Book Review: A Process Theory of Organization

A Process Theory of Organization by Tor Hernes makes an attempt to connect the fluidity of day-to-day organizational life with its structures. What Hernes mean with organizational life is ”the ongoing process of making, remaking, unmaking and relating of organizational actors of all sorts … into meaningful wholes.” A meaningful whole can be ”a Twitter community, an emerging interest group, an entrepreneur with an idea, … as well as any form of formalized organization …”

Two key points in the book are:

(1) Certain assumptions hamper the ability of traditional organization theory to explain organizing in a world on the move. These assumptions relate to temporality, the social vs. the material, connecting, actions, and process (actuality and potentiality). In a world on the move, focus need to be on connectedness (rather than size), flow (rather than stability), and temporality (rather than spatiality).

(2) A temporal view enables the dynamics of organizations to be understood differently. Articulation provides the connection between presents, events, and structure. Structure provides a sense of continuity. Change may be seen as the emergence of new meaning structure. Managers and leaders act in the flow of time and need to contend with the present-past-future relationship that people experience. Organizational culture and identity are deeply entangled with the temporality of organizational life.

If there’s one message in the book, its that time matters. Time is important because the world is ”sucked into a whirl of cries and events,” and because time invites ”the study of the impact on things by the passing of time.” Process thinking enables at better understanding of the workings of time and temporality. Hernes’ view is that we are ”looking at a distributed system of actors mutually constituted by temporally ordered acts, rather than a hierarchically ordered monolithic perspective.”. Hernes thinks that time and temporality play a different role in a distributed view than in a hierarchical one. In a hierarchical system time is seen as a scarce resource, whereas in a distributed system time is ”the resource from which reality is carved out.” What Hernes’ seems to mean is that a distributed rather than a hierarchical view of organizations invites consideration of how time influences how actors co-create organizations.

The decentralization of organizations takes place at the same time as interactive technologies become increasingly more common. One aspect is ”speed”. Another is the ”temporal effects of coordination between actors with different historicities and ambitions at different locations … in different time zones.” Fast interaction between people at different locations, in different time zones, is crucial for coordination. This is made possible by interactive technology.

Hernes writes that the ”connecting dynamics” in organizations and the ”formation of organizations” need to be better understood. He thinks this is related to how people (I’m simplifying Hernes’ language here) connect with each other, and how people ”reproduce patterns or structures of events.” For example, how does the connecting power of social media influence the definition of organizational life? A better understanding is, for example, needed of ”crowds as arenas of organizational activity.” This requires the development of ”novel analytical frameworks.”

The key terms in Hernes’ own theoretical framework are temporality (presents and events), meaning structures, and articulation. Process constitutes organization. The passing of time forces closure upon presents, which turns them into events. Events exhibit temporal agency (the can ‘reach out’ to other events) and they take place in the living present. The living present becomes a spatio-temporal event upon closure associated with actors and outcomes. Actors are embedded in an ongoing present, which forms a basis for events. Presents and events lay the basis for understanding structural aspects of organizing.

Interestingly, Hernes sees order as ”arising from flow, and not vice versa.” Actors are made through acting. The flow of time gives rise to ”ordering attempts, which in turn give rise to organizations.” I might have misunderstood Hernes, and my understanding of order might be different, but I think that order and flow influence each other. My view is that it’s the actors, made through acting, that give rise to ”ordering attempts” in the flow of time. I view these ”ordering attempts” as acts of organizing. And I view these acts of organizing as ”temporally ordered acts,” which sometimes give rise to formal organizations. Organizations, in turn, give rise to formal (officially acknowledged) acts and non-formal (spontaneous self-organized) acts. However, these are my own thoughts!

Hernes believes that ”an idea in one part of the world, a piece of regulation in another, technology in the third, production in the fourth, and finance in the fifth” may come together momentarily and set in motion ”an assembly of events and elements,” which ”vigorously reproduces itself” while ”continually changing.” It’s ”this sense of movement that traditional organizational theory has withheld organizational life.” I agree! I welcome Hernes’ attempt to create an alternative theoretical framework for the study and analysis of organization.

I found the book both difficult and easy to read. The books has a clear structure, but it takes time to understand and get used to Hernes’ terminology. I often had to reread sentences in my attempts to understand. And I’m still not sure I fully understood all the time. I think Hernes’ style of analyzing is helpful in understanding how ”temporality is at the heart of organizational life.” But I think verbal-intellectual ”organizational theorizing” need to be complemented with a sensous-intuitive perspective. How else can we sense the full movement in organizational life? A fascinating book.

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  1. Simon Robinson

    This is a really excellent overview Jan. I think one of the aspects that makes Hernes not so easy to read is that if you look at who is cited the most in the authors index, it’s Heidegger, North Whitehead and Mead. These are all authors who really are challenging in the extreme, all working at the deepest level of ontology (as opposed to a person such as Alex Osterwalder whose masters thesis was titled ”The Business Model Ontology”. This is excellent work, but not at the same ontological level). I think you’ll definitely be returning to Hernes, but he does provide an idea of what a framework for a process would look like and what it would need to contain. Another author he cites a lot is Niklas Luhmann who of course attempted to develop a social theory of autopoiesis. That Luhmann did not manage to develop a fully satisfactory model shows just how difficult this task is (as opposed to criticising him for now managing to achieve his goal).

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