Open Thinkering


Tag: structure

TB872: Institutions, structures, and power

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

An image divided into two halves, each depicting the same forest but with different focuses. The left half illustrates the forest as a vibrant ecosystem, symbolizing the organisation, while the right half focuses on the physical layout of the forest, representing the structure. This image captures the idea of how an organisation maintains its essence despite changes in its structure.

One of the useful things about this module so far is the clarity around terminology. For example, take the following around the difference between ‘organisation’ and ‘structure’:

Many accounts say organisations are the product of acts of organising. This implies human agency and design. The term is, however, common in biology, thus reflecting what might be described as evolutionary ‘organising’ through drift and natural selection. We will say that organisations (the noun) are products of the action or process of organising, ordering, or putting into systemic form; the arrangement and coordination of parts into a systemic whole. Organisations thus contain processes, elements (often institutions) and structures.

Structures are not the same as organisations, as one can change without affecting the other, for example the cells in our body parts. While we live their organisation (the relations between the parts) is conserved. For example, in the post-COVID-19 world, have nation states begun to change organisations, structures, both or neither?

Organisations can pursue a purpose which might be understood as an emergent property of both relationships between elements (i.e. patterns of organisation) and elements, including institutions and structures. It is thus feasible, in theory at least, to agree some discernible purpose for organisations like a ministry, a finance department, a company, a mutual or the Roman Catholic Church. Many organisations, of course, lose track of their purpose or pursue purposes that may no longer be viable or useful to a society.

(adapted from Ison and Straw, 2020, as cited in the module guide)

I had a bit of a conversation with ChatGPT about this to think about different metaphors. Of the different options (music, theatre, gardens) I preferred the forest analogy, and asked it to create an image using DALL-E which I included at the top of this post. The left half of the image shows the forest as a vibrant ecosystem, symbolizing the organisation, while the right half focuses on the physical layout of the forest, representing the structure. The idea is that the image captures the idea of how an organisation maintains its essence despite changes in its structure.


  • Organisation can be thought of as the forest ecosystem as a whole, including all of the trees, plants, animals, as well as the interactions between them. Not only that, but the forest ecosystem as ‘organisation’ can be thought of as the overall system: its health, diversity, and functionality. The organisation/ecosystem’s balance and survival depend on these relationships and processes.
  • Structure is like the physical layout of the forest. Trees are planted, paths are laid out, and different areas of the forest are segmented (e.g. dense planting vs clearings). This ‘structure’ can change over time by new paths being made, areas cleared, or trees planted, without fundamentally altering the forest as an ecosystem. This is similar to how, in an organisation, the ‘structure’ refers to how various parts are arranged (e.g. departments, teams) which can change without altering the core purpose and identity of the organisation.

The module guide suggests that systems thinkers need to understand whether they’re trying to change the organisation or the structure (and whether it’s structure or organisation that is getting in the way of change). For me, this is really interesting, as ‘organisational structure’ usually conflates these two aspects.

New leadership in a company or institution with a hierarchical approach usually leads to changes in structure, when actually perhaps what they need is a change in organisation. Lots to think about here.

Approaching the many-headed hydra

Hercules and the hydra

One of the benefits of of studying Philosophy (aka ‘the history of ideas’) is developing the ability to consider things in the abstract. That is to say pointing to something as symptomatic of a larger/bigger truth. You might point to a potholed road, for example, and use it as an example of local councils being underfunded. Or you might point to the lack of diversity within a company and use it as an example of a structural problem with the tech sector. In neither case are you attacking the worker who has come to fix the pothole, or the company that is trying to do better in its hiring practices.

What I’ve noticed often happens in these situations is that there is an undue focus on the specifics of the situation. This leads to the wider issue either being dismissed or ignored. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate tactic or not. For example, someone might reply that the reason this particular road is potholed is because there are people driving inappropriately on it, and anyway there are more important things for councils to be spending their money on at the moment. Or someone might reply that this particular company might not look ‘diverse’ but, hey, there is more to diversity than skin colour, and anyway everyone knows there’s a problem with the tech jobs ‘pipeline’, right?

As a result, nothing happens. No change is made. Everything continues as normal except with an added soundtrack of sound and fury.

To be perfectly honest, I’m dancing around the issue a bit here by using ‘someone’ when I want to say ‘white middle-aged men’. I fit squarely into this category, yet I’m a bit apprehensive about publishing this post because of the anger — and it is usually anger — that is generated when people like me are challenged. Here’s an example.

I’m genuinely curious as to what’s going on here. Prior to therapy, I was definitely the kind of person who wanted to give my opinions on everything. It didn’t particularly matter whether I had expertise or not because who wouldn’t want to hear what I think? I still have to stop myself from doing this, and earlier in the week deleted a long response to someone’s forum question after reading it back and realising I wasn’t adding anything. (Maybe this blog post isn’t either.)

Perhaps the problem is the way we bring up boys and men in our society? I don’t know. What I do know, though, is that white middle aged men (me included!) often feel ‘attacked’ when others ask quite reasonable questions about representation and diversity. I did a lot of thinking about this after the Moodle ‘manel’ tweetstorm towards the end of 2019. There was no intention for that to be an all-white middle-aged male panel at a global event, but that’s how it turned out. We should be more cognisant of these kinds of things so they don’t come as a surprise to us. One way of saying this, I suppose, is that we should “check our privilege”.

I suppose, in practice, all I’m asking of people is for people like me to think twice before wading into a discussion with our cool ideas. If there’s already 100+ responses from those who look like us, perhaps think of other ways of contributing? Or perhaps encourage others to contribute? I don’t have any answers, but I’m pretty keen to help find ways that add some diversity to our methods of problem-solving. Goodness knows that the same ways of thinking that led to the many-headed hydra of problems facing our world aren’t going to get us out of it.

Image: CC0 Rijksmuseum

Meeting with Ed.D. thesis supervisor: restructuring

Pebble Art

Last night I had a Skype conversation with Steve Higgins, my Ed.D. thesis supervisor at Durham University, for the first time in a few months. As I half-expected when I set myself the challenge, a deadline of 1st January 2011 is going to be pretty much unachievable now as I’m only 34,000 words into a 60,000 word thesis. That being said, Easter 2011 is looking good.

I find it useful to record our Skype conversations to go back through at my leisure. I haven’t done that yet – but I did capture the main points of our conversation via the Skype chat window. Here’s the highlights:

Other people’s work

As long as I acknowledge them, I can get other people to draw what I can only describe. Whilst I’ve made an attempt at representing what I discuss in diagrammatic form, there’s certain conventions and methods that I’m just not familiar with. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to afford to commission someone, especially given that I want to publish my thesis as a book.

Adjectives & verbs

Steve said something which, although he’s mentioned it before, struck a chord with me. He stated his belief that with ‘digital literacy’ the adjective and the verb seem to be the wrong way around. That is to say that ‘digital’ is the modifier for ‘literacy’ when it should be vice-versa. This led to a conversation about the final two chapters of my thesis before the conclusion. I intend to show that ‘digital literacy’ – and even ‘new literacies’ are too ambiguous to be nailed-down for all time. Instead, we should focus on notions of ‘digitality’ or similar.

Structure of thesis

Most theses, or so I’m led to believe, contain an introduction, followed by a methodology followed by a literature review, explication of points, and a conclusion. Not mine. As I’m writing a philosophical, non-empirical yet vocational doctoral thesis a slightly different format is required. As I began to explain in Ed.D. thesis restructure, I’m going to situate my methodology section almost half-way through my thesis, using it as a lever or a lens through which to focus the rest of my thesis. As for the literature review, this will be in (at least) four parts:

  1. History of traditional (print) literacy
  2. The history of digital literac(ies)
  3. New Literacies
  4. Policy documents (digitality)

That should keep things interesting. 🙂


Usually, as with most people writing something lengthy, I’d decide on my conclusion and then work backwards. That’s not entirely possible given the constant state of flux my thesis is in. As befitting Pragmatism, I’m making tentative conclusions. At the moment I’m given to concluding that the process (i.e. the inquiry) of notions surrounding ‘digital literacy’ and the like is at least as important as the resultant definition. In fact, I’m leaning more 70/30 in favour of process over product.

Steve quoted Douglas Adams at me. If this quotation doesn’t end up in my thesis, then you know something has gone horribly wrong:

We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!


Image CC BY pshutterbug