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American Society for Cybernetics
Creating a Culture of Conversing:
Applying cybernetic notions in business praxis
Alan Stewart, PhD
PO Box 6250, Halifax St. Adelaide South Australia 5000
Tel: (61 8) 8370 0592
Stewart, Alan (2001). Creating a Culture of Conversing: Applying cybernetic notions in business praxis.
My paper is about the idea that conversing is the lifeblood of an organization. The implications are enormous as creating a culture based on the recognition that 'conversing is working' can bring substantial, even unimaginable, benefits. I invite you to explore this organizing idea to see where it may lead for you.
By conversing I mean all members of an organization recognize the value of talking with others in a non confronting, non status, friendly and open way. When the need arises to sit down and have a chat.
When there is recognition among all members of an organization that 'We are here to treat each other well' and 'We're in this together.' In such a culture people feel confident and secure in expressing their ideas on matters of significance, imaginatively. How can any organization prosper unless this happens?
Pie in the sky? I suggest that there are key cybernetic principles which can be brought forth to help create and sustain this kind of culture. My fundamental premises are that 'The praxis of cybernetics is respecting the autonomy of people' (paraphrased from Mark Enslin) and that 'Intelligence is a property of conversation' (Gordon Pask). I claim that when conditions are right for conversing, including it being explicit that 'We will treat each other well' and that 'We're in this together', intelligence automatically emerges.
I suggest that 'The Conversing Company' connotes well the manifesting of a culture underpinned by understanding that 'conversing is working.' In developing this notion I introduce seminal ideas obtained from the work of four people, Humberto Maturana (hereafter referred to as Humberto, as he is one of us!), Harrison Owen, Juanita Brown and Lloyd Fell. I propose that they have contributed very valuable ways of thinking about what we humans are capable of when it comes to living and working in harmony, and about contexts in which this happens.
I complement their work by sharing my own observations and experience of the verb 'to converse' and some remarkable implications of using it in practice. I also indicate how 'conversing' is integral to 'the Science of Wholeness' as articulated by Lloyd Fell.
Further, I put to you that singing can be a vital contributor to a culture of conversing through creating the ambience in which people come together in ways that reflect authentic human disclosure and its possibilities.
We humans are capable of far more harmonious and creative living as a species which is an integral part of a fragile global ecosystem. Would you agree that conditions in which we act more respectfully and collaboratively are now known and the issue is how to promote recognition of these widely?
Until recently the last time I met with Humberto was in 1994. He had been invited to return to Australia and two friends and I had put together a collection of essays to celebrate his visit.
I have had the remarkable good fortune to connect twice with him in person again, in Vienna and Vancouver, both in May of this year (2001). These encounters have prompted me to reflect on the impact that his ideas have had on my thinking, and on developments in this in the intervening years.
Perhaps languaging on important processes is the development of note. By this I mean my ability to talk about contexts in which people feel secure in bringing forth what they believe in, in acting courageously and in expressing their authentic selves. Be this is as it may, it has been very enjoyable journeying!
And so what I offer here to you, members of the American Society for Cybernetics, is a personal account of my knowing about a culture of conversing and its implications; an account that has been substantially influenced by Humberto and others whose ideas I perceive as being linked to his.
Part of this contribution is to introduce to you processes in which the autonomy of people is respected, and to relate these with cybernetic principles with which you may be more familiar.
By its very nature my paper on conversing is discursive. Please come along to see where this train of thought may lead. You may find it useful in your own endeavours with applying cybernetic principles.
Origins of conversing
There are four components which I construe as having contributed to my making explicit these ideas about conversing at work. These are:
In the late 1970s, while working as a lecturer in nutrition in a new medical school in Adelaide, and with a background in biochemistry, I made a fateful discovery. This was that a constructivist explanation of people's decision making about food choice made a lot of sense. A PhD student and I found that, using a framework of Personal Construct Psychology (George Kelly, The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Routledge. 1991; originally published in 1955), we could talk for days on end about why people chose to eat what they did in particular contexts. This was somewhat disconcerting, as there was nothing that we could find in the nutrition literature to support this experiencing. Nonetheless we persisted.
Then in 1981, while a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University in California, I attended a conference on 'Disorder and Order' and met Heinz von Foerster and Francisco Varela. These encounters and subsequent studies on the biology of cognition put the seal on my journeying as a constructivist; this became full blown once I met Humberto in person in the late 80s and was instrumental in bringing him to Australia twice more.
This radical switch from the biology of metabolism of nutrients to the biology of cognition of food did not come easily nor was it readily accepted by my dietetics and medical colleagues. It did mean that I gradually became more focused on qualitative research and, in the years prior to my retirement from academe, was teaching a masters course on Qualitative Research Methods. This led me to appreciate the role of the qualitative researcher as a facilitator of conversation.
And by the time Humberto came to Adelaide in 1994 I had begun to call myself a Professional Conversationalist, having recognized the power of his ideas about conversation as the means by which we humans create meaning and identity in our lives. He was delighted to learn that someone had taken the risk of taking this step.
To coincide with this visit two colleagues and I coedited a book of essays on Humberto's biology and its implications in diverse areas.
See: Seized by Agreement, Swamped by Understanding. Eds: Lloyd Fell, David Russell and Alan Stewart.
I commend the Prologue to you as a taster of this volume.
I contributed two of the essays, on 'Cybernetic Conversation' and on 'Constructivism and Collaborative Enterprises.' These are about cybernetic principles underpinning a particular kind of relating between people engaged in processes of change, such as in therapy or primary medical care practice, or in qualitative research in which collaborative inquiry is a central feature.
Figure 1 Not Available (- Editor )
And my friend Lloyd Fell had composed a song about the group which was the co-host of Humberto's visit, the Cybernetics Group in Adelaide.
Here is the first verse; all the words of the song are on Lloyd Fell's website entitled Autopoiesis Plus
Cybernetical People in Adelaide
Cybernetical people in Adelaide
In the intervening years - these things take time to sink in! - I have come to appreciate that:
Humberto has provided insight into the nature of our being through revealing that we are capable of far more harmonious living as a species than our current practices. His observations as a biologist are truly emancipating as they provide a firm foundation for treating each other with inherent respect. For he makes clear that what we choose to notice creates the worlds we live in. If we choose to see people as whole creatures then this influences greatly how we interact - and what emerge from our interactions.
He notes: "Human existence takes place in the relational space of conversation. This means that, even though from a biological perspective we are Homo sapiens, our way of living - that is to say, our human condition - takes place in our form of relating to each other and the world we bring forth in our daily living through conversation"(emphasis added).
Seminal thoughts on conversation
Here is a brief selection from an extensive collection of ideas on the nature of conversation which have come to my notice in the past few years:
"Creating a positive future begins in human conversation. The simplest and most powerful investment any member of a community or an organization may make in renewal is to begin talking with other people as though the answers mattered."
People of action often say, "Don't just talk, get out there and do something". Perhaps better advice is, "Don't just do something, get out there and talk".
"For it is a listener's experience, yes the listener - the hearer - who determines the meaning of an utterance ... The listener hears whatever he or she hears, and we never know what that is."
'When you listen to somebody else, whether you like it or not, what they say becomes a part of you .....the common pool is created, where people begin suspending their own opinions and listening to other peoples'.... At some point people begin recognizing that the common pool is more important than their separate pools.'
' ...conversation has within it a mechanism for the finding of new things. ... As a participant in a conversation, I may change some element in the representation, just as my partner may. But, when I change it, I change it within my own range. That is to say, since it is I who changes it, I can only change it in some way I know how to change it. But if you change it, I may be surprised. If I insist on being in charge, of doing the (figurative) "talking", I will remain within the limits of what I can imagine. By listening as you do the talking, I may move beyond the limits of my imaginings because I am borrowing from you.'
Debate and compromise are very poor means of resolving complex issues in comparison with engaging in conversation with people who are also stakeholders.
And reflections on these:
"Conversational processes are now being widely recognised as the means to resolve complex, and often conflicted, issues. This recognition accords with growing awareness that it is traditional meeting procedures themselves which limit how complexity is handled. Problems in handling complex matters are being seen as more related to poor quality mechanisms for coming to common ground than to 'difficult people.'"
"The 'keeper' for me [from Alan Stewart's presentation] was the wonderful notion that every time we talk openly with another human being, a third -joint-level of consciousness is created, from the best of both of us. When we argue or debate, we actually seek to block the other's contribution and limit potential solutions or suggestions, limiting world consciousness."
In what circumstances do people engage in conversation?
Where and when is this wholeness expressed? In my experience - and that of many others - when conditions for interaction are underpinned by the principles of Open Space Technology (OST) as composed by Harrison Owen and of World Café as created by Juanita Brown and her colleagues.
Open Space Technology
This provides a profound, practical way to enhance communications within organizations for real business purposes. All people in a group, no matter how large, have their say on equal terms. They make their own agenda with what they have passion for and they organize the conversations themselves. This invariably leads to surprising learning and outcomes. (see: www.openspaceworld.org)
Also in 1994 I was introduced to this remarkable technology when a friend loaned me a copy of Harrison Owen's book on 'Open Space Technology - A User's Guide.'
This arrived at a time when I was in a quandary as to what to offer to members of our Cybernetics Group in Adelaide for a forthcoming meeting. Having read the book the co-convenor of this group, John Graham, and I decided to run this as an OST gathering. It was very successful in that participants greatly enjoyed the freedom with which they interacted with each other.
Since that time I have enjoyed rich experiencing with this process as a facilitator of many OST forums, an attendee at Open Space on Open Space gatherings - for practitioners of the process - including an international meeting in Monterey in California in 1998, a longstanding member of the Open Space listserv and a founding member of the Open Space Institute of Australia.
The principles of OST are:
Also the Law of Two Feet which indicates that you are free to move wherever your intuition leads you at any moment, including leave if you wish.
I usually invoke these principles and law in whatever meeting I am facilitating. And I also make explicit 'We are here to treat each other well' and 'We're in this together.'
Observations of people all over the world is that there is invariably a liveliness in the way participants interact with each other in these gatherings. A child who happened by at an OST gathering commented 'Are they having a party?'
One major interpretation of this liveliness observed is that 'Spirit emerges.'
Harrison Owen's book published this year 'The Power of Spirit - how organizations transform' (Berrett Koehler) is about what happens when people become 'strong, focused and vibrant.'
Another interpretation of this liveliness comes from cybernetics:
'Intelligence is a property of conversing.' Adapted from Gordon Pask
This 'truism' was passed on to me by Canadian poet Kathleen Forsythe (and current vice president of the ASC) who had been a student and close friend of British cybernetician Gordon Pask.
In other words, when people interact under the right conditions, spirit or intelligence emerges automatically - it is the only thing that could have. This spirit or intelligence is almost palpable as it reflects people becoming more questioning, curious, playful, trusting, courageous, risk taking - in effect open to possibilities of listening to and sharing voices of lived experiencing.
If you have experienced being in gatherings in which these principles are made explicit you will have appreciated the remarkable ways in which people, regardless of their role in a company or community, act differently from before: collaborate, listen more carefully, act more on things than expecting others to act, periodically become leaders ...
This is a range of processes which also promotes inclusivity and creativity. Participants sit at small tables and engage passionately with each other in exploring the questions that are at the core of the issue they have gathered to address. (see: www.theworldcafe.com))
Nancy Margulies, creator with Juanita Brown and David Isaacs of the World Café, visited Brisbane with Meg Wheatley and Myron Kellnor-Rogers in 1997.
I first heard of World Café when a friend who had been at their workshop sent me a paper by Juanita and Nancy. I promptly contacted them and we have been in regular communication ever since, including my visiting with them near San Francisco twice.
In the past few years I have facilitated numerous Cafes around Australia for people in business, government and community organizations. In May 2001 I facilitated a Café in Asheville, North Carolina, USA, on the future of a 4-H camp.
The story of OST and Café processes being used to address a complex issue by a particular local council illustrates a conversing community at work. See case study below.
Musings about conversation - and a switch
For quite some time I thought of Humberto's biology and of OST and Café processes in regard to their being associated with 'conversation.' This 'worried' me as this term, while being inviting, is too 'soft' to be acceptable to hard nosed people in business and scientific domains. "Whenever I hear the word 'conversation' I can hear the teacups rattling in the background" is a common connotation.
And also in using the term there invariably had to have a qualifier such as conscious, purposeful, respectful, providential, cybernetic - and every adjective had to be explained.
In January 2000 I had a remarkable illumination. While traveling on a bus I noticed a sports bag with a label on it 'Converse.' I looked at this, wondering what it meant, and then the thought came to me that 'This is it!' It's what? The answer to the problem expressed in the paragraphs above, viz use the verb 'converse.'
How does this strike you? While it is little used - yet - in my experiencing people respond very favorably to this word. It does not have the 'baggage' or the difficulties associated with a noun.
For what it means, in essence, is 'friendly interaction about things that matter.'
I submit that, once you think about it and try it for yourself, you will come to appreciate the power of verbs in general and specifically 'to converse.'
Why indeed must 'God' be a noun? Why not a verb ... the most active and dynamic of all? Mary Daly, Theologian
A question arises
When people display these spirited behaviors a question is:
What are they doing?
Meaning? con versare - to turn or to dance together.
'We dance around in a ring and suppose... The secret sits in the middle and knows.'
For when people converse what they do is:
A reflection on conversing, in song
Here are the words of a song which encapsulates the spirit of participating in a process in which people treat each other well. I sang this at an evening function during the ASC meeting in Vancouver. You can download it as a small MP3 file.
Written by my friend Lloyd Fell the words are based on our conversing when we traveled together across Australia for 10 days in December 2000.
The Conversing Café
Implications for business practice
Would you wish to see this way of being as the core of the culture of organizations? A culture in which the way people interact with each other habitually generates energy, excitement, learning, knowledge, initiative, synergy, commitment.
Would you want organization(s) with which you are associated to be known as a 'Conversing Company' in which there is general recognition among all staff that conversing is working, is essential to doing good business?
There is now widespread appreciation, at least in some quarters, of this. The authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto (Perseus Books) make clear that business is fundamentally human and that natural human conversation is the language of commerce.
I have no doubt that there are many organizations would go along with this. What may be lacking is an appreciation of the very concept 'to converse' and its potential to help create a truly human culture.
A case study of conversing in practice
One organization that is starting to appreciate the power and potential of this concept is the Council of the City of Marion. Marion comprises a number of suburbs, with a population of about 80,000, located within metropolitan Adelaide in South Australia.
I was hired to conduct a series of public consultations on what the people of Marion wished to see happen in a major new community facility. These consultations took the form of 'open agenda, conversing meetings' using a combination of OST and World Café processes.
Perhaps the main points to report are that:
An article on these consultations, their history, people's experiencing of them and their outcomes to date can be found in Café Stories http://www.theworldcafe.com/storyconversing.html
Characteristics of a Conversing Company
In a Conversing Company there would be general recognition throughout the organization that:
And the kinds of happenings which may occur include:
These strivings towards creating conditions in which we humans can express the best that is in us, viz that we are intelligent, creative, adaptive and meaning seeking, are happening in many places.
For the latent potential is all there. Harrison Owen, in a posting on the Open Space listserv said: "Creating an environment in which people can be fully themselves ("Just live") is indeed a major contribution. I think that is what we do [as facilitators of OST gatherings]. But the point is we can't give them what they already have. However, we may give them an insight to the gifts they already have, should they choose to use them."
I believe this striving reflects "a commitment to life and to each other. Like all life, we pursue a direction only towards wholeness ....." Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, in A Simpler Way (Berrett-Koehler).
And, as mentioned earlier, I believe also that the work of Humberto is showing us how we as a species can better understand how what we choose to notice creates the worlds we live in.
A masterly synthesis, in my opinion, on this growing 'science of wholeness' based on Humberto's ideas has been written by Lloyd Fell. Entitled "Seven Aspects of Knowing, Quality of Life for Individuals and Organisations, A contribution to the science of wholeness" it is an expression of very practical ways - with a touch of the feminine - through which we can come to appreciate the essence of our humanity as 'whole' creatures. And of the 'blind spots' which prevent us from realizing more of our innate potential.
A diagrammatic representation is given here. The article can be found at www.pnc.com.au/~lfell/
Figure 2: Seven Aspects of Knowing
Two of the Aspects that I wish to comment briefly on here, are Love and Knowledge.
Humberto Humberto describes as 'love' - a process of granting to others and to oneself, acceptance, dignity, legitimacy, humanity, without them or you having to change, or improve, or be redeemed; to see the redemption they already are.
And Fell notes: "The most original thing about Maturana's biology is his explanation that, without love, we humans would not have survived to this point in our evolution. He defined love as the interaction between us which allows the other to be the legitimate other. Love is not simply fulfilling one another's emotional needs - trading needs. It is the most unconditional interaction and the most genuine of connections. Love is not a feeling - feelings are commentaries on our emotions. It is the most expansive emotion in that it predisposes to the utmost generosity of spirit and openness to the world, in contrast to fear, for example, which is much more constricting."
I would submit that, under conditions underpinned by the principles of OST, complemented by 'We are here to treat each other well' and 'We're in this together' love is the natural expression of the way people interact.
We know as we do, in conversing.
Products, inventions and services, great and small, are talked into existence.
The structure of the DNA molecule was talked into existence by Watson and Crick, in the lab, pub, train and on the river. Linus Pauling, who had done extensive work on the same project, had nobody to converse with and missed out on this major discovery.
I submit that practicing the Fifth Discipline in Management and its associated four disciplines (personal mastery, mental models, shared visions, and team learning), as developed by Peter Senge and his colleagues (The Dance of Change. Nicholas Brealey), requires a great deal of conversing to set up in particular contexts - and to sustain.
And that a culture of conversing is crucial to keeping abreast of what is required to adapt successfully to change in what Robert Flood in his 'Rethinking The Fifth Discipline' (Routledge) calls 'the unknowable.'
Further what we create in the course of our conversing is a function of who we think we are based on who we are connected to and who has, or does, treat us well. John Shotter calls this knowing of the third kind - to distinguish it from theoretical and technical knowledge - knowing that arises from 'within relationships, real or imagined.'
For more details of this see my article on Cybernetic Conversation in: www.univie.ac.at/cognition/constructivism/books/seized/convers.html
I appreciate that what I notice and what I pursue are very much related to my sense of connectedness to particular people. Figure 3 contains photos with me with Humberto in 1994 and also with David Russell (centre) and Lloyd Fell at about this time.
Figure 3 Not Available (- Editor )
This has enormous implications for sharing, and expanding, our knowing through being members of a culture of conversing. For it is when all members of an organization feel that they are able to contribute questions and ideas that the viability of the organization is enhanced.
How many of us are aware of how significant our conversing is?
Singing as a trigger of conversing
Lloyd Fell has written a host of songs which help capture the essence of autopoiesis and, I suggest, the spirit of conversing.
As Lloyd writes: "People often say this autopoiesis stuff is difficult - Maturana's papers are not exactly easy bedtime reading - so, about 15 years ago, I started to write songs about this to help me understand and to share this experience with others. It's been an incredibly satisfying journey which affirmed for me the practical value of aiming to trigger, not to inform; otherwise the songs we sing at workshops could not have been successful."
The two songs mentioned have reportedly contributed a 'lightness' to the proceedings in the contexts in which they have been sung to date.
At a conference on 'Spirituality, Leadership and Management' in December 2000 Lloyd and a colleague presented a workshop entitled 'No Singing Allowed in this Boardroom.' The singing of several of his songs evoked a very warm response.
Perhaps a spirit released whenever people sing, dance and play together is in evidence?
Interacting with conversing
I put this question to a group recently: What happens when such a culture is in place? These were some of their responses:
Relationships build, high levels of participation, emotion is expressed, people feel welcome, trust, possibilities, people feel valued, commitments are met, people are heard, new ideas emerge, organizations go beyond the process, egalitarian, heightened awareness, high learning, play.
To which could be added: enjoyment of work and there is sustained energy for action.
See my article on 'Conversation as the energizer of new ways of being and new ways of doing.' www.reworkingtomorrow.org/conversations/slim_book.html#energiser
Interacting without conversing
To the question: What happens when such a culture is not operative? the same group responded:
Conflict, fear, closed, lawyers!, withdrawal, disempowered, hidden agendas, gossip, people constricted assumptions, lots of snoring at meetings!
Just some that come to my mind are that:
No doubt you would be able to add your twopenny worth to both of these lists, from your lived experience.
Time to converse
The issue arises, naturally, about whether there is time in today's competitive world to set aside time for people to participate through conversing.
Perhaps by now you will have come to appreciate that there are very powerful reasons as to why this is not a matter of choice, it has to be done. It is not an indulgence, not a luxury, it is an imperative.
For how else are important questions to be addressed, questions such as:
As Lloyd Fell notes in a recent letter to me: "Humberto's contributions are so vast that I think it is very useful to capture those particular contributions which underpin your argument. The whole of his work has revolutionised our entire thinking process, in my opinion, but you are closing in on the distillation of what is the essence of it, I think, so far as conversing is concerned."
This paper has been a taster of the verb 'to converse', its origins as I use it here, and its deep underpinnings in biology and in the way we humans interact with each other. My organizing idea is that Humberto has helped us greatly to understand who we are as a species and what we are capable of when we recognize that everything we do in based on the quality of our relating.
And that this applies to our knowing and our knowledge, created in dynamics of interaction. This indicates the critical importance of talking about managing and cultivating knowledge, not as a commodity, but as the juice or lifeblood of an organization.
My thesis is that 'Conversing is working; it is vital to doing good business.' And my focus has been primarily on what constitutes a Conversing Company. The way such an organization functions day to day makes it one in which people enjoy being at work and give of their best, wholeheartedly. Such a way of being also enhances the likelihood of success in times of great uncertainty.
I wonder if you have come to realize that referring to 'friendly interaction about things that matter' by the verb rather than the noun 'conversation' is a very powerful idea - and highly practical too? And if you can now appreciate that in a culture of conversing there is much opportunity for people to develop rich personal connections? And for people to connect also at idea levels, people who in more traditional organizations would normally be precluded from doing this by the very boundaries that such cultures create and sustain. Who would deny the power of cross fertilization of ideas?
Numerous commentators have called emphasized that in times of change new words must be created to describe new paradigms. Among these is Thomas Berry, coauthor with Brian Swimme of The Universe Story (Harper Collins, 1992) who has written: "A new language, an Ecozoic language is needed. Our Cenozoic language is radically inadequate. A new dictionary should be compiled with new definitions of existing words and introduction of new words for the new modes of being and of functioning that are emerging."
Perhaps the use of 'converse' as outlined here may be seen as part of such new language for conducting our human affairs.
I hope that this contribution has deepened your appreciation of what happens when people converse and that this helps to unlock possibilities for you and within your orbit.
About Alan Stewart, PhD
Alan Stewart, PhD, is a professional conversationalist. By this he means that he facilitates gatherings and ongoing activities in which people converse. He is a highly experienced facilitator of Open Space Technology and of World Café processes and has worked with numerous business organizations as well as community and academic organizations. Some of his writings can be found at http://www.pnc.com.au/~lfell/stewart.html
He was a co-convenor of the Cybernetics Group in Adelaide, a group which met about four times a year, from about 1985, to explore diverse issues pertaining to Second Order Cybernetics. While no longer gathering regularly, people interested in these ideas and practices do get together periodically.
Alan is the principal of a group called Multimind Solutions which offers 'Facilitation of communication processes which ensure that people contribute creatively, collectively and wholeheartedly to the solution of complex issues.' They also offer courses and workshops on 'The Art of Conversing' and coaching on conversing skills. This work can be done anywhere on our little planet.
In May of this year he was a keynote speaker at the 1st World Conference for Systemic Management in Vienna and he also presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cybernetics in Vancouver, Canada.
Alan has been a Senior Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University and is widely traveled. He lives in Adelaide in Australia.
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