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Unbounded Organization

Last updated on 2019-09-21

by Gavin Andersson

The idea of Unbounded Organization, has been on my mind since about 1999. At that time I suggested that then current organizational theories constrained us in an imagination and daily reality of individual organisations.  I called them ‘bounded organizations.’ I suggested that the consequence had been that over time we human beings had lost a competence in societal organization that we must have had in order to have created the many cultures we have created; and, indeed, to have survived as a species; and that we desperately need now, Bounded organizations theories –my name for most of the theories now prevailing– negate aeons of evolution; the result is that homo sapiens can’t manage its affairs.  It can’t create a humane society.  It cannot sustain the conditions for life. 

I was led to this conclusion by what I saw all around me, and by what I had to cope with as a practicing community organizer, as well as by my academic studies. 

We organise in discrete bounded organisations. Each organization at its best has its driving rationale, its reason for being, the purpose that those inside it set out to achieve, with chosen values and rule structures.  At worst, organizations and people live aimlessly, trying to survive or trying to achieve what Amartya Sen called ‘pointless growth’ simply by achieving a bottom line that is a positive number at the end of each accounting period. Those outside its boundary are not part of the organization –a far cry from the ‘I am because you are’ of African wisdom, and the ‘unity of hearts’ of Gandhi. Each organization chooses its focus, its unique selling point and competitive advantage, or assertion. Each organisation performs strategic planning as if it is the centre of the universe and it seeks to builds all the competences it needs to survive. 

As Evelin Lindner has persuasively argued, this is the very opposite of what should be happening.  Our epoch is the epoch called upon to make human rights real instead of humiliating fictions for the world’s majorities.  In her terms it is the epoch called upon to ‘make inside values outside.’   The spiritual alignment of kinship and ethnic groups that has made human life secure and meaningful inside limited communities, must now be extended to every member of the human species.  We must become, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, a World Family in a World House.   Instead the opposite is happening.  Instead of deepening and extending community, we are losing the capacity to create community altogether.

We imagine that if all the myriad organisations do well then society will do well, our species will thrive, and moreover that we will have the prospect of achieving universal human rights.

It is not so. The most urgent issues facing humankind cannot be successfully resolved or even tolerably well coped with by any single organization.  It is even worse if, as is often the case, funds are raised and a staff is hired to focus on a single-issue.  Racism, sexism and other ideologies of superiority, for example, may only be tangentially addressed by such organisations, each competing with the others for funds and time, each arguing that its issue deserves priority.  Or else everything else – everything outside the issue that provides the rationale for the organization – can be left to ‘someone else’ to tackle… 

Related to the limits of bounded organizations, is the ineffectiveness of appeals to government   On the matter of climate collapse, as one example – but crime, and the daily violence against women and children are others – our blind habit and  self-destructive immediate resort is to look to the government to solve these issues.  Do something! we demand. Fix it!  As if complaining, shutting institutions down and fighting could take the place of coherent and constructive analysis of the causal powers of social structures, in other words as if this can take the place of unbounded thinking; and as if stubborn opposition could take the place of the innovative practice of what Paulo Freire called cultural action for freedom.    The drama of the everyday is around how governments fail to lead us…   The Unbounded Academy is about rewriting the script, recasting the characters, resignifying the activity systems. 

Governments and even more so the corporations who dominate the world continue to dominate, relying on the theory-and-activity of bounded organizations. To their own loss, as well as everyone else’s.   As everybody knows –but as bounded thinking and practice are powerless to change — the members of the human species are busy every day trying to in most cases make ends meet and in a tiny minority of cases to make fortunes, doing what they have to do within the scaffolding of today’s dominant structures.   The result—as everybody also knows—is to lead humanity to outcomes nobody wants, that are not to the interest of one single human being; and, indeed whose probable consequence will be the extinction of homo sapiens as well as the extinction of countless other species.

Bounded organizations theory-and-practice has had a stranglehold on society for approximately four centuries.   Four centuries is approximately the time elapsed since Europe became organized around the principle André Orléan calls séparation marchande or ‘market seperation’and others with disastrous naiveté call ‘freedom,’ often imagining with equally disastrous naiveté that the only possible alternatives to ‘freedom’ are ‘totalitarian.’  Corporations, the military, and government departments all thrive as bounded organizations, deliberately excusing themselves from responsibility for the common good, defining the objectives that articulate the problems they are trying to solve while intellectually trapped, as Albert Einstein put it, at the level of thinking that caused the problems in the first placed.

Indeed they form organisations within organisations. In Government, there are ministries and departments, and within departments there are directorates and sub directorates, as well as international, national, regional and local scales of operation.  I am not saying all this has to go, leaving no stone on stone.  I am saying it does not solve our wicked problems.  It must be rethought, reconnected, resignified, re-animated, and –to coin a term—re-spirited. Even civil society, the ‘sector’ most resonant of our working imagination, comes to be expressed as discrete organizations.

Over less than half a millennium, age-old patterns of societal organization have been smashed. Age-old capacities for sharing dreams and visions, have been discarded or continuously disrupted. They survive in fragments, almost forgotten, or are museumized as cultural artefacts.

There is another sense in which organisation has been bounded. A corollary of the increasing dominance of Europe and her offshoots over a period of 500 years, is the ‘squeezing out’ and obliteration of systems of knowledge that derive from other human civilizations, cosmologies and cultures. The wisdom from ancient traditions is obscured and rendered invisible while one dominant knowledge system, with its constitutive rules for society, its scientific method and its cultural norms has flourished. Within this knowledge system, the different disciplines and domains of thinking struggle to speak to each other, locked as they have been within their respective silos.

The call for Cognitive Justice is in one sense a move to escape from the limitations and disabilities consequent on this cognitive monoculture.  Cognitive Justice represents the flourishing of a multiplicity of knowledge systems, the celebration of knowledges that have hitherto been demonized, marginalized and rendered invisible, the decolonization of the curricula and pedagogy that were etched deeply and validated continually by generations of hegemony of what has been called Western Thought, or scientific thinking-practice.

Our imaginations are captured and our daily activities locked into what I have come to call bounded theories of organization. Theories of separation.   

It must be clear to anyone with eyes to see that all these organizations fail to achieve the organizing imperative for our survival. Though we have grown to be many on the earth, we are not competent in organising at this scale of population. We are not responding to Evelin Lindner’s challenge to make inside values outside.   We work hard in organizations yet are inept in societal organization.   I am venturing to suggest that more careful thought will confirm my suggestion that this mental malware, this defective programming of human thinking, provides a deep explanation of why, contrary to our own interests, we are ravaging and poisoning our planet, and failing to provide for all people. 

 It would make this piece—which is intended to be a short introduction—too long to analyse positive examples of what I find it convenient to call unbounded thinking; or to analyze how others appear to have hit on a similar idea but expressed it in different words. Perhaps Michel Foucault had this in mind when he said our greatest political problem is lack of imagination.

There are positive examples, and it will be part of the brief of the Academy not only to study them but to develop them in concrete action projects on the ground.

We are proposing for full consideration the questions: how do we organize across the unbounded realm of society and nature? How do we learn about Unbounded Organisation, so we increase possibilities for planetary health and human flourishing? 

I think I am not alone.  On the contrary, I think I have coined a keystone idea for starting a virtual Academy whose time has come.   In the last fifty years there have been waves of new thinking that still continue today.  One that deserves to be better known is Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) which informs the large group method initiated by C.S. de Morais.  This method enables the creation of new activity systems, where government, corporate and civil actors work in new ways towards a shared vision. Thanks to such precedents for unbounded thinking, we now have the means to bring in those previously excluded from organizations, and to find new collaborations and partnerships between organisations, and across matrices of organisations; to search for a nurturant alignment across society. Just before the turn of the millennium in 2000 there began another surge of new patterns of organization, responding to environmental and social issues through intersectoral collaboration and cross-boundary cooperation.  That is why there are now many positive examples to learn from.  Unbounded Organization has begun to traverse the spaces between organizations, see alliances amongst organisations, interpersonal linkages across individual organizations’ vertical and horizontal boundaries; the conscious weaving of activity towards shared purpose, notwithstanding notional boundaries of individual organisations and the hierarchies within them. Unbounded organization is already seeking alignment for the common good, interconnections across an activity system, alignment of an organizational ecosystem. In the last quarter of a century many people in many places have started to recognize that what I am calling unbounded organization is the area where hope resides.  It is, the practice that can unravel bounded patterns of dysfunctional organizing that take us hurtling on a collision course with physical realities.

If all of this sounds like one approach among many possible ones, although it is an approach that is bearing fruit and will bear more fruit if more of us work at it more systematically, it is because it is.  Some of us are treating it as a key idea to open locked doors at such levels as academic research,  popular development organization, educational reform,  interpreting current events,  constructive politics,  moving beyond economic theory to organization theory, peace education, community development, building mission-driven value-centred  organizations, ethics,  large group and community psychology,  local economic development, green technologies, and paradigm-shifting action projects on the ground.

Unbounded organization represents the creation of, and organising for,a practice that is sensitive and committed to the defense and elaboration of civic values and culture, renewal of relationship with mother Earth, and regeneration of respectful stewardship of nature

You are cordially invited to join us.

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