I've been engaging recently in a renewed conversation with the members of Metaphorum, a loose-knit confederation of thinkers who generally follow and preserve the work of Stafford Beer, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, systems thinking, and the application to business.
Recently, one of the members of that group called our attention to Ranulph Glanville's paper as a great overview of Second Order Cybernetics (2OC). Ranulph's paper contains an excellent review of many of those who participated in the formation of this perspective and theory of organization. These include Beer, of course, whose work on the nature of the firm is grounded in 2OC. Others include Heinz von Foerster, Humberto Maturana, covered elsewhere on this site, Gordon Pask, who produced a theory of conversation as circularity of mutual influence, Ranulph Glanville himself, and Paul Pangaro.
To say all of this is important to the understanding of enterprise would be a ridiculous understatement. Both from a structural view and in terms of enterprise dynamics, the issue of multiple mutual influences, operating in circular fashion, is intrinsic to making informed interventions that improve, rather than destroy, the health of any institutional organization.
While focusing on this subject, it brought to mind a number of other constructs that are also related to this kind of circularity. When we talk about conversations and codes, it brings to mind the work of Niklas Luhmann, a sociologist who worked in the area of large societal structures that he regarded as autopoietic. His definition of autopoiesis is rejected by Maturana, who, in turn, though has a similar description of circular conversation that he uses at the level of social structures, rather than his original focus on biology. There is a powerful rendering tool to explore this in the systems dynamics work of Forrester, Senge, et al, where the power comes from incorporation of feedback loops, both positive and negative. This opens the subject to the many forms of simulation, including discrete event simulation and continuous flow simulation. All of this is in keeping with George Soros's reflexivity theory, which is presented here, and also being discussed by the Metaphorum members.
The reason to feature this here is that we really need more and more of this kind of thinking every day. This is not to be some hysterical advocacy, sounding the alarm against imminent gloom and doom. The motivation is the great opportunities that are presented at this moment of great turbulence and renewal. Linear thinking is dangerous now (again, no hysterics!). Decisions made and programmes undertaken with the justification that a straightforward, linear path will lead to desired results inevitably yield brittle and unstable solutions.
Korzybski points out that a distinguishing feature of humans is that we can reason about reasoning, and about ourselves reasoning about reasoning, etc. In this spirit, we call attention to the need for enterprise thinkers to reason about how they are approaching problems at all levels of recursion or scope or scale. We have the thinking tools to be sophisticated and nuanced in descriptions of enterprise. And, the real value of this sophistication is that we can avoid conclusions of the pattern, "Great, now that we understand this, we can build a machine to do it.", and rather attempt to get to conclusions of the type, "Wonderful, we can invent ways (socio-technological) to enhance and improve this situation." As observers and actors in our mutual interplay of life.