Regulators, Learning, Governance and Networks

A conference for people concerned with regulation was surprisingly interesting.  I went there only because I was invited to speak.  Organized with the European Consortium for Political Research, it was a great example of learning from beyond my usual network.

The very title of the event pushed my stereotypes:  Regulation and Governance Conference:  New perspectives on learning, regulation and governance.  I just wouldn’t have expected people concerned with regulation to put all those things together.

The speakers weren’t talking about regulation simply in terms of regulatory bodies like ones for the finance industry.  They have a much broader range of interests that concern the very relationship between law and people:  what arrangements/actions succeed in stimulating observance of it?  This encompasses both “hard” and “soft” law.

From Command and Control to Multi-stakeholder Engagement

This perspective makes governance and regulation as a big trend topic.  In a new book I learned about, Oxford Handbook of Governance, Orly Lobel writes:  “The development of new governance theory marks a paradigm shift from the old regulation by Command & Control to…a vision of law and policy that draws on the comparative strengths of both private and public stakeholders and highlights the multiple ways in which the various actors in a society contribute to the acts of ordering social fields.”

This seems to me a very valuable shift to encompass Global Action Networks involved in certification such as the Forest Stewardship Council, those influencing standards more broadly like the Global Reporting Initiative, and those supporting implementation of intergovernmental agreements such as The Access Initiative.

There are actually some good historic examples of a multi-stakeholder governance approach, such as with Labor Boards and Occupational Health and Safety.  The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a GAN) was presented at the conference as a case.

However, the degree of this multi-stakeholder approach actual sinking into core formal regulatory arrangements seems disappointing.  Financial regulation, for example, seems stuck in the government regulator versus the industry model, rather than engaging customers, investors and others.  Aside from some interesting modest examples in the usual Nordic countries and The Netherlands, I didn’t really learn about much movement.  Usually stakeholders get caught in a distant “advisory” or “legal plaintiff” roles, with regulators supposedly all-powerful and knowledgeable.  Of course such a movement raises big questions about how to address power and resource differences amongst stakeholders.

Regulation and Learning

This all leads to a second trend with regulatory approaches that I learned about:  integration of learning and questions about adaptability to changing circumstances.  Changing, from an “object of regulation” to a multi-stakeholder collaborative approach with government as key facilitator, vastly enhances the opportunities for learning and adaptability around the goal of creating a healthy multi-stakeholder “system”.   Learning raises big questions about how to generate the needed data (hence whistleblower legislation, which the conference paid some attention to), and also about capacity for “emergence” of a regulatory system from a multi-stakeholder (change) process perspective.

I was delighted to read the work of conference host Claudio Raedelli and the Oxford Handbook Governance and Learning chapter he put out with Fabrizio Gilardi.  They bring forth core critical concepts such as emergence, complexity and four types of learning (see Table).  This draws very particularly from policy-making associated inquiry.  Totally unknown to me, this tradition has developed its own interpretation of Argyris and Schon’s work on first- and second-and third-order change (incremental, reform, transformation) based on learning, starting with a 1993 article by Peter Hall titled Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State.  It uses “social learning” rather like I use “societal learning” to describe increased societal-level capacity to realize its aspirations.  (In my world, “social learning” refers to how people learn from one another.)

Further integration of this political science approach with other learning traditions, such as those of organizational learning, societal learning and change would further strengthen both approaches.   In particular, I think that public policy-making and regulation can benefit from the growing field of dynamic change knowledge.  What I learned suggests that the regulation field remains too static and does not access new change methodologies that are focused on “emerging the future”, such as with Otto Scharmer’s work.

Networks and Regulation

Governance as “networks” was an additional perspective that led to my invitation from Axel Marx and Kazuki Kitaoka, among the authors of their UNIDO report on networks that was the topic of an earlier blogNetworks for Prosperity:  Achieving Development Goals through Knowledge Sharing.

Needing More Attention: Globalization, Sustainability

All three of these trends – governance, learning and networks – reflect the observation by Jacob Torfing that “…institutionalized negotiations between interdependent actors contribute to the production of public regulation”  (bold added).  I see two huge challenges for regulation.

One is the changing role of the nation state, given globalization.  It seemed a basic assumption was that the nation state is the enduring platform for effective regulation.  Although mention was made of its comparative shrinking role in the context of globalization, this was never taken up in any meaningful way I heard.  Multi-lateral organizations, like the OECD, are themselves based in the nation-state assumption.  Europe, through the EU, is where the most intense and interesting experiment is going on with supra-national regulatory approaches.  The proliferation of GANs and their global voluntary standards is being propelled by a global governance gap.  Surely these types of arrangements (and others) to address this gap deserve urgent attention.

The second huge challenge received inferential attention through the learning focus:  the vastly increasing pace of change and crises, such as in the finance industry (chronic crisis?) and with the natural environment (climate change is creating hugely increased scale/pace of disaster;  bio-diversity is collapsing).  These are vastly outstripping the ability of the traditional regulatory approaches.  This received some modest attention through the climate change and resilience lenses.

Finding ways to greatly speed the development of soft and hard law approaches to handle these challenges is an absolute necessity.  Aggressive pursuing multi-stakeholder governance, learning and networks provides a good foundation to adequately address the challenges.


Taking on the Sustainable Enterprise Challenge

Vastly accelerating the transformation of business into sustainable enterprise requires addressing at a global scale the economic (eg. markets), political (eg. regulations) and social (eg. values) factors that limit and enable any one firm’s actions.  In GOLDEN, I’ve been taking leadership with development of the Ecosystems Labs to tackle that challenge.

Of course this is an enormously audacious goal, but we live in times that absolutely require such audaciousness.  There is only so much that enlightened individuals and companies can do on their own about their impact on issues like climate change, equality and growth.  We also need to change the structures and “social institutions” that they work within, and in this era of globalization we need a global strategy.

To figure out this strategy, I’ve been consulting with some of the people who I most admire in large systems change, including Otto Scharmer, Angela Wilkinson, Jim Woodhill, Adam Kahane and the Reos Partners crowd, Chris Pinney, Rafael Rameriz, Hilary Bradbury-Huang, Sandra Waddock and Peter Senge.  And I’ve been delighted to meet more along the way, including Gill Coleman, Ron Fry, Dayna Cunningham, Oana Branzei, and yesterday Rick Locke.

Industry Ecosystems

All this talk has produced a Concept Note.  The heart of the strategy is to develop change through industry ecosystems.  In an industry like finance (a favorite change target of mine), that means all the businesses that associate with the industry, and all the stakeholders in the industry.  This relates to work I’ve done earlier with the Global Finance Initiative.  Peter Senge pointed out that people relate much more to human needs as a focus of change, such as water, food and jobs.  Yes, I said, and those are a critical and important focus.  However, GOLDEN’s focus is on changing the business enterprise, and therefore we are industry-focused.  Both are needed.

<p class="background:#6689CC;">
Energy Ecosystem Example:  Successful transition of energy companies away from fossil fuels toward more eco-friendly and sustainable energy sources is a vital element of a sustainable future, a fact that leading traditional utilities and companies producing fuel already recognize.  Along with renewable energy companies, energy providers have a particularly rich record of engagement with their ecosystems, which include not only the companies themselves, but also local communities, regulators, environmentalists, and investors.<p>

Learning Cycles

The second part of the strategy is to create a learning cycle dynamic that involves (1) assessment of an industry

ecosystem in terms of its current structures and sustainability trends/issues with gatherings of the stakeholders to create a “system consciousness and perspective”, visions of desired futures and identify actions that could shift the structures in the needed direction, (2) support the development of some of those key actions, and (3) create a “learning process” to continually adjust and build on actions.  Altogether this describes an ecosystem lab.

Support Current Activity

The third core part of the strategy arises with the tremendous work that is already being done by many people.  Since GOLDEN is a global network of academics and their research centers, they are the initial organizing focus to take leadership in developing the labs (hence my conversation list).  They will be gathering in two separate one-day meetings in October.  One is sponsored by the MIT Sloan Initiative for Sustainable Business and Society and the Presencing Institute in Cambridge, USA;  the second by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford.  Those meetings will identify details in the development of the ecosystem labs.

Whatever those details, they will build with and aim to enhance others’ great work, including other labs such the Finance Lab, the Sustainable Food Lab, the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, and RE-AMP (energy).

Big Science, Engaged Scholarship

These Labs and GOLDEN in general are distinctive in the academic world because of two qualities.  One is that it is “Big Science”, a technical term usually associated with the physical sciences, in projects such as the international space station, the human genome project, and CERN. GOLDEN is grounded in the belief that such an approach is needed by the management, environmental, large system change and associated social sciences, to address critical issues around sustainability today.

GOLDEN also frames itself as an “engaged scholarship” strategy, where “engaged scholarship” comprises action research and other approaches that engage stakeholders in collaborating producing knowledge and action. This emphasis arises from the view that social sciences, particularly management schools, must vastly enhance their relevance and deepen their relationship to challenges and opportunities to enhance the common good. This perspective has led GOLDEN to emphasize the importance of the labs that also occur at the enterprise and individual levels. (More on Big Science and Engaged Scholarship.)

Success Factors

GOLDEN began about three years ago with the impressive imagination and indefatigable energy of Maurizio Zollo.  As President of the European Academy of Management, he is a recognized academic leader.  In my work with Global Action Networks, I have noted that from the time people initially gather to develop an idea to the actual “production” of outputs is usually a period of 3 to 5 years.  GOLDEN is just entering that period.  Being patient, persistent, a learner and having access to sufficient networks and resources are critical to success.  The success in this case should be multiple:  accelerating sustainable enterprise, new approaches to business academia, and development of new large system change knowledge and capacity.


Change Experts’ Change Challenge

What are the impediments to scaling change strategies to address the global breadth and transformational depth of critical issues?  Conversations at MIT meeting and Oxford meeting in October, and discussions over the past few months with large system change experts, suggest several important impediments, including:

  1. low understanding of sponsors of change about large systems change processes;
  2. the lack of skillful people to realize the change efforts;
  3. inadequate knowledge, tools, strategies and methods; and
  4. the ability for change experts to think of themselves as “part of the problem” as well as part of the solution.

Over the past 10-15 years, substantial large system change initiatives and change knowledge and methods have developed.  Some of my favorite examples are the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, RE-AMP dealing with climate change in the US mid-west, the Sustainable Food Lab…and this week the potential of the 50in10 fish initiative.

Accompanying development of these initiatives is an equally impressive range of new organizations usually associated with specific methodologies.  Some leaders are Forum for the Future, Reos Partners (Change Labs), Smith School for Enterprise and the Environment (futures, scenarios), Fowler Center for Sustainable Value (appreciative inquiry), The Presencing Institute (U Process),  the Center for Development Innovation (multi-stakeholder change processes), and the Academy for Systemic Change (systems analysis).

These centers of change practice are more like 20th century organization-based solutions rather than 21st century network platforms.  Entry is restricted, they tend to focus on a specific tool/methodology, and the common modus operandi is “client-focused”.  They do wonderful work, and provide a much-needed contribution to the change field.

However, what has not yet developed is a true field of large systems change, in terms of a field of action incorporating a broad range of theory, tools and skills (praxis) with the accompanying “communities” of learning, training and development.

At the MIT meeting, Joe Hsueh presented a wonderful generic systems diagram developed from work with fisheries, but that helps describe the situation I now think of myself being part of.  He suggests that the conversations I’ve been having are a form of “quiet convening” (the black arrows), to bring people into interaction to realize their shared interests.  (Click twice on map to enlarge it.)

With GOLDEN’s ecosystems labs I understand we must develop the “large systems change” field…which requires activities similar to those used to develop a “sustainable fisheries” field.  The quiet convening activities suggest the need for further awareness-building of the emerging field of large systems change, and managing “self-convening” where people move from their organizational and methodological foci, to develop the large systems change field.

Change Experts’ Dilemmas

Change experts helps people address questions of “emergence” – how to move from “what is” to “what can be to effectively address opportunities and challenges”.  Those experts must themselves address those questions with respect to their own development:  how can we build beyond our narrow organizational and methodological foci, to build the field – an activity that is critical to really scaling up effective change strategies.

GOLDEN’s ecosystems labs should be an open co-owned platform to support this emergence.  Its focus on “accelerating transformation to sustainable enterprise” touches on many critical issues change experts are addressing and is of very large scale – providing a rich basis for collaborative action projects.  GOLDEN’s network of academic institutions (and its work on the ecosystem of business and business school sustainability strategies) provides a base for field development in terms of knowledge, methods, theory and training – the blue “capacity-development” arrows of Joe’s diagram.

GOLDEN’s frame of “industry ecosystems” (such as finance, food/agriculture) raised concerns at both the MIT and Oxford meetings.  One proposition is that the frame should be “commons” such as air and water.   Oxford participants raised the issue that current industry definitions are actually inhibiting the innovation needed to move to sustainability.  But community organizing always suggests the importance of “starting where people are” and creating a process of discovery to get to the future.  Change strategies emphasize the value of connecting stakeholders at the vanguard (open to, or already engaged in redefining industries) – but the stakeholders must still be well connected to the old industry framework, or they will be easily marginalized.

Oxford participants became energized with the vision of taking on Big Hairy Audacious Goals (B-HAGs), such as reducing carbon emissions by a gigaton within two years (to address climate change, cuts of about 44 GT/year are required).  This would have several benefits by being future- and aspirational-oriented and of a scale that would require a challenging “stretch” for change-makers.

But how are the B-HAGs to be identified in a way that they will be “owned” by a set of stakeholders with some reasonable possibility of addressing them?  How do we avoid limiting imaginations by the current sense of “reasonable possibility” in a way that dampens innovation?  Also, how would this actually help develop knowledge about how to transition from today’s industries to a sustainable future?

The B-HAG strategy implicitly suggests a future where, instead of industries, we have value-creating activity around specific human needs – such as the need for climate stability.  How can the big “transition-to-sustainable enterprise” question be connected to current industries to ensure meaningful engagement without limiting innovation?

One way to address this core challenge could be to use of sectors, more broadly defined in terms of responses to human needs, as organizational devices to create the conversation tables, and then the B-HAGs as the focusing items for the conversations.

However, this again raises the question about how current “large system change experts” are themselves working.  Are inertia, busyness and their own current frameworks and identities limiting their own potential for impact?  Can a group of change experts, based on their currently unassociated work, be a “change lab” in themselves, with the “change domain” being “large systems change and futures work”?


Why Large System Change? A “Wicked Problems” Persperctive

By:  Domenico Dentoni University of Wageningen

This is part of a series on the topic of “Large Systems Change”.  

One of the key questions relative to Large System Change (LSC) as a potential new subject of study is whether it is needed or not, and why. We believe that development of LSC is needed because individuals and organizations increasingly perceive LSC as a necessary response to the systemic nature of the problems at hand. This arises with the systemic nature of problems that require an LSC approach to address them. Individuals and organizations are today more aware of the nature of these problems relative to twenty years ago.

LSC field development is needed because the most pressing systemic problems faced by individuals and organizations are scientifically uncertain, dynamically complex, and involve value conflict among multiple societal actors (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013). Problems with these three characteristics are sometimes referred to as “wicked” in policy planning and natural resource management theories (Rittel and Webber 1973; Conklin 2005; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Examples are deforestation and climate change, food security and violation of human rights (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013).

Three key characteristics of this class of systemic problems requiring LSC are (Dentoni and Bitzer 2013):

  1. Scientific uncertainty. There is a lack of scientific knowledge on the cause-effect relationships of the problem and its possible solutions (Dietz et al. 2003; Hajer 2003; Batie 2008; Head and Alford 2013). Hence, the outcomes of organizational actions aiming to tackle wicked problems cannot be measured from just one perspective or disentangled from other actions.
  2. Value conflict among stakeholders. Stakeholders influenced by, or influencing, wicked problems have conflicting expectations, beliefs, frames, goals and values regarding wicked problems (Batie, 2008; Weber and Khademian, 2008). Particularly conflicting values are hard to reconcile, because trade-offs in organizational actions are likely to occur and win-win-win solutions are hard if not impossible to find.
  3. Dynamic complexity. Wicked problems are volatile and evolve over time, sometimes linearly but frequently unpredictably and unexpectedly (Rittel and Webber 1973; Jentoft and Chuenpagdee 2009). Thus, there are no definite and objective solutions to the problem, which needs to be permanently monitored in its evolution over time.

These three characteristics of systemic problems differ from the notions of complex and uncertain environments (Brown and Eisenhardt 1997, Scherer and Palazzo 2013) and of inter-organizational conflict (Pache and Santos 2010, Greenwood et al. 2011, Smith and Lewis 2011) discussed in recent management literature. Given their nature, these systemic problems cannot be understood and tackled in isolation by actors or restricted groups of actors in society without wide collaboration with the rest of society (Conklin 2006). Moreover, they cannot be resolved by finding “right answers” or “solutions” through science (Batie 2008; Peterson 2011), but they must be managed through dialogue, engagement and decision-making among actors across sectors and across disciplines (Yarime et al. 2012). Thus, these problems are less about technological innovations, but primarily require a transformation of organizations and systems (Weber and Khademian, 2008; Waddell et al. 2013), along with a profound change of the knowledge, attitude and competencies of individuals (Waddock 1998). Thus, a collaborative and coherent approach among societal groups to generate LSC is necessary to make sense, discuss, learn and address them.

Today individuals and organizations are increasingly aware of wicked problems (?), because the world becomes more interconnected and organizations are held accountable by the general public to maintain legitimacy in society. In such a “risk”, “audit” and “network” society (Beck 1999; Power 1999; Castells 2011), individuals and organizations not only have more opportunities, but also more responsibilities to make sense, discuss, learn and address the most pressing systemic problems that they face (Argyres and Mayer 2007; Scherer and Palazzo 2013).


Argyres, N., & Mayer, K. J. 2007. Contract design as a firm capability: An integration of learning and transaction cost perspectives. Academy of Management Review, 32: 1060–1077.

Batie, S. S. (2008). Wicked problems and applied economics. American Journal of Agricultural Economics, 90(5), 1176-1191.

Beck, U. (1999). World risk society (pp. 495-499). Wiley Blackwell.

Brown, S. L., & Eisenhardt, K. M. (1997). The art of continuous change: Linking complexity theory and time-paced evolution in relentlessly shifting organizations. Administrative science quarterly, 1-34.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). Wiley. com.

Conklin, J. (2005). Dialogue mapping: Building shared understanding of wicked problems. John Wiley & Sons, Inc..

Dentoni, D. and Bitzer, V. (2013). Dealing with Wicked Problems: Managing Corporate Social Responsibility through Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives. Paper submitted to the Journal of Management Studies (Under Review).

Dietz, T., Ostrom, E., & Stern, P. C. (2003). The struggle to govern the commons. science, 302(5652), 1907-1912.

Greenwood, R., Raynard, M., Kodeih, F., Micelotta, E. R., & Lounsbury, M. (2011). Institutional complexity and organizational responses. The Academy of Management Annals, 5(1), 317-371.

Hajer, M. (2003). Policy without polity? Policy analysis and the institutional void. Policy sciences, 36(2), 175-195.

Head, B. W., & Alford, J. (2013). Wicked Problems: Implications for Public Policy and Management. Administration & Society (In Press).

Jentoft, S., & Chuenpagdee, R. (2009). Fisheries and coastal governance as a wicked problem. Marine Policy, 33(4), 553-560.

Pache, A. C., & Santos, F. (2010). When worlds collide: The internal dynamics of organizational responses to conflicting institutional demands. Academy of Management Review, 35(3), 455-476.

Peterson, H.C. (2011). An Epistemology for Agribusiness: Peers, Methods and Engagement in the Agri-Food Bio System. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 14(5), 11-26.

Power, M. (1999). The audit society: Rituals of verification. OUP Catalogue.

Rittel, H. W., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy sciences, 4(2), 155-169.

Scherer, A. G., Palazzo, G., & Seidl, D. (2013). Managing legitimacy in complex and heterogeneous environments: sustainable development in a globalized world. Journal of Management Studies, 50(2), 259-284.

Smith, W. K., & Lewis, M. W. (2011). Toward a theory of paradox: A dynamic equilibrium model of organizing. Academy of Management Review, 36(2), 381-403.

Yarime, M., Trencher, G., Mino, T., Scholz, R. W., Olsson, L., Ness, B., Frantzeskaki, N. and Rotmans, J. (2012). Establishing sustainability science in higher education institutions: towards an integration of academic development, institutionalization, and stakeholder collaborations. Sustainability Science, 7(1), 101-113.

Waddell, S., McLachlan, M. and Dentoni, D. (2013). Learning & Transformative Networks to Address Wicked Problems: A GOLDEN Invitation. International Food and Agribusiness Management Review, 16(A), 23-32.

Waddock, S.A. (1998). Educating holistic professionals in a world of wicked problems. Applied Developmental Science, 2(1), 40-47.

Weber, E. P., & Khademian, A. M. (2008). Wicked problems, knowledge challenges, and collaborative capacity builders in network settings. Public Administration Review, 68(2), 334-349.


Thinking about Large Scale System Change

his is part of a series of guest blogs on large systems change.


Large scale systems change (LSSC) involves multiple organizations, systems, and groups, often from two or more sectors, that take actions to deliberately effect fundamental shifts in the ‘rules of the game’ or a dominant worldview and associated practices, i.e., the policies, regulations, rules, norms, and standards of practice that constitute ‘how things work’ within the boundaries of interest or with respect to relevant issues or topics of interest.

The key to understanding the word ‘large’ in LSSC is to understand that the scale and scope crosses multiple boundaries, either crossing sector, industrial, or multi-organizational boundaries within a country or crossing national boundaries when the issue of interest is regional or global in scope.  Issues associated with LSSC are inherently ‘wicked’ in nature (see Rittel & Weber; Churchman; earlier blog), which means that they involve multiple stakeholders with different perspectives, are intractable problems with no apparent or agreed path to solution, and have no clear resolution or end point.  Examples of ‘large scale’ wicked problems include poverty, climate change, sustainability, the global financial crisis, and a shift of the business system toward true sustainability.

The term ‘system’ in LSSC can be considered to be a set of interacting/interdependent elements that form an integrated and complex whole.  Most systems are ‘holons’ (Koestler, 1968) in that they are ‘whole’ systems comprised of parts that are themselves ‘wholes.’  For example, an individual employee (a whole person) may be part of a team within a department which is a part of a business unit, which is itself part of a company that is part of an industry, and so on.  LSSC inherently requires taking this type of systems perspective to attempt to understand some of the dynamics and relationships among the various elements of the system.

Most theories of system change are focused at the organizational level as articulated by the (rather dated) organization development literature (French and Bell, 1984; Schein, 1969; Beckhard, 1977; Bennis, Benne & Chin, 1961; Cummings & Worley, 2008; Blake & Mouton, 1969; Nadler, 1981; Bartunek & Moch, 1987; Hage & Aiken, 1970; French).  Some business-in-society scholars have addressed the corporate level implementation of corporate responsibility systems and structures within the corporation (Jonker, 2006; Lyon, 2004).  There is, however, little work within the business in society field explicitly on the type of multi-sector large scale system change of the sort necessary to engage issues of climate change, sustainability, and other problems that are ‘wicked’ in nature.  LSSC involving attempts to change the nature of relationships among organizations and institutions, could also engage their operating goals and practices, norms, values, and behaviors.

Waddock (2008a, 2008b), for example, has proposed that the emergence of the corporate responsibility infrastructure that attempts to create greater corporate sustainability, responsibility, accountability, and transparency is a social movement.  Waddell (2010) studies Global Action Networks (GANs), which also attempt to effect fundamental systemic change within and across industries and issues at scale.  Both this emergent infrastructure and the evolution of GANs can, in effect, be considered social movements in some ways.  Similarly, LSSC could be considered a form of what Peterson (1989) termed new social movements in which the rules of the game also shift fundamentally.

Diani (1994, p. 1) argues that ‘Social movements are defined as networks of informal interactions between a plurality of individuals, groups and/or organizations, engaged in political or cultural conflicts, on the basis of shared collective identities.’   Similarly, effecting LSSC involves changing the relationships and interactions among system elements.  Today, social movements are understood to occur in numerous domains and go well beyond simple informal networks–though networks are an integral feature of all social movements.  Melucci (1985) emphasizes that social movements work at three levels:  institutional change, cultural innovation, and shifting dominant cultural codes, all of which can be the focus of LSSC.  Hensmans (2003) further argues that as they attempt to (re-)shape institutional fields, social movements need to have a strategic orientation.  This notion fits well with LSSC’s idea of deliberate action toward what is likely to be a rather broadly defined and sometimes implicit goal (e.g., have companies deal more effectively with climate change, enhance sustainability practices in companies, make the financial system more responsive to the productive economy).

LSSCs operate in networks and sometimes networks of networks, sometimes closely coupled and other times more loosely coupled or even uncoupled, but sharing a similar broad agenda or set of goals.  Some actors in LSSCs operate in what we can characterize as broad networks of actors that group together in what is known as collective action (e.g., Peterson, 1989)  Others may be moving the issue forward either in different networks or independently, as Paul Hawken (2007) has demonstrated in his work on blessed unrest (2007).  In the case of the corporate responsibility infrastructure, actors initially operate more or less independently, but as the infrastructure matures more consolidation and ‘rationalization’ is taking place (Albareda & Waddock, 2013 working paper).  What the groups identified by Hawken share is a common set of values and similar broad agenda around sustainability and social justice that they attempt to operationalize through their work, independently or collectively.  What they lack, as Hawken points out, is a collective strategy for effecting the necessary large scale system change that is needed to reach their goals.  LSSC can be conceived as a more deliberate attempt to engage collaboratively oriented actors sharing such a common set of values and related vision of change on specific actions to effect system change.

Scholars and practitioners of LSSC are interested in the ways in which social change happens across large swaths of society(ies), in particularly with reference to progressive changes that include dealing with climate change, reducing imbalances in society, and effecting greater sustainability.  In LSSC there is a deliberate action strategy oriented toward social and institutional change, and actors can operate from within existing institutions and enterprises or within networks, some of which are newly created to effect change.  LSSC for Sustainability represents a potential shift in worldview to change the dominant world view from one of materialism, consumption, and constant growth with a dominance of the economic over human systems towards a more eco-centric, humanistic, progressive, and sustainable worldview or mindset with associated practices.  In other words, it shares the sustainability and social justice orientation of the ‘blessed unrest’ entities, but with a more deliberate social movement and change orientation.

Social movement theorists McAdam et al. (1996) suggest that social movements operate using three core processes:   cultural framing or trying to shape the debate in a contested field;  taking advantage of ‘political opportunity structures’ or tapping into gaps and opportunities in the existing political, social, and institutional environment; and creating and using mobilizing structures or networks of committed parties that can tap into the opportunity structures and move the agenda forward.  These activities take place also in LSSC, along with the need to develop at least a modicum of a shared vision about the future that formal or informal members of the movement can agree to.  This is done explicitly within more formalized networks or more implicitly as a set of shared values like the many entities working in the sustainability and equity space identified by Hawken (2007).

LSSC involves transformation of some systems, which means that movement members need to determine where there are leverage points for change (Senge, 1990) that can be used to either ‘nudge’ (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009) the system into a new way of behaving or find ways to effect more significant change.  Issues of system resilience and adaptiveness (Chapin et al., 2009), diversity, and well-being of human and other living beings are central to considerations of sustainability.  In addition, as Brown points out, sometimes bridging or intermediary organizations can be used to bring a degree of organization to the under-organized systems that are typically involved in attempting large scale change initiatives (Brown, 1983).  These mediating or intermediary entities can, in LSSC, potentially be a set of actors who engage together to create a collective strategy for change.

Consider, for example, the shift from Apartheid to post-Apartheid in South Africa, the shift from the idea that smoking is a socially acceptable practice to smoking becoming socially unacceptable, the shifts from agrarian to industrial to information- or knowledge-based economies.  Such shifts can be thought of as social movements, even though they do not focus on the disadvantaged nor are they necessarily contained within national boundaries, which was previously considered the usual focus of social movement theory (e.g., McCarthy; movements (McCarthy, 1977; McAdam, McCarthy & Zald, 1996; McAdam, Sampson, Weffer & McIndow, 2005).  Using this framework helps understand the potential for LSSC.  These shifts came about because of deliberate change efforts undertaken by a variety of actors in loose networks with related goals over a period of time.  Actors, at various points in time, ‘mobilized’ themselves into sufficient structure that specific and quite deliberate actions could be taken.  Some of the actions taken were rhetorical, (re-)shaping the conversation (cultural framing) around the issue (e.g., around the dangers of smoking) and even created informational campaigns.  Others were more charged actions that helped to mobilize less central groups into action and brought public attention to the issue (mobilizing structures).  No one individual or group can typically be identified as the change agent.  No one event is the ‘cause’ of the shift, although certainly key trigger events that mobilized action could be identified when the circumstances (opportunity structures) are ripe for change.

Large scale system change for sustainability using understanding derived from organizational change theory and social movement theory could potentially provide a new way to consolidate resources and initiatives aimed at resolving the particular wicked problems of sustainability, climate change, and social justice that affecting the future of humanity.


Albareda, L., and Waddock, S. (2013).  Networked Governance for the New CSR:  Establishin the Connection with ‘Earth System Governance.’  Working Paper.

Bartunek, J. M., & Moch, M. K. (1987). First-order, second-order, and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 23(4), 483-500.

Beckhard, R., & Harris, R. T. (1977). Organizational transitions: Managing complex change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Bennis, W. G., Benne, K. D., & Chin, R. E. (1961). The planning of change: Readings in the applied behavioral sciences.

Blake, R. R., & Mouton, J. S. (1969). Building a Dynamic Corporation through Grid Organization Development.

Brown, L. D. (1993). Social change through collective reflection with Asian nongovernmental development organizations. Human Relations, 46(2), 249-273.

Chapin III, F. S., Carpenter, S. R., Kofinas, G. P., Folke, C., Abel, N., Clark, W. C., … & Swanson, F. J. (2010). Ecosystem stewardship: sustainability strategies for a rapidly changing planet. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 25(4), 241-249.

Cummings, T. G., & Worley, C. G. (2008). Organization development and change. Cengage Learning.

Diani, M. (1992). The concept of social movement. The Sociological Review, 40(1), 1-25.

French, W. L., & Bell, C. H. (1984). Organization development: Behavioral science interventions for organization improvement (p. 347). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Hage, J., & Aiken, M. (1970). Social change in complex organizations (pp. 30-61). New York: Random House.

Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest social movement in history is restoring grace, justice, and beauty to the world. Penguin.

Hensmans, M. (2003). Social movement organizations: A metaphor for strategic actors in institutional fields. Organization studies, 24(3), 355-381.

Jonker, J. (Ed.). (2006). The challenge of organizing and implementing corporate social responsibility. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Koestler, A. (1968). The ghost in the machine.  New York:  Random House.

Jonker, J. (Ed.). (2006). The challenge of organizing and implementing corporate social responsibility. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lyon, D. (2004). How can you help organizations change to meet the corporate responsibility agenda?. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 11(3), 133-139.

McAdam, D., McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (Eds.). (1996). Comparative perspectives on social movements: Political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and cultural framings. Cambridge University Press.

McAdam, D., Sampson, R. J., Weffer, S., & MacIndoe, H. (2005). ” There will be fighting in the streets”: The distorting lens of social movement theory. Mobilization: An International Quarterly, 10(1), 1-18.

McCarthy, J. D., & Zald, M. N. (1977). Resource mobilization and social movements: A partial theory. American journal of sociology, 1212-1241.

Melucci, Alberto. “The symbolic challenge of contemporary movements.” Social research (1985): 789-816.

Nadler, D. A. (1981). Managing organizational change: An integrative perspective. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 17(2), 191-211.

Peterson, A. (1989). Social movement theory. Acta Sociologica, 419-426.

Schein, E. H. (1969). The mechanisms of change. The planning of change, 2, 98-107.

Senge, P. (1990). The fifth discipline: The art and science of the learning organization. New York: Currency Doubleday.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press.

Waddock, S. (2008a). Building a new institutional infrastructure for corporate responsibility. The Academy of Management Perspectives, 22(3), 87-108.

Waddock, S. (2008b). Difference Makers. Greenleaf Publishing.


Systems Change or the sound of meditation

By Malcolm McIntosh -Griffith University, Sustainability Institute, Doshisha University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity. 

These thoughts have been collected in my mind while cycling in the early morning through the empty streets of the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan on a Sunday morning in October, 2013. I was looking for breakfast, and had read some background thoughts on systems change over an early morning cup of very weak English breakfast tea as the sun rose over Gokokuji temple and the sound of the gong as the Buddhist monks went to work: meditation and chants.

My interest in large systems lay, in the last decade, with complexity, but complexity has become the fertile patina on which other new thoughts now grow. I am interested in questions which have arisen from running a series of roundtables on what the sustainable enterprise economy might look like, on all five continents in 2009/2010 and following this up with lengthy interviews with people of all sorts at the Occupy sites around the world, but particularly in New York and London.  Those questions are: ‘what does it mean to be human now that we know what we know?’, and, ‘acknowledging that nationalism, tribalism and misogyny are the greatest impediments to new global governance, what does it mean to be a global citizen with local identity, today?’.

I also spend a great deal of time in two of the world’s largest economies, Japan and China.  In Japan and China it is possible to argue that systems are how Confucians, Buddhists and Shintoists see and feel life anyway.

So being in this country – Japan – that had to engage in revolutionary evolution in 1868 when threatened by a US blockade and gunfire, and rise again from the ashes post the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs and the end of the Second World War in 1945, is a good place to start with the subject of large systems change.  If change means action, active not passive, then the suggestion is that it is not just analysis that produces an effect, but the actual doing of it. And, while it might be argued that moving together is a prerequisite for any peaceful, successful and society-wide change, for a country like Japan this is just how it is. In 2013 it is still a remarkably cohesive country, with some of the lowest crime statistics in the world, with a universal health care system, and, Japanese live longer that almost anyone.  If one is interested in large systems change it is well worth, as an exercise, starting in 1945 and comparing the changes that have taken place to and in, let’s say, Japan, China, Germany, the USA, South Africa and the UK. In other words context and history are almost everything. The comparative statistics on social cohesion, crime, health care, and longevity are vastly different in the countries mentioned.

Which brings me to my current interest in large systems change. In order to understand why most of my work on corporate responsibility and corporate  citizenship has had at best a minor affect on corporate behaviour and development issues I have become much more interested in transdisciplinary approaches, in natural and social evolution, and finally in cosmology – looking back to the origins of life and the universe.

Parking cosmology for a moment – because it takes us too far away, literally – an evolutionary approach is helpful in understanding why we have the particular economic system and corporate structures today. They are not accidents; they did not come about by chance. They reflect us as human beings, they represent the battle between individualism and collectivism, and they are historical attributes of tribal and national historical atavism from the last few centuries.

Large systems change pieces may be easy as abstraction, but they are a minefield (and a mindfield!) on the ground.

So, finally, in this short blog, can I mention Colm Toibin, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, who has written a short history on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ from his mother’s perspective: The Testament of Mary (2012) and also Julian Barnes’ 2011 Levels of Life which argues that the only truth is to be found in art, and particularly the novel. Given the number of airless academic articles I read for the Journal of Corporate Citizenship, that I edit again, and elsewhere – some of them on systems theory – Barnes’ epistle speaks to me, as does Toibin’s reseeing of the world.

For this reason my current recommendations for reading are, as well as the above books, listed below. None of them say they are about large systems change, but they are all transdisciplinary:

And at the end and the beginning of the day the booming, echoing sound of the gong across the valley is the only whole or holon I need.


Some thoughts on Action Research and Large scale Change

By Hilary Bradbury – Oregon Health & Science University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity.

Basic definitions

Timely action with people in social systems at this moment in history means a willingness to engage with unprecedented challenges of sustainability that are interrelated and compounding. Challenges include complex issues such as poverty and injustice, patriarchy, climate change, degradation of nature, globalization, inequalities and fundamentalisms of all types. Conventional science and its conduct are part of these problems. Far from being products of the enterprise of a lone researcher, action researchers engage stakeholders–particularly those traditionally excluded from being part of the research process–in problem definition, research processes, interpretation of results, design for action, and evaluation of outcomes requires appreciation beyond notions of conventional research.

Action research, although not easily defined, is described as a participatory, democratic process concerned with developing practical knowledge in the pursuit of worthwhile human purposes. Peter Reason and Hilary Bradbury describe it as bringing together action and reflection, theory and practice, in participation with others, in the pursuit of practical solutions to issues of pressing concern to people, and more generally the flourishing of individual persons and their communities. Action research therefore seeks to interweave what is often kept separate, thereby honoring unity and diversity, leading to a multidimensional terrain of endeavor.

Action researchers conduct their participative inquiry with people who are the stakeholders to the issues and inquiry at hand. This orientation to inquiry is found most frequently in efforts aimed at improving social systems, i.e., those complex meeting places where our human reality as social and biological creatures intersects with behavioral and technical systems, giving rise to politics. Because of the nature of the challenges we face as a global, interconnected population, large scale change is a foremost concern.

Contribution of action research

What then is the contribution that action researchers can make to a conversation about large scale change? A recent otherwise laudatory commentary on action research efforts made the point that so often action researchers address themselves to the big issues, but tinker with single cases. The complaint speaks to the need to show more the scope, scale and impact of action research. It is therefore timely to think through with more rigor how to integrate local with global in ways action research can truly do well given our explicit struggle to integrate what we call first, second and third person action research. Let me explain:

Action researchers understand that social reality is profoundly relational (I-Thou second person work). The motivation for knowledge creation at the level of culture shaping (third person work, for us) is not so much simply to know what is true for the sake of objective, disembodied truth;  but rather to accomplish something of mutual value. For action researchers, with its integration of pragmatic and relational subjectivity as a central feature, replication and generalizability – which is at the heart of large scale robust efforts –  is therefore also re-imagined.

Making interdependence actionable

Key to the action research contribution is that we seek to make actionable the insight that all phenomena co-arise and are interdependent.  Some may say it more simply that action researchers are systems thinkers and are geared to overcoming social fragmentation. Action researchers start from an ecological (and ecological self, first person) standpoint, thinking in terms of community building.  Therefore, they actively investigate and work at expanding the boundaries for stakeholders’ involvement. Our work at first and second person levels then naturally tends toward large scale, but accomplishes this by building social capital at the level of “I-thou” projects that involve stakeholders working together.

Examples: Underscoring the need to work with issues of power and inclusion

Are there special issues for action researchers at scale? Writing specifically about AR and large scale change, Ann Martin (writing about 30,000 participant school improvement projects) and Ernie Stringer (writing about national level reform in Indonesia) point to the importance that power, inclusion and implementation issues take on as scale grows. Indeed given the relational work at smaller scale that is always the foundation of large scale, action researching leaders may be better able to address power issues with transparency.

Bjorn Gustavsen’s work in Scandinavia may be the largest action research project that is well known. It involved may thousands of employees across many hundreds of small and large organizations in dialogue for action about creating participative workplaces in their companies. This “project” travelled, through building social capital and being picked up in yet new organizations, to the point where its results seem taken for granted in the modern Western workplace. This project exemplifies action researchers’ concern for quality as partnership and participation. Stakeholders include a view outward, scouting the external boundaries of a project (what company outside mine need to be involved) while being also naturally drawing inward to the local stakeholders (how do we make this work stick). One imagines that social networks and global networks, supported by social media, can only bode well for this way of thinking and acting in the interdependent future.

To be continued ;)

All citations are from: Reason, Peter, & Bradbury, Hilary (Eds.). (2008). The sage handbook of action research. London, UK: Sage Publications

Hilary may be reached at


Dialogic Organization Development and Transformational Change

By Gervase Bushe – Simon Fraser University

This is one of a series of guest blogs on large systems change written as part of GOLDEN’s Ecosystems Labs activity.

Dialogical Organization Development is a label Bob Marshak and I have created to group a variety of change methods that share an underlying similarity in “mindset” even though they can look very different.   In an earlier paper (Bushe & Marshak, 2009) we contrast the post-modern, complexity science-based premises of these Dialogic methods with conventional, modernist, behavioural science based “Diagnostic OD”. Since then we have been working on a theory of practice for Dialogic OD (Bushe & Marhshak, 2013; in press; forthcoming).  We believe that successful Dialogic OD is not simply about having “good dialogues”.  Rather, we think there are three change levers underlying the success and failure of Dialogic OD processes.  They can produce change alone or in concert with each other.

Emergence: A disruption is engaged in a way that leads to the normal processes of ralating and oranizing falling apart, and the re-organization of those processes at a higher level of complexity.

A disruption occurs when the previous order or pattern of social relations is irrevocably pulled apart and there is little chance of going back to the way things were. Disruptions can be planned or unplanned, and the group or organization may be able to self-organize around them without much conscious leadership. From a Dialogic OD perspective, however, transformation is unlikely to take place without disruption. A variety of Dialogic OD methods can be used to create containers for productive conversations to take place that support re-organizing at higher levels of complexity despite the anxiety that disruptive endings can create. However, once disrupted, it is impossible to predict what might then happen, the options range from complete dissolution to reorganization at a higher level of complexity (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984). Dialogic OD processes are concerned with processes required to help organizations move from that which can no longer be, to that which has yet to become (Owen, 1987; 2008). A key insight from Holman (2103) is that increasing the differentiation among members after disruption before seeking new coherence aids this process.

Discourse: A change occurs in the core narrative of the group or organization. The story that makes it all make sense changes and perceptions, thinking and action follow.

The core narratives are the stories that explain and bring coherence to our organizational lives. The significance of narratives to effecting organizational change is considerable for they convey the prevailing or intended rationales supporting change or stability. As Marshak and Grant (2008: 14) have noted “changing consciousness or mindsets or social agreements – for example about the role of women in organizations, or about hierarchical structures, or even about how change happens in organizations – would therefore require challenging or changing the prevailing narratives, stories, and so on that are endorsed by those presently and/or historically in power and authority”. Others have shown how stories are a way of managing change, particularly culture change, and how change is often constituted by changes in the narratives that participants author (Brown & Humphreys 2003; Buchanan & Dawson, 2007). A variety of Dialogic OD methods can be used as a planned intervention into the narrative and story making processes of an organization.

Generativity: A new image/idea/phrase gives a people new options for decisions and actions they hadn’t thought of. The most generative images are compelling as well – people find these new options attractive and wat to act on them.

My research has found that generative images are central to successful appreciative inquiry efforts (Bushe, 2010; in press; Bushe & Kassam 2005) and I have proposed that they are central to Dialogic OD success (Bushe, 2013).  A generative image is a combination of words, pictures or other symbolic media that provide new ways of thinking about social and organizational reality.  They, in effect, allow people to imagine alternative decisions and actions that they could not imagine before the generative image surfaced .  A second property of highly generative images is that they are compelling; people want to act on the new opportunities the generative image evokes.  A variety of Dialogic OD methods could be supported by using generative images as the initiating themes or questions for inquiry (Bushe, in press) or by evoking new generative images in the process of dialogue and inquiry (Storch and Ziethen, 2013).

It is unclear to us, at this time, whether transformational change requires more than one of these underlying processes to be successful.  They do seem, at times, related.  It is difficult to imagine in Dialogic OD practice, for example, a change in a core narrative that didn’t involve a disruption to the prevailing social construction of reality. On the other hand, changes in core narratives do occur, over time, which do not necessarily involve disruption (c.f., Barret, Thomas & Hocevar, 1995).  In a world of constant change, “disruption” is mainly a matter of perspective.  Similarly, it is unclear if generative images require either disruption or a change in core narratives to be successful, but it is clear that they can go together.  What we are proposing here, is that the dialogic mindset is particularly attuned to these three change processes, and that the successful Dialogic OD consultant will mix and match a variety of Dialogic methods in order to maximize the likelihood that one or all will be present. How they may or may not go together is an empirical question open to further research.


Barrett, F.J., Thomas, G.F. & Hocevar, S.P. (1995) The central role of discourse in large-scale change: A social construction perspective.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 31(3), 352-372.

Brown, A. D., & Humphreys, M. (2003). Epic and tragic tales: Making sense of change. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39(2), 121-144.

Buchanan, D., & Dawson, P. (2007). Discourse and audience: organizational change as multi‐story process. Journal of Management Studies, 44(5), 669-686.

Bushe, G.R. (in press) Generative process, generative outcome: The transformational potential of appreciative inquiry.  In  D.L. Cooperrider, D.P. Zandee, L.  Godwin, M. Avital and B. Boland (eds.) Organizational generativity: The appreciative inquiry summit and a scholarship of transformation (Advances in appreciative inquiry, vol.4, 89-122).  Bingley, UK: Emerald Press.

Bushe, G.R. (2013) Dialogic OD: A theory of practice.  OD Practitioner, 45(1), 10-16.

Bushe, G.R. (2010) A comparative case study of appreciative inquiries in one organization: Implications for practice.  Review of Research and Social Intervention, 29, 7-24.

Bushe, G.R. & Kassam, A. (2005) When is appreciative inquiry transformational?  A meta-case analysis.  Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 41(2), 161-181.

Bushe, G.R. & Marhsak, R.J. (forthcoming) The Dialogic OD Mindset.  In A. Shani, W. Pasmore & R. Woodman (eds.) Research in Organization Development and Change (Volume 22).  NY: Emerald.

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (in press) Dialogic organization development.  In B. B. Jones & M. Brazzel (eds.) The NTL Handbook of Organization Development and Change, 2nd Ed. Wiley-Pfieffer.

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J. (eds.) (2013) Advances in Dialogic Organization Development. Organization Development Practitioner, 45(1).

Bushe, G.R. & Marshak, R.J.   (2009) Revisioning organization development: Diagnostic and dialogic premises and patterns of practice. Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. 45(3), 348-368.

Holman, P. (2013) A call to engage: Realizing the potential of dialogic organization development.  OD Practitioner, 45(1), 18-24.

Marshak, R. J. and Grant, D. (2008). Organizational discourse and new organization development practices, British Journal of Management, 19: S7-S19.

Owen, H. (2008) Wave rider: Leadership for high performance in a self organizing world.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Owen, H. (1987) Spirit: Transformation and development in organizations.  Potomac, MD: Abbott.

Prigogine, I, & Stengers, I. (1984) Order out of chaos.  Boulder, CO: Shambhala.

Storch, J., & Ziethen, M. (2013) Re-description: A source of generativity in Dialogic Organization Development, OD Practitioner, 45(1), 25-29.