THE FUNCTION OF DIALOGUE—POSSIBILITIES AND LIMITATIONS IN MANAGEMENT AND ORGANIZATIONS
Plea for a New Level of Sobriety in the Relationship Between Dialogue and Organizations
In the past, there has been a great deal of experimentation with the use of dialogue. In organizations, this went hand in hand with high expectations of change and was probably also linked to a latent need for spiritual hold and a search for meaning. Nowadays, the initial excitement has calmed down. Often, dialogue doesn't fit the logic behind everyday actions. Experience shows that it is still generally only used in very specific situations, which are not time critical and can accommodate the potential personal irritation that comes with the awareness that you hadn't known or realized something.
To What Extent Can Dialogue Actually be Implemented in the Organizational Context?
Michael Rautenberg (2010), a consultant who researched the use of dialogue in organizations, discusses the difficulties involved, particularly if serious heed is given to the notion of organizations as systems. He points out that organizations normally develop particular contextual conditions for communication processes which prevent the creation of shared social spaces. These include:
• uncircumventable, asymmetric relationship constellations
• task-oriented role responsibilities attached to every job
• dynamics of power and influence
• inherent structural mechanisms
He argues for a new level of sobriety (in dialogue) and a redesign of the relationship between dialogue and organizations: in their organizational roles and positions, people are restricted in their freedom to communicate and act. Senge, Schein, Isaacs, and Bohm's concepts of the learning organization respective dialogue in organizations are intended to be more comprehensive.
What Constitutes a Suitable Organizational Setting for Dialogue?
Increasing environmental complexity poses new challenges, which in turn demand too much of conventional mechanisms of dealing with complexity and question traditional forms of organizational logic. Teamwork is required and places elaborate demands on management. This could well be the hour for dialogic communication settings. The following examples illustrate some organizational settings that can benefit from dialogue (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2003).
1. High reliability organizations (HROs). Dialogue can contribute to cultural development in organizations. Negotiating role boundaries and temporarily suspending hierarchies can help, especially in HROs like airlines or nuclear power plants, where collective mindfulness is an absolute must, since failure would have catastrophic consequences. The constant risk of a threat to their existence leads to the development of a "mindfulness" that can be stabilized through dialogue.
2. When the people in power are on board and recognize that space for reflection is needed to address the challenges. Given their position in the hierarchy, it is unwise for top managers or CEOs to participate in the dialogue, but they can encourage, demand or even stipulate the participation of others. They have to endorse its potential delaying effect on decisions, welcome "thinking outside the box" and incorporate any results in their decisions. This would represent a good cultural agenda.
3. Systemic strategy development. Dialogue can also be very effective in different stages of a strategic development process, particularly in situations that require highly protected social spaces in which people can work together to search for new development opportunities. However, it is essential that the participants do not revert to defending what is already established or pushing their own preconceived ideas. Scharmer's (2007) deliberations on how to introduce the previously inconceivable "new" into the organization would also find their place here.