What would Donald Schön think of your social intranet?


This article is the third (see Connected companies, complex systems and social intranets and Mechanistic and organic organizations) in what’s becoming a bit of a review of some of the theory shaping the ideas behind social intranets. Let’s continue the discussion in 10 days at Enterprise 2.0 in Boston.


I ended my last post, inspired by Dave Gray’s #connectedco writing, highlighting the 1960’s work of Burns & Stalker and their concept of the mechanical and organic systems and organizations. Important to that post, I hope, is the notion of organizational metaphor and its impact on how we perceive our own organizations, their problems, and the possible solutions to those problems (like social intranets for example).

Of course, organizations aren’t really machines, the same way your car is a machine. Nor are they really an organism, the same way a tree is an organism. But they are useful metaphors for framing and thinking about the problems of organizations in different ways.

While mechanical and organic metaphors are dominant in modern management articles and our own daily organizational language, they are not the only two metaphors that exist. Gareth Morgan, a prof at the Schulich School of Business at York University, wrote a well-known book called Images of Organization in the late 1980’s (I own the 2nd edition which came out in 1997), which devotes a single chapter to eight different organizational metaphors. These include:

  • Organizations as machines
  • Organizations as organisms
  • Organizations as brains (aka the “learning organization”)
  • Organizations as cultures
  • Organizations as political systems
  • Organizations as psychic prisons
  • Organizations as flux and transformation
  • Organizations as instruments of domination

It’s a great text, coming in at nearly 500 pages, chronicling the roots of the different metaphors, how they take shape, and the implications of each metaphorical approach. It covers a great breadth of thought and is an impressive work of scholarship.

While Morgan’s later work would suggest that he has a favourite or a particular bias towards certain metaphors, his goal with the book was to review each and understand their pros and cons. As his introductory diagram states, “Metaphor invites us to see the similarities but ignores the differences. Metaphor stretches imagination in a way that can create powerful insights but at the risk of distortion.” Morgan’s book has a goal, stated at the end of his introduction, “…metaphor is central to the way we ‘read,’ understand, and shape organizational life. But at no point will you find that view being brought down to advocacy of a single perspective. There are no right or wrong theories in management in an absolute sense, for every theory illuminates and hides.”

Pods, networks, and Donald Schön


Since I wrote my last post, Dave Gray was busy updating his blog with his podular design approach to companies. Dave’s diagrams of pods, which he defines as “a small, autonomous unit that is enabled and empowered to deliver the things that customers value” make visually explicit the notion of a network-based approach to organizational design. The idea of designing or creating a networked organization composed of highly autonomous units that are capable of adapting to ever-changing conditions sounds very 2.0, but it too has been floating around as an idea for the past 40 years. Andrew McAfee recently argued it’s been around even longer.

John Friedman’s comprehensive history of planning, Planning in the Public Domain: from Knowledge to Action, highlights one such example of organization as network thinking, the work of Donald Schön in the 1970’s.

“A similar theme is addressed by Donald Schön’s more journalistic treatment of organizational adaptiveness to turbulence in Beyond the Stable State (1971). Schön proposes the useful concept of a “network structure” to “knit together the still autonomous elements of the functional system in networks which permit concerted action” (Schön 1971, 183). These networks reach beyond organizational boundaries — the become ‘boundary spanning’ — and extend into parts of the organizational environment proper. … When this occurs, the very notions of fixed boundaries, internal and external environments, and central management controls tend to evaporate. A new organizational format takes shape, one that is characterized by temporality and fluiditity and requires continual redesign and adjustment (ibid. 184). The older centre-periphery, or top-down model of organization gives way to a new form of decentralized administration which depends more on multidirectional communication flows than on formal authority structures.” (Friedman, 214).

I sauntered over to the Vancouver Public Library central branch and picked up a copy of Schön’s Beyond the Stable State – it was buried in the stacks (they had to go and retrieve it for me) and it had a library card in the sleeve that said it was last taken out in 1982…


beyond the stable state

Schön’s book begins with a wonderful passage which introduces the concept of The Stable State.

“I have believed for as long as I can remember in an afterlife within my own life — a calm, stable state to be reached after a time of troubles. When I was a child, that afterlife was Being Grown Up. As I have grown older, its content has become more nebulous, but the image of it stubbornly persists.

The afterlife-within-my-life is a form of belief in what I would like to call the Stable State. Belief in the stable state is belief in the unchangeability, the constancy of central aspects of our lives, or belief that we can attain such constancy. Belief in the stable state is wrong and deep in us. We institutionalize it in every social domain. We do this in spite of our talk about change, our acceptance of change and our approval of dynamism. Language about change is for the most part talk about very small change, trivial in relations to a massive unquestioned stability; it appears formidable to its proponents only by a peculiar optic that leads a potato chip company to see a larger bag of potato chips as a new product. Moreover, talk about change is as often as not a substitute for engaging in it.”

[Note: You can listen to that introduction to his book as Donald Schon gave it as part of the Reith Lecture that preceded his book in November 1970, thanks to the magic of the BBC. Brilliant.]

The crisis which emerges from the erosion of this stable state, the onslaught of change and turbulence that exists in the “modern world,” one that Schön and others apparently felt acutely in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when this text was written and is still felt today some 40 years later, is then described in the following pages:

“In these situations there is not a lack of information. There is not an “information gap”. There is an information overload, too many signals, more than can be accounted for; and there is as yet not theory in terms of which new information can be sought or new experiments undertaken. “Uncertainty” is a way of talking about the situation in which no plausible theory has emerged. For this reason, pragmatism is no response. We cannot in these situations, say “Let us get the data,” “Let us experiment,” “Let us test,” for there is as yet nothing to test. Out of the uncertainty, out of the experience of a bewildering array of information, new hypotheses must emerge — and from them, mandates for gathering data, testing, experiment, can be derived. But in the first instance they do not as yet exist, and until they exist the method of pragmatism cannot be applied. The period of uncertainty must be traversed in order that pragmatism may become an appropriate response.

The feeling of uncertainty is anguish. The depth of anguish increases as the threatening changes strike at more central regions of the self. In the last analysis, the degree of threat presented by a change depends on its connection to self-identity. Against all of this we have erected our belief in the stable state.”

Schön goes onto outline 3 typical responses to the erosion of the stable state: return to an idyllic past-state (which is not really achievable, nor did the past state ever really exist), revolt (“reactionary radicalism”), and mindlessness (drugs, violence, etc.). All are deemed unproductive organizational responses (no kidding) and he then works his way towards the main premise of his book, a more positive response in the form of a learning organization: a networked, adaptive model that is responsive to flux and change.

More from Schön:

“Constructive responses to the loss of the stable state must confront the phenomenon directly. They must do so at the level of the institution and of the person.

  • If our established institutions are threatened with disruption, how can we invent and bring into being new or modified institutions capable of confronting challenges to their stability without freezing and without flying apart at the seams?
  • If we are losing stable values and anchors for personal identity, how can we maintain a sense of self-respect and self-identity while in the very process of change?

The present work is an effort to come to grips with these questions. It proceeds on the following assumptions:

  • The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are in continuing processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure even for our own lifetimes.
  • We must learn to understand, guide, influence, and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and our institutions.
  • We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems,’ that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.
  • The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole is to learn about learning.

What is the nature of the process by which organizations, institutions and societies transform themselves?

What are the characteristics of effective learning systems?

What are the forms and limits of knowledge that can operate within processes of social learning?

What demands are made on a person who engages in this kind of learning?

These are the questions we will be asking in the pages that follow. ”

The Learning Organization (yet another metaphor)

As this great article written by Mark Smith on the informative INFED site points out, Schön is a direct link to Peter Senge’s work on learning organizations and their design in his book The Fifth Discipline.

Forgive the large cut & paste here from , but I think it’s a great summary passage worth reading (I recommend reading the entire Schon article too, if you have time):

“Two key themes arise out of Donald Schon’s discussion of learning systems: the emergence of functional systems as the units around which institutions define themselves; and the decline of centre-periphery models of institutional activity (ibid.: 168). He contrasts classical models of diffusing innovation with a learning system model.

Classical models for the diffusion of innovations Learning systems’ models around the diffusion of innovation
The unit of innovation is a product or technique. The unit of innovation is a functional system.
The pattern of diffusion is centre-periphery. The pattern of diffusion is systems transformation.
Relatively fixed centre and leadership. Shifting centre, ad hoc leadership.
Relatively stable message; pattern of replication of a central message. Evolving message; family resemblance of messages.
Scope limited by resource and energy at the centre and by capacity of ‘spokes’. Scope limited by infrastructure technology.
‘Feedback’ loop moves from secondary to primary centre and back to all secondary centres. ‘Feedback’ loops operate local and universally throughout the systems network.

In this we can see the significance of networks, flexibility, feedback and organizational transformation. At the same time we have to recognize that the ‘ways of knowing’ offered by the dominant rational/experimental model are severely limited in situations of social change. Donald Schon looks to a more ‘existentially’-oriented approach. He argues for formulating projective models that can be carried forward into further instances (a key aspect of his later work on reflective practice).

Moreover, learning isn’t simply something that is individual. Learning can also be social:

“A social system learns whenever it acquires new capacity for behaviour, and learning may take the form of undirected interaction between systems… [G]overnment as a learning system carries with it the idea of public learning, a special way of acquiring new capacity for behaviour in which government learns for the society as a whole. In public learning, government undertakes a continuing, directed inquiry into the nature, causes and resolution of our problems.

The need for public learning carries with it the need for a second kind of learning. If government is to learn to solve new public problems, it must also learn to create the systems for doing so and discard the structure and mechanisms grown up around old problems.”(Schon 1973: 109)

The opportunity for learning, Donald Schon suggests, is primarily in discovered systems at the periphery, ‘not in the nexus of official policies at the centre’ (ibid.: 165). He continues, ‘the movement of learning is as much from periphery to periphery, or from periphery to centre, as from centre to periphery’. Very much after Carl Rogers, Donald Schön asserts that, ‘Central comes to function as facilitator of society’s learning, rather than as society’s trainer’ (ibid.: 166).”

Source: donald schön: learning, reflection and change / infed.org

At this point, I can hear Marcia Conner, Dan Pontefract and other E2.0/social learning cross-over types like Harold Jarche and Jon Husband in my head, saying “Well duh! I told you so!”

Schön’s final point mentioned in the passage above, that the social system learns when it acquires a new capacity for behaviour resonates for me when I put on my social intranet hat.

Social intranets afford a new capacity for behaviour. They allow your organization to communicate, collaborate, find out about each other, and learn as a system. They allow us to see what’s happening at the edges of the organization, diffuse innovation from the periphery to the centre, and communicate results back from the centre to the periphery.

Perhaps some 40 years later, we’re finally getting a bit closer to what Schön envisioned in 1971.

On the value of theory in general

This article is the third (see Connected companies, complex systems and social intranets and Mechanistic and organic organizations) in what’s becoming a bit of a review of some of the theory shaping the ideas behind social intranets, social interaction design, Enterprise 2.0, knowledge management, organizational design, and all the other stuff I’ve been interested in and bookmarking over the years. I’ve had some nice responses to the posts to date and will continue with them if there’s an audience. I hope there is.

I’m heading to Enterprise 2.0 in Boston in a week’s time and I hope that some of the readers of this blog will be there. I feel like the foundational work of our profession, the review of theory like Schön’s or the texts like Morgan’s are lost in the barrage of marketing fodder that companies like ours are responsible for in a new and emerging marketplace. I’d like to think that these posts and the discussions that follow are useful in some way, helping frame and understand the larger nature of the problems we’re trying to solve in our organization, problems which are far larger and more difficult than “how do I get my IT department to listen to me?” or “how do I write a good intranet requirement.”

Don’t get me wrong, we write about those things too and definitely understand the value of providing real-world examples of how intranet managers are helping change the face of their organization. But if you’re interested in the theory behind E2.0 and some of the larger ideas, the ones that might have been written 40 years ago, 400 years ago, or even last week I’d love to hear from you.


Join The Discussion

  1. Dan Pontefract

    Well duh! I told you so!

    Excellent synthesis Gordon.

    See you in Boston, although next year, we should cycle there.


  2. James Dellow

    Gordon – nice post. I also wrote about Images of Organization here:


    Kinda scary how aligned we are in this thinking! 🙂

    I haven’t read Schön, so will be trying to track down a copy!

  3. CV Harquail


    I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the effort you’ve made here to anchor so many of the concepts of Ent2.0, networks, etc. in serious organizational theory.

    As a PhD in organizational theory, I get rather frustrated by bloggers and social media/enterprise ‘experts’ that bandy about terms and phrases like “organic” “hybrid organizations”, “complex systems” and “sensemaking” as though they were the first to ever think of them.

    While I can criticize my academic colleagues for not doing enough to bridge the gap between deep theory and contemporary practice, I’m also disappointed that so few ent 2.0, social learning, network ‘thought leaders’ reach back to the rigorous work that’s already been done. Too many are content to share superficial discussions of what’s new to them as though that were really enough.

    This post is a terrific example of how building the bridges between what’s already known, what’s there to be shared, and what issues are pressing in organizations right now can make all these ideas more useful. thanks-

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