The Hermeneutic Dimension of Living Organisations

Photo: Simon Robinson

Photo: Simon Robinson

Sometimes management consultants’ activities can appear to be quite abstract, especially those who utilise schemes such as models and frameworks of the organisation. When these forms of models are applied to an organisation, people are framed in terms of the model, and in interviews and surveys etc, people and their attitudes and opinions are discussed in terms of the model, i.e. they are forced into the framework. Often people will respond with comments such as ‘no, in fact here it is not like the way you are describing’ but the consultants want reality to be a certain way because they have brought a framework from outside.

In the 1960s, a number of students of physicist David Bohm’s, including Henri Bortoft, took his conceptualisation of wholeness out of quantum physics and into organisational design and change management, using the hologram as a template for thinking in a new way about wholeness.

Credit: Frank Defreitas Holography

Credit: Frank Defreitas Holography

Each person in an organisation is seen an expression of the organisation as a whole, so the whole organisation comes to expression to some degree through their role in the organisation. If the whole comes to expression in the parts, the way to understand the whole is through the way it is expressed in the parts, instead of trying to stand back to get an overview, and trying to make the parts fit together into a pre-conceived framework.

When you explore the whole organisation in this manner, it can sometimes seem as if you are entering into another dimension of the organisation compared with the usual way of thinking which can often seem quite abstract. What is needed from leadership is the capacity to see from within the whole of the organisation in which we work and live.

It is this dynamic way of seeing which we describe in our book Holonomics, and which is the same hermeneutical movement of thinking that Gadamer describes in Truth and Method. This dynamical way of seeing is also the same movement upstream that Goethe utilised in his organic understanding of the metamorphosis of plants and the coming-into-being of colour as described in his Theory of Colours.

But one thing Henri always warned about was not to confuse the contents with the container. Don’t confuse the fundamental movement in thinking with the way in which it is expressed in different uses in different philosophies in different eras. In many ways, an organisation is not like a living organic plant, since organisations are created by someone in a very short space of time, and people and resources and processes are brought together under conscious design, as opposed to organisms which have evolved over millions of years.

What we do though is require a new organ of perception for understanding how parts belong together, so that the whole organisation, its vision, strategy, brand and essence can come to full expression through the parts. We can say that organisations are living in the same way that Gadamer understood the meaning of a text to always be unfinished, therefore in some manner ‘living’.

Sustainable BrandsThis may all seem a little philosophical, a little abstract. On 4th November Maria and I will be sharing for the first time a real case study in which holonomic thinking was introduced into the heart of the sustainable strategy of a large organisation. This will really help you understand what Holonomics and holonomic thinking looks like in practice.

If you are unable to attend, our plenary session will be broadcast live. You can subscribe free via this link:

2 responses to “The Hermeneutic Dimension of Living Organisations

  1. “Each person in an organisation is seen an expression of the organisation as a whole…” But this is not right – it’s taking the idea of the whole and applying it to something which is not an authentic whole. Organisations are communities of people – they are definitively not ‘super-organisms’, of which the people who make them up are parts. Indeed, there is no ‘organisation’ – it’s another of these abstractions which management consultants make (just as Margaret Thatcher famously pointed out ‘And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’)

    If an organisation were a whole of the kind you’re suggesting, the individuals who make it up would naturally and organically express its holism – it wouldn’t be a contrivance based on defined abstract ‘values’ and artificialities like encouraging people to ‘live the brand’. However the people who make up organisations don’t naturally do this: frequently (and most often) there is a tension between their own sense of self and the desire of senior management to align them with the purposes of the organisation – a tension which is underlined by the contradiction that senior management is now often seen by shareholders as self-serving and not aligned to what they see as the purposes of the organisation.

    It would be truer to say that the modern organisation is created in the image of the false (superficial, brittle, conceptual) constructs of self which characterise our modern sense of ‘identity’ – and are thus very much examples of the ‘inauthentic wholes’ which Henri Bortoft talks about.

    • Hi James,

      Thanks for your comments, as always. This article comes from what Henri says in Taking Appearance Seriously, p13 – 15 and also with some additional comments from his lectures at Schumacher College.

      As Henri says, his ‘holographic’ approach could equally be termed the ‘hermeneutic’ approach and this is where I find Gadamer’s insights so helpful. For me the dynamic way of seeing can be applied equally to understanding the meaning of an organisation as it can be to a historical text.

      This is why in this article I stress the difference between organism and organisation.

      Henri also used the word ‘partially’ to express the way in which the essence, or values or purpose of an organisation are expressed ‘part-tially’ through each and every person. So you do not stand back and view the organisation from this perspective (counterfeit) but to reach the whole you go into each part, and hence encounter another dimension of the organisation.

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