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Exploring the Organisational
Collage of Memetic Paradigms for
(a) Change
A research note
Louis Klein
Systemic Excellence Group
Independant Think Tank for Leading Practice
I The organisational collage
II The disciplinary matrix
III Paradigms
IV Memetics
V Organisational implications
VI Resume and next
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
Exloring the Organisational Collage of Memetic
Paradigms for (a) change
Exploring organisations is the prerequisite for
any intentional attempt to strategic change. Yet,
what is it that we observe when we observe organisations. Following Niklas Luhmann this paper
puts the processing of meaning as the elementary property of any social system in the centre of
investigation. How can we observe meaning, and
what are the benefits of doing so?
The argument chooses a narrative approach
to exploring organisations. With Niklas Luhmann we look at the operations of organising
which makes the organisation an organisation.
Along Thomas Kuhn’s understanding of paradigms management is referenced as an activity of
a community of practice based on a disciplinary
matrix of models, methods and instruments. Giorgio Agamben’s conceptualisation of paradigms
as reference giving examples allows the opening
up of the implicit side of organisational culture.
Approaching reference giving examples as
memes and culture as a meme-complex enables
the observation of dynamics and cultural evolution over time. We come to understand the conservative nature of organisational development
and the systemic sensitivity that allows for management, learning and change. And as always,
advances in research come at the price of new
Key words:
Exploring organisations, community of practice, memetics, paradigms, meaning, cultural
evolution, management, learning, change, next practice.
IThe organisational collage
How did any organisation become what it is?
What can we know? And what implications does
this knowledge have for approaching its further
development? Choosing a generic perspective
like Niklas Luhmann puts an emphasis on the
actual activities, the organising operations of an
organisation that make the organisation (Luhmann, 1984). Luhmann refers to the concept of
autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, 1980) to explain
the self-creation within an operationally closed
system. Being the more or less radical constructivist he is, Luhmann focuses on communication
as the volatile substance of any social system, be
it interactions, organisations or society as the
sum of all communications. The bothering question that comes with this approach is: How can
we observe social systems if the substance is so
volatile, if communications vanish the very moment they come into existence? The trick is that
social systems flag themselves as action systems
to gain the possibility to observe themselves as a
string of events or a history of actions. [1]
Narrative approaches to organisational research do the very same. They conceptualise
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
organisations as a collage of stories (Boje, 2007;
Boje & Gebhart & Thatchenkery, 1995). So the
organisation can be observed as a story of stories, as a grand narration in itself. The approach
is very workable yet it is not utterly satisfactory
in estimating what the observer actually got if he
was to realise that organisational story collage.
What is important and what is not important?
What determines the quality of a story for the
organisation? What is relevant and what is just
noise or the simple reinforcement, a functional
redundancy? And, which is in terms of practical implications and applicability of knowledge
even more important, what governs the organisation? What in which story tells about the past,
the present and the future of the organisation?
A functionalistic approach clearly states that
being a social system the organisation has to
process the unity of the distinction of actuality
and possibility. Luhmann calls this sense or meaning (Graph 1). In a mode of communication
the organisation can memorise what its possibilities are beyond what it realises at present. So we
see stories about actual events and stories about
possible actions. This can be more or less explicit. Here Luhmann refers to decision as the specific quality of organisational communication
which links present possibilities to future actualities. This is very sound theoretically, yet it does
not really explain how the organisation turns a
decision into organisational practice. Further
exploration needs to be undertaken.
meaning (sense) = actuality possibility
Systemic Inquiry (Klein, 2005) is a good approach to put more structure to the exploration
of organisations. Systemic inquiry approaches
the organisational collage, the garbage can of
stories (Morgan, 1986), with a cascading analysis. The analysis starts on the level of the so called
foci of attention. Overlooking the collage you
will realise that there are attractors occurring in
a majority of interviews steering the course of
the open narration. Filtering out these attractors
as foci of attention sharpens the image of the
organisation respectively of the organisational
self-observation and self-description. Not more,
not less is the organisational collage. Yet foci of
attention can further be analysed by looking
for the specifics of semantics and jargon. In the
delta between common language and organisational jargon you will find further information
about the organisational idiosyncrasies. And last
but not least with the means of qualitative mathematics, referring to George Spencer-Browns
Laws of Form (Spencer-Brown, 1969), we can
identify the prominent distinctions which shape and sharpen the organisational cognition and
thus the sense-making in which the organisation is attributing meaning to what it observes as
being itself (Weick, 1995).
The analysis of the organisational collage
however does only to some extent explain the
development and governance of the organisation. The organisational collage gives a good idea
about the realms of possibilities wherein the actual organisation is manoeuvring. It sets boundaries, yet it does not indicate the further course
of the organisation. It does not explain how decisions come about and how they are turned into
events and actions that make the organisational
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
IIThe disciplinary matrix
So the question is what governs the organisation in its realms of its possibilities? Referring
to Thomas Kuhn and his concept of paradigms
(Kuhn, 1962, 1970) the hypothesis is that the
governance of the organisation is based on a
set of models, methods and instruments as reference of any organisational action. The governance lies in the paradigms in use in a specific
organisation. This paradigmatic set is so to
speak the disciplinary matrix of organisational
activities and actions. We can go as far as saying
that the reference function of the paradigmatic
set works as a discriminator for the organisation
itself. It is distinguishing actions and activities
which by referring to the paradigmatic set belong to the organisation and make the organisation and other activities which are not referring
to the paradigmatic set of the organisation, and
which are thus excluded by the very same paradigmatic set.
large extent organisations are engaged in explicitly creating self-images, sets of rules, self-descriptions in e.g. management, administration
and marketing. Turning to the organisational
collage it is not very difficult to identify these
explicit references in the organisation to the paradigmatic set it coined for itself. Parts of this
set may be imported like the rules for book keeping, controlling and compliance. Other parts of
the set may be generated internally like visions,
mission statements and self-descriptions in advertising and sales.
However, there is a flip side to the explicit
reference. There is something implicit which
serves the same purpose. It will not be difficult
to recall an example where the exception from
the explicit rule or deviation is shared as being
the implicit rule. This is very disturbing for an
external observer of the organisation. And it is
serving as a specific indicator along the distinc-
On the basis of the paradigmatic set
the organisation creates itself referring
to specific models, following specific methods
and using specific instruments.
This concept of referencing organisational
action is very much in tune with the systemic
concept of operational closure (Luhmann, 1984,
Beer, 1972, 1979). On the basis of the paradigmatic set the organisation creates itself referring
to specific models, following specific methods
and using specific instruments. This is the disciplinary matrix which Thomas Kuhn actually
conceived for observing and describing scientific practices reinforcing scientific disciplines.
The same reinforcing mechanism can be observed in the reproduction of the organisation as
Referring to paradigmatic sets creates the
idea of an explicit directive. And certainly to a
tions of membership and non-membership. It is
not-knowing the implicit. Referring to the explicit gives away the outsider, the external and the
Observing the latent has always been the ultimate challenge for social sciences (Luhmann,
1991). Yet, referring to the concept of culture or
the concept of values only shifted the problem.
How do I observe culture, how do I observe values? Observing organisations as action systems,
as in action research, improves the approach yet
it exposes the observation to the behaviouristic
trap sliding down the statistical slope, eventually
reducing the organisation to a population with a
tendency of strange behaviour.
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, in his
book „Signatura rerum“ closes the loop back to
the idea of the paradigm (Agamben, 2008). And
by doing so he brings forward a comprehensive
concept of the so to speak implicit paradigm as
the reference-giving example. He draws on the
works of Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn and eventually Michel Foucault. Already with Thomas
Kuhn he describes two understandings of the
term “paradigm” which is, for one, the disciplinary matrix of a set of models, methods and
instruments and on the other side the scientific
example. The paradigmatic set refers to Ludwik Fleck´s thought collective or thought style
which can be observed within a specific scientific community describing itself as a discipline or
a school (Fleck, 1935). And already Fleck indicates the importance of the example, the actual
observable action, which makes a difference and
gives life to the generic instruction that can be
derived from the paradigmatic set.
Michel Foucault in his “Archeology of
Knowledge” goes even further by introducing
the distinction between the cognitive and the
emotionally corresponding which enlarges the
idea of the example and goes explicitly beyond
its cognitive aspects. This could be described as
the point where Foucault felt urged to stress the
distinction to the instrumentalist’s perspective
of Thomas Kuhn.
It is not only lately that neurosciences have
become very popular in the field of organisational behaviour and project management (Roth,
1994; Becker, 2003). For a good reason it decomposes the mind, refers to the operational closure
of the brain and allows for a further, one may say,
more substantial, reference in the enlightening
the Conditio Humana (Kahneman et. al. 1982).
Maya Storch very much brings it to the point
when in her Zurich Resource Model she argues
that the cognitive and the limbic system need to
be in tune to allow for sustainable will (Storch,
2004, 2004). In reference to Foucault this hints
to what extend the consonance of emotion and
cognition become a discriminator for the connectability of a paradigm as such.
Giorgio Agamben returns to the referencegiving example without taking sides. He stresses
the importance of the paradigm as the referencegiving example and highlights its extraordinary
function to conclude from the specific to the
specific which is neither deductive nor inductive
in its turn. Similar to style and fashion or with
a school of painting it is rather difficult to give
and follow inductive or deductive instructions
to identify e.g. an expressionist painter or a ladylike behaviour. It is rather that the example
speaks for itself. It makes the “family” recognisable. It’s a little bit like “If you know one, you
know them all”. The implications of this can be
revisited at Pierre Bourdieu who beautifully describes how powerful this recognition becomes
for the discrimination and inner structure of society (Bourdieu, 1979). It is the habitus that makes the difference. We may want to come back to
this idea later.
Equipped with Agamben’s idea of the paradigm being the reference-giving example the
analysis of the organisational collage gains a
new quality. It is worth investigating. If there
are reference-giving examples in the organisation they will be found in the narrative, explanations, practices being show-cases in, of and
for the organisation. The paradigm becomes a
paradigm by fulfilling its function of giving reference, enabling the organisation to select out
of the realm of possibilities the actual texture of
For the moment, for the snap-shot, the paradigm as reference-giving example explains the
present yet it does not explain the governance
of the course of this development. Imitating the
example over and over again should rather, in a
very conservative fashion, bring about the very
same, over and over again. How can we add a
dynamic or innovative spin to the idea of the
paradigm? How can an organisation be innovative despite the conservative mechanisms of paradigmatic re-production and autopoiesis? The
answer to these questions may lay in the concept
of memetics.
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
The debate on memetics peaked just after the
turn of the millennium (Blackmore, 1999; Becker, 2003). The idea was to identify the meme
as an equivalent to the gene being a core piece of
cultural reproduction (Becker, 2003). The debate
on memes unfortunately stranded somewhere
in between social sciences, psychology and neurosciences. However, memetics brought about
several ideas and concepts which look very attractive out of the perspective of a paradigmatic
exploration of the organisation. Especially three
ideas taken from memetics shall be revisited in
the following:
cultural evolution
Cultural Evolution
The memetic idea of cultural evolution is very
close to the systems perspective on social systems
(Becker, 2003). Operational closure requires active reproduction. The organisation as a social system is a volatile entity which requires an operational continuity to acquire a state of homeostasis,
of stability in a sensitive equilibrium. Looking
from the outside and referring to the operational
level, this looks very much like order from noise
(von Foerster, 2003). Yet active reproduction in
operational closure opens up the powerful evolutionary development. It is the very mechanism
of evolution that comes with this requirement
for active reproduction. In each reproduction
lies the possibility of variation. Variation is either in or out of scope of the reproductive useful
and thus requires active selection to grant reproduction. Successful selection leads to stabilisation and the cycle starts over again with the next
variation bound reproduction activity [2]. In the
cultural context of memetics the meme as such
is reproduced and selected on the ground of its
contribution to the effectiveness for its host’s viability. For example civilised greetings may be regarded as a meme. By culturally reproducing this
meme, human encounter or better the variety of
human encounter is attracted to non-violent behaviour. This improves the situation of the participating people. And it is an act of confirmation.
It reproduces the very embedding civilised culture which allows the person to select a civilised
greeting as a non-violent act of encounter.
Shaking hands does not make a culture or an organisation. Yet a single gene does not make an
organism. Memetics, and this is the second idea
on the consideration, suggests the concept of a
meme-complex or in short a memeplex (Backmore, 2002; Whitty, 2005). A meme-complex can
be seen as a set of mutually reinforcing memes.
This is a clear link to a systems perspective on social system and close to the concept of culture. It’s
not the single act or the single action that makes
a culture. [Ecology of Paradigms] It is the mutual reinforcing reference of these different actions
that allow for the operational closure of the social
system and by doing so allowing for the emergence that distinguishes the whole from its parts.
Coming back to the paradigmatic exploration
of organisations the paradigm is the referencegiving example which can be conceptualised as
a meme and by doing so links to the third strong
concept taken from memetics which is the spreading. [] The spreading of memes is based on
imitation. Imitation is the active reproduction of
the meme. Active reproduction within an operationally closed context like a meme-complex
allows for the emergence of a social system. And
although memetic reproduction is not very likely
due to low replication accuracy and high mutation rate, the mutual reinforcement within the
emergence of the social system possibly described as the meme-complex, allows order from
noise and what Niklas Luhmann calls the unlikely possibility of the social system (Luhmann,
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
Organisational implications
The paradigm being the reference-giving example seems to be bound to the very evolutionary dynamics brought forward in memetics. The
example is imitated and by doing so reinforced
and reproduced and continued towards an existence that allows for stability. So analysing the
organisational collage by exploring memetic
paradigms opens the door to understanding the
evolutionary development of the organisation.
However, does this mean that organisations are
organisational learning
governance and management
management education
organisational change
Organisational learning
The approach of memetic paradigms allows for
a generic perspective on organisational practice.
At the core of the organisation we find the imitated reference-giving example. This links to the
notion of learning, and especially to the notion
of model learning (Bandura, 1963, 1977). Model learning, learning from examples lies at the
very heart of any concept of socialisation, may it
be primary or secondary socialisation, may it be
the inclusion of the growing child into society
or the integration of the new employee into the
organisation. In this perspective the integration
of a single person into a social system may just
be seen as a special case or a litmus test for the
concept of memetic paradigms. Yet it allows to
pinpoint what it actually is that needs to be learned in order to be integrated into the activities
and operations that actually make the organisational practice as such.
Imitating the reference-giving example puts a
conservative mechanism at the very heart of social constructivism. By imitation you only learn
what is already there and through the imitation
you reproduce and confirm the reference-giving
example. This is not only true for individual
drifting in their contexts, evolving like species
do? Well, yes and no. They are robust and sensitive at the same time. Evolution is possible and
intervention as well (Willke, 1994). Governance
and management are possible, yet in a less grand
manner than some of the protagonists wish for.
Analysing the organisational collage of memetic paradigms has most prominently consequences for:
learning; this applies as well to organisational
learning. Nonaka and Takeushi put the SECIcycle at the very heart of organisational learning.
Socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation, this is the organisational learning
cycle and the most important mechanism for
any kind of organisational knowledge management (Nonaka/Takeushi, 1995). The value of
knowledge lies in its application. And this links
back to a generic perspective on organisational
Governance and management
Governance is an organisational practice. The
manager is not a mechanic. Managerial deeds
cannot be separated from the organisation. It is
a second order re-entry, as von Foerster would
put it (Foerster, 1993). This has two major implications on management. First, management
is as conservative as any organisational practice.
Management is a memeplex, a set of different
reference-giving examples of what has been established under the name of management (Wittgenstein, 1953). This is management habitus as
we saw it earlier. If a manager wants to be re-
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
garded as a manager in that very organisation,
reproducing the reference-giving examples becomes a must. Any other behaviour will be organisationally rejected. And so will the manager
in focus.
Second, management is possible. There are
variations and changes possible in the imitation of reference-giving example, which are not
rejected. This may be without further implications. And this is the likely case contributing
to a robust organisation. However, in its loose
coupling the organisation is also sensitive for
minimal changes of initial conditions, as it is
known from chaos theory and the so called butterfly effect (Lorenz, 1963). Clapping its wings a
butterfly at the Amazonas may cause a tornado
in Texas.
Management education
It is the set of reference-giving examples a manager needs to learn to become a manager. It is
not only the explicit managerial paradigm, the
models, methods, and instruments which may
be an important external reference for any kind
of organisational practice. It is most of all the
reference-giving examples that make the habitus
that ought to be learnt in order to become a manager (Bourdieu, 1979). And in the way that you
may say it is learning on the job, the source of
those reference-giving examples is the implicit
reference within the organisational collage. It is
learning by doing. And as long as this does not
go hand in hand with a distinct capacity for reflexion, this learning will be conservative and so
will be the individual career path.
Organisational change
Organisational change is possible. Yet organisational change is limited to the possibilities
carried forward in the organisational collage.
Organisational change thus operates in the delta between the present practice and the possible
practice as reflected in the organisational collage
(next Practice). Organisational change beyond
that realm of the very organisational possibilities
is not possible. For any diligent change manager
reading and understanding the organisational
collage determines a path of improvement, development and even innovation. This is where
best practice based consulting suffers the most.
If the organisational collage does not carry this
specific best practice as a possible next practice
it will not be. Change in this sense can be seen as
moving the next possible practice and by doing
so changing the actual practice and accordingly
the realm of possibilities which allows for the
next move towards the next possible practice.
Organisational change conceptualised on this
basis may not chose the direttissima, the straight
line up to the top of the mountain, it will allow
for the feasible route. Acknowledging this still
puts a challenge to mainstream management.
The future lies with the alternatives.
VIResume and next
Observing meaning is key to sustainable organisational development.
Organisations are kluge (Gary Marcus).
Stories are tainted (Gardner 2008, 2010)
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
A prior version has been presented to the Standing Conference of Managerial and Organisational
Inquiry, Philadelphia, 2011.
Observing social systems
Whenever it comes down to observing social systems, referring to the action system provides access to Luhmann’s
work. And is not so much an epistemological trick as it is the empirically observable way of the organisation observing itself.
Evolution works
To some extend it seems to be important to stress, that evolution is kluge in the sense of being smart enough
yet far from perfect (Marcus, 2008). Evolution works, it does not strive for perfection. And any solution will be
selected and stabilised in evolution that does the trick. That is all that is necessary for survival and reproduction.
white paper Exploring the Organisational Collage of Memetic Paradigms for (a) Change | SEgroup © 06/2012
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