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The Emergence of Knowledge in Organization

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COMPLEXITY AND MANAGEMENT PAPERS
No 35
THE EMERGENCE OF KNOWLEDGE IN ORGANIZATIONS
by
Ralph Stacey
Complexity and Management Centre
University of Hertford shire
October 2000
Published in Emergence 2001.
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This paper argues for a particular way of interpreting analogies from the complexity
sciences as the basis for a perspective on knowledge creation in organizations
called complex responsive processes of relating (Stacey, 2000; Stacey, Griffin &
Shaw, 2001; Stacey, 2001). From this perspective, knowledge is continuously
reproduced and potentially transformed processes of interaction between people. It
follows that people cannot ‘share’ knowledge because one cannot share the actions
of relating to others, only perform them. It also follows that knowledge as such is not
stored anywhere. All that can be stored is reifications in the form of artifacts, or tools,
which can only become knowledge when used in communicative interaction between
people. It becomes impossible to talk about measuring knowledge as ‘intellectual
capital’ because knowledge itself does not exist in measurable, or any other reified
form. Indeed, putting the words ‘intellectual’ and ‘capital’ together makes little sense.
The notion put forward by some (for example, Roos, Dragonetti & Edvinsson, 1997;
Sveiby, 1997) that an organization can own ‘intellectual capital’, that is, can own the
attitudes, competence and intellectual agility of individuals, becomes highly dubious
since no one can own relationships. The conclusion is that while it is possible to
nurture knowledge, it is impossible to ‘manage’ it, when ‘manage’ is understood in it
conventional sense.
This paper first highlights the central concepts of mainstream thinking about
knowledge creation and management in organizations and then outlines the
perspective of complex responsive processes of relating.
Mainstream Thinking about Knowledge Creation in Organizations
Mainstream thinking is a term used in this paper to indicate the key concepts to be
found in the most quoted writings on organizational learning and knowledge creation
(Senge, 1990; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995). These writings in turn locate their
theoretical frameworks in: systems dynamics (Forrester, 1961, 1969, 1971;
Meadows, 1982); sender-receiver models of knowledge transmission from
information theory (Shannon & Weaver, 1949); distinctions between tacit and explicit
knowledge (Polanyi, 1958; 1960); notions of individual mental models, single and
double loop learning (Bateson, 1973; Argyris & Schon, 1978; Argyris 1990); and
dialogue as a special form of communication (Bohm, 1965; 1983). These concepts
are to be found in most of the literature on knowledge management (for example,
Burton-Jones, 1999; Davenport & Prusak, 1998; Kleiner & Roth, 1997; Leonard &
Strauss, 1997; Sveiby, 1997; Quinn, Anderson & Finkelstein, 1996; Garvin, 1993;
Brown, 1991.).
Throughout the above body of work, the individual and the collective, such as
the group, the organization and society, are always treated as two distinct
phenomenal levels requiring different explanations of how learning and knowledge
creation takes place. The connection between the two levels is usually understood to
lie in the interaction of individuals to create the level of group / organization, which
then constitutes the context influencing how individuals interact. It is usually explicitly
stated that it is individuals who learn and create knowledge, although this is almost
always coupled with an emphasis on the importance of the teams within which this
takes place. A key question then becomes whether a team, group or organization
can be said to learn or whether it is just their individual members who do so. In
mainstream thinking, in the end, it is usually individuals who learn and create
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knowledge and the principal concern from an organizational perspective is how that
individual learning and knowledge might be shared across an organization and how
it might be captured, stored and retained by the organization. Sometimes, the group /
social level is treated as a kind of transcendental group mind, common pool of
meaning, or flow of a larger intelligence, for example, in Bohm’s notion of dialogue.
Mainstream thinking assumes that individuals communicate by transmitting
signals to each other and a distinction is usually drawn between transmissions of
data, information, knowledge, insight and wisdom, all as the basis of action (for
example, see Davenport & Prusak, 1998). As regards the transmission of
knowledge, the distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge (Nonaka & Takeuchi,
1995) is thought to be particularly important. Explicit knowledge is systematic and
easily transmitted from one person to another in the form of language. Tacit
knowledge takes the form of mental models below the level of awareness and is
displayed as skill or know-how. Mental models are representations of the world and
the individual in that world, which are historically determined by the experience of the
individual. New knowledge is said to come from tapping the tacit knowledge located
in individual heads and this process of tapping is understood as one of translating
the tacit knowledge in individual heads into explicit forms available to the
organization. However, this process of translation does not explain how completely
new tacit knowledge comes to arise in individual heads and for an approach claiming
to explain the creation of knowledge, this is a major limitation. As knowledge is
dispersed through an organization by the movement between tacit and explicit it
must be tested and this requires discussion, dialogue and disagreement.
This is where it becomes important to work and learn in teams. The
knowledge, information and data individuals transmit to each other, become shared
routines, that is, they are stored in the form of culture, social structure, organizational
procedures, traditions, habits and group norms. This constitutes a level above that of
the individual, which forms the social context within which individuals live, act and
relate to each other. In mainstream thinking, then, there is a circular, systemic
interaction between individuals at one level and the group / organization / society at
a higher level. The nature of this circular interaction is considered to be of central
importance to the possibility of learning and knowledge creation. It is widely held that
effective learning and knowledge creation requires widespread sharing of values to
do with openness, trust, affirmation, dialogue and empowerment. Effectiveness of
these processes is also said to require particular forms of leadership that establish
values of this kind and provide a central vision to guide the learning and knowledge
creation process.
Mainstream thinking is, therefore, firmly based in systems thinking and an
understanding of mind drawn from cognitivist psychology, which holds mind to be a
computing function of the brain (McCullough & Pitts, 1943; Gardner, 1885).
Over the past few years, developments in the natural complexity sciences
(particularly Kauffman, 1995; Gel-Mann, 1994; Holland, 1998) have attracted the
attention of some writers concerned with organizational knowledge. The tendency,
however, is to regard the complexity sciences as an extension of systems thinking
(for example, Nonaka & Takeuchi 1995; Boisot, 1998). It can be argued that this
interpretation of the complexity sciences does not lead to any significant change in
the underlying frame of reference described above (see Stacey, Griffin & Shaw,
2001). Consider now an alternative way of drawing on insights from the complexity
sciences.
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Analogies from the Complexity Sciences
Most systems theories envisage the systemic unfolding of that which is already
enfolded, usually by a designer, in the definition or identification of the system itself.
In other words, the system unfolds mature forms of an identity that is already there in
some embryonic sense. This offers the prospect of control from outside the system,
by a designer, and any transformation of the system’s identity must also be
determined from outside by a designer. However, at least some of those modeling
complex adaptive systems (for example, Kauffman, 1995) are trying to simulate
evolution as an internal dynamic that expresses identity and difference at the same
time. When this process of evolution is modeled as a ‘system’ of interacting entities,
that ‘system’ has a life of its own, rendering it much less susceptible to control from
outside, if at all.
However, extreme care needs to be taken in using such modeling as a source
domain for analogies with human action. The very act of modeling requires an
external modeler and the specification of the model requires the initial design of a
system, even though what is being modeled is an evolutionary process that is
supposed not to depend upon any outside design. When one turns to this work as a
source domain for human action, therefore, it is important to realize that there is no
analogy in human action for the external designer, programmer or model builder.
Furthermore, if one takes the ‘model’ or the ‘system’ as the analogy for human
interaction, one reifies human interaction and implies that one can stand outside of it
and observe it. However, as a human, one can never stand outside of human
interaction, since the very act of observing others interacting is itself an interaction.
Systems thinkers have tried to deal with this problem by widening the boundary of
the system to include the observer but in doing so always locate some kind of
agency outside the boundary. For example, an observer including him / herself in the
system is then observing him / herself observing. The argument leads to infinite
regress (see Stacey, Griffin & Shaw, 2001). When one focuses attention on the
‘system’, one tends to lose sight of centrality of the process of interaction, which
perpetually constructs itself as continuity and transformation. It follows, therefore,
that there is no analogy in human action for the ‘system’. Instead, it is the process of
interaction in the simulation that provides an analogy for human action (Stacey,
2001). Although scientists who work with the concept of complex adaptive systems
are clearly doing so within a systems framework, they are modeling processes that
display the internal capacity to spontaneously produce coherence, as continuity and
transformation, solely through local interaction in the absence of any blueprint or
external designer. This work demonstrates the possibility that processes of
interaction in local situations have the intrinsic capacity for patterning themselves as
continuity and transformation at the same time. It is this insight that holds out the
prospect of a different way of thinking about knowledge creation in organizations.
But, the modeling of abstract interactive processes cannot directly say
anything about human acting and knowing. It requires imagination to avoid thinking
about the abstract model from an external perspective as a system and think,
instead, about what the modeling of interaction might be saying from a perspective
within that interaction. It is for this reason that complexity theories cannot simply be
applied to human action; they can only serve as a source domain for analogies with
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it. Furthermore, the models of complex adaptive systems are nothing more than
abstract sets of relationships demonstrating possible properties of those
relationships. The abstract relationships completely devoid of the attributes of any
real processes and, therefore, their use as analogies requires imaginative acts of
translation if they are to say anything about real processes. This paper suggests
that human interaction is analogous the abstract interaction modeled by complex
adaptive systems. The suggestion is that human relating intrinsically patterns living
human experience as the coherence of continuity and transformation. This
coherence is meaning, that is, knowledge emerging in the living present in local
interactions without any global blueprint, plan or vision.
Modeling interaction in the medium of digital symbols
The action of complex adaptive systems is explored using computer simulations in
which each agent is a computer program, that is, a set of interaction rules expressed
as computer instructions. Since each instruction is a bit string, a sequence of
symbols taking the form of 0s and 1s, it follows that an agent is a sequence of
symbols, arranged in a particular pattern specifying a number of algorithms. These
algorithms determine how the agent will interact with other agents, which are also
arrangements of symbols. In other words, the model is simply a large number of
symbol patterns arranged so that they interact with each other. It is this local
interaction between symbols patterns that organizes the pattern of interaction itself
since there is no set of instructions organizing the global pattern of interaction. The
programmer specifies the initial symbol patterns, then the computer program is run,
and the patterns of interaction are observed. Simulations of this kind demonstrate
the possibility of symbolic interaction, in the medium of digital symbols arranged into
algorithmic rules, patterning itself.
For example, in his Tierra simulation, Ray (1992) designed one bit string, one
symbol pattern, consisting of eighty instructions specifying how the bit string was to
copy itself. He introduced random mutation into the replication and limited computer
time available for replicating as a selection criterion. In this way, he introduced
chance, or instability, into the replicating process and imposed conditions that both
enabled and constrained that process. This instability within constraints made it
possible for the interaction to generate novel attractors. The first attractor was that of
exponentially increasing numbers of individual symbol patterns, which eventually
imposed a constraint on further replication. The global pattern was a move from
sparse occupation of the computer memory to overcrowding. However, during this
process, the individual symbol patterns were gradually changing through random bit
flipping, so coming to differ from each other. Eventually, distinctively different kinds
of symbol patterns emerged, namely, long ones and short ones. The constraints on
computer time favored smaller ones so that the global pattern shifted from one of
exponential increase, to one of stable numbers of long bit strings, to one of decline in
long strings accompanied by an increase in short ones. The model spontaneously
produced a new attractor, one that had not been programmed in. In other words,
new forms of individual symbol patterns and new overall global patterns emerged at
the same time for there can be no global pattern of increase and decline without
simultaneous change in the length of individual bit strings and there can be no
sustained change in individual bit string lengths without the overall pattern of
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increase and decline. Individual symbol patterns, and the global pattern, are forming
and being formed by each other, at the same time. To repeat, the new attractor is
evident both at the level of the whole population and at the level of the individual bit
strings themselves at the same time.
Furthermore, the new attractors are not designed but emerge as self-
organization, where it is not individual agents that are organizing themselves but,
rather, the pattern of interaction and it is doing so simultaneously at the level of the
individuals and the population as a whole. It is problematic to separate them out as
levels, since they are emerging simultaneously. No individual bit string can change in
a coherent fashion on its own since random mutation in an isolated bit string would
eventually lead to a completely random one. In interaction with other bit strings,
however, advantageous mutations are selected and the others are weeded out.
What is organizing itself, through interaction between symbol patterns, is then
changes in the symbol patterns themselves. Patterns of interacting are turning back
on themselves, imperfectly replicating themselves, to yield changes in those patterns
of interaction.
Ray, the objective observer external to this system, then interpreted the
changes in symbol patterns in his simulation in terms of biology, in particular, the
evolution of life. Using the model as an analogy he argued that that life has evolved
in a similar, self-organizing and emergent manner. Other simulations have been
used to suggest that this kind of emerging new attractor occurs only at the edge of
chaos where there is a paradoxical pattern of both stability and instability at the
same time.
The computer simulations thus demonstrate the possibility of digital symbols
self organizing, that is, interacting locally in the absence of a global blueprint, in the
dynamics at the edge of chaos to produce emergent attractors of a novel kind,
provided that the symbol patterns are richly connected and diverse enough. Natural
scientists at the Santa Fe institute and elsewhere then use this demonstration of
possibility in the medium of digital symbols as a source of analogy to provide
explanations of phenomena in particular areas of interest such as biology. The
interaction between patterns of digital symbols can also provide an abstract analogy
for human interaction, if that interaction is understood from the perspective of Mead’s
thought on mind, self and society.
Mead’s theory of the evolution of mind, self and society
For Mead (1934), human societies are not possible without human minds and human
minds are not possible in the absence of human societies. Humans must cooperate
to survive and they also have an intense, intrinsic need for relationship and
attachment to others. Indeed the human brain seems to be importantly shaped by
the experience of attachment (Schore, 1994, 1997). Mead therefore sought an
explanation of how mind and society, that is cooperative interaction, evolved
together.
He adopted a phenomenological, action-based account of how mind and
society might have evolved from the interactive behavior of the higher mammals. He
pointed to how dogs relate to each other in a responsive manner, with the act of one
fitting into the act of the other, in aggressive or submissive interactions. One dog
might make the gesture of a snarl and this might call forth a counter snarl on the part
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of the other, which means a fight, or it might call forth a crouching movement, which
means submission. In other words, the gesture of one animal calls forth a response
from another and together gesture and response constitute a social act, which is
meaning. This immediately focuses on interaction, that is, a rudimentary form of
social behavior, and on knowing and knowledge as properties of interaction, or
relationship. Meaning is not first arising in an individual and then expressed in
action, nor is it transmitted from one individual to another. Rather, meaning emerges
in the interaction between them. Meaning is not attached to an object, or stored, but
repeatedly created in the interaction.
Mead described the gesture as a symbol in the sense that it is an action that
points to a meaning. However, the meaning could not be located in the symbol taken
on its own. The meaning only becomes apparent in the response to the gesture and
therefore lies in the whole social act of gesture-response. The gesture, as symbol,
points to how the meaning might emerge in the response. Here meaning is emerging
in the action of the living present in which the immediate future (response) acts back
on the past (gesture) to change its meaning. Meaning is not simply located in the
past (gesture) or the future (response) but in the circular interaction between the two
in the living present. In this way the present is not simply a point but has a time
structure. Every gesture is a response to some previous gesture, which is a
response to an even earlier one, thereby constructing history.
This process of gesture and response between biological entities in a physical
context constitutes simple cooperative, social activity of a mindless, reflex kind. The
‘conversation of gestures’ is both enabling and constraining at the same time and it
constitutes meaning, although animals acting in this meaningful way are not aware of
the meaning. At this stage, meaning is implicit in the social act itself and those acting
are unaware of that implicit meaning.
Mead argued that humans must have evolved from mammals with similar
rudimentary social structures to those found in present day mammals. The mammal
ancestors of humans evolved central nervous systems that enabled them to gesture
to others in a manner that was capable of calling forth in themselves a range of
responses similar to those called forth in those to whom they were gesturing. This
would happen if, for example, the snarl of one called forth in itself the fleeting
feelings associated with counter snarl and crouching posture, just as they did in the
one to whom the gesture of snarl was being made. The gesture, as symbol, now has
a substantially different role, namely, that of a significant symbol, which is one that
calls forth a similar response in the gesturer as in the one to whom it is directed.
Significant symbols, therefore, make it possible for the gesturer to ‘know’ what he or
she is doing.
This simple idea is a profound insight. If, when one makes a gesture to
another, one is able to experience in one’s own body a similar response to that
which the gesture provokes in another body, then one can ‘know’ what one is doing.
It becomes possible to intuit something about the range of likely responses from the
other. This ability to experience in the body something similar to that which another
body experiences in response to a gesture becomes the basis of knowing and of
consciousness. Mead suggested that the central nervous system, or better still the
biologically evolved whole body, has the capacity to call forth in itself feelings that
are similar to those experienced by other bodies. The body, with its nervous system,
becomes central to understanding how animals ‘know’ anything.
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The neuroscientist, Damasio (1994, 1999), argues that the human brain
continuously monitors and integrates the rhythmical activity of the heart, lungs, gut,
muscles and other organs, as well as the immune, visceral and other systems in the
body. At each moment the brain is registering the internal state of the body and
Damasio argues that these body states constitute feelings. This continuous
monitoring activity, that is, registration of feeling states, is taking place as a person
selectively perceives external objects, such as a face or an aroma, and experience
then forms an association between the two. Every perception of an object outside
the body is associated, through acting into the world, with particular body states, that
is, patterns of feeling. When a person encounters situations similar to previous ones,
he or she experiences similar feeling states, or body rhythms, which orient that
person to act into the situation. In this way, human worlds become affect laden and
the feeling states unconsciously narrow down the options to be considered in a
situation. In other words, feelings unconsciously guide choice and when the capacity
to feel is damaged so is the capacity to rapidly select sensible action options.
Damasio suggests that, from a neurological standpoint, the body’s monitoring of its
own rhythmic patterns is both the ground for its construction of the world it acts into
and its unique sense of subjectivity.
Possessing this capacity, the maker of a gesture can intuit, perhaps even
predict, the consequences of that gesture. In other words, he or she can know what
he or she is doing, just before the other responds. The whole social act, that is,
meaning, can be experienced in advance of carrying out the whole act, opening up
the possibility of reflection and choice in making a gesture. Furthermore, the one
responding has the same opportunity for reflecting upon, and so choosing, from the
range of responses. The first part of a gesture can be taken by the other, as an
indication of how further parts of the gesture will unfold from the response. In this
way, the two can indicate to each other how they might respond to each other in the
continuous circle in which a gesture by one calls forth a response from another,
which is itself a gesture back to the first. Obviously, this capacity makes more
sophisticated forms of cooperation possible.
The capacity to call forth the same response in oneself as in the other is thus
a rudimentary form of awareness, or consciousness, and together with meaning, it
emerges in the social conversation of gestures. At the same time as the emergence
of conscious meaning, there also emerges the potential for more sophisticated
cooperation. Human social forms and human consciousness thus both emerge at the
same time, each forming and being formed by the other at the same time, and there
cannot be one without the other. As individuals interact with each other in this way,
the possibility arises of a pause before making a gesture. In a kind of private role-
play, emerging in the repeated experience of public interaction, one individual learns
to take the attitude of the other, enabling a kind of trial run in advance of actually
completing or even starting the gesture.
In this way, rudimentary forms of thinking develop, taking the form of private
role-playing, that is, gestures made by a body to itself, calling forth responses in
itself. Mead said that humans are fundamentally role-playing animals. He then
argued that the gesture that is particularly useful in calling forth the same attitude in
oneself as in the other is the vocal gesture. This is because we can hear the sounds
we make in much the same way as others hear them, while we cannot see the facial
gestures we make as others see them, for example. The development of more
sophisticated patterns of vocal gesturing, that is, of the language form of significant
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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. However, since speaking and listening are actions of bodies, and since
bodies are never without feelings, the medium of language is also always the
medium of feelings. Furthermore, the public and private roles plays, or
conversations, which constitute the experience of the interacting individuals, actually
shape the patterns of connections in the plastic brains of each (Freeman, 1995).
Both public and private conversations are shaping, while being shaped by the spatio-
temporal patterns of brain and body. This simultaneous public and private
conversation of gestures takes place in the medium of significant symbols,
particularly those of language, and it is this capacity for symbolic mediation of
cooperative activity that is one of the key features distinguishing humans from other
animals.
As soon as one can take the attitude of the other, that is, as soon as one can
communicate in significant symbols, there is at least a rudimentary form of
consciousness. In other words, one can ‘know’ the potential consequences of one’s
actions. The nature of the social has thus shifted from mindless cooperation to
mindful, role-playing interaction made more and more sophisticated by the use of
language. Meaning is now particularly constituted in gesturing and responding in the
medium of vocal symbols, that is, conversation. Mind, or consciousness, is the
gesturing and responding action of a body directed towards itself as private role play
and silent conversation, and society is the gesturing and responding actions of
bodies directed towards each other. Conversational relating between people is the
process in which meaning, that is, knowledge, perpetually emerges.
As more and more interactions are experienced with others, so increasingly,
more roles and wider ranges of possible responses enter into the role-playing activity
that is continuously intertwined with public gesturing and responding. In this way, the
capacity to take the attitude of many others evolves and this becomes generalized.
Each engaged in the conversation of gestures can now take the attitude of what
Mead calls the generalized other. Eventually, individuals develop the capacity to take
the attitude of the whole group, that is, the social attitude, as they gesture and
respond. The result is much more sophisticated processes of cooperative interaction.
The next step in this evolutionary process is the linking of the attitude of
specific and generalized others, even of the whole group, with a ‘me’. In other words,
there evolves a capacity to take the attitude of others not just towards one’s gestures
but also towards one’s self. The ‘me’ is the configuration of the gestures / responses
of the others / society to one as a subject, or an ‘I’. What has evolved here is the
capacity to be an object to oneself, a ‘me’, and this is the capacity to take the attitude
of the group, not simply to one’ gestures, but to one’s self. A self, as the relationship
between ‘me’ and ‘I’, has therefore emerged, as well as an awareness of that self,
that is, self-consciousness. Mead argued that this ‘I’ response to the ’me’ is not a
given but is always potentially unpredictable in that there is no predetermined way in
which the ‘I’ might respond to the ‘me’. In other words, each of us may respond in
many different ways to our perception of the views others have of us. Here, Mead is
pointing to the importance of difference, or diversity, in the emergence of the new,
that is, in the potential for transformation. In addition to Mead’s argument, one could
understand the response as simultaneously called forth by the gesture of the other
and selected or enacted by the responder. In other words, the response of the ‘I’ is
both being called forth by the other and being enacted, or selected by the history,
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biological, individual and social, of the responder. Your gesture calls forth a response
in me but only a response I am capable of making and that depends upon my
history. This adds a constructivist dimension to Mead’s argument, suggesting a
paradoxical movement in the response of selection / enactment and evocation /
provocation at the same time. In this way, the reproduction and potential
transformation of historical responses in the living present is held in tension with the
reproduction and potential transformation of evocation.
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.
However, the symbolic processes of mind / self are always actions,
experienced within a body as rhythmic variations, that is, feeling states. Mind is
action of the body, rather like walking is the action of the body. One would not talk
about walking emerging from the body and it is no more appropriate to talk about
mind emerging from the brain. Note how the private role play, including the silent
conversation of mind / self, is not stored as representations of a pre-given reality. It is
rather, continuous spontaneous action in which patterns of action are continuously
reproduced in repetitive forms as continuity, sameness and identity, and
simultaneously as potential transformation of that identity. In other words, as with
interaction between bodies, the social, so with interaction of a body with itself, mind,
there is the experience of both familiar repetition of habit and the potential of
spontaneous change. The process is not representing or storing but continuously
reproducing and creating new meaningful experience. In this way, the fundamental
importance of the individual self and identity is retained, along with the fundamental
importance of the social. In this way too, both continuity and potential transformation
are always simultaneously present. Furthermore, there is no question of individuals
at one level and the social at another. They are both at the same ontological level.
The Connection with the Complexity Sciences
The process of interaction between people is a continuous circular one that takes
place in the medium of embodied symbols, for example, in sounds called words.
However, as one imagines such interaction between larger and larger numbers of
individuals, one wonders how any kind of global coherence could arise in such huge
numbers of local interactions. This is not an issue that Mead dealt with, but it is one
where the complexity sciences offer important insights.
Some of the work in the complexity sciences explores the properties of
abstract models of continuous circular processes of interaction between computer
programs in the medium of digital symbols. It is possible that certain properties of
interaction demonstrated in the abstract models might, therefore, offer analogies for
human interaction, interpreted through Mead’s thought. The modeling of complex
interactions demonstrates the possibility that interactions between large numbers of
entities, each entity responding to others on the basis of its own local organizing
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principles, can produce coherent patterns with the potential for novelty in certain
conditions, namely, the paradoxical dynamics at the edge of chaos. In other words,
the very process of self-organizing interaction, when richly connected enough, has
the inherent capacity to spontaneously produce coherent pattern in itself, without any
blueprint or program. Furthermore, when the interacting entities are different enough
from each other, that capacity is one of spontaneously producing novel patterns in
itself. In other words, abstract interactions can pattern themselves where those
patterns have the paradoxical feature of continuity and novelty, identity and
difference, at the same time.
By analogy, the circular process of gesturing and responding between people
who are different to one another can be thought of as self-organizing relating in the
medium of symbols having intrinsic patterning capacity. In other words, patterns of
relating in local situations in the living present can produce emergent global pattern
in the absence of any global blueprint. And emergent patterns can constitute both
continuity and novelty, both identity and difference at the same time. This is what is
meant by complex responsive process of relating and it amounts to a particular
causal framework, where the process is one of perpetual construction of the future
as both continuity and potential transformation at the same time. Individual mind and
social relating are patterning processes in bodily communicative interaction forming
and being formed by themselves.
The complex responsive process of relating perspective, then, is one in which
the individual, the group, the organization and the society are all the same kinds of
phenomena, at the same ontological level. The individual mind / self is an interactive
role-playing process conducted privately and silently in the medium of symbols by a
body with itself and the group, organization and society are all also interactive
processes in the medium of the same symbols, this time publicly and often vocally
between different bodies. The individual and the social, in this scheme, simply refer
to the degree of detail in which the whole process is being examined. They are
fractal processes.
Culture and social structure are usually thought of as repetitive and enduring
values, beliefs, traditions, habits, routines and procedures. From a complex
responsive process perspective, 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. However, even habits are
rarely exactly the same. They may often vary as those with whom one interacts
change and as the context of that interaction changes. In other words, there will
usually be some spontaneous variation in the repetitive reproduction of patterns
called habits. These habits and routines, values and beliefs are not at some higher
ontological level. They are part of the pattern of interaction between people.
Furthermore, there is no requirement here of any sharing of mental contents, or any
requirement that people should be engaging in the same private role plays. The only
requirement for the social understood as habits, routines and so on, is that people
should be acting them out.
Systems, databases, recorded and written artifacts are usually thought of as a
stores of knowledge. From the complex responsive process perspective they are
simply records that can only become knowledge when people use them as tools in
their processes of gesturing and responding to each other. What is captured in these
artifacts is inevitably something about the meanings of social acts already
12
performed. Since a social act is ephemeral and since knowledge is social acts, it can
never be stored or captured. Habits here are understood not as shared mental
contents but as history-based, repetitive actions, both private and public, reproduced
in the living present with relatively little variation.
Conclusion
There are profound implications of this way of thinking for how one understands
learning and knowledge creation in organizations. From mainstream perspectives,
knowledge is thought to be stored in individual heads, largely in tacit form, and it can
only become the asset of an organization when it is extracted from those individual
heads and stored in some artifact as explicit knowledge. From a complex responsive
process perspective, knowledge is always a process of responsive relating, which
cannot be located simply in an individual head then to be extracted and shared as an
organizational asset. Knowledge is the act of conversing and new knowledge is
created when ways of talking, and therefore patterns of relationship, change.
Knowledge, in this sense, cannot be stored and attempts to store it in artifacts of
some kind will capture only its more trivial aspects. The knowledge assets of an
organization then lie in the pattern of relationships between its members and it is
destroyed when those relational patterns are destroyed. Knowledge is, therefore,
the thematic patterns organizing the experience of being together. It is meaningless
to ask how tacit knowledge is transformed into explicit knowledge since unconscious
and conscious themes organizing experience are inseparable aspects of the same
process. Organizational change, learning and knowledge creation are the same as
change in communicative interaction, whether people are conscious of it or not. This
perspective suggests that the conversational life of people in an organization is of
primary importance in the creation of knowledge.
This paper is based on: Stacey, R. (2001) Complex Responsive Processes in
Organizations: Learning and knowledge creation, London: Routledge.
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