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Organizing in time

Organizing and organizations have largely been seen as spatial constructs. Organizing has been seen as the connecting of individuals and technologies through various mechanisms, whereas organizations have been construed as semi-stable entities circumscribed by boundaries that separate them from their external environments. The spatial view enables us to appreciate the difference between Microsoft and Apple, between Manchester United and Liverpool, between a family and a firm, and between the government of Iraq and the government of France, as they are made up of different actors, exhibit different patterns of actions, pursue different strategies, and relate to different external stakeholders.

A spatial view is a powerful one, mainly by enabling correspondence. By looking at the pattern of the way that Manchester United plays their matches during a certain period of time, the team can be distinguished from its rivals. It also enables analysis of how it plays differently from how it has played during earlier times, which again may be held up against the results of the matches. When a certain team formation appears successful, it becomes associated with the wins and ascribed the manager who implemented the formation. The manager is then seen as the person who had the ability to conceive and implement the formation, which confers particular qualities upon him. Those qualities prevail until the results begin to degrade, in which case alternative ways are found to explain the limitations of the formation, as well the manager’s abilities to make it work. In order for this way of making sense, a line of separation is drawn between the manager and the team in order to make for a correspondence that explains the variation in results over time. The overall picture becomes a mosaic numerous little pieces, neatly arranged, make up a plausible story of wins and defeats. Although the overall picture may change, the pieces remain small self-contained pieces.

Wayne Rooney, by cortexena13. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Wayne Rooney, by cortexena13. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

When they are moved around to make another picture, the new formation is seen as different and distinct from the previous one. It is seen at a different instant, and the state in which it is seen as assumed to prevail as a sort of averaged out state for the duration of the period associated with that state. The change is the difference between the images. To see a changing thing at two different instants and making the inferences based on the differences between the instants is what the French philosopher Henry Bergson referred to as a series of immobilities. What is seen is a succession of images, where each image represents a static situation. A problem with such a view is that it is an incomplete rendering of what actually takes place, because it tells little or nothing about actual movement that takes place. As Bergson pointed out, what characterizes movement is precisely that it cannot be divided into imaginary stops, because it is indivisible. On the contrary, it leaves us with what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘simple location’. Simple location conveys an image of a process consisting of inert matter moved along in a series of mysterious jumps. We see that the mosaic has changed, but we know nothing about the process of changing it.

Yet, organizing is a vibrant process in which each instant plays a role. It is an infinitely complex world of encounters, instants and events, all taking place in time. To better understand how organizing works as a process, the very notion of time needs to be given its due attention. Unfortunately, although time and space have been seen as constituting an interwoven continuum in physics for nearly a century, in the social sciences they have been kept apart in a sort of Newtonian conception of the world. A process orientation to time, on the other hand, treats time as the very essences from which experience is made. Rather than being seen as a Newtonian inert framework against which movement is measured, time takes the role of mattering. Time matters, not just in the sense of being important, but by shaping the matter at hand, such as football players, teams, and leagues.

It is in the flow of time that organisations carve out their temporal existence. It is this ‘carving out’ that provides them with a temporal sense of where they come from and where that may be heading. The ‘carving out’ is done in a state of constant suspension between past and future, and is enacted at many instants. Streams of acts, decisions, emails, tweets, chats and many other types instants make up the temporal mosaic of the organization and contribute towards its becoming in time. Thus the formation of the football team is not a static entity, but a living process of instantiations as the match is played. In this view the formation does not make the acts, but the acts make the formation. Such a view does not deny formation as a spatial image. During a match a specific formation may be pursued. What it does, is explain the work of sustaining the formation. It explains how the formation, rather than just existing as an inert template, is given life. It confers temporal direction upon the formation and invites questions about its past and possible future, in the moment it is being played out.

Headline image credit: Stocks Reservoir, Forest of Bowland. Panoramic by MatthewSavage.Photography. CC-By-2.0 via Flickr.

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