Maturana, Beer and Flores LO13264

R. Ramakrishnan (
Thu, 17 Apr 1997 12:47:37 +0530

Replying to LO13068 --


I have been following this conversation for some time. I seem to perceive
a congruence between the ideas of recursion (Stafford Beer), cognition and
language (maturana and Varela), complex adaptive systems (Santa fe
Institute) and the learning organization. While in UK sometime back I was
also introduced to Winograd and Fernando Flores.

Our group in India has been working with various organizations using these
ideas, specifically with reference to organization design and information

Here are some of my thoughts on :


As a starting definition, we view organisations as networks of recurrent
human interactions between the participants (individuals, units, groups).
The interactions themselves are coordination of actions. This means that
the process of interactions continually (re)generates what Maturana and
Varela (The Tree of Knowledge) term as a consensual domain between the
participants. The consensual domain itself is always in the background of
the interactions. The participants make the interactions occur precisely
because of the existence of the consensual domain. In this sense what an
observer may see as an input-output or causal relationship can actually be
seen to be interactions between participants set in the context of the
consensual domain between them. In the sense described here interactions
(coordination of action) can be seen to be conversations for actions, a
phrase we adopt from Winograd and Flores(Computers and Cognition1986,
p.64). Such an orienting behaviour is termed as linguistic behavi our by
Maturana and Varela. The operational domains of human organizations can
thus be characterized as linguistic domains. The sense in which we use the
term interactions, is not that of 'hard' engineered processes 'out there',
but rather, a mutual inte rlocking of actions arising out of a 'practical
consciousness', a term adopted from Giddens. The participants play the
role of actors through their recurrent interactions in the operational
domain. The rationalist view of cognition is individual centered and thus
place primary emphasis on the individual's mental models as
representations of the world relevant to him or her. We depart from this
view by looking at actors not as individual subject or egos, but as
manifestations of being-in-the-world within a space of possibilities,
situated within a world and within a tradition (Winograd and Flor es,
p.33). Organizations can then be seen to be structurally coupled to their
medium, the environment. The process of structural coupling is a process
of triggering of changes of state through mutual perturbations. Thus, the
environment does not determine the stat e changes, it is the organization
as a network of interactions that determine what will be the environmental
triggers and the nature of state changes corresponding to the triggers.
Organizations are in this sense, operationally closed networks of intera
ctions. In other words, operational closure means that the network of
interactions is self generating. The structure of the organization can
then be seen to be the specific entities and their specific interactions.
Organizations can, in this perspective , be characterized as structure
determined systems. This is not meant in the everyday sense in which
organizations are referred to as 'prisoners of their structures'. What it
simply means is that organizations are constituted in the operational
domain through their structures. In the operational domain, for the
network of interactions, there is no outside or inside, but only
maintenance of correlations that continuously change (Maturana and Varela,
1992, p.169) Interactions, when seen as consensual coordination of action
(or conversations for actions) , generate another realm of possibilities,
the Domain of Descriptions. In this domain, acts of coordination of
action (conversations for action) themselves become objects of
coordination. It is this which gives rise to coordination of
'coordination of action' - to distinguish these, we shall term them as
conversations for possibilities, adapting the usage of the phrase from
Winograd and Flores(1986, p.151). Th e participants are observers in the
domain of descriptions. In this domain, the observer makes a description
in semantic terms, i.e. describes interactions as if the meaning
attributed determines the course of interaction. Meaning emerges as a
relation ship between descriptions. Meaning is fundamentally social and
cannot be reduced to the meaning giving activity of individual subjects
(Winograd and Flores, p.33).

The domain of the conversations for possibilities, emerging from the
consensual coordination of action in the domain of descriptions, is what
we call the Domain of Language. Conversations in this domain are in the
sense described here, linguistic coordina tion of conversations for
actions in the operational domain. By characterizing both the operational
domain and the domain of descriptions as essentially linguistic domains,
we are trying to highlight the point that the 'tokens' for coordination of
action are essentially arbitrary but socially negotiated through recurrent
interactions, and that the tokens themselves are also objects of this
coordination. The relationship between the domain of language and the
operational domain is akin to that postulated by Goethe between Genius and
Nature : what one promises , the other redeems. The basic function of
language as a system of orienting behaviour is not the transmission of
information or the description of an independent universe about which we
can talk, ( we would however not exclude such a possibility), but the
creation of a consensual domain of behaviour between linguistically
interacting systems through the development of a cooperative domain of
interactions (Maturana in "Biology of Language", quoted in Winograd and
Flores, p.50).

Let us summarise what has been said so far. The participants in the
organization are actor-observers. They are actors in the operational
domain and observers in the domain of descriptions. Consensual medium. A
necessary though not sufficient condition f or this increase is increasing
the possibilities of structural coupling of the organizational units at
all the levels of recursion. This would also necessarily mean that the
units interact with the knowledge of the increased possibilities of their
struct ural couplings.

* Two, the intervention must increase the possibilities of conversation in
the domain of language of the organization.

The above two criteria can be interpreted as increasing the possibilities
of consensual coordination of action in its operational domain and domain
of descriptions respectively.

* Three, the intervention must enable grounding, i.e., the intervention
must make it possible for interactions in the operational domain and
conversations in the domain of language to recursively generate each
other. In other words, the intervention must be such that it makes
possible the grounding of conversations for possibilities through its
recurrent interactions.

On the language of intervention: Over several years of consultancy
practice we are beginning to develop a language called Multi Modelling:

The paradigm of Languaging suggests that effective intervention calls for
an approach which deals with the operational domain and the domain of
language of the organization simultaneously. In our view, such an
approach is best treated as a language in itself (we would rather not call
it a methodology). The vocabulary, syntax and structure of such a language
should make it possible to deal with both the domains simultaneously.
Developing such a language we believe would lead to a domain of consensu
al coordination of action between the organization and the intervener.
Such a language would be generative, it would neither describe nor
prescribe, but generate triggers for perturbation, in the sense of
intervention described in the previous section. The role of the
intervener can thus be seen as a 'generator', which is qualitatively
different from the accepted notions of either a facilitator or an agent
for managing pre-defined change programs.

The use of Formal Systems in Multi Modeling is essentially as 'reflective
devices' which aid in structuring the conversations emerging from the
exploration of the domain of interactions of the organization Various
Formal Systems which we have found usefu l are Beer's Viable Systems (eg.
1979), Miller's Living Systems Theory (1978), Prigogine's Dissipative
Structures (1985) and some of the work on Complex Adaptive Systems at the
Santa Fe Institute. Their usefulness in the paradigm of Languaging, is
not as models of design or diagnosis, but as languages relevant to both
the operational and linguistic domains of the organization. They are not
languages 'of' the organization in the sense of describing or diagnosing
'reality', they are rather languages 'for', in that they can be used to
generate new possibilities of structural coupling in the operational
domain and new conversations in the domain of language.

These thoughts form the nucleus of a working paper written by me -
interested readers can contact me for the full version. I would love to
carry on this dialogue.

R. Ramakrishnan, Tata Consultancy Services:
"Life is a refined choreography of behavioral coordination" - Maturana and Varela in the 'Tree of Knowledge'


"R. Ramakrishnan" <>

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