New Mexico State University, USA
ISCE Fellow, USA
Much to the surprise and delight of the co-editors, this special issue of Emergence: Complexity & Organization on complexity and storytelling appears to mark more a beginning than an ending. For, while the publication of any journal is the end of a discrete project, what we are learning from it suggests the opening moves in a game of exploration pursuing a fascinating question: Are the studies of storytelling, in its widest sense, and of complex human systems largely the same thing? At first, that seemed an obvious overstatement. Yet, in the process of developing this special issue, both of us have concluded that it is a question that is, at least, worth exploring. In this way, we offer you this special issue as an introduction to the possibility that the dynamics that arise as people tell stories, to themselves as well as to others, and then enact those stories, create the dynamic human systems—families and neighborhoods; workgroups, organizations, and economies—that Ralph Stacey’s (2001) conception of complex responsive processes seems to deny.
Some readers may say that this exploration is hardly new. In fact, nearly 30 years ago, Louis R. Pondy’s essay “Beyond open system models of organization,” included as a classic complexity article in this issue (see pp. 119-137), lays out the challenge to launch into just such an exploration as the co-editors believe this issue represents. Basing his argument on Boulding’s nine levels of system complexity, Pondy insists that organizational theorists are locked into analysis based on the lower levels of complexity. Given the then-current understanding of organizations, analysts should think of them less as ‘input-output’ machines and more as ‘language-using, sensemaking cultures’. What is needed, as a result, is “radical methodological departures [such as] ethnographic techniques more suitable for studying meaning and belief systems.” The theme articles in this issue play with a variety of such departures.
Moreover, mostly over the last five years, a significant amount of work has been compiled applying complexity and storytelling to organizations, answering Pondy’s challenge after only a quarter century. Already, three practitioners—Carl Weick (1995), Dave Snowden (see Kurtz & Snowden, 2003), and David Boje, (2001)—have developed sophisticated approaches to this study. What makes this issue of E:CO new and exciting is an explosion of interest in this developing area of study. Previously, the intersection of complexity and storytelling studies had been applied largely to organizations. However, among the more than 40 proposals we received were abstracts whose subject ranged from economics and law to disaster control, healthcare, and oriental literature. As a result, we began to suspect that this evolving hybrid field could suggest a powerful approach to the application of complexity thinking to all human systems. Nor are we the first to suggest this. One contributor to this issue, anthropologist Michael Agar, has observed elsewhere (Agar, 2005), that the most effective methodology to complexity-based social studies is ethnography.
In some ways, it seems odd that the intersection between complexity and storytelling has been so little examined. For one thing, the two studies have grown on remarkably parallel tracks for the last 15 years or so. During this time, both studies have been adapted from their origins—complexity in the natural sciences and narrative/storytelling in literature—and applied increasingly to organizations, but in a somewhat limited way. Complexity studies of organizations have been largely limited to considering organizations as (narratively) coherent entities in market ecosystems, ignoring what complexity thinking suggests about the dynamics of organizations as ecosystems for the people working in them. Some work on organizations as ecosystems has begun to appear in, for example, the work of Brenda Dervin, et al. (2003) or Ken Baskin, (2005b). Similarly, the vast majority of the work on narrative in organizations has explored its function on the level of the organization and in its function for managers. It’s only in recent years, as writers such as Weick, Snowden and Boje have applied the double lens of complexity and storytelling, that attention has begun to focus also on how people within organizations use narrative and storytelling quite differently. Here, a thaw of sorts is occurring, as those studying the field move from narrative, with its implications as a complete linear-construction (with beginning, middle and end), to storytelling, with its suggestion that some stories are emergent attempts to formulate and negotiate the understandings held as finished in narrative study.
In addition to these historical similarities, the two studies (story-emergence and complexity) seem an almost ideal fit for each other. On one hand, some writers on storytelling are beginning to recognize it as an emergent phenomenon, sensitive to initial states, that groups negotiate in their interactions. On the other, some writers about complex human systems are beginning to recognize that storytelling drives the human equivalent of attractors at several levels—personality, group dynamics, and culture. As a result, the principles of complexity and storytelling come together as a series of strands that, like a rope, when woven together, form a more powerful tool than either alone.
Given all that, it seems only fitting that the co-editors of this issue approach this intersection of studies from opposite directions. David Boje, (2001) came to it through his study of storytelling organizations. In his studies, he has focused on the difference between ‘ante-narrative’, the preliminary stories people tell as they begin to understand what might be happening around them, and the more fixed (whole, linear) narratives, which are explanations of what people believe actually happened. Along with this view of storytelling, Boje, (1995) had developed the idea of the organization as ‘Tamara’, a house with many rooms in which people in different rooms simultaneously tell different stories about the same events, experienced from their differing points of view, networking with one another to make sense of the divergent storylines. Much of the dynamics of any organization, he suggests, arises in the negotiation that occur as people enact these different stories about common events in distributed locations.
On the other hand, Ken Baskin approached this intersection from his work in applying complexity thinking to organizations. His 2001 research study on workgroup cultures in three American hospitals, funded by ISCE, brought him to the conclusion that the stories people tell, to themselves as well as others, create the human equivalent of attractors—personality in the individual, group dynamics, and culture in organizations and other larger entities (2005a). His most recent work (2005b) suggests that, in addition to being coherent units existing in market ecosystems, organizations can be examined as ecosystems of storytelling groups, a concept with much in common with Boje’s Tamara.
When we first issued the call for abstracts on complexity and storytelling, we had no idea that so many people had begun thinking about the function of storytelling and complexity in the various fields in which they worked. We quickly discovered that interweaving the principles of these areas of study was proving absolutely as illuminating as we had suspected from our own work. The nine topical articles published in this issue will give the reader an idea of the variety and excitement of thought among those combining the insights of complexity thinking and storytelling:
If, in fact, this intersection between the study of complexity and of storytelling is as powerful as the co-editors suspect, an enormous amount of work remains. Those exploring it are only beginning to develop methodologies and a vocabulary.
We would like to offer a bold conclusion, one that is an answer to Boulding, (1968), as well as Pondy’s (1976) challenge to system/complexity theory. We think that the difference between coherence-narrative and the more emergence-storytelling theories is the dawn of the ‘Third Cybernetics’ of dynamic complexity. Boulding made it clear that for systems theory to theorize and study higher orders of complexity, we need to differentiate between sign-representations (e.g., narratives as the ‘mirror’ of experience). First and Second Cybernetics has been dominated by master-narratives, each with a particular metaphorization: level 1 (frameworks of narrative types); level 2 (mechanistic narrative); level 3 (thermostat-control narrative); level 4 (cell of the ‘open system’); and level 5 (tree as ‘organic’ narrative). First cybernetics is the mechanistic-narrative of deviation-counteraction through the input-output-feedback sign-comparison model of communication. Second cybernetics is the open (cell) system narrative of deviation-counteracting (comparing narratives of the environment, systemically-organizing more variety to process them).
We think the articles point to a Third Cybernetics, where what Boulding calls image (managed in story, level 6), symbol (self-reflexion in story, level 7), societal discourse (social organization shaped by story, a domain of discourse, level 8), and transcendental (stories of unknowable and knowable, level 9). For Pondy, these upper levels are where language, story, and symbol, exceed the theory of ‘open system’ modeling. The problem is that narrative (conceived as linear metaphorization), does not come to grips with the needs of Third Order Cybernetics1.
Agar, M. (2005). “We have met the other and we’re all nonlinear: Ethnography as a nonlinear dynamic system,” Complexity, ISSN 1076-2787, 10(2): 16-24.
Baskin, K. (2005a). “Storytelling and the complex epistemology of organizations,” in K. A. Richardson (ed.), Managing organizational complexity: Philosophy, theory, application, Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing, ISBN 1593113188, pp. 331-344.
Baskin, K. (2005b). “Complexity, stories and knowing,” Emergence: Complexity & Organization, ISSN 1521-3250, 7(2): 32-40.
Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative methods for organizational and communication research, London, UK: Sage Publications, ISBN 0761965874.
Boje, D. M. (1995). “Stories of the storytelling organization: A postmodern analysis of Disney as ‘Tamara-land’,” Academy of Management Journal, ISSN 0001-4273, 38(4): 997-1035, http://cbae.nmsu.edu/~dboje/papers/DisneyTamaraland.html.
Boulding, K. (1968). “General systems theory: The skeleton of science,” in Walter Buckley (ed.), Modern systems research for the behavioral scientist, Chicago: Adeline, ISBN 0202300110, pp. 3-10. More recently reprinted in K. A. Richardson, J. A. Goldstein, P. M. Allen and D. Snowden (eds.) (2004). E:CO Annual Volume 6, Mansfield, MA: ISCE Publishing, ISBN 0976681404, pp. 252-264.
Dervin, B., Foreman-Wernet, L. and Lauterback, Eric (eds.) (2003). Sense-making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin, Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, ISBN 1572735090.
Kurtz, C. F. and Snowden, D. J. (2003). “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world,” IBM Systems Journal, ISSN 0018-8670, 42(3): 462-483.
Stacey, R.D. (2001). Complex responsive processes in organizations, London, UK: Routledge, ISBN 0415249198.