Organisational Innovation and the SPACE Framework

In a recent article that payed homage to the work of Peter Drucker, John Hagel reiterated the argument that he and John Seely Brown developed in their recently published research paper, Institutional Innovation. The argument states that with the increasing rapidity of economic and infrastructural change that ‘perhaps we need to expand our focus on innovation beyond the narrow frame of technology and product innovation’ and ‘invest more time and energy in exploring institutional innovation’. What is required to achieve this stated aim is a ‘move from a rationale of scalable efficiency to one of scalable learning’, that is, ‘designing institutions and architectures of relationships across institutions’ to support and extend possibilities for greater participation, and thus, greater learning.

This all sounds relatively reasoned; to achieve greater innovation we must first focus our attention on the agencies and structures that support the integral and productive processes of learning. However, the process of analysing our institutions and organisations has often been tainted with an underlying malaise, a single order diagnosis which has ignored the types of complexity that Peter Drucker himself strived to understand.

Organisations are both social and historical entities, complex networks of people and things operating together over a specific period of time. However, they differ from other social entities, such as communities, by their bounded relation to a strategic force, their articulated raison d’être or purpose. All organisations, whatever their scale, are perceived to operate with purpose. This purpose is usually defined by the organisation’s strategy, a singular, discursive affair that maps the route of action required to fulfill its role and achieve its objectives. This totem of discursive ordering is what is perceived to separate one organisation from another, the script that differentiates their modus operandi and their cause. When traditionally analysing organisations, it is the strategy that is first and foremost positioned as the key reference point. It is the strategy that is perceived to dictate all other modes of action.

In our most recent publication, we have attempted to state that this traditional approach is somewhat hindered by an obvious reductionist flaw, which is to treat the notion of strategy as both singular and thus responsible for all modes of action. To develop this argument further we have enlisted the support of Actor-Network Theory, as an analytical approach that treats organisations as multiplicities of entities (actor-networks), that is, as intricate assemblages of heterogeneous components with complex social relations and material effects. This approach entails that notions such as strategy are not perceived as singular, but as multiple, and that organisations are made up of numerous entities (human and non-human) that operate in and through diverse networks of associations. Only from analysing each of these entities and how they interact, shape and order different modes of action, will the conditions for creating an accurate historical map of how each organisation functions, emerge. Mapping the character of these shaping and ordering processes will also offer unique insights into the intricate webs of complex relations that organisations are built upon and thus create new possibilities for learning.

Taking a similar approach to that of Actor-Network Theory, SPACE, as an analytical framework, posits a multiplicity of entities as significant in the heterogeneous assemblage of shaping and ordering processes. These entities (Strategies, Practices, Actors, Cultures and Environments), when analysed in relation to each other, offer a historically unique perspective of the complex relations that form and reproduce the social, cultural and material practices of any particular organisation. In this respect, SPACE is designed to create a dynamic material view of the social context that emerges within and through organisational activity. Like Actor-Network Theory, SPACE looks for the topologies of networks, the ways in which spaces emerge as socio-material relations and how they become arranged in orders and hierarchies. The framework operates over two phases, a data collecting phase and an interpretive/diagnostic phase. Following the actor-network approach, the data collecting phase is supported by an ethnographic method that directly observes the interactions between entities in situ. The interpretive/diagnostic phase then utilises a range of triadic schema (such as properties, tendencies and capacities) in a process of dialogic sense making. This process is primarily designed to analyse the forms of agency that operate within specific modes of ordering, as within these modes different types of agency are manifested through intricate historical, social and material networks of associations. It is these associations, and the contingencies that exist between them, that SPACE is designed to uncover.

Organisational analyses conducted through SPACE, are by design, open-ended, they unfold and progress from the middle by considering multiple trajectories (networks) of causes and catalysts in the production of effects that are identified and traced. The desire to reduce organisational complexity to a single order or entity, such as strategy, is denied any place within the analytical process, as this reductionist process can often be a symptom of the desire for order and certainty, and one that has the potential to restrict emergent possibilities for extending learning and creating innovation. As Peter Drucker often intimated, the time has come to stop thinking of organisations as mechanical entities organised through a single order discourse, and begin to embrace their unique complexity in all of its diversity and richness. Only then will we have the possibility of creating organisations that respond to the greater complexity of an ever changing social world.