Idle thoughts on Organisation

I’m fascinated by the way we use language and sometimes don’t notice its impact – how its structure shapes our thinking. A lot of languages including English, are big on nouns. (See my post on The Geography of Thought).

I was thinking today about how we casually use the word organisation like a noun; and we would call, say, British Airways an organisation but we wouldn’t label this scene of fast moving traffic and people in India as “an organisation”.

(Spotted by Chris Corrigan)

All of which is fine of course but it does have consequences. It leads us to treat British Airways (and insert any other brand there) as if it is some solid thing, rather than as an emerging, changing dance of a whole lot of variable things. (Oops, see how I slipped into calling them things… language so easily ensnares us!).

Next, add in our language’s preference for seeing the world as objects to be operated on by subjects. (For instance, reflect on the phrase “It is raining”; what is this “it” that we linguistically imply is doing the raining?) Then you easily end up with a dubious framework for organisational change, tending to take you towards a top-down, deterministic approach…

4 thoughts on “Idle thoughts on Organisation

  1. annette

    I often talk about “organisations” as brought to life in language and embodied in people and just for fun I throw out from time to time that they don’t really exist at all…what fun.

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Your idle thoughts have provoked me to have idle thoughts…

    I’ve spent various periods in other countries when studying languages and I used to always come away feeling like I had been a different person while I was there.

    Nothing odd about that – what with being in a different culture and being away from many of the usual contraints of life. But I always felt that there was another reason – I am convinced that it was at least partly the patterns and stucture of the language itsef that made me feel and often behave differently. I find I can feel this same effect, to a lesser extent, whenever I speak another language even for a few minutes.

    Oddly, for a short period just after my daughter was born I had a compulsion to speak to her in Russian (not my mother tongue or her father’s) – somehow in that moment it felt more motherly.

    Incidentally what sent me down memory lane remembering all this is that in Russian you don’t say ‘it is raining’ – the literal translation would be ‘the rain is walking’, which always makes me smile. Of course, we have ‘the rain is falling’, but I can’t imagine it’s any where near as frequently said…

    I’ve enjoyed these idle thoughts – thanks Johnnie!


    Great comments, Annette and Donna, which seem to support my point about the hidden impact of language on our way of experiencing the world.

  3. Andrew

    Yes, I think this linguistic phenomenon is very important to notice: because in shaping our thinking, it also shapes our behaving.

    Along the same lines, it seems to me that ‘leading’ is also an emerging process “of a whole lot of variable things”, out of which I believe we have created another illusory noun – ‘leadership’.

    By the way, if you haven’t come across his work already, Ralph Stacey at the University of Hertfordshire has written extensively about the limitations of thinking of organisations as things or systems, and how organising can instead be viewed as ‘complex responsive processes’ of people relating to each other (or dancing, in your more evocative metaphor!).

  4. Tony Quinlan

    Nice thoughts Johnnie. And it goes even more so for those old favourites values. As nouns, they sit their static and unattractive. If they’re about doing something, shouldn’t they be verbs?


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