Sunday, December 14, 2008

Cones not castles

Heyo - I'm playing around these days new conceptions of the economy.

For the macro, micro and meso economy it's more important than ever to clear out the junk and set our ideas of how the world works with greater boldness and fortitude than we have hitherto.

The time demands it. I can't call myself a brilliant theorist but use what intelligence I have to get heads thinking in a certain way to launch their own, more thorough investigations.

In the following when using 'traditional' or new I'm not commenting where the state of modern theory is, merely demarcing what is desirable in the new theory and obsolete in the old. Much of what I say is well understood in management theory and in practice, but in greater need of permeating the slightly more trudging economic discipline, where it will have a more long lasting impact o policy and understandings of how our world is formed.

The traditional idea is that companies are like war fortresses. Directors are the captains and the organisation is conceived as a homogeneous entity making decisions as one. All occurs as one unit.

In the new conception, boundaries are softened. The organisation is defined as a community of participation (see Leve and Wenger). There is a centre which has greater control over the actions of the community and a periphery, which has less. Alongside managers and employees we can now include in the community of practice contractors and consultants, each participating at different levels of the community.

Leve and Wenger talk of the CoP as a mountain but it may be more helpful to think of it as a mountain to take into account power hierarchies. Well-established employees could thus be at the centre of the circle but at the bottom of the mountain - well respected and powerful in their community but uninfluential in the upper management sphere.

In this way, it makes sense to talk about nested hierarchies and spirals. Nested hierarchies (after Wilbur) suggest that the peak cannot do without the lower levels but upper levels contain more power (when applied to the political realm).

Spirals are used to link these hierarchies together. For example an experienced employee may have a low official position but work as a competent information node for upper levels (perhaps being a reliable lunch partner for a higher level manager).

Note that we're talking in terms of information flows and nodes. The nodes owe as much to their access to information as they do to their personal qualities which give them saliency within the organisational framework.

I'm throwing these concepts as I write, as they illuminate a holistic perception of organisations and how they behave. Please relax your hold on each particular conception and keep in mind the behaviour of the whole - a mountain or cone of dynamic information.

People matter in so far as their qualities determine the way the information flows round the cone. It is also an acknowledgement of how these qualities direct and suspend information flow that can help us to build better cones or better still - flatten them!

When we conceive of organisations as informational networks the need for hierarchies dissolve. Each community of Practice can be broken down into smaller ones, with the whole seen as an alliance of its composites.

That information runs from the base to the tip is vital for organisational health - to use the knowledge that the base accumulates with the insight and perspective gained from the tip.

So much emphasis is placed on codifying knowledge - endless series of reports and consultations, that informal information flows are under-acknowledged as a resource to direct organisation - I'm talking here of established management technique, the pros have always known where to get their intelligence from.

Acknowledging informal knowledge flows would help to redress current pay imbalance. These are currently designed as compensation for personal responsibility and power. By softening this definiton, and acknowledging the strength of the community in generating and channelling knowledge to its required position, we recognise a greater equity in wage distribution.

(This idea builds on the work of Gareth Orr - working in the realms of organisational science)

A last point for this entry - informational cones and communties of practice are not just a way of thinking about organisations. They can be used as a conceptual tool to describe individuals, departments, organisations, conglomerates, industry sectors, economies and trading groups - each seen as a conglomeration of cones of a lower level of magnitude.

Thus we can better see the relations of each part as connected to the whole. An exercise in boundary softening between individuals, organisations and nations to increase understanding and thereby economic justice.

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