Groupware Configurations of Challenge and Harmony
An alternative approach to "alternative organization"
- / -
Presented to a workshop on alternative organizations of the
European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (Brussels, June 1979);
prepared for the international conference (London, August 1979) of the Society
for General Systems Research (SGSR) and reproduced from its proceedings: Improving the Human Condition - quality
and stability in social systems. Society for General Systems
Research, 1979 (Editor R F Ericson), 1051 pages. Printed in Transnational Associations, 1979, 10, pp. 467-475 [PDF version]
Organizations have traditionally been based on some more or less explicit notion of
hierarchy. This paper is not concerned with varieties of alternative organization which
may be obtained by tinkering with the hierarchical formula and introducing participative
forms of decision-making, worker management, etc. The intention is to look beyond
hierarchy (1). A recently much-favoured approach is that of networks and
'networking' which has now been quite extensively described and practised (2, 3,
4, 5, 6, 7) as a contrast to hierarchical activity. It has also been taken up and combined
with (alternative) 'grass-roots' community action and the commune movements or
as the mode underlying 'situational networks' (8). But there in an emerging
recognition that networks do not 'work'. Many would of course argue that they
cannot be expected to 'work' in the traditional sense and that their action (or
non-action) is more subtle and as such more effective. But at least it is unclear how
their constructive activities can be facilitated above a certain threshold (9, 10).
Unfortunately 'network' is often attached as a label to what previous decades
called 'movement' or even 'club'. Many 'networks' are in
fact hierarchies, although it would be bad form to draw attention to this. It is even
possible to speak of the 'diseases " to which networks are prone (11), particularly
a certain 'flabbiness' arising from the progressive elimination of exposure to
confrontation, criticism and discipline -- as being characteristic of the hierarchic mode.
Such weaknesses reduce their viability as true 'alternatives'.
This paper rejects the extremes of hierarchy and network and is concerned with new
types of organization which could combine some of the features of each. It is therefore
based on a notion of complementarity between hierarchical system and organizational
network (1, 12). The organization to which this approach may give rise could emerge from
'tensing' networks (10) as a corrective to 'flabbiness'. Exactly how
this could be done is not very clear but a number of stimulating clues are available from
the study of structural design, namely those relating to 'tensegrity' (i.e.
tensional integrity) structures. The relevance of these clues to organization design has
been discussed elsewhere (1, 13), as has their relevance to ordering concepts, needs and
problems (14). The latter focus has highlighted the associated difficulties of
comprehending complex configurations and the importance of developing information systems
supportive of 'configurative thinking' (15, 16).
This is not a hardware problem but partly one of computer software and partly one of
'groupware' (17) or 'orgware' (18) as it has recently been termed --
namely the way in which a group of people work together in relation to the information
system which links them (whether or not it is computerbased). Ironically it is within the
sophisticated communication environments of the emerging computer conferencing systems
(15, 19, 20) that these groupware problems are now being highlighted (17), although the
tragic inability of the wise to communicate with each other or work together has been
remarked upon in the past (21).
The concern of this paper is therefore not to describe existing efforts at
'alternative' organization but to see whether, from a study of formal
structures, an entirely new approach to organization could emerge. This is therefore seen
as a design problem in the broadest sense of the term (22, 23). This problem is
particularly challenging when the range of disparate functions active within the
organization is broad rather than specialised, and when few of the participants appreciate
the relevance of functions other than those with which they are directly associated.
Communication nets vs. Tensegrity organization
Since this paper focuses on configurations, it is important to clarify the relationship
to the classic group communication net experiments in social organization. In what follows
these have been contrasted with 'tensegrity organization', mentioned above,
which is derived from the work of Buckminster Fuller and other architects (24, 25, 26)
Experiments on communication nets were originated by Bavelas (1948, 1950) and Leavitt
(1951 ) and have been followed by a large number of studies. According to one literature
review (Glanzer and Glazer, 1961): 'The area has been worked not only exhaustively,
but to exhaustion. After a promising start, the approach has led to many conflicting
results that resist any neat order'. And more recently: 'It is almost impossible
to make a simple generalisation about any variable without finding at least one study to
contradict the generalisation' (27).
Such research is only partially relevant to the more complex structures to be
discussed, for the following reasons:
1. Limited number: It is based on groups of 3 to 5 persons. On the basis of
Fuller's analysis of structures, such a small number of elements does not give rise to
stable tensegrity configurations. The simplest 3-D tensegrity requires 3 compression
elements (i.e. 6 function-roles). The first two which are spherically symmetrical (and
enclose a space) require 6 or 12 elements. The first with extensive great-circle symmetry
2. Two-dimensional structures: The communication nets investigated are
necessarily conceived in two-dimensions. Their patterns, in many cases (e.g. triangle,
square, pentagon, wheel, etc.) of course constitute parts of a tensegrity tension network,
but not the whole which require specific combinations of such sub-networks (see
3. Limited role differentiation: Little attention is paid to the differentiation
of roles. Although H. Guetzkow distinguished factors operating to allow role formation
from those which induced interlocking roles into organizational structures, only 3 roles
(plus a role-less role) emerged (28). As groups get larger, and the task more complex,
more specialised roles tend to emerge - to a point where there is only very indirect
interaction between some roles (20). Opposed or counter-functions are required in maturer
groups to counter-balance each other's excesses. It is at this level of complexity and
functional 'incompatibility' that tensegrities could prove of value.
4. Single communication mode: The emphasis is on communication, whether one-way
or two-way, and the nets do not distinguish between tension and compression features
(essential to the formation of a tensegrity configuration).
5. Sub-systemic: Such task-oriented groups in fact are dependent on external
factors for the justification of their artificial (laboratory) activity. As such they are
essentially sub-systems for which a state of equilibrium can only be reached within the
context of a larger system. Tensegrity is primarily of interest in exploring systems at
equilibrium (or switching between equilibrium states) namely systems with a richer variety
of counter-balancing functions.
Challenge and harmony
One point of entry into the argument of this paper is that arising from the
'single communication mode' (point 4, above). The experiments appear to have
concentrated on the flow patterns (possibly including directionality) without any
attention to whether the flow between communicants was perceived as 'mutually
challenging' or 'harmoniously reinforcing' - namely a unimodal rather than
a bi-modal focus. This paper only considers bi-modai structures based on tensegrities. It
is highly probable that whole families of psycho-social structures can be based on
tri-modal, quadri-modal, etc structures whose architectural counterparts, if any, have
not yet been explored. The mode chosen is partly a question of comprehensibility. Modes of
value greater than two may depend upon multi-valued logics (30).
This raises the question whether what is perceived as alienating and boring in many
conventional organizations, particularly bureaucracies, is not precisely a suppression of
challenge or harmony relationships in favour of a neutral, uni-modal form. And what is
rejected or attractive, in competitive organizations is the challenge, which may become
dehumanizing and more than the individual cares to bear. Similarly what is attractive to
many in networks is the harmonious nature of relationships and the absence of challenge.
It is however clear that even in the case of the most staid bureaucracy, challenge will
emerge. But it will not be openly recognised, as it is in competitive organizations.
Harmony will also emerge, but only through the extensive informal networks in such
bureaucracies). Use of 'challenge' and 'harmony' as terms obviously
calls for a precise definition. The problems of clarifying their significance have been
discussed elsewhere in relation to tensegrity organization (1, pp. 258-9), as well as in
more general terms (15). Basically such precision would be premature. The implications of
the difficulties of comprehending the significance of any verbal definition are themselves
important. One interesting sense in which they may respectively be understood is as
reciprocated negative and positive feedback relationships. Negative feedback is a
challenge to a position and has to be 'dealt' or 'coped' with.
Positive feedback reinforces an existing position, confirming the harmony of the
relationship between the two parties.
Given the lack of attention to this aspect of communication in groups, the question is
what kinds of challenge/harmony configurations might prove significant as a basis for
alternative organization ? It would seem that no effort has been made to look into
configurations of positive and negative feedback - and it is not even clear what would be
involved. Attention has always been devoted to the 'processing boxes' in a
system and not to the configuration pattern of the flows between them. It is only Fuller
who has drawn attention to systems has being polyhedral structures (24, p. 95).
In contrast to the communication nets, the rules for interrelating challenge and
harmonv relationships may be more complex.
Some of the possibilities are evident from Annex 1, where a compressive strut (stick)
can be interpreted as a challenge relationship and a tension element (string) as a harmony
relationship. The interesting clues to new types of structure seem to lie in
- separate challenge relationships by harmony relationships (embedding the former in the
latter) and 'tensing' the latter by the former to avoid flabbiness; - are based
on a 3-dimensional structure rather than on a 2-dimensional structure and thus encompass a
volume rather than an area;
- are symmetrical, or rather in which all the relationships are handled symmetrically;
- avoid cluttering up the centre of symmetry or creating structural dependence on that
The significance of these structural features for organizations is explored elsewhere
at some length (1, 13).
Of great interest is the manner in which challenge/harmony configurations use
3dimensions to achieve symmetrical closure. Those which achieve closure in 2-dimensions
(see Annex 1) do not bring out the unexpected features of the 3-dimensional. In fact they
bear a predictable resemblance to those of the classic communication net experiments.
A further word on challenge relationships: if the mutual challenge is too great, this
must necessarily result in the elimination of one (annihilated) or both (mutual
destruction). Similarly, if a harmony relationship is too strong, the identity of one is
lost, being merged into that of the other. In both cases such tendencies can be
counter-balanced by harmony or challenge relationships respectively, provided they are
appropriately positioned within the configuration. If this is not possible then clearly
the configuration is not stable and other patterns could be explored. (Note that the
stability of a communication net only arises, if at all, in terms of information
The communication net experiments were designed around laboratory problems which did
not call for extensive functional differentiation between those in the net.
An extreme contrast is to be found in a mature self-reliant community when a complete
range of functions - from agricultural to cultural- is required. It is characteristic of
this degree of functional differentiation - found to a lesser degree in large, complex
organizations - that there is no theoretically grounded logic to the relationships between
some of these functions. Allocation of resources to functions can only be justified by
experience, possibly disguised by 'good' public relations (e.g. a harvest
cultural festival keeps the agricultural workers happy, etc.).
The question is what are the functions in a 'complete' range if only 4 or 7
or 12, etc functions emerge in a given case ?
How is the absence of a function sensed (e.g. a self-reliant community may feel the
need for some cultural, religious, psychotherapeutic or other expression) ? If some
functions are not expressed, what dependence does this create on the external environment
Clearly it would be useful to clarify the nature of
- completeness in narrow, highly specialized groups
- incompleteness in mature, self-reliant, richly differentiated groups.
The question is how much variety can be usefully incorporated and expressed within the
group without tearing it apart or rendering it incapable of functioning as a whole ? -
given that a rich variety pool is a guarantee that the group can formulate many survival
strategies in response to possible crises and that it offers many different opportunities
for personal fulfillment (Note that the current tendency is to aim for structures which
will operate effectively with the minimum functional variety).
It is clear that completeness in a spherically symmetrical tensegrity is structurally
explicit. The consequences of removing an element in the simpler structures are
immediately evident for the whole. Completeness in this sense is not explicit in
hierarchical organizations from which whole divisions may be removed without raising
questions as to the implications for the functioning of the whole.
In a tensegrity each relationship constitutes a different kind of challenge or a
different kind of harmony, depending upon its position (and orientation ?) within the
configuration. It is the totality of these qualitatively distinct relationships which
defines the whole although it is at the level of their distinctiveness that they are
operationally comprehensible rather than through the abstractions of 'challenge'
It is strange that the problem of comprehension is seldom raised in connection with
alternative organization. One reason that hierarchical organizations are so widespread is
that they are the simplest to comprehend, and that any challenges to comprehension are
effectively disguised as the responsibility of the 'boss'. An individual in the
depths of some such hierarchy is in fact encouraged not to worry about the why and
wherefor of what goes on elsewhere.
The result is that when confronted with the presence of (or the need to express) a
complete range of functions, an individual will tend automatically to separate out as
irrelevant all those which are not immediately comprehensible from the position he is
currently expressing. For this reason the functional richness and maturity, which may be
assumed to be desirable characteristics of alternative organizations, render them a major
challenge to comprehension. Despite their supposed complexity, the challenge of
comprehending organizational networks is almost always avoided - to the point that there
is even pride in their perceived amorphousness (which markedly distinguishes them from
their conventional mathematical representation).
Not only is there the problem of comprehending the distinct functions which are
expressed in an organization of a given level of complexity (i.e. richness), but there is
also the problem of comprehending the pattern of challenge and harmony relationships
characteristic of the structure. In a hierarchy the pyramidal structure also serves as an
encoding or classifying structure, effectively pigeonholing more specialised functions
which can then be handled conceptually at a more general level. Functional distinctions
are seldom explicit in organizational or grassroots networks. On may even question whether
functional differentiation is acceptable therein. Characteristically, horizontal
relationships between hierarchical sub-divisions are ignored if not forbidden, except via
In order to comprehend the challenge of envisaging real alternatives, attention must be
given to the conventional process by which we are 'locked into' the existing
patterns of organization. Curiously both philosophers and physicists share this concern.
For example A.T. de Nicolas, a philospher concerned with the patterning freedom implicit
in the chanted Rg Veda and how it is to be comprehended, notes:
'The approach of Classical Physics corresponds very closely to the commonsense
approach in the following sense: It operate on the assumption that we should primarily
search for individual, unique, atomic entities like things, and events, and only
secondarily that we should see how these atomic units combine into classes of units and
classes of classes of units and so forth'.
The approach of Modern Physics corresponds to the Eastern view of reality in the
following sense: It operates on the assumption, that whenever we are in search of
anything, we are primarily in contact with a totality, the most 'real' aspect of
any entity being the total pattern. Our perception of it defies any atomicity or real
identification. It is only secondarily that classification of individual entities is made
possible, and for this we revert to ordinary symbol manipulation. In other words, to
perceive anything apart from the total field is to perceive it as a subsystem, an
artificially created aspect of a field of stresses, i.e. a pattern. In fact, according to
the law of complementarily, what can truly be said in one context-language, the same
cannot be truly said in the other context-language'. (31 p. 32-3).
The final statement can be made of the different functional perspectives into which a
complex organization can be differentiated, since each gives rise to its own
context-language. There is a relationship of complementarily between them but not of
classical logic. De Nicolas is concerned to show that it is the activity whereby
man generates these languages and patterns which is the clue to patterning freedom. A
similar point could be made with regard to the (collective) entrepreneurial initiative
whereby an organization comes into being - the initiating attitude is usually neglected in
favour of uncreative attention to a narrow range of well-know organizational forms. De
Nicolas argues that the conventional 'view of language fails to take into account the
human activity by which language itself is formed, made flesh' (31 p. 55).
'When Language is grounded on a tone system, as in the Rg Veda, then the immediate
result is a plurality of systems; that is a Language which we can speak only through
sub-linguistic systems' (31 p. 58). 'Language, in the above sense, is only to be
reached as a viewpoint gained through the activity of contrasting perspectives' (31
p. 182). De Nicolas describes Language as 'a heuristic anticipation of a reachable
goal, which establishes structures of systematic inquiry guided by sets of canons and
embodied in a pattern of human exploratory behavior. When Language is formulated, we no
longer have Language, but rather a complete and closed set of semantically linked
descriptive predicates internally related and forming one or several sub-linguistic
systems or languages' (31 p. 183).
The immediate consequence is an infinite patterning possibility, and a rich
multiplicity of alternative perspectives. In Western music number is used to constrict all
possibility to an economically convenient limit by arbitrary adoption of an international
pitch standard and an equal temperament tone system. This was not the case in the past:
the infinite possibilities of the number field were considered isomorphic with the
infinite possibilities of tone and there was no theoretical limit to the divisions of the
'Rg Vedic man, like his Greek counterparts, knew himself to be the
organizer of the scale, and he cherished the multitude of possibilities open to him too
much to freeze himself into one dogmatic posture. His language keeps 'alive that
'openness' to alternatives, yet it avoids entrapment in anarchy. It also
resolves the fixity of theory by setting the body of man historically moving through the
freedom of musical spaces, viewpoint transpositions, reciprocities, pluralism, and
finally, an absolute radical sacrifice of all theory as a fixed invariant' (31 p.
'Language in music is grounded thereby on context dependency; any tone can
have any possible relation to other tones, and the shift from one tone to another, which
alone makes melody possible, is a shift in perspective which the singer himself embodies.
Any perspective (tone) must be 'sacrificed' for a new one to come into
being; the song is a radical activity which requires innovation while
maintaining continuity, and the 'world' is the creation of the singer,
who shares its dimensions with the song' (31 p. 57).
Whilst one may share the enthusiasm of the last paragraph, the Rg Veda has been around
for several thousand years and has not apparently given rise to alternative patterns of
organization. By what have its interpreters been trapped ? Lest it be thought, however,
that musical form has little to do with organization, one may cite socialist economist
'La musique est plus qu'objet d'etude: elle est un moyen de percevoir le monde. Un
outil de connaissance. Aujourd'hui, aucune theorisation par le langage ou les
mathematiques n'est plus suffisante, parce que trop lourde de signifiants prealables,
incapable de rendre compte de l'essentiel du temps: le qualitatif et le flou, la menace et
la violence... Il faut donc imaginer des formes theoriques radicalement neuves pour parler
aux nouvelles realises. La musique, organization du bruit, est une de ces formes... Dans
les codes qui structurent les bruits et leurs mutations, s'annoncent une pratique et une
lecture theorique nouvelles...' (32 p. 9-11).
He demonstrates the prophetic role of music and that social and economic organization
is the 'echo' of the music of the immediate past. But this still leaves
indications which remain to be anchored in real possibilities for comprehending
operational alternatives for organization. A 'bridge' is required from the rich
possibilities of patterning freedom indicated by musical coding to that of organizational
structure. It is the argument of this paper that tensegrity structures constitute such a
bridge, both in the variety of possible patterns which provide structural guidelines and
as sophisticated reflections of the problems of comprehending the range of such true
There is a strong possibility that further exploration of musical patterning (of ref.
33) in relation to tensegrity patterning will establish significant linkages between them
since both are governed by number (cf. ref. 16), itself a basis of the patterning of the
field of archetypes in the Jungian sense (34). The key seems to lie in the patterning of a
spheric surface (a finite but unbounded attention surface) by configurations of
discord/challenge and harmony. It may even prove to be the case that a given tensegrity
is an isomorphic representation of a particular lattice of sub-linguistic
systems which could characterise a particular pattern of functionally differentiated
organization. De Nicolas notes (31 p. 187) that man, in his expressions and behavior, uses
a lattice of languages.
This was first pointed out by P.A. Heelan in connection with the peculiar logic of
quantum mechanics (35). The logic in question turned out to be, not an ordering of
sentence, but a partial ordering (lattice) of complementary descriptive languages. He
found this complementarily of languages to be a pervasive phenomenon of human
communication and dialogue. 'Man is at the centre of his own activity, creating and
recreating himself in relation to how efficiently he climbs or descends the contextual
multiplicity within which he constantly operates' (31 p. 187). It is noteworthy that
taxonomies of games have been based on lattice structures which bear a tantalising
resemblance to the tensegrity structures discussed here (36). Games are themselves
In a tensegrity the structure is comprehensible as a gestalt, but it is very difficult
to conceptualise the gestalt from its elements. There is a counter-intuitive barrier to
reaching an understanding of the whole from its parts, although the structure of the whole
is very clear once represented by a three-dimensional model. This barrier is even clear
when constructing such a model. It becomes even greater as the number of elements
increases in the more complex tensegrities.
Aside from one's own problems of comprehension, there are obviously problems of
communicating the nature of alternative organization to others.
Levels and stages of comprehension
It follows from the previous section that individuals exposed to a complex structure,
whether existing or proposed, will tend to comprehend it in different ways and to
different degrees. The point has been well made by F.F. Kopstein and others (37) in terms
of learning about a pattern of interlinked concepts (in a network). There is a tendency
for each of those in the learning process to fail to register, retain or retransmit parts
of the pattern. In addition there is the natural tendency to want to perceive the pattern
as being of a well-known kind and thus to ignore features which imply that it is more
complex and less intuitively predictable from past experience. Such tendencies are
exacerbated by limited effective attention span.
The consequence is that, whatever the point of introduction to a structure of
complexity greater than that to which he is habituated, the individual will tend to work
with it (or reject it) as though it was a simpler structure. It may even be useful to
think in terms of a series of 'delusions' through which the individual must pass
before attaining to full comprehension of the structure. These learning experiences or
cycles are perhaps better appreciated in the apprenticeship 'doing' mode of
learning than in the more academic 'information' mode. Whether it be in Maoist
China or in a diversified capitalist corporation, there is a well-established practice of
requiring individuals to work successively in different contexts to get an overall
'feel' for the different cycles of a production process and to understand the
constraints to which each part is subjects. This is also the case in semi-secret guilds,
such as the Compagnons du Devoir. It is also evident in the sequence of initiations in
certain religious orders, such as the Sufi (38).
These are contextual realities not communicated by look-learning or briefings. It may
well be the case that a particular individual will never really get more than a distorted
feel for what is going on in some of these settings because of innate bias or ineptitude
of which he is unaware or is unable to overcome effectively (e.g. 'agriculture'
may remain an eternal, messy mystery to someone who is temperamentally oriented toward
From the individual learner's point of view it is difficult to distinguish between
'levels' of comprehension, successively encompassing each other (e.g.
progressively more sophisticated reality models), and 'stages' of comprehension
arising from successive exposure to alternative reality settings (e.g. with respect to a
complex production process). The two are intertwined, the progressive refinement of the
former being dependent upon the variety of foundational experiences provided by the
Where the point of entry is dictated by convention, certain levels and stages may be
labelled as 'superior' or 'advanced', introducing an unnecessary
spirit of elitism. But this is fairly arbitrary since individuals tend to have an innate
aptitude for the skills required at certain levels or stages (rather than at others),
irrespective of their point of entry into the learning process. Of greater importance is
the extent to which the individuals can respond to (or master) the requirements of a wide
range of levels or stages. An extreme, but nevertheless elegant example of this may be
found in the reports by different Sufi masters on the 7 colours associated with visionary
experiences at 7 different levels. Whilst there is agreement on the colours there is
disagreement concerning the order of the levels. One scholar suggests that 'this
corresponds to a difference is the way each of these depths is innerly attained,
oriented' (38, p. 126). The same point may be made with respect to the supposed level
'superiority' claimed for Mohammed over Jesus within that system - a distinctly
non-trivial point given the misunderstanding and violence arising from attachment to such
It is the number (i.e. the variety) so mastered which is a truer measure of
comprehension of the whole, not the apparent sophistication of the stage or level reached
from some entry point dictated by circumstances. (it The first shall be last, and the last
shall be first' !)
Clearly it may prove to be the case that a particular individual is quite content to
perceive a complex structure in over-simplified, distorted terms and to work within it (or
in opposition to it) on that basis. A mature complex structure should in fact support
those who participate in it in their perception of it according to their abilities and
preferred modes whilst challenging them with alternatives which would lead to greater
understanding. Tensegrity structures in fact form or families of different degrees of
complexity such that one may be considered a simple approximation to another and thus
easier to understand.
The alternative organizations of the future may even recognize the learning situations
associated with such historical structures as slavery, feudalism, fascism, imperialism,
communism, etc and attempt to internalise them. In fact 'slavery' and
'feudalism', for example, are labels commonly attached to some family, work or
leisure (e.g. sport) situations. Even 'fascism' may be accepted to further the
shared goals of a team. It may prove that each is valuable under certain conditions, provided:
- that the pattern is not permanently maintained or
- that the same people are not continually (under) privileged, or
- that people feel free to experience alternative patterns or are having such experiences
in other settings (e.g. work, religion, leisure, etc).
Organizations have to internalise education as a continual learning process (39) in
order to respond to each generation born anew with the potential for organizational errors
of the past. They need to 'process ignorance' as well as information (40, 41),
offering ritual re-enactment or preventive exposure to the organizational equivalent of
early childhood diseases (e.g. mumps, measles, etc), and using any such ignorance as a
structuring element of the whole.
'Keeping the act together'
In a hierarchical organization it is fairly easy to impart or receive the idea
'Joe is the boss; do what he says'. Whatever the participatory nuances and
constraints, it is that which orders the structure. In the case of a network the matter is
more subtle, but it may be little more than 'We must keep in touch; and don't forget
to inform Joan in Melbourne'. The matter is more complex in situations which blend
both modes informally, where organization is amorphous, or is overshadowed by a
charismatic leader or inner circle.
The challenge of alternative organization is that it should provide a new balance of
relationship between those who participate; one which is not dependent on a central figure
or group and is more strongly bound than the conventional network.
Basically it is a question of a configuration within which 'energy' can be
processed and transformed to the satisfaction of participants. It is common to refer to
organizations as processing `< information' but both these terms fail to convey
the essential difficulty of keeping an organization alive and self-regenerating. R.G.Siu,
a taoist scholar with a background in biochemistry and management, has this to say:
'We suggest that living systems possess some unique capability of marshaling ch'i,
which is not present in inanimate systems. The living organizm processes ch'i in
conjunction with the energy transformations which are characteristic of inanimate
reactions. Death sets in where the capacity to process ch'i is disrupted and the corpse
reverts to the inanimate world of energy exchanges, pure and simple. Energy is the
essential stuff for structural integrity and mechanical and chemical processes, while ch'i
is the essential stuff for pattern perpetuity and thinking and feeling. While
energy-metabolism accounts for the vigour of health in the physical sense, ch'i-metabolism
accounts for the well-being of the person in the psychic sense. A smoothly operating
cross-feed exists between energy and ch'i in the normal and serene human being' (42,
p. 261 -2).
As might be expected, ch'i does not lend itself to easy definition although Siu's whole
study attempts to legitimate the concept within contemporary scientific and philosophical
through'. He does not however relate ch'i to the interpersonal 'energy'
processing characteristic of an organization which would make of it a 'ch'i
receptacle'. It is common for connoisseurs of alternative organization activities to
use the phrase 'there was a lot of good (or bad) energy there'.
But it would seem to be legitimate to argue that an organization which is
'alive' and 'vibrant' is held together by more than the inter-exchange
of information, funds and other resources. (There are many 'dead' organizations
so equipped which are merely memorials to problems of the past or to past inspirations).
And whatever that 'something' is, the trick is to keep it moving in order to
maintain the energy level (of which 'enthusiasm' is an aspect), and to prevent
it from draining out of the organizational configuration. In order to succeed in this, at
each transformation of 'energy " at any functional station within the organization,
there should be a receiver to continue the process, and those involved in the functional
transformation should feel fulfilled by it.
But lacking a 'boss' this becomes a very delicate balancing act: containing
excess and stimulating weakness. The question is how to render it self-balancing but with
a developmental disequilibrium which will provoke convergence on more complex
configurations. It is much more than a conventional systems management problem, given that
there is no 'manager" and that some of the relationships are not perceptible through
the spectacles of systems management. Somehow the weaknesses of negative by-products of
the organization's activity should be ingested (rather than dumped on the environment) in
such a way as to strengthen the organization. It should work with its constraints rather
than against them using their strength to provide structure. Presumably interesting clues
are to be found in Eastern martial arts which are based on similar principles. One of
them, Aikido, is specifically concerned with processing and use of the ki (i.e. ch'i)
energy referred to above.
More complex still is the creation and initial growth of the organization when special
protection and support is required (from whom ?) before the organization becomes
It is curious that in the creation and operation of both networks and hierarchical
organizations there is little or no necessity for the kind of information
'scaffolding' that a computer can provide. In a network this may even be
anathema, although the potentially significant computer conferencing networks now emerging
depend upon them (19). But here a distinction must be made. This dependence is upon the
point-to-point, rapid conveyance of information; there are either no structural
restrictions on to whom the communication is addressed (as with the telephone) or else
these are hierarchically determined by policies external to the computer system (as in the
case of access code distribution). Where computers are used in support of communication
within a hierarchy, this is merely an electronic form of a conventional memo/message
system. Again the computer is not used to provide any structural support not already
implicit in the hierarchically governed policy of the existing system - although it may
help to do this more efficiently.
That this is not necessary in either case is perhaps evident from considering the
physical equivalents. A 'network' of telephone lines could be laid over the
surface of a large open-plan office. If a switchboard was used, this would only perform
the same functions as a manual memo clearing desk. When a hierarchical structure like a
pyramidal building is put up, each level provides the support for subsequent levels.
Scaffolding is only required temporarily to bridge over ambitious spans (i.e. more
ambitious than those of Stonehenge). It may be argued that hierarchical organizations
start with a 'boss', but by acquiring his first layer of assistants he
establishes himself upon their shoulders - a process which they can repeat for themselves
as hiring is extended and the pyramid built up.
In contrast to the above uses of computers as a more or less automated pigeon-post or
messenger service (justified by the large quantities of information), one may
envisage a very different structural approach of considerable significance to the
creation and operation of tensegrity type organizations. Surprisingly, physicist Ted
Bastin in contrasting the classical and modern paradigms in physics (mentioned earlier),
argues that 'computer people work all day' with relationships required for the
latter 'whereas physicists work with ideas which are foreign to it'. The
principles are 'the bare bones of a non-existent logic of sequential
relationships' in which spatial 'relationships have to be constructed before
they have meaning' and are not intuitively obvious as normally assumed (44, p. 124).
The construction of a tensegrity communication configuration may imbue its elements
with logical significance in the sense of this paradigm. The computer is therefore an
appropriate tool by which to learn how to work with the new paradigm and avoid the traps
of the old. A new example relevant to this paper is the use of non-hierarchically related
'co-routines', simultaneously resident and exchanging data on the initiative of
either within the computer system.
As should be clear from the previous sections, the problem is to build up communication
configurations of appropriate complexity. But tensegrity-type configurations only acquire
self-balancing structural integrity when they are complete (or all but) - hence the need
for 'scaffolding' or an 'assembly frame'. And in fact only then do
they become comprehensible as structures rather than as a maze of possibilities (as is
discovered when building models).
There are many potentially de-stabilizing problems which may themselves interact
- initial setting up difficulties
- (mis)understanding of functions to be activated
- (mis)understanding of relationship pattern to other functions
- (mis)understanding of nature of relationsh ips
- ensuring completeness of function/relationship pattern
- (varying) levels of comprehension of those participating and consequent variety of
learning experiences triggered
- distinguishing equilibriating, growth and evolutionary dynamics
- determining one (or more) appropriate configurations (and distinguishing between them)
The context for the emergence of such alternative organizations may be conceived as a
pool of unfulfilled perspectives or skills (in the broadest sense and including the
affective) with a range of completed and partially completed configurations. In contrast
with the conventional labour pool/job offer situations, the computer is used both in
attempting to match the functional skills and the incomplete configurations and to propose
new configurations of unlinked functional skills (Note that one person may possess many
such perspectives or skills).
Now each tends to perceive his own skill or perspective as 'most fundamental'
or 'most central', whilst perceiving many others as 'irrelevant' or at
best 'of secondary importance'. Each only wants to be linked with others with
which his perspective is either in harmony or by which it is appropriately
challenged. Computer software is therefore needed to 'protect ' each
perspective and any pattern of communication links around it (to the extent desired by
the individual concerned).
Now the task of the software is not simply to match skills/perspectives in sets of
communication dyads. The challenge is to interrelate such dyads in larger configurations
within which a greater variety of skills/perspectives is expressed- namely to
'configure' an organization which is richer in internal resources as a basis for
self-reliance and viability in relation to the external environment. (In one sense this is
the antithesis of the alienating 'division of labour').
In attempting to set up complete configurations, the software may first have to
propose partial 'harmony' configurations (e.g. triangles, squares, stars,
etc), as in the communication net experiments, and then attempt to combine a number of
these, opening up the necessary 'challenge' relationships if possible. (Note
that without the latter, the organization would simply be of the mutual admiration variety
dependent upon external challenge, possibly transmuted into 'enemies').
There is of course no reason why this process should not lead simply to the emergence of
networks or hierarchies wherever participants are satisfied with these - although they are
not configurations in the sense implied here. More concretely, a 'proposal'
initiated by the software would merely indicate to one or more participants that (in the
light of information currently stored on a particular set of their related
interests/perspectives/skills) they could each usefully restrict their communications to a
named set of partners, if only as a control on information overload. (In addition, or
alternatively, advice might be given on the frequency or volume of communication -
possibly enforced by software). Feedback to the software would indicate whether
alternative configurations could usefully be tried. 'Communication' itself might
be face-to-face, mail, or phone, but as an experiment it could well be done in association
with a computer conferencing network. This would permit many configurations to be tried
(sequentially or in parallel) with much flexibility, avoiding any communication hiatus.
Even without computer support, experiments at deliberately 'tensing' a network
of people in telephone communication may be made. in fact, the presence of
'tensions' may be the normal condition of a dynamic group communicating in this
Most intriguing is that, by definition, it is not clear what synergy effects would
become evident once a configuration had been completed nor to what kind of dynamic
stability it would give rise. Since the whole concept of a tensegrity is based on the
ability to distribute any stress most effectively throughout the whole structure, how
would this need to affect beneficially any software mediated communication (such as by
giving preference to lines of communication relating to symmetry features, 'great
circle' routes, etc) ? How would it be necessary or possible to respond to excessive
challenge between two partners (uncontainable within that configuration), excessive
harmony (leading to identity of two perspectives/skills which need to be distinct in that
configuration), etc ?
The strength of the computer lies in its ability:
- to propose any of a very wide range of tensegrity-type structures (stored for that
- to introduce and possibly regulate communications until the discipline has been
internalised or the configuration abandoned, or for its duration (if it is difficult to
maintain without 'software scaffolding' )
- to facilitate the learning process about such structures particularly when the
Individual is embedded in a complex structure
- to facilitate the re-categorizing/re-classifying process the individual can undertake as
he clarifies/comprehends 'what he is into' (namely a form of 'evolutionary
self-indexing') in order to provoke better suggestions as 'to whom he should be
talking' within configuration contexts of greater completeness
- to distinguish clearly, when necessary, between a perspective and the holder thereof; or
to permit a perspective to be shared by several holders, if appropriate.
Dynamics: growth and evolution
The great advantage of tensegrities is that they constitute an extensive range of
interrelated structures. There are even transformation paths between them although these
have not been extensively explored (24, 25). When a given configuration becomes inadequate
participants can interlink in terms of a more or less complex structure. Or, better still,
they can use different communication configurations under different conditions. It is
possible that the lattice structure, mentioned above in connection with languages, can
also be used to describe the relationships between the different configurations.
The relationship between growth and evolution into a new structure is explicit in that
tensegrities can be complexified quantitatively by continually triangulating the faces of
the polyhedral form on which they are based. This corresponds to a functional
Relevance: organizations, meetings, programmes
As has been discussed elsewhere (45), the distinctions drawn between organizations,
meetings and programmes are arbitrary, particularly within a computer conferencing
environment. The special problem of exploratory/innovative meetings at this time is to
re-configure through a sequence of (possibly parallel) structures as the topic is
clarified/comprehended, and to provide some structure to ensure a non-trivial integration
of the meeting's specialised working groups (46). The tendency in the latter is to select
out the contrary/opposing/challenging perspectives in order to form a simple harmonious
round-table communication net. Interrelating such groups requires explicit recognition of
the challenge relationships between group perspectives - possibly as a tensegrity
which thus given appropriate recognition to the nature of the whole (47).
A critical assessment of the current approach to action programmes could well suggest
the need to switch from a hierarchical ordering of the temporal structure of
programme phases to an 'a-temporal' action configuration of continuing action.
A tensegrity could prove appropriate for modelling this concept which is more in tune
with non-western approaches to change and action (48).
Although tensegrities are an expression of the whole/part relationship, the
counter-intuitive problem of understanding them is aggravated by the absence of any
training in detecting and handling configurations. What is the skill which enables people
to select a configuration of complementary elements and how can it be developed ? Examples
are complementary colours (for decor, art), courses (for education), sounds (for music),
TV programmes or newspaper sections (to balance the weekly diet). etc ?
How can 3 (or 5, 7, etc) 'basic' complementaries be determined ? How does
choosing N+1 elements 'shift' the meaning of the labels attached to whatever is
selected or omitted form the classification ? How can people be sensitised to a functional
'gap' (of 1 or more) in a configuration of complementaries for a given N-element
configuration? Why is it complete ? How could the element labels be comprehended to render
it incomplete ? If a complete configuration of complementaries is like a chord, how can
one detect when an element is being comprehended discordantly ? How
complete/comprehensible is the configuration if the labels are translated into another
language ? (49).
How does one learn to identify a configuration to balance 'functional
enemies' (cf. the role of a skilled hostess) and what is the complexity required to
absorb a given degree of antagonism/challenge ? How can existing systems/networks be
represented configuratively to facilitate comprehension ?
These skills of composition and balance are more art than science, but people could be
helped in developing them. Without them, how could people be expected to favour a
'balanced' programme or understand how to maintain the functional balance within
an organization ? Stability ('half-life' ?) of collaborative comprehension of
functions and the pattern of their interrelationship is the key -- namely how we apprehend
such configurations. How can we stabilize our focus on less probable configurations in the
hope that there are 'islands of stability" amongst them which could prove to be the
basis of self-stabilizing alternative organizations ?
Current concern with correcting the bias in the western comprehension of science,
change and time (50) could well give greater practical significance to a concept of an
alternative organization as continually re-creating or re-envisaging itself by the
recognition of processes which recycle levels of awareness associated with both its
'ontogeny' and 'phylogeny' through a form of a-temporal standing wave
motion (51). In particular 'what each is doing' and 'what we are doing
together' may be continually re-comprehended each at his own rate in the light of his
experience, by participants and in relation to the whole possible range of meanings behind
the labelled functions and structures into which ongoing activity could be classified (The
organization is then the Word being continually and collaboratively enfleshed anew!)
The focus on configurations of challenge and harmony as modelled by the range of
tensegrity structures would appear to offer possibilities neglected by the weaknesses in
communication net experiments in social organization. Of particular interest is the manner
in which 'challenge and harmony' internalise 'they and we' dichotomies
in new patterns of dynamic stability. This also moves the debate beyond the somewhat
sterile 'hierarchical systems versus organizational network' perspective.
The special role of the computer in setting up and, if necessary, supporting such
configurative communications indicates possibilities for a range of fairly well-defined
experiments which could be undertaken in a computer conferencing environment. Such
experiments could clarify some very interesting problems of comprehension and
re-conceptualization in relation to the manner in which organization functions are
perceived, whether individually or collectively, in order to maintain the stability of the
configuration. Further work could well focus on the nature of non-dualistic
complementarily in a wide range of traditional sets (e.g. gods, virtues, etc. even in
mandala form) or their contemporary counterparts (e.g. values, needs, problems, etc), and
how these are to be comprehended as sets. For it is from the stability, for a
group, of less probable conceptual configurations that new forms of alternative
organization could emerge - even if only for those who can maintain whatever conceptual
discipline is required for a given degree of complexity.
Clearly this paper suffers from lack of precision and concreteness, but
there is possibly even a Nonfigurative element in advancing this topic by tangential
investigations which thus delineate the central focus without attempting premature closure
within an inadequate framework. The possibility for experiment is however very concrete.
Information received as this was going to press in 1979,
indicated that the Hexiad Project, launched in 1979 to link such alternative communities as
Findhorn (Scotland). Arcosanti (USA), and Auroville (India) with computer conferencing assistance,
has been deliberately based on the above tensegrity structure of R Buckminster
Fuller (ref. 24, page 430) - an unexpected practical confirmation of
some of the views expressed in this article. (A description of the project
will appear in a future issue of Transnational Associations).
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Transnational Associations, 30, 1978, 5, pp. 258-265. [text]
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needs of the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the
United Nationals University, Berlin, May, 1978). [text]
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of the Wise,, through computer conferencing dialogues. Transnational Associations, 31,
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