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Concepts of unbounded organizing

By Gavin Andersson
Bounded organizations theories 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. The Unbounded Academy is about rewriting the script, recasting the characters, resignifying the activity systems.

The story of the UA

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. I reflected that we desperately need to recover this competence in societal organisation 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. The image and practice of bounded organisations holds for the biggest organisations like the military, giant corporations and governments, just as it does for the tiniest enterprise.
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’ by realising 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. 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 continue.

This is a far cry from the ‘I am because we are’ of African wisdom, and the ‘unity of hearts’ of Gandhi. As Evelin Lindner has persuasively argued, this is the very opposite of what should be happening.1 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.2 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. Crucial societal issues can easily be neglected in favour of each organization’s key purpose. Racism, sexism and other ideologies of superiority, for example, may only be tangentially addressed by such organisations, each competing with the others for market share, finance and time, each arguing that its issue deserves priority. 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 governmentto solve these issues. Do something! we demand. Fix it! As if complaining, can 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.3 The drama of the everyday is around how governments fail to lead us, notably on the issue of climate change.
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 in most cases to 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 marchande4 or ‘market separation’ 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.
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 must 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.
It is tragic that it is only when faced with the COVID 19 pandemic that those tasked to lead society take seriously the notion of Unbounded Organisation:
collaboration across society for the common good. But there is no practice of unbounded organisation to draw on and strengthen, so governments ‘drive down’ the ideas of social compacts and partnership, using the metaphor of war against the virus to appeal for societal cohesion.
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.5
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 too long to analyse positive examples of what I find it convenient to call unbounded thinking; or to analyse 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.6
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.7 The Unbounded Organisation Academy is about rewriting the script of organisational theory, recasting the characters, resignifying the activity systems.
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?
Those of us who join in launching this virtual Academy think that Unbounded Organisation is a keystone idea whose time has come. In the last fifty years there have been waves of new thinking that 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.8 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.
This is of course not to claim that Unbounded Organisation is the answer to all problems of modernity, but some of us believe that it is an approach that will bear fruit with diligent work. 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 defence and elaboration of civic values and culture, renewal of relationship with Mother Earth, Gaia, and regeneration of respectful stewardship of nature.
I am hopeful that these few words will catalyse or provoke contributions from you the reader and invite you most cordially to participate in the activities of the Unbounded Organization Academy. You will find different ways to engage as you look on this site, itself a work in progress. Please share your thoughts and critical commentary; help us see whether and how this concept is useful – or indeed offer robust refutation of the ideas put forward here.

1 Evelin Lindner, Making Enemies: Humiliation and International Conflict. Westport CT: Praeger. 2006. Evelin is a founding member of the Unbounded Organization Academy. See her website
2 Martin Luther King, Jr. Where do we go from here? Chaos or Community. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967.
3 Paulo Freire, Cultural Action for Freedom. Harvard Educational Review. December 1998, Vol. 68 (1998), pp. 476-522; Howard Richards, The Evaluation of Cultural Action. London: Macmillan, 1985.
4 André Orléan, L’Empire de la valeur : Refonder l’économie. Paris : Seuil, 2011.
5 Shiv Visvanathan, Shiv. A Carnival for Science: Essays on science, technology and development. London: Oxford University Press, 1997.
6 Howard Richards, Catherine Hoppers and Evelin Lindner, Following Foucault: The Trail of the Fox. Stellenbosch: SUN Press,2018.
7 For a few see Gavin Andersson, Unbounded Governance: A Study of Popular Development Organization. Dusseldorf: Scholars Press, 2018. This book is also available in PDF on line. It was my 2004 doctoral dissertation at the Open University in the UK.
8 Andersson, G. Carmen, R. Labra, I. Richards, H. Organization Workshop. Beyond the Workplace: Large Groups, Activity and the Shared Object. Mind, Culture, and Activity, Vol.25:(2018) pp. 86-99.