Twitter – phenomenal growth through simple standardised frames for individuals to fill with their own personalised content
  • I commented that I thought standardisation per se was insufficient in understanding what made networks effective, the issue being to understand their stratification.  Thus standardisation operated within some of the strata of a stratification and then in different ways depending on the nature of the relationship to demand that the network as a whole was mobilising.[2]
  • His response was that my use of strata and layers spoke more of an engineering project, geology or construction site rather than the fluid complexity of networks. Following Latour’s understanding of networks, his point was that “standardisation and structure are actants within networks, but not the architecture of them.”

So here we were with what looked like a disagreement – follow the networks of interactions and the worlds they construct versus how are the worlds of networks built? In what follows, I explore the ways in which there is no disagreement between these positions.

Follow the networks of interactions and the worlds they construct
In relation to what does a network form?  A useful place to start here is the social object.  An example of a social object would be the condition of a patient[3], but the condition encountered as an event – some singular moment in which there is something about the condition that disrupts existing understandings and/or irrupts in a way that insistes on being attended to [4].  A social object represents a particular affective relation to a situation in which some aspect of the situation itself is experienced as complex, question-generating, endlessly unfolding and incomplete.  The social object is to be distinguished from a ‘real’ object, being like a flag around which people may gather allied in relation to the situation that the flag signifies.[5]  Its efficacy in serving as a social object depended on there being a fit between the nature of its incompleteness and the individuals’ own experience of lack – an identification between some aspect of an individuals’ unconscious lack and the imaginary form given to it by the social object.[6] This ‘gathering around’ takes the form of a network of interactions that includes not only people as actants, but tools, technologies, ways-of-thinking and anything else that enables a current state of affairs to be modified by the differences it makes in the interactions. In the case of our patient, it is hopefully a gathering around the cause of addressing his or her condition.

Latour introduced the notion of punctualisation as a way of thinking about how actants are related to as ‘black boxes’[7]:

the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become.

The definition of these black boxes ‘punctualise’ the actants between which interactions are taking place, and when there is some breakdown in the interactions, such black boxes are ‘depunctualised’ in the sense of being opened up themselves as a network. It is this relationship of embeddedness of networks as elements of networks that is described as a ‘stratification’.

Latour further distinguished a ‘real’ object “not by virtue of being tiny and fundamental, but by virtue of having an intrinsic reality that is not reducible to its sub-components or exhausted by its functional effects on other things.”[8] This is consistent with a view of all objects and systems as forms of novel emergence, even though it is convenient for many of such objects to be considered ‘objective’ in the sense of their existence being inter-subjectively agreed as independent of the observer .[9]

So now we have networks, each one formed by interacting actants allied by a relation to a social object the relation to which operates as the (final) cause of the network.  Such networks are stratified by the ways in which they are constituted in relation to embedded networks that are ignored so long as the network as a whole performs as expected in relation to its cause.

How are the worlds of networks built?
The ambiguity in this heading is intended.  We are interested both in finding ways of describing the way networks are punctualised into strata, and also interested in how new forms of punctualisation become possible in pursuit of new kinds of effect.  Latour identified a second type of  ‘intentional’ object that “has no interior of its own, but exists purely on the interior of some other object”.[8] The descriptions of interacting actants from which stratified networks are constructed have this intentional nature.[10] Looked at like this, it is possible to see why Simon was concerned.  In terms of the following diagram, by seeking to identify the ways in which structures might shape the ways in which actants interacted with each other, we would also be creating new understanding of the actants within the network itself. [11] How so?

actantsSuch structure structures an actant’s way of understanding his or her interactions with the network. The actant is subject to this structuring, over-determining the way that they attribute ontic status to their constructions.[12] Using this approach, three kinds of depunctualisation can be articulated in the ways in which these structuring structures structure the way actants’ constructions are made. These depunctualisations are particular to the actant’s subjection to the structuring structure that they embody.

These depunctualisations are referred to as asymmetries, producing a stratification of six types of embeddedness.  When this stratification is projected into the actant’s constructions, they articulate the embeddedness of underlying technologies in relation to the social objects of actants embodying demands within their contexts-of-use[13]:

  • The first asymmetry, separating a product/service from the technology embedded in it.
  • The second asymmetry, separating a solution delivered to a customer from the business organisation embedded in its processes of delivery.
  • The third asymmetry, separating the customer’s experience of the solution within their context-of-use from the customer’s demand.

When the delivery of a product/service, solution or experience is by a network that can be identified with a single organisation, its embedded behaviors describe a theory-in-use that may or may not correspond to what members of the organisation say they are doing.[14] When the relationships between these embedded behaviors become fixed by supply-side interests, they are fixed by an accountability hierarchy. [15]  The delivery of a particular customer’s experience is more likely, however, to be identified with a number of organisations operating as a network, describable also as a ‘system of systems’. [16] For such networks to function effectively, there has to be sufficient agility in the relationships between its embedded systems for them to be capable of being aligned dynamically in response to accelerating tempos in the emergence of new forms of demand. [17]

No disagreement?
Why should we not want to think about the ways in which networking is made impossible by the ways in which it is not possible to punctualise? The engineer in me wants to find ways of overcoming such impossibilities. But my colleague is right in pointing out that what always comes first must be the desire motivating the formation of the network.

[1] Bruno Latour (2005) Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press. p71
[2] Standardisation can be applied both to the way supply is coordinated and also to the way demand is defined in relation to the client/customer’s context-of-use. These two forms of standardisation have to be managed over a governance cycle. The examples of Ryan Air, McDonalds, Twitter and Facebook belong to particualr parts of that cycle in which there is competition on ‘customisation’ and/or ‘cost’.
[3] Accountable know-how in relation to the patient’s particular pathway is about much more than cost. The process of healthcare must be (and must be expected to be) a collaboration around a social object (the patient’s experience) in the full sense of the word. See Learning about Clinical Commissioning from the USA
[4] ‘Event’ is being used here “the problem of irregularity and indetermination, of the unforeseen and the unforseeable, of the eventually subversive and the disruptive.” See Parker, I. and D. Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. New York, Routledge.
[5] This understanding of a social object is written about more fully in The social object – distinguishing Kleinian, ‘real’ and Lacanian objects. In explaining the basis of these social objects, Karin argued that the ‘real’ object came to serve as a social object to the extent that it supported a being-in-relation, mutuality or reciprocity between individuals on the basis of enabling temporal synchronisation or on the basis of establishing a shared temporal immediacy – individuals able to collaborate around a shared task, or individuals able to be present to each other in some situation (in contrast to the more familiar spatial synchronisation and immediacy of a face-to-face meeting). Furthermore, to the extent that this mutuality was experienced, it was experienced as a ‘We’-ness embedding the individual in a larger context, but derived from the nature of the shared situation rather than from an institutional affiliation.
[6] This understanding of the relation to ‘lack’ is developed further in a conversation on the refusal of (symbolic) castration. It is to be understood not in the sense of something unconsciously known but not yet brought to consciousness (an interpretive unconscious), but as something radically unknowable in relation to the unconscious per se – a real unconscious (in the sense of the Lacanian Real, not in the sense of ‘real’ reality). See Soler, C. (2014[2009]). Lacan – The Unconscious Reinvented. London, Karnac.
[7] Taken from Bruno Latour (1999) Pandora’s hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press.
[8] Quoted from Harman, G. (2009). Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Anamnesis). Melbourne, This is teh definition of novel emergence.  See later posting distinguishing novel emergence from hierarchy.
[9] This leads to an understanding of embedded strata of novel emergence as an effect of the interest and capabilities of the observer rather than an inherent property of that-which-is-observed. See Ryan, A. (September 2006). “Emergence is coupled to scope, not level.” Complexity – Complex Systems Engineering 13(2): 67-77. See the following series of postings.
[10] The ‘intentional’ nature of these objects may be understood as themselves networks that, in addition to their synchronic characteristics as a network, also have diachronic characteristics to do with the tempo at which they exhibit their behaviours, corresponding to a timespan of discretion. See Timespan of discretion and the double alignment of ‘know-how’.  For more on the significance of tempo, see [17] below.
[11] Category theory is one medium in which the relationships between these actants may be thought about. See A Categorial expression of Demand Asymmetry.
[12] The nature of such ontic assumptions are described in Describing what is going on (wigo)
The Oxford English Dictonary defined ‘ontic’ as follows: “Of or pertaining to knowledge of the existence or structure of being in a given entity.” Thus any ‘realist’ assertion of ontology is mediated by the ontic assumptions being made by the observer-entity making the assertion i.e. an ontology is built by an entity making ontic assumptions. The 4-quadrant model gives us a way of thinking about what kind of ontic assumptions the entity is making. The concept of the strategy ceiling further elaborates on the way these ontic assumptions are held by an entity in the form of stratified relations between the enterprise and demand.
[13] For more on these layers see 3 Asymmetries.
[14] These behaviors relate to each other in the form of a stratification of nested contexts which places the supply-side behaviors of the enterprise in relation to the demand-side contexts with which it interacts. Where such a relationship does not exist, we may say that the strategy ceiling of the enterprise prevents it. See The strategy ceiling.
[15] East-West dominance means having a business agile enough to support the particular relationships of embeddedness needed to sustain a relationship to the distinct forms of demand arising at its edges. Under these conditions, the 6-layer stratification is no longer usefully thought of as a hierarchy, but rather as a particular structuring of the alignment between supply and demand. Note that it is only by including the third asymmetry that the stratification can no longer be thought of as hierarchy. See When is a stratification not a universal hierarchy?
[16] Such networks involve distributed collaboration in a complex system-of-system multi-enterprise context over which there is no single source of control. See Enterprise Architecture for Complex System-of-Systems Contexts.
[17] The tempo at which an enterprise creates new uses for its systems is different from that of its acquisition or systems development processes. For example, the military continues to confront the issue of how fielded systems can support the agility needed by its deployed forces. This problem of diverging tempos applies to a variety of large-scale, software-reliant enterprises-such as those found in healthcare and digital communications. See Building Organizational Agility into Large-Scale Software-Reliant Environments.

Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness

Title: Defences against innovation: the conservation of vagueness
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Submitted for Publication – not to be quoted

An individual newly joining an enterprise may experience it as a social defence system to which he or she must react and adapt. For the nurses in Isabel Menzies-Lyth’s study, “in the process of matching between psychic and social defence systems, the emphasis was heavily on the modification of the individual’s psychic defences”. A social defence system is, however, also “a historical development through collusive interaction between individuals to project and reify relevant elements of their psychic defence systems”. Menzies-Lyth underlines that the use of the organisation of an enterprise as a defence against anxiety is operated only by individuals. This approach has brought its clinical concepts, practices and focus on what enables interventions to be effective, approaching organisational entities through addressing the individual’s experience within a single enterprise, or, through the metaphoric use of psychoanalytic concepts to the enterprise itself as if it were an individual. Either way, the enterprise has been presumed to exist as a sovereign entity, paralleling the presumptions of a sovereign ego. How, then, are we to think psychoanalytically about the way in which the development of an enterprise interacts with an individual? The organisation of an enterprise used by its employees in support of their psychic defence systems is like the reef habitat used by its colonial organisms in support of their individual niches. The dynamic relationship of the coral reef with adjacent environments affects what forms of colonial organism it can support, but so too do the forms of colonial organism affect the topography of the coral reef. How does this translate into the individual-enterprise-environment dynamic? This paper considers the psychoanalytic implications of considering how cross-boundary conditions come to dominate intra-enterprise dynamics.

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Leading organisations without boundaries: ‘quantum’ organisation and the work of making meaning

Title: Leading organisations without boundaries: ‘quantum’ organisation and the work of making meaning
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Published
Organisational & Social Dynamics 14(1) 130-153 (2014)

Digitalisation and the internet lead every client to expect more dynamic interaction with their situation, context and timing. Familiar examples from the perspective of the client are healthcare, financial services, air travel, mobile apps and the home delivery of food. An organisation that is interacting dynamically in different ways with each of its clients is best understood as being without boundaries. This paper uses a ‘quantum’ metaphor to think about this, considering each client interaction as a ‘quantum’. This leads to an understanding of the role of governance that can be ‘horizontal’ in its effects. Emery and Trist argued that while open-systems models enabled material exchange processes to be dealt with between the organisation and elements in its environment, “they did not deal with those processes in the environment itself which were the determining conditions of the exchanges… which were themselves often incommensurate with the organisation’s internal and exchange processes”. This led Emery and Trist to restrict the term “socio-technical” to ‘operative’ organisations, distinguishing them from ‘regulative’ or ‘referent’ organisations, which were instead focussed on inter-organisational behaviours within an ecosystem of organisations with differing interests. Accepting this difference means losing a direct identification between a physical system and the system of meaning that it reifies, forcing us to abandon the direct identification of boundary with container. In its place, the paper argues that the regulative or referent work of ‘quantum’ organisation has to be understood as one of making meaning within a larger ecosystem. The paper uses examples from healthcare to elaborate on this use of the ‘quantum’ metaphor, and draws conclusions about the leadership needed by these organisations without boundaries.

Read the full paper here

Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation

Title: Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation
Author: Philip Boxer
Category: Conference Paper
ISPSO Annual Meeting, Santiago, Chile 2014

“Affordable healthcare is a right of each citizen, not a privilege for those who can afford it.” The quote refers to the intent behind President Obama’s 2010 signature legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The struggle by the US Congress in 2013, which included the temporary shutting down of Federal Government, was part of an attempt by some Republicans to de-fund the ACA. It came as a surprise, therefore, to see the Government’s launch of the ACA website fail spectacularly, for with such a failure to innovate by Government, the citizen still pays as a taxpayer for the failure, making such failures a betrayal of the citizen’s trust in Government. Government departments, like competing enterprises, work in silos, each one trying to defend itself against competing silos in order to secure the best possible future for itself. The market assumption is that if one such silo goes bankrupt because of a failure to innovate, the impact on the wider environment may be ignored. This is not the case where there are systemic interdependencies between the silos, however, as with healthcare. How, then, can the government be expected not to betray the citizen’s trust when faced with such a complex innovation? The paper uses the case to consider the difference between social defences against anxiety and social defences against innovation, proposing that it was the latter that led to the spectacular failure. The paper’s conclusions are on the implications of this difference for working with organisations needing to innovate to survive.

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Minding the gap – three moments of time

by Philip Boxer

How do we engage, describe and work without boundaries? How do we move beyond the familiar BART (boundary, authority, role, task) view of systems? And what does it mean to take up a network approach to leadership? A recent Regional Meeting of ISPSO in London took up these questions in terms of the ‘network-coach’ discourse, based on Simon Western’s work on Coaching and Mentoring[1]. This work very usefully distinguishes four kinds of discourse about the nature of coaching and mentoring, based on his research. This led Simon to ask me to clarify three ‘moments’ of time[2] that, while potentially facing a person in any one of these discourses, become particularly critical in the network-coach discourse.

Three moments of time
I described my work with a CEO who started our work together by describing a particular challenge he faced: he could not fit what his not-for-profit did into the normal kinds of business planning framework – service products, markets, competitive strengths and weaknesses, 5-year cashflow prediction etc. The not-for-profit was providing intensive social care, operating in the gap between the social services provided by the UK Government and individuals’ and families’ needs.

  1. The challenge he faced was a crisis for him that had arisen because of the planning framework his Board had asked him to use, which had defined a first moment for him[3] but which had brought about this first crisis – what the not-for-profit was actually doing did not fit the normal kind of business planning framework.
  2. The second moment[4] involved us working together to understand what was different about the economics of his not-for-profit, about how it needed to be organised differently, and about the different kinds of relationship this demanded between its employees and those to whom it provided care.  The result was a business plan that was accepted by the Board to form the basis of the next 5 years’ work by the not-for-profit, but also a second crisis – something else was needed if the not-for-profit was to develop different ways of actually behaving, a something else that was beyond any business plan. This second crisis was one in which the existing approach faces an impossibility.[5]
  3. So with this second crisis came a crunch time.  Something new was needed in the way the CEO engaged with the employees of the not-for-profit.  As it turned out, this inaugurated a third moment[6] in which a whole new challenge emerged initiating a new cycle of work aimed at addressing this challenge, but it took courage for him to accept this new challenge and ‘own’ the need to take it up.

These three moments of time and the two crises that separate them can be summarised as follows:

  • 1st moment: Accepting the stated problem/challenge and hoping that the existing approach will work.
  • 1st Crisis: Realising that the existing approach will not work on its own.
  • 2nd moment: Getting to grips with the details of the particular situation and adapting the approach to try to make it work.
  • 2nd Crisis: Realising that there is a fundamental limitation to the way the approach can be made to work.
  • 3rd moment: The persons involved put themselves ‘on the line’ in some way in order to act from something new that has the possibility of addressing the gap that has emerged.

These moments of time form a cycle of learning that is only bearable if the gap can be acknowledged – not hidden behind ‘solutions’. So in this case, the CEO works with the knowledge that the gap will always be there however good the ‘solution’ appears to be, and that by remaining aware of this gap, he can work with it while looking for the next gap to appear, which in turn will need to be acknowledged and worked through.

Minding the gap
This relation to the gap is what underlies Simon’s network-coaching discourse – realising that we don’t have neat boundaries, authority, role and task, that there is always a gap, and that the network society we live and work in presents us with increasing connectivity that pushes not towards identifying authority vertically in roles, but towards addressing horizontal rhizome-like power, power that is everywhere and yet cannot be pinned down. Simon’s conclusion was that, at best, we can find quilting points[7] that can anchor our relation to these networks for long enough to enable us to make good-enough sense and to act – until the next gap appears.

More on the second crisis
Further insight into what is involved in ‘minding the gap’ may be gained by looking more closely at the second crisis. This second crisis, corresponding to the ‘nightmare’ stage in a narrative structure [8], is frequently where people stop. In effect, what has happened is that a person has come to the end of conscious reasoning and may even be perfectly aware that what they are continuing to do makes no sense. But something stops them from going further.

This the second crisis can itself be divided into three moments:

  1. It is as if a higher authority has said: “Stop. Go no further. Not another word. It’s just not possible to go any further, and you are going to have to make do with what you have.” This is like a first moment within this second crisis.
  2. If the person continues, by saying “yes, but look what is going on. Surely things can’t be left like this. There must be something more that can be done.” This time, the stunned response from the higher authority is: “What do you want? What do you expect of me? Who are you to expect more to be done. Don’t you see how much is being done already? Stop making problems.” This is the second moment in this second crisis.
  3. Now comes the crunch. If the person still continues to insist that it must be possible to do something, then the question asked of the person moves to being their own question: “what do I want? What am I prepared to do about this situation that feels so wrong. I am going to have to go beyond what I know here if I am to do something more.”[9] This is the third moment in this second crisis that leads directly into the third moment.

What does this say about the nature of the challenge faced in minding the gap? It is that this gap is experienced as a [small-d] desire to do more, to go beyond what is known in the service of doing something more. In lacanese, to ‘mind the gap’ in this sense is to take up the ethical imperative to be true to [big-D] Desire – an ethic that demands that the subject ‘pays with their being’ in the sense of putting themselves on the line in some way.[10]

[1] Coaching and Mentoring: A Critical Text (2012) Sage.
[2] These three moments of time are based on the three moments in Lacan, J. (2006 [1966]). Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty: A New Sophism. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York, W.W. Norton & Co.
[3] The instant of the glance, ibid. This is the idea that you should be able to understand just by looking.
[4] The time for understanding, ibid. This involves having to work things out by thinking things through. The reasoning depends on the framework within which it is done.
[5] For more on the challenges of surfacing the nature of this impossibility, see working on the edges.
[6] The moment to conclude, ibid. The third moment is the moment in which the ‘challenge of the case’ is taken up, a new challenge that demands that the person puts themselves ‘on-the-line’ by going beyond what they know in choosing to take up the new challenge in their behaviour.
[7] These points of anchorage are ‘points de capitons‘ in Lacanese.
[8] For more on this, see “Betraying the citizen: social defences against innovation.” (2015) Organisational & Social Dynamics 15(1): 1-19.
[9] See Meeting the Challenge of the Case (in Casemore et al (eds) 1994 “What Makes consultancy work – understanding the dynamics” South Bank University Press pp358-371), in which Barry Palmer and I explore the nature of this challenge through a series of workshops. The nature of this challenge is taken from D.W. Winnicott (1965) Training for Child Psychiatry in “The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment”. Hogarth Press., in which Winnicott argues that, if the child is to be helped, someone must be prepared to go beyond what they know…
[10] The reasoning behind these three moments within the second crisis comes from a session given during the course of Lacan’s XXVI 1978-79 seminar series on 8th May by Alain Didier-Weil in “A new theory of the Superego”. Didier-Weil, A. (1979). Nouvelle théorie du Surmoi. Book XXVI – Topology and Time. J. Lacan. unpublished.