Leading into the Future VI: Postmodern Perspectives on Organizational Life
Relatively minor change (at the right time and the right place) has a profound impact on the long-term trajectory of the organization. These minor changes can be tipping points for major organizational and societal transformations. There is unpredictability in the case of any form of planned change—especially when the change involves a transformational shift in the level at which a problem is being addressed or in the basic operating patterns of an organization. These transforming (second-order) changes are increasingly common in our postmodern world and require new modes of problem solving and learning.
Organizations as Relationships and Conversations
Conversation is the fifth organizational perspective to be considered in a unique and provocative manner by various postmodern theorists. The flow of energy or material resources is dominant in most material systems. By contrast, human systems (and organizations in particular) rely on the flow of information which, in turn, is embedded in a complex network of relationships and conversations. Some postmodernists (especially those who identify themselves as “de-constructionists”) consider organizations to be nothing more than a web of relationships and conversations. Even the structures and products of an organization are secondary in most contemporary organizations to the conversations that occur regarding these structures and products.
Stated in somewhat different terms, most people, resources and attention in present-day organizations are devoted not to the direct production of goods or direct provision of services, but to the use of verbal and written modes of communication about these goods and services. These extended conversations are required if large and complex organizations are to be held together. The center will hold in major organizations only when a significant proportion of the resources of the organization are devoted to integrative, indirect services (such as quality control, coordination, cost monitoring, planning and record keeping) rather than direct services (such as production, sales and repair). Except in small organizations, most of the time is spent by members of organizations in communicating with other people in the organization or outside the organization. We must rethink the ways in which we lead and influence the direction of these information-based entities if our organizations are nothing more (and nothing less) than extended conversations.