Book of the Week: Michael Thompson’s Theory of Governance

Book: Organising and Disorganising: A Dynamic and Non-Linear Theory of Institutional Emergence and its Implications. Dr Michael Thompson. Triarchy Press, 2008.

We introduced this book last week, but would like to return to it, given its importance.

The following two items are a summary of the argument by the author, and a review by Tudor Rickards, Professor of Creativity and Organisational Change at Manchester University.

I also recommend the discussion at Triarchy Press, which is applied to the current financial meltdown.

1. Summary of the argument:

Michael Thompson:

In the highly argumentative process that led to the siting of Arsenal Football Club’s new stadium, all the actors – the market actor (Arsenal), the hierarchical actor (Islington Council) and the egalitarian actor (the Highbury Community Association) – were able to make themselves heard. Each of them was also responsive to, rather than dismissive of, the others. The result was the identification of an option – invisible to all the actors at the outset – that gave each of them more of what it wanted (and less of what it didn’t want) than it would have got if it had managed to achieve hegemony and go it alone. Such outcomes are called “clumsy solutions”, and they raise the question: “Why, if they are so satisfactory, are they so rare?”.

The answer is, first, that each actor likes to think that it is right and, second, that social and organisational science has gone along with this, interpreting these sorts of messy but constructive engagements as instances of unwelcome contradiction rather than of essential contestation. Inter-organisational learning, in consequence, has been ignored; pushed to the sidelines by all these elegance-mongers when it should have been at the very centre of their attention. Remedying that fundamental defect – shifting inter-organisational learning from the sidelines to centre-field – is therefore the aim of this book.

There is no such thing as an organisation, is the main message, there are only ways of organising and disorganising: five ways of organising – the individualistic, the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the fatalistic and the autonomous (the first three being most evident in the case of Arsenal’s new stadium) – each of which is a way of disorganising the other four. Since each of these ways of organising needs the the others, otherwise it would have nothing to organise itself against, subversion is inevitable. And if subversion is inevitable then good management must be concerned with clumsiness: with encouraging those subversions that are constructive for the pluralised totality and with discouraging those that are not. And if everything that is organised is plural – the by-product, as it were, of these five ways of organising – then the conventional definition of management as “management within an organisation” breaks down completely. All decision-making, on this anti-dualist view, takes place between the ways of organising, never within just one of them.”

2. Review

Tudor Rickards:

complex systems have what he calls solidarities each favoured by some people involved. These solidarities are recurring patterns of social coherence. They are labelled the hierarchical, the egalitarian, the individualistic, the fatalistic and the autonomous solidarities.

These four terms can be derived from the celebrated work of Mary Douglas, and a more recent ‘two-by-two’ grid of them can be found in an essay by Aaron Wildavsky (try googling Wildavsky and Culture Theory).

Readers may be more familiar with ‘two by two’ management grids (high and low levels of structuring, and high and low levels of groupiness), or maybe the two-by-two of sociological paradigms by Burrell & Morgan.

We need to know a little about cybernetics to see where Thompson has taken such treatments. Essentially he grasps one of the nettles too often ducked. What might be the mechanisms through which people (and groups) move from one ‘box’ to another?.

Burrell and Morgan’s work helped generate a lot of debate about whether such movement was possible, or whether the belief systems of the boxes represented incommensurate paradigms.

Thompson’s solution is to add a fifth element. In doing so he mentions the principle of requisite variety, cherished by cyberneticians since it was developed by Ross Ashby, many years ago.

Ashby worked out the requirements for any configuration of any system to be stable (’we could see the stable states as ’solidarities’). These were the viable states of the system, which had the survival property of the appropriate degree of requisite variety

Dr Thompson takes Ashby’s principle a few steps further, invoking a formal proof that requisite variety for systems stability exists in five and only five solidarities bracketed together.

The formulation began to remind me of even more ideas, including one associated with Lawrence and Lorsch, a team of Harvard organizational theorists. They proposed that differing conditions shape organizations into different (sub)systems, with differing integrating mechanisms. This contributed to Harvard’s pioneering reputation for contingency models of organization. Thompson’s integrating device (the autonomous ’solidarity’) introduces his fifth component into the established ‘two by twos’.

The author makes it clear that he believes that organizational stability (viability) needs the existence of five solidarities. And not just any old five solidarities interacting in any which way, but mediated through his specified autonomous solidarity. In so doing he believes he gets around many of the difficulties of prevailing theories of social structures.

You will have to read the book to see if this ‘essay in persuasion’ works for you. I was partly already converted into accepting some of the basic ideas presented. Time will tell whether re-reading helps me reach a greater level of persuasion on other suggestions in the book.”

2 Comments Book of the Week: Michael Thompson’s Theory of Governance

  1. AvatarTudor Rickards

    Re-reading my review on your blogpost makes me realise it [my review] could have been be a lot clearer. And re-reading the book helped me find the author’s reference to Wildavsky’s treatment of the Cultural Theorist’s celebrated grid.

    Best wishes


  2. Pingback: P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » Four solidarities plus one: the pluralistic society

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