My learning journey through the historical timeline of constructing organizations has been personally rewarding but also challenging in many ways. Previous learning can enhance or interfere with new learning (Ambrose et al., 2010) as sometimes knowing a bit too much about a topic can prevent you from fully appreciating it as an analogy or metaphor. My knowledge of ecological systems both enriched and detracted from the ease of understanding organizational theories. Any struggles I experienced this term were self-inflicted as I wrestled with new concepts with the same sense of urgency I feel about the state of the planet, as if lives are at stake. I sought interconnectedness, deep discussions, and thought carefully about organizational theories which even resulted in a flash of insight or two. New challenges are on the horizon as I need practical applications of these theories in my workplace as my department undergoes hierarchical restructuring.
Prior Knowledge: of snails and ecosystems
Before I started my Masters, it never occurred to me that organizational theory would overlap so much of my biology education. Given the nature of my daily work in higher education, when asked what I studied in my undergraduate degree, I would often sheepishly confess that I studied biology. I was always slightly embarrassed, suffering the effects of imposter syndrome, because I felt my studies in biology were far removed from the field of education. Although I had initially hoped my biology degree would include aspects neuroscience and learning, the closest I ever got was poking underwater snails. The experiment would run like this: if you poke the snail when it tried to breathe, it learnt to stop breathing. It is described as operant conditioning, a type of learning evident in something as rudimentary as a snail’s breath. To draw any broader conclusions about positive or negative reinforcement related to how humans learn would be overly simplistic and inappropriate. The rest of my studies in biology involved ecology, the environment, and population genetics. Here I studied systems in their various stages: in growth, decline, and equilibrium. Ecological systems are ruthlessly indifferent to achieve balance; the goal of equilibrium is not always beneficial for life. This is especially evident now, after years of environmental destruction from human activity we have entered the next geologic era: the Anthropocene, experiencing a sixth period of mass extinction. Bacteria and insects will probably be just fine, maybe even snails, if they learn to breathe less. The narrative of nature as a system that exists for human domination to be exploited as a God-given right has led us down this path of destruction. This anthropocentric view focusing on extracting resources without limits has had dire consequences especially for those without power, those who rely on living off sacred land. Activist and writer, Naomi Klein (2014) describes this as a crisis of democracy; climate change is less about carbon and more about capitalism. I want to highlight the importance of ecological systems not to ring the fear mongering klaxon but to highlight the how this urgent shift parallels how organizational theorists also call for a narrative shift from managed systems to living systems (Capra, 2002; Katz and Kahn, 1966; Mitchell and Sackney, 2013; Wheatley, 2007; Senge, 1990). Knowing about ecological systems prevented me from fully accepting any analogy that did not account for their inherent complexity. This left me in a state of disagreement about scientific parallels for most of the course. It felt like an over-simplification given what we know about science in 2017. Some theorists handled the analogies better than others and by the end of the course, I felt that organizations as living systems were treated with the complexity they deserved.
Paradigm Lost: grasping concepts by recognizing my lack of understanding
I had never expected to be connecting my studies in biology in a paper about organizational theory. Thankfully we weren’t poked with sticks in EDUC 5P60, but rather, after week five we repeatedly encountered the organization described as a system, in its various forms through the course. Early on, I most appreciated the integrative readings by Perrow (1973) and Morgan (1980), as they provided a big picture of the field of organizational theory. I was still a bit unsatisfied with these readings as I felt they were incomplete in their analyses. I yearned for more of those types of readings, possibly written in the last decade, as the historical readings from the first few weeks were unsettling. It is an interesting curricular decision to present those early twentieth century readings as canon and without present context. I experienced slight anxiety stemming from an urgency of unknowing or more precisely the awareness of unknowing. I knew there was something missing from the scientific management perspectives but I could not properly describe what. It was like I was in Plato’s cave trying to decipher the shadows as reality but I had already had a glimpse of what had cast those shadows. The historical readings were interesting and I appreciate the opportunity to read them as primary sources. I wanted to critique them more but I was unable as I did not yet have the knowledge, language, or theoretical backing. By week five when we met Senge (1990), Katz and Kahn (1966), and Burns (1963/2007), I was so pleased to take a deep dive into organizational theory from a systems-perspective; it was quite possibly the highlight of the term. Although I question the curricular rationale of the historical approach, a part of me is immensely grateful because this pathway led me to an autodidactic epiphany. The biggest “aha” moment came through unstructured conversations, reflections, and the process of writing my paper outline and annotated bibliography. For my paper, I initially tried to fit all the organizational theories into Morgan’s paradigms. I was attempting to describe the dangers of audit culture in scientific management as categorized into Morgan’s functionalist paradigm. I had planned on arguing that a better approach was to do the opposite of the functionalist paradigm and that a radical humanist paradigm was more appropriate organizational approach. This caused a certain uneasiness to sit within me. I couldn’t quite put words to the problem, except that the term “radical humanist” felt dated and incomplete. As Morgan originally wrote about these paradigms in 1986, I decided to see who was still talking about his paradigms by doing a Google Scholar search to see what articles have cited Morgan. There was an astounding 18, 995 citations. By sorting these articles that cited Morgan by recent date I found an article aptly named Paradigms Lost (Decker, 2016) and an article attempting a “paradigm model for post-paradigm times” (Hassard and Cox, 2013). Through these articles, it suddenly occurred to me that the act of putting these theories in boxes was itself a functionalist approach. Tidy, organized, discrete, and ultimately incomplete, the axes of categorization did not just span x and y axes but there was a z-axis and probably an additional axis for space and time. This was the closest I’d ever come to understanding post-structuralism, something I’ve been grappling with for far too long. I felt in that moment that I had reached an understanding that changed the way I looked at everything. It is my most recent and memorable example, I think, of a threshold concept (Meyer, Land, and Baillie, 2010). A threshold concept is where your perception transforms once you pass through the door of understanding and you are unable to see things the way you did previously.
This discovery excited me so much, I spoke to many people over the next few days. The responses were so interesting. Some smiled and shrugged, “well, yes, obviously”. Others, shared my enthusiasm, “wow, oh yes, and what about this and that” contributing to the depth of the inquiry. Others, interrupted before I could finish, with their own examples that were tangents, interesting but not helpful. One person disappointingly told me to not take this so seriously.
Preparedness, interconnectedness, and missed connections
I spent hours doing the readings. It would take up to three hours to fully understand one article. I wish I had gone through the formal article critique for each article but I found that I had limited time to accomplish this. Especially with the articles that were translations, like Foucault (1975/2007), I spent an inordinate amount of time just parsing his use of pronouns. When classes are designed seminar style, my classmates’ learning can either deepen or distract from my learning. For the most part, it was deepened, mostly due to how the instructor respected us by giving us the autonomy to self-organize. In class, sometimes what I misunderstood from reading was elucidated through classroom conversations. In class I tried to contribute in ways that were meaningful. I tried to be patient and not dominate the conversation, as there are about 5 of us who tend to do that, some more self-aware than others. I really enjoyed the weekly discussions. I would do the reading and be so excited for class to be able to talk through the theories. When scientific or philosophical concepts were used as analogies, I was eager to discuss. I must admit I was often disappointed that these topics did not seem to ignite the same interest in my classmates and we ended up debating entirely different concepts than I had anticipated. This is not to diminish my classmates, many really helped deepen and enrich my understanding as they have diverse and different backgrounds than I do. They also have different approaches to discussion and I tried to be very careful to ensure that all voices had a chance to contribute to the conversation. I had to be cautious even in this as I did not want to appear domineering or bossy but sometimes I would purposefully redirect another dominant voice to allow those in my group who were less vocal to be heard. Sometimes I could not believe what I heard some of my classmates say. I found it so completely and utterly shocking. There was one class where the young gentleman completely derailed the topic of conversation about organizations to focus on his issue of teaching across the curriculum with a focus on World War II. I wanted to interrupt to inform him this was completely irrelevant to organizational theory but the advice he was seeking made me feel that a critical intervention was necessary as there are children exposed to his teaching daily. As I write this, I realize it sounds sanctimonious and haughty but I feel a genuine responsibility to intervene in ill-conceived teaching practices. The ethical and moral implications of teaching a curriculum entirely about World War II extends beyond mere teaching strategies or selecting content. The fact that this classmate of mine does not appreciate, as a history teacher, that knowledge is subjective and constructed, that how we present information is never value-neutral greatly concerns me. This lack of awareness about the boundaries of our field of study made me wonder if the historical approach in this course only helped reinforce dominant managerial paradigms in his mind. In fact, I was often surprised at how often the class was accepting of scientific management approaches and theories. As for disagreement, within the context of the course content, I wanted to spend my conversations talking about how organizations can in practice be more like living systems. Instead I was frustrated that we spent a lot of our time discussing mechanistic approaches. My urgency in knowing everything all at once increased my impatience with what I considered to be outdated theoretical approaches to organizations. While I yearned for a secondary reading from a modern perspective paired with each historical article, I acknowledge that this approach has its merits. Attention must be paid to the genesis of thought contributing to the mechanistic philosophies underpinning many modern organizations. I just can’t resist wondering how this approach reinforces this as a dominant narrative. I remember looking at the discomfort in the faces of my classmates during the week on post-modernism. Week seven seems late to be introducing this topic but I concede that just because I was ready and eager in week one to grapple with post-modernism does not mean that approach is best for everyone. On more than one occasion, the insightful direction of the instructor and my classmates helped calm my anxiety of unknowing and refocus. Even though I had enough enthusiasm to fill an hour of talking myself, I learned to share the floor, not interrupt, and really listen to alternative perspectives.
Concluding bridge back to the workplace
It’s challenging to wrap up this reflection with any certainty when the greatest learning I encountered was that I should embrace uncertainty, recognize my subjectivity and complexity. I am eager to operationalize my learning immediately into a sustainable living community but as Mitchell and Sackney (2011) note, the structures in place make this difficult. In moments of dire pessimism, I am a mere snail just holding my breath when poked. I feel the same sense of crushing urgency about the need to shift our narrative about the environment as shifting the narrative about effective learning organization. As I connect the dots between my discoveries, I hope to be able to further find the language and theoretical backing that I lacked at the beginning of the term to help affect change in my organization. I’m only one tenth of the away along my learning journey, if every other course allows me this much space for constructive thought, I might be able to contribute to that shift, hopefully before it’s too late.
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