Management and Organization Studies

People say that machinery and commerce are driving beauty out of the modern world. I do not believe it. A new beauty is being added, a more intellectual beauty, appealing to the understanding as much as to the eye (OT, 67).

Alfred North Whitehead’s own thoughts on management are largely confined to his statements on the role of business schools in tertiary education. These are to be found primarily in two addresses, a decade apart, the first “at the Prize Distribution, Borough Polytechnic Institute, Southwark, February, 1917” (OT, 58-68) and the second, a May 1927 address to a meeting of the “American Association of the Collegiate Schools of Business” at the Harvard Business School (Whitehead, 1928). Although both deal with similar arguments for the cultivation of foresight and insight, and indeed were ultimately reprinted as consecutive chapters—interestingly in reverse order (VIII and VII respectively)—in “The Aims of Education,” neither were intended as philosophical pieces per se.[1] Rather they were intended to make public arguments for the teaching of business in higher education in terms of its broader contributions to economic and social life:

It is not enough that [business men] should amass fortunes in this way or that and then endow a college or a hospital. The motive for amassing the fortune should be in order to use it for a socially constructive end […]. It is time to teach business its sociological function; for if America is to be civilised it must be done by the business class, who are in possession of the power and the economic processes. I don’t need to tell you there is a good deal of sniffing on this, the Harvard College and graduate school’s side of the Charles River […] at the new Harvard School of Business Administration on the opposite bank. That strikes me as […] unimaginative. […] Universities [… should] be taking business in hand and teaching it ethics and professional standards (D, 63-4).

This is true also of a later address to an April 13th 1933 “meeting held in commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the Harvard Business School” (Lowe and Baldwin, 1951, 768), later published in the Harvard Business Review (Whitehead, 1933; also Johnson, 1959). In this, his only recorded publication on management studies (Lowe and Baldwin, 1951), Whitehead provided more of a contemporary and practical rationale for the education of businessmen than that found in the two earlier addresses. Noting that a twofold trend towards individualism and a growing reliance upon employers was creating a freedom of choice constrained by the need to work—what he termed “iron-bound conditions of employment and trivial amusements for leisure”—Whitehead advocated the study of business and management through “direct observation and practical experience.” This, he suggested, was essential because

the change in scale of modern industry has made nearly the whole of previous literature on the topic irrelevant, and indeed mischievous […]. Unless the twentieth century can produce a whole body of reasoned literature elucidating the many aspects of this great topic, it will go hard with the civilisation that we love (Whitehead, 1933; cited in Johnson, 1959, 70).

Such study, Whitehead argued, should focus on at least three key areas: 1) industrial and managerial psychology; 2) the role of technology in work and employment, particularly the phenomenon of “technological unemployment;” and 3) the development, sale and distribution of individually tailored products within a mass manufacturing system.[2]

Despite this single foray into management studies—a foray almost entirely unnoticed, in spite of its prophetic insight into the nature and future impact of business on society—Whitehead’s influence on the field has been considerable. First, we may surmise that Whitehead had at least some influence on the contributions which his son, T. North Whitehead, made to the seminal Hawthorne studies of worker productivity in large scale industry (1924-33), published in 1938 (Whitehead, 1938); the Hawthorne studies were, after all, very much industrial and managerial psychology studies of the role of technology in work and employment, relying upon direct observation and practical experience. Furthermore, Whitehead’s letters to his son from 1924-29 reveal a tendency to discuss his own thinking as it might apply to his son’s work; at the same time, he often sent him pre-copies of those works he felt would be of most interest, such as Science and the Modern World (Lowe, 1990, 279-341).[3]

Second, and perhaps more substantively, the rise of organization studies[4] as a legitimate field within management as a social science after WWII, and notably since the 1970s, has provided an increasingly receptive forum for more generic aspects of Whitehead’s philosophy, namely the Fallacy of Simple Location and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness, to be applied to the understanding of the management experience of business and other work organizations. In this brief review we examine key areas within the field to which Whitehead’s thinking has been applied. We note some of the limitations of these uses and suggest certain extrapolations, in order to point out further possible applications of Whitehead’s thought for future study of the nature of managerial and organizational life.[5]

1. Applications of Whitehead’s Thought
in Management and Organization Studies

It is no accident that an age of science has developed into an age of organisation […]. Science is the organization of thought, but not any organization of thought […]. Organisation is the adjustment of diverse elements so that their mutual relations may exhibit some predetermined quality (OT, 105).

My point is that the final outlook of Philosophic thought cannot be based upon the exact statements that form the basis of the special sciences. The exactness is a fake (Whitehead, 1941, 700).

A recent review of the development of organization studies in America by its pioneering scholar James March (e.g. March and Simon, 1958) and colleagues would suggest that, rather than being regarded as central to the field, process oriented research in general (much less the “strong view” to which process philosophy ascribes) is not regarded as playing even a minor part either in its post-war history, or its future (Augier et al, 2005). Nevertheless, a broader review of the management and organization studies literatures beyond the United States uncovers growing recognition of the value of process thinking, especially among European scholars. Whitehead is here used (along with other more popular process philosophers such as Bergson, James and more recently Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze) to help provide the philosophical basis for one of four recognized approaches to studying organizational change (Van deVen and Poole, 2005).[6]

There is a fundamental reliance, however, on the less technical aspects of Whitehead’s explanations of process, primarily those found in “The Century of Genius” (Chapter III of Science and the Modern World), which provides an argument against the Newtonian assumptions that still pervade the social sciences. Beyond this, there is some use made of Whitehead’s work on education, notably “The Aims of Education” and “Universities and their Function,” Chapters I and VII of The Aims of Education and Other Essays, in order to develop arguments for the cultivation of insight and the nature of leadership in management. Similar use is occasionally made of ‘Science and Philosophy’ (Chapter IX) and ‘Aspects of Freedom’ (Chapter IV) of Adventures of Ideas, as well as small snippets from Modes of Thought for the same purpose. Beyond this, we find very occasional references to, mostly, the introductory parts of Process and Reality, and this only to embellish that found on the nature of process as the ultimate reality in Science and the Modern World.

This can hardly be described as a wide ranging and comprehensive use of Whitehead’s work; at most it amounts to no more than fifty individual pages cited from some half-dozen of his ninety English language publications (Woodbridge, 1977; cf. Lowe and Baldwin, 1951). Furthermore, those of his works that are used are primarily those written by “Whitehead the philosopher of science,” as opposed to “Whitehead the metaphysician.” Yet its impact on the field of management and organization studies, particularly over the past decade, is out of all proportion to either the number of works cited or the technical sophistication of the material quoted. So much so that citing a Whitehead book has become de rigeur for any article purporting to discuss processes of managing and/or organizing. Unfortunately, it follows that the frequency of Whitehead’s citation in the field is, with the notable exceptions of those authors discussed in detail below, often inversely proportional to its comprehension of him.

2. Robert Chia

While the genesis of Whitehead’s use in management and organization studies can be traced back at least to the 1970s (e.g. Cooper, 1976—see below), the popularity and influence of Whitehead in contemporary management and organization studies is in no small part due to the scholarship of Robert Chia. A survey of subject areas within management, such as managerial decision making (1994, 2003: decisions are no longer “events,” intentions, choices, but a series of pre-definitive acts of punctuating the flow of human experience, producing a version of reality to which managers and workers respond), entrepreneurship (1996a, cf. Dibben, 2000, 2004a and Khalil in this volume: rather than exploration and exploitation of new business opportunities being separate activities, exploitation is a paused, stabilized moment of the exploratory), organization theory (1992, 1996b, 1997, 1998, 1999; Tsoukas and Chia, 2002: organizations are not static structures but ever-shifting groupings of dynamic acts of organising, which is itself an interminable ontological quest of arresting, punctuating, isolating and classifying the essentially undivided flow of human experiences) and management learning (Chia and Morgan, 1996; Chia, 2005) reveals that his use of process thought is invariably the benchmark for any subsequent analysis (Dibben and Munro 2003). Due to both the painstaking nature of its development and also its inherent conceptual richness, Chia’s work is not only the first word on the subject in the management and organization studies literatures, but often the final word also. Rarely has one person galvanized and reshaped the discourse of his discipline in such a manner, and in such a short space of time.

The most complete rendering of Chia’s arguments for a process perspective in management are perhaps found in an article written specifically for the journal Process Studies (Chia and Tsoukas, 2003), which combined key elements from a number of previously published articles (including the original draft of an article that had appeared with substantial revision / simplification—all references to Whitehead removed—in the leading management journal Organization Science; Tsoukas and Chia, 2002[7]) into a single piece, as a demonstration of the use of process philosophy in the field. In summary, the argument proceeds as follows.

Management and organization theorists, Tsoukas and Chia argue, are not good at thinking process and movement. Their instinctive conceptual skills favor the fixed and the static, the separate and the self-contained. Taxonomies, hierarchies, systems and structures represent the instinctive vocabulary of management and organization theorists in their determined subordinating of flux, movement, change and transformation. Dominant models of change in general and organizational change in particular are, therefore, paradoxically couched in the language of equilibrium and fixity. The standard construal of organizational change and the strategies that are formulated to manage that change are shaped by deeply ingrained habits of thought, which surreptitiously privilege substance, stability, and spatial order over process, change, and temporality. One major consequence is that process and change are construed in orderly terms; changes are hypostatized and treated as exceptional rather than natural.

Starting with this premise, Chia and Tsoukas use Whitehead, Bergson, Deleuze and others to argue that, on the contrary, change is the pervasive feature of organized contexts of action, for it stems from actors’ re-weaving of their webs of beliefs in order to accommodate new experiences obtained through interactions with others and with one’s own thoughts. Organizing is an attempt to order the intrinsic flux of human action through generalizing and institutionalizing particular cognitive categories. Organization is an exceptional effect produced by the deliberate slowing down of change. The effort to generate stabilized patterns of interaction is inherently temporary and intrinsically incomplete. Change in organization is not externally imposed, but immanently produced. In that sense it is better to talk about organizational becoming rather than change. (Dibben and Cobb 2003, 180-81)

In this way, Chia’s writing and that which has followed it (e.g. Wood, 2002 and 2005b; cf. Linstead, 2002 and Styhre, 2002) uses process thought essentially to turn passive static noun into active changeful verb, such that organization becomes organizing, management becomes managing, knowledge becomes knowing and so on. It then uses this reconceptualization to derive insightful commentary on the nature of management. For example, developing Whitehead’s commentary regarding education and the business school (AE 136-52), Chia argues that the philosopher-manager engages in an ongoing education of intellectual and emotional preparation. This allows him to be aware of the need to avoid the conceptual closure afforded us by the dominant cultural norms, actions and beliefs expressed through the professional language of managerial life (Chia and Morgan, 1996).

Such preparation consists of being open to Whitehead’s “creative advance into novelty,” allowing a Whiteheadian “awakening” of the senses to the myriad possibilities afforded by the imaginative recombining of new information into renewed understanding and, as a result, foresight. In this sense, Chia argues management learning consists of a continual intellectual process of knowledge-making through the momentary stabilizing and encoding of patterns of informational and human relations. Management knowledge is therefore “always about to become something other than itself” (Chia and Morgan, 1996, 58; cf. Chia, 1996a).

3. Robert Cooper

Chia’s appreciation of Whitehead has its genesis in his doctoral supervisor’s landmark essay, “The Open Field,” published in the interdisciplinary social science journal Human Relations (Cooper, 1976). Robert Cooper here developed a “process epistemology” by combining Whitehead’s notion of an extensive continuum—what Cooper called an “abstract field”—with the thinking of a variety of philosophically oriented psychologists and sociologists to argue man as “ever open and unfinished” in a Heideggerian sense,[8] experiencing himself and the world as an “open field.” However, perhaps because of the influence of and reliance upon such a variety of other writers, his “process epistemology” arguably lacks any substantive use of Whitehead’s core principles of panexperientialism and internal as well as external relations, leaving his concept of process constrained to being “the action between beginning and end” (1976, 1011).

This remains in Cooper’s more recent thinking developing the work of Merleau-Ponty, Foucault and Levinas on the nature of relations (2005). This, as with his original work, provides a processual analysis of human agency; relationality concerns the “interspace” between separate things. From the perspective of organization, Cooper has argued it is not the elements within the organization per se, but rather the relations between those elements that constitute the organization, some of which will be contentious and unstable and some of which may be relatively stable and hence describable as “organizational structure” (Cooper and Law, 1995; also Cooper, 1986). From this perspective, the boundary of an organization (as opposed to the more standardly rendered organization itself) is now a site of struggle, contest and change where energy is continuously expended in dividing the inside from the outside (Dibben and Munro, 2003).

Thus, although Cooper’s work draws to a certain extent on Whitehead to “articulate the nature of a processual and emergent form of knowing and its consequences for strategies of intellectual inquiry” (Chia 1998a, 4), a thoroughgoing Whiteheadian expression of the nature of experience is not taken up. In spite of this, and unlike Chia’s considerably more prolific focus on selective applications discussed above, Cooper’s approach is perhaps the most intuitively Whitehedian expression to be found in the management and organization studies field (see also Chia 1998a, 1998b; Cooper 1987 and 1992).

4. Martin Wood

One scholar who has recently recognized and sought to grapple with the problem of how to move comprehensively beyond discussions of external relatedness in management and organization studies is Martin Wood. Focusing on the notion of leadership, Wood argues discussion of leadership should not be directed toward distinguishing a state, but rather toward internal relatedness,

toward the identification of an essential movement, in which what endures is internal qualitative difference: the being-itself of difference, and not the sameness of identity. The idea of simple, objective location has gone and the relation as a thing itself is brought to the fore (2005a; cf. 2005b and 2003).

In this way, Wood extends the standard use of Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” beyond a straightforward explanation of the primacy of process to one which addresses directly the problem of contemporary process discourses in the field, discourses that retain the static understanding of “self-identical individualism and discrete relatedness, and thereby leave the relation external to the related” (Wood, 2005a).

Wood is perhaps alone among his contemporaries, therefore, in genuinely rising to the challenge of focusing on processes rather than things. In so doing, he argues leadership is “going on within a subtle synthesis of internal differences without mediation or relation to others.” The “essence” of leadership is thus more accurately seen as “the accelerating pace (and shrinking space) of relations of movement and rest, speed, slowness and simulataneity.” This, as opposed to a “self-evident [and] particular leadership figure construed as a simple element, present at hand […]” (2005b, 285).

In this rendering of leadership, Wood shows hitherto partial expressions of process in the management field lack the capacity to articulate a sense of the managerial experience as “the subtle synthesis of internal forces that are always qualitatively relating through their difference” (2005a). As a result of this analysis of the impact of internal as well as external relations on the managerial phenomenon of leadership, Wood argues that management research must pay attention not to quasi-scientific neo-empiricism but rather to “the withdrawn or background processes of individuation,” accessing the “mise en scene through the deployment of qualitative, interpretive and ethnographic research” (2005b, 287). If it is to grapple fully with the implications of a process ontology, therefore, the field should investigate

how perpetual movement and divergent processes form a discrete body, or appear to obtain in a substantial set of individual qualities and capabilities, at the same time as preserving the uninterrupted continuity of our experience (Wood, 2005b, 287).

5. Management in the Process Studies Literatures

An epic poem is a triumph of organisation […]. It is the successful organisation of multitudinous sounds of words, associations of words, pictorial memories of diverse events and feelings ordinarily occurring in life, combined with a special narrative of great events: the whole so disposed as to excite emotions which […] are simple, sensuous and passionate. (OT 105-106)

We have noted the uses of Whitehead’s thought in management and organization studies and explored a number of contributions to knowledge this has enabled. For the most part, these can be described as resulting from the “selective application” of specific elements of the work of a variety of process philosophers to unpack a particular aspect of the topic under study (Dibben and Munro, 2003). As such, it rarely comes to grips with the technical details of process thinking, such as distinguishing between conscious discrimination, causal efficacy, presentational immediacy and symbolic reference, or recognizing panexperientialism.

A more complete use of Whiteheadian thinking to explore management and organization related topics may, however, be found in the process studies literature. Besides arguments against contemporary business globalization effects from an eco-relational perspective (Gare 1996 and in this volume; cf. McLaren, 2004, Daly and Cobb, 1994 and Cobb in this volume), the most in-depth explorations seek to develop Whitehead’s explanations of emotional experience (AI 183-84, 192-93). In essence this involves a shift in the fundamental unit of analysis, from organization to individual human being. This allows more attention to be paid to core aspects of the mind-body problem (i.e. the nature and locus of experience), and thus greater integration with Whitehead’s philosophy beyond the broad-brushed generalizations concerning process ontology and epistemology discussed above.

The acceptance of panexperientialism, coupled with a recognition of the significance of Whiteheadian relationality, allows detailed integrations of management and organizational issues. For example, a topic of continued interest to managers and management scholars is the role and effect of trust in and between organizations. A Whiteheadian rendering reveals the nature of its development, by exploring it in terms of the concrescence of an actual entity. This provides otherwise unavailable access to our experience of trust as a complex emotion by allowing (1) an important distinction to be made between trust in the present from past trust; and (2) the derivation of trust from the past prehension of the individual trusted. In any given interpersonal interaction, it is now possible to distinguish (1) prehension of past experiences objectified in part by trusting the other person and largely conformed to; and (2) the prehension of the person now, with a subjective form of trust. By reference to Whitehead’s phases of experience, it follows both prehensions discussed thus far belong to the first phase. Their integration belongs to the second phase, which consists of the separation of the subjective form of trust learnt from prior experiences as an ingredient in the immediate prehension of the other person. This then continues with reintegration into propositional feelings and intellectual feelings concerning the other person and which, in the ideal case, strengthens the trust that concresces (Dibben 2004b, 36; cf. 2000).

Extending this method of integration with, as opposed to selective application of, Whitehadian process thought still further allows us to “transliterate” contemporary phenomena into Whiteheadian terminology, and thereby gain new insight into their processual nature. For example, it is possible to unpack information systems technology—a phenomenon Whitehead had no knowledge of—in terms of, for example, the given world of cyberspace or the human agent providing aim etc., providing determinate data; these are as objectifications of themselves that the characters of their actual entities can provide. In this way, relative to any actual entity, there is first a “given” world of settled actual entities and second a virtual reality potentiality that is real in effect, but not in fact, and which is the datum for creativeness beyond that standpoint. This will be recognized as the primary phase in the process that constitutes an actual entity, and is merely the actual world in its organized character as a possibility for the process being felt. As such, information systems technology can be shown to exemplify the Whiteheadian metaphysical principle that every being is a potential for a becoming, whereby the actual world comprises the objective content of each new creation (PR 65; in Dibben and Panteli, 2003).

In this way, two meanings of potentiality are apparent. First, the bundle of possibilities provided by the multiplicity of eternal objects, i.e. the countless mutually consistent or alternative possibilities extant in cyberspace, that makes up a “general” potentiality. Second, the “real” potentiality as conditioned (organized) by the data of the actual world but delimited by the human agent via the medium of information technology. Thus, while the general potentiality of cyberspace is absolute, the real potentiality of virtual reality is relative to some actual entity, such as a Google search request.

Such a rendering provides a positive appreciation of the impact of information technology on life experience (cf. Shields 2002). This is because, unlike less active media experiences such as watching the television, the interactivity that distinguishes virtual reality lies in the manner we

enhance the uniqueness of each individual occasion, and at the same time disclose its essential relationship to occasions other than itself […bringing] into prominence the potentialities for alternative realisations, in the past, in the future and in the present (MT 105-6).

Besides such technical renderings of management topics and issues, process-thinking is also argued within process studies to be a practically powerful tool in both the daily life of business management and the strategic planning process of global corporations, encompassing issues such as salaries, treatment of workers, product development and manufacturing (D’Arcy and Dibben, 2005). Rather than the evil commonly associated with it, the practical application of Whiteheadian process thought to management allows the potency for good to be realized through seven significant activities (D’Arcy and Dibben 2005, 260). First, the gradual equalization of wages and other benefits, leading to less polarization of the world’s wealth. Second, the placement of most countries on a more even playing field by a more complete sharing of materials across national boundaries. Third, a more complete development of businesses, markets and manufacturing through a more even spreading of investment capital across a broader range of geographical locations. Fourth, the provision of reasonable workers rights to a broader segment of the world’s population. Fifth, the spread of environmental regulations and best-practices around the world. Sixth, a growing respect for differentiation and appreciation of “otherness” as a result of the recognition that we are all interdependent with each other. Lastly, seventh, as a most significant and positive direct result of the globalization process, radically profound transformations in educational-understanding, informational-flowing, cultural-exchange, and religious dialogue.

6. Extrapolations

We do not adequately analyze any one personal existence; and still less is there any accuracy in the division into species and genera […]. Let us [therefore] consider more closely the character of personal identity. A whole sequence of actual occasions, each with its own present immediacy, is such that each occasion embodies in its own being the antecedent members of that sequence with an emphatic experience of the self-identity of the past in the immediacy of the present (Whitehead 1941, 689-90)

[H]uman experience can be described as a flood of self-enjoyment, diversified by a trickle of conscious memory and conscious anticipation […]. When memory and anticipation are completely absent, there is complete conformity to the average influence of the immediate past. There is no conscious conformation of memory with possibility. Such a situation produces mere matter […]. Thus the universe is material in proportion to the restriction of memory and anticipation. (Whitehead 1941, 695, my emphasis)

We have noted the main uses of Whitehead’s thought in management and organization studies, along with a number of limitations, and discussed a small variety of different approaches to the use of Whitehead extant in process studies. These latter pay closer attention to the detail of Whiteheadian thought in their attempt to unpack the processual nature of management and organizational life experience. We are now in a position, therefore, to briefly revisit some of Whitehead’s uses in the management field and consider both how a more complete Whiteheadian rendering may be possible and what the implications of such a rendering might be. We begin with Chia’s discussion of management learning outlined above.

7. Management Learning

A more comprehensive use of Whitehead allows us to develop Chia’s work further, through discernment of learning as a subjective experience of “transition” (Cobb and Griffin 1976, 14-15) from one moment of knowing to another. This knowing, as a momentary event, resides in one individual and to which the individual alone has direct access (Mead, 1934). Since knowledge is understood to be the “conscious discrimination of objects experienced […] derived from, and verified by, direct intuitive observation” (AI 176), learning also requires another individual or set of individuals as a stimulation for it (Dewey 1938, 35-37). As such the learning experience of the individual “does not go on simply inside the person, […] but changes in some degree the objective conditions under which experiences are had” (Dewey 1938, 39). Educative growth through learning is thus not simply a subjective function of direct personal reflection by the individual as a separate experience of self-as-was a moment ago (Mead, 1934) to which the self-as-now reacts. Rather, it has an objective character communicated in action towards others, the datum to which those others each respond. These responses, in their turn, are objective reflections of new subjective experiences of learning. In this way, the philosopher-manager educates others through his actions, which are a result of his own learning.

The continuation, pervasiveness and importance of learning in and across managerial situations therefore arises from the creative urge that transcends the actual occasion such that, upon concrescence, it is immediately part of the universe of entities which affect the concrescence of future managerial occasions. Thus, the dynamism that is the learning experience arises from the continuing creativity of new learning occasions. When viewed as the mechanism by which individual managers act in organizations, organizational growth and development—be this in terms of the daily practice of management or the establishment of longer term strategic policy—is a function of this learning process.

8. Relating Individual Experience to Organization

Two questions follow from such a rendering. First, how does each individual managerial experience precisely relate to the business corporation or organization? Second, how can we reconcile the two very different levels of analysis of individual manager and organization (cf. Cooper above), and thereby unpack in process terms the mechanism by which managerial learning may transfer itself into the intellectual (and economic) growth of the business?

One answer is to suggest from a technical perspective that it can not. A core problem for writers in management and organization studies, as we have already seen, is the unit of analysis; human agents, organizations and the like are the requisite focus of attention in the field whereas, for Whitehead, these are at best once-removed abstraction. For Whitehead, organizations are not res verae. Here at once lies an indication of the error of the social scientist. Since in process thought only those things that do not endure subjectively beyond the moment of their becoming really exist, the fundamental unit of analysis for the management social scientist—the enduring society that is the organization—is nothing but an epistemological phantom that contravenes the speculative metaphysician’s ontological principle of “togetherness in the formal constitution of an [individual] actuality” (PR 32).

This is recognized in part by Clegg et al (2005), who use Whitehead to argue organizations not as “one of the final real things of the which the world is made up” (PR 27), but rather as a “combination of indivisible processes located (and in flux) through space and time and related to each other” (Clegg et al, 2005). Rather than existing, they argue, an organization is the “momentary apprehension of an ongoing process of organizing that never results in an actual entity.” In this sense, they suggest the fallacy of considering an organization as a concrete “thing” thus “consists of neglecting the degree of abstraction involved when an actual entity is considered merely so far as it exemplifies certain categories of thought” (PR 11). The implications of this Whiteheadian insight for either organization studies as a field of research, or for our practical appreciation of organizations as we experience them, however, are left unexplored.

Nevertheless, a more complete application of Whiteheadian thinking does allow us to explore such implications, by way of postulating a second answer to the questions posed above. The transfer of managerial learning discussed above into the organization can be understood as the inter-relation between occasions and the progressive layers of social order into which they are organized within the business. Certainly an organization in Whiteheadian terms is not a subject of experience as it is not able to make a “decision” with respect to its self-continuation. Yet it does possess “causal laws which dominate the social environment […] and is only efficient through [the actions of] its individual members” (PR 90ff; in Bracken 1989)—actions which, as D’Arcy and Dibben have sought to demonstrate (2005), are the result of process-thinking and learning.

Furthermore, the members of the organization can only function as a part of it “by reason of the laws which dominate [it], and the laws only come into being by reason of the analogous characters of the members of the society” (Bracken, 1989). These laws, or policies, procedures and recommendations—such as those discussed above—are in and of themselves a manifestation of managerial learning. In this sense, therefore, a business organization may be thought of as an energy-field, perhaps analogous to a particular kind of extensive continuum, “progressively shaped and ordered by successive generations of [e.g. managerial learning] occasions, so that it effectively serves as the medium for the transmission both of physical feelings and of conceptual patterns from one generation [of, perhaps, managers and/or workers?]… to another” (Bracken 1989, 155). This rendering certainly emphasizes the process-thinking manager’s connection with the human life experience of synthesis demonstrated, for example, in the foregoing discussion of trust development. Nevertheless, it subscribes also to a disputed argument that Whiteheadian societies are structured fields of activity that are both objectively real and progressively structured by the events taking place within them (cf. Bracken, 2002, 2004).

9. Furthering a Whiteheadian Understanding
of Management and Organization

How might such a “field-oriented” rendering be developed so as to further our understanding of management and organization? The first step is to unravel the process-philosophical detail. It would include but by no means be limited to the problems of prehension, tri-modal perception—and in particular the extent to which an event field may be inherently causally efficacious—and what we may term in a general way the problem of continuity within change that a more active event field postulate opens up. Further, we may be forced to ask some fundamental questions, both from a philosophical and a practitioner-oriented perspective. What does an active event field mean for our understanding of Whiteheadian process thought? What does this say for our understanding of Whiteheadian societies, let alone macro societies or social entities and our relations both “to” and “with” them?

A number of implications arise, both for our approach as process thinkers to the social sciences, and for social scientific approaches to the nature of the realities they seek to understand, should Joseph Bracken’s thesis concerning event fields prove to be demonstrably applicable to contemporary reality. It would, for example, become appropriate to “recognize” social entities as real—they patently are since we at the very least “inhabit” them conceptually. If this is possible within process metaphysics (i.e. within the speculative schema of Process and Reality, as opposed to the scientific schema of Science and the Modern World), the bridge between Whitehead the philosopher of science and Whitehead the metaphysician would be rendered more explicit. It might then be possible to make more use of his early writings on “the organisation of thought,” his 1916 Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in which a number of his later metaphysical concepts are discussed in what amounts to the beginnings of a process epistemology of experience, as related to the science of physics and the logic and geometry of mathematics.

It would also be possible to consider social entities, such as organizations, as societies in a Whiteheadian manner more constructively than has perhaps been the case hitherto. This is because it would allow a substantive definition of societies as res verae that retained the Whiteheadian appreciation that (1) the production of social continuity is a function of the transmission of its defining characteristic; and at the same time, (2) the entity makes a decision in its completion about just exactly how that defining characteristic will be appropriated from the social environment into the unitary reality of its individual actuality causa sui.

As a result, we would no longer need merely to circumvent the noun (organization) and reinvent it as a verb (organizing). Rather, we may be able to address the noun head-on and at the same time not fall foul of the host of fallacies this has traditionally led us into. It would allow us to extend Cooper’s thinking on relations discussed above by suggesting that the complex enduring pattern we call an organization somehow selects those aspects of both its environments and its parts that are relevant for its functioning and lends its own aspects to what it draws together in its own limitation.[9] Further, we would be able to take better account of the effect of the negative intuitive judgment (PR 273) not only on the concrescing entity but on the capability of the society (/organization) to endure as a result of the continuing conscious discrimination of successions of higher occasions of experience.

In short, we may be able to address ourselves more readily and comprehensively to questions the sciences and social sciences concern themselves with directly. Questions that we have so far tended to dismiss as falling foul of the fallacies of misplaced concreteness, simple location and direct (i.e. without an awareness of causal efficacy and presentational immediacy) symbolic reference. Lastly, we might extend Cooper’s and Wood’s arguments regarding the qualitative study of boundaries and interspaces by applying Whitehead’s theories of, amongst others, “extensive abstraction,” “congruence” (CN) and “extension” (PR) to consider in detail what Michel Weber has described as “pointless qualities” (Weber, 2006).[10] In this way, we would also be able to broaden possible research into the Whiteheadian nature and organization of virtuality in information systems, as “the geometrical behavior of space in which one or more of the coordinates are imaginary” (Dibben and Panteli, 2003), to general explanations of organization.

10. Conclusion: Moving beyond Beginnings

Science is either an important statement of systematic theory correlating observations of a common world, or is the daydream of a solitary intelligence with a taste for the daydream of publication. But it is not philosophy to vacillate from one point of view to the other (PR 329).

Although the focus of Whitehead’s thinking was largely elsewhere, he did turn his attention to management issues in terms of business education. In recent years, this work has been developed by a number of writers in management and organization studies to include a variety of topics, from management knowledge, learning and decision making to organization theory and analysis. This literature is noteworthy for its selective application of specific elements of Whitehead’s thinking, notably that regarding Simple Location and Misplaced Concreteness to explore particular aspects of management of concern to it. Such use has gained substantive currency, largely as a result of the analysis of organization undertaken by the academic and consultant Robert Chia, to the extent that special workshops and conference tracks on process thought in organization studies are now commonplace at academic conferences in the field.

The work presented therein is, however, characterized by a stylistic tendency to use a wide range of philosophers in concert, such as Merleau-Ponty, Bergson, James, Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida and Nietzsche—as well as occasional references to Whitehead—to develop a general process-oriented discourse. This is because at the general level in which they are used, there are apparently obvious similarities among these philosophers—even if a more in-depth analysis would perhaps place greater emphasis upon the differences between them. As a result, we find comparatively little evidence of a thoroughgoing use of a Whiteheadian process relational philosophy but, rather, arguably a less than complete rendering of the influence of process in management and organizational life. In this sense, and despite the considerable scholarship of a number of writers, notably Chia and Wood, we may conclude that the field has not advanced either in style or substance far beyond Cooper’s original 1976 “Open Field” article.

Worse, because the literature neither fully applies Whitehead’s thought, nor fully explores the implications of a Whiteheadian analysis to its topics of study, it often displays at best a sketchy grasp of his philosophy. A growing characteristic is the reliance upon secondary citation of recognized management and organization studies scholars, notably Chia, who cite Whitehead and other process philosophers; understanding of core process issues is consequently limited by abridgment of the abridgers.[11] Furthermore, even among recognized authorities in the field who may be said to engage in detailed study of at least some of Whitehead’s primary literature, there is little evidence of the use of his secondary literatures; rarely are works noted within process studies as providing accurate explications of Whitehead’s thought such as those of Cobb, Griffin, Hartshorne or Sherbourne ever referred to, much less considered in depth. As a result, errors of interpretation are easily made, and promulgated.

These errors are partly a function, also, of process thinking in management and organization studies having its basis in deconstruction, or deconstructive postmodernism, as opposed to constructive postmodernism. Renderings in management and organization studies of the deconstructive postmodernisms of Derrida (Cooper, 1989), Foucault (Cooper and Burrell, 1989) and others seek to overcome “the modern worldview through an antiworldview [that] deconstructs or eliminates the ingredients necessary for a worldview, such as God, self, purpose, meaning, a real world, and truth as correspondence” (Griffin, 1993). Put bluntly, therefore, deconstruction—“organizational analysis as deconstructive practice” (Chia, 1996b and 1994; cf. Cooper, 1987, 1989 and Cooper and Burrell, 1988, 1989), the premise for an application of Whitehead in management and organization studies, holds to an implicit purpose and worldview that is the precise opposite to that of Whiteheadian thinking (cf. Gare 2000, 2001).

Constructive or revisionary postmodernism as espoused by Peirce, James, Bergson, Whitehead and Hartshorne, on the other hand seeks to unify scientific, aesthetic and religious institutions in order to overcome the modern worldview. This is because, in contrast to deconstructive postmodernism, constructive postmodernism provides a more complete rendering of our experience as a result of its return to organicism through a creative synthesis of both premodern and modern truths and values that, crucially, brings with it an acceptance of non-sensory perception (Griffin, 1993).

We might, therefore, dismiss the use of Whitehead’s thought (and more generically perhaps, that of a range of other philosophers) in management and organization studies as the expedient development of an inappropriately based discourse that amounts to little more than “intellectual hop-skotch,” a “recipe book” of “sound-bite philosophy” that is itself, ironically, delightful to read, easy to comprehend, and unavoidably incomplete. On the other hand, we might remind ourselves not only that the main focus for management and organization studies scholars is of course not philosophy, but also that management and organization studies scholars are ultimately working in a discipline that is fundamentally constrained in two ways. First, the discipline is not appreciative of advances in physics that understand and model reality as having a primitive form of self awareness, i.e. prehensions of other actualities as objects in terms of their provocation of some special activity within the subject (Whitehead 1933, 176; cf. Cahill, 2005). It is thus not yet capable of appreciating Whitehead’s notions of panexperientialism, let alone God.[12] Second, it expects not depth of primary citation, i.e. the exhaustive and detailed analysis of the works of an individual philosopher, but rather the precise opposite—mere breadth of (largely deconstructive postmodern) secondary citation. Indeed, it apparently regards such breadth as evidence an author has mastered the philosophy he or she cites.

Furthermore, we might also remind ourselves that Whitehead’s philosophy was not intended to provide for explanations of business organizations as a primary unit of analysis and, thus, a considerable amount of interpretation is required to put it to use in the field. This, when coupled with the very limited amount of primary source material from Whitehead himself on management upon which to base such work, compels the final conclusion that, even bearing in mind its numerous philosophical limitations, the advances in understanding made by management and organization scholars using Whitehead’s thinking, and touched upon in this brief review, represent a remarkable achievement.

As such, the current level of understanding and application of Whitehead’s thinking in management and organization studies can perhaps best be described as a substantive starting point from which further insight may be developed. Moving beyond this beginning requires the range of core principles of Whitehead’s thought to be brought to bear upon the topics to be discussed. Following D’Arcy and Dibben (2005), we may summarize the most relevant of these core principles as follows:

(1) Hard-core common sense notions ‘that all human beings inevitably presuppose in practice, even if and when they deny them verbally’ (Griffin 1998, 18) are the ultimate test of the adequacy of a philosophical position;

(2) Whitehead’s non-sensationalist doctrine of perception, according to which sensory perception is a secondary mode of perception, derivative from a more fundamental, non-sensory prehension;

(3) All true individuals (as distinct from aggregational societies) have at least some iota of experience and spontaneity (self-determination); panexperientialism with organizational duality;

(4) All enduring individuals are serially ordered societies of momentary “occasions of experience”;

(5) All actual entities have internal as well as external relations;

(6) The provision of cosmological support for the ideals needed by contemporary civilization is one of the chief purposes of philosophy in our time.

With this in mind, I have sought above to outline a number of directions in which such developments might progress. In broader terms, we have seen that process-thinking is a powerful tool not only in the academic search for knowledge about the managerial experience of organization but also, in both the daily life of business management and the strategic planning process of a global corporation (D’Arcy and Dibben, 2005). In short, process thinking guards against an overly simplistic either-or perspective on the key issues of contemporary life. In terms of the core principles of a Whiteheadian process-relational viewpoint, the management experience represents a synthesis of human qualities, allowing our advancement toward novelty through an enjoyment of essential relatedness, creative self-determination and self-expression through the lure of thoughtfulness (D’Arcy and Dibben 2005, 261).

These qualities of experience contribute towards an emerging pattern of managing and organising which are “generated from complex and continuous social negotiations […], selected out of multiple possibilities of contested meanings and interpretations” (Sun 2002, 207), and manifest in managerial acting. In regards to the economic and socio-ecological impact of globalization, the active, inquiring nature of Whiteheadian process-thinking in management offers us the most positive means by which to grapple with both the greatest opportunity for and the greatest challenge to human experience in the present century. This, as John Cobb has recently and painstakingly pointed out (2007), is because it helps us focus both on the significance of the internal relation to experience, and on the value inherent in the interplay between “community” and “person,” as this may manifest itself in the institutions that are so characteristic of twenty-first century life.


[1] It should be noted that these, along with a collection of other papers published in a range journals such as Atlantic Monthly, Phillips Bulletin and Radcliffe Quarterly have been referred to as “Whitehead’s American Essays in Social Philosophy” (Johnson, 1959) since they amounted collectively to a general treatise on the value of civilization. The specific papers under discussion here are, however, concerned neither with metaphysics nor with philosophy of science, even although some were later published under such a title (ESP).

[2] Readers with a particular interest in marketing may find Whitehead’s comments on the latter topic insightful: “The modern salesmanship associated with mass production […], the determined attempt to force completely finished and standardised products upon the buyers […], is producing a more deep-seated reason for the insecurity of trade. We are witnessing a determined attempt to canalise the aesthetic enjoyments of the population […]. But all intensity of enjoyment, sustained with the strength of individual character, arises from the individual taste diversifying the stream of uniformity. Destroy individuality and you are left with a vacancy of aesthetic feeling, drifting this way and that, with vague satisfactions and vague discontents” (Whitehead 1933; cited in Johnson 1959, 72-73).

[3] It would seem prudent to add of course that Whitehead’s comments on the nature and impact of modern industry in the above quote most likely have their source in such discussions also. At the time of writing, I can as yet find nothing beyond secondary inference to confirm the connection between the thinking of the father on the work of the son, and vice-versa; such a connection seems self-evidently natural enough, however.

[4] “Organization studies [includes] various forms of research and speculations on organizations occurring under labels such as organization theory, administrative theory, management theory, organizational economics, organizational psychology and organizational and economic sociology” (Augier et al 2005, 94).

[5] This entry is a revised and extended version, with particular emphasis on Whitehead, of previous general reviews by the author of process philosophy’s uses in the management literature, published variously in Dibben and Cobb (2003), Dibben and Munro (2003) and D’Arcy and Dibben (2005). The author gratefully acknowledges both the contribution of his co-authors in those publications and also the copyright of that material (Centre for Process Studies © 2003 and Cambridge Scholar Press © 2005, respectively). The “extrapolations” discussed in this entry were first proposed as part of the opening address to the 2nd Chapter for Applied Process Thought Conference, Dublin May 2005; the author is grateful to Joeph Bracken, Isabelle Stengers and Tom Ord for their insightful comments.

[6] The four approaches are defined as follows. Approach I, Variance Study of Change in Organizational Entities by causal analysis of independent variables that explain change in those entities as the dependent variable. Approach II, Process Studies of Change in £Organizational Entities narrating a sequence of events, stages or cycles of change in the development of an entity. Approach III, Process Studies of Organising by narrating emergent actions and activities by which collective endeavours unfold. Approach IV, Variance Studies of Organising by quantitative analysis of an event series through dynamic modeling of agent-based models or chaotic complex adaptive systems. It will be clear to the reader that Approach III corresponds most readily to a Whiteheadian process thought, since it concerns an understanding of “organization as a verb, a process of organising, an emergent flux.” This is described as the “strong view” of process; Approach II is described as the “weak view” since it retains a belief in organization as “noun, social actor or real entity (thing)” (Van de Ven and Poole, 2005, 1387).

[7] The difficulty facing authors publishing complex process material in the mainstream American Organization Science literature is starkly apparent in this example; immediately after it (not before as one might expect) is to be found a scholarly example of the standard rendering of change in the field, in which empirical work is based upon the presumption of stasis as predominant over process (Standenmayer et al, 2002), as per Approaches I and IV in endnote v above.

[8] Interestingly, Cooper seems to rely more on Heidegger than Whitehead to develop this point. This, in spite of Whitehead’s long-standing association with arguments for an infinite and open universe.

[9] I am grateful to Isabelle Stengers for pointing this out in conversation.

[10] I am grateful to Michel Weber for helping me making this connection in conversation.

[11] A striking illustration of this may be found in Weick et al (2005), where the leading organization studies scholar of his age—and one of the founders of the field—Karl Weick shamelessly uses Chia’s rendering of organizing as sensemaking (see above) to articulate his own view of the phenomenon, a view more representative of Approach II in Endnote 3 above. This, without even so much as a passing reference to either Bergson or Whitehead, in a special issue of the journal Organization Science interestingly entitled “The Frontiers of Organization Science.” See also much of that presented at a recent organization studies workshop “Theorizing Process in Organizational Research.” Of the forty seven papers presented, only five attempt any substantive use of Whitehead; this is either limited to the accepted use of Simple Location and Misplaced Concreteness to argue for process over stasis or, in those instances where some critique is attempted, confused by quasi-scientific presumptions concerning external relatedness and the prevalence of the object as predominant in experience. (This collection of papers is downloadable from

[12] The management scholar who is perhaps most likely to make this connection is Martin Wood. Wood’s emphasis on the internal relatedness of leadership allows a rendering of the leader him/herself as a “fellow sufferer who understands,” experiencing, mutually relating, influencing-but-not-directing those workers he/she is nominally responsible for, in his/her desire (aim) to arrive at their best possible achievement (value), moment-to-moment.

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Author Information

Mark R. Dibben
Monash University, Australia and Heilbronn Business School, Germany

How to Cite this Article

Dibben, Mark R., “Management and Organization Studies”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.