Soziale Systeme 8 (2002), H.2, S. 160-164
Management Out of Networks and Systems
The introduction of new media of communication forces a society
to introduce novel ways to handle the surplus of meaning going with
them as well. The introduction of writing in ancient Greek, for
instance, demands ways to both take account of and keep at a distance
meaning produced outside the orally integrated interaction. The
introduction of the printing press in modern Europe demands ways
to both encourage and discourage meaning produced by readers (and
writers) when comparing texts among each other and developing styles
to emphasize and criticize artificial generalizations and ambiguous
specifications. Niklas Luhmann (1997, 409-12) advances the hypothesis
that society in order to be able to handle new kinds of meaning
surplus introduced by new media of communication needs culture forms
able to both compare and control the meaning made available. These
culture forms do not rule over the meaning surplus but provide ways
to selectively exploit it while not being overwhelmed by it.
Luhmanns suggests that Aristotles telos is the culture form
able to handle the meaning surplus introduced by writing. There
is no need to fear, or to emphasize, the infinity of further reasons
and effects - beyond, that is, the interaction at hand - as long
as there is, at any instance, the possibility to ask for the possible
purpose being pursued (e.g., Metaphysics, Book II, 994b). As long
as one focuses on purpose it seems easy to distinguish states of
perfection from states of corruption and to deduce actions transforming
the latter into the former.
As regards the culture form able to handle the meaning surplus
introduced by the printing press Luhmann suggests Descartes
restlessness introduced in order to flesh out a principle surviving
both comparison and critique. That principle today goes by the name
of self-reference. Descartes (Discours de la méthode, chap.
4) called it by the principle of je pense, donc je suis
and did not notice that this principle did not lead to further evident
knowledge secured by scientific method but to the ability to act
and think by the rules of the morale par provision (ibid.,
chap. 3) considered by him to be of only temporary need and relevance.
This morale par provision proved to be the only one
apt for modern society. Any attempt to generalize and specify it
towards a normative culture of values turned out to feed further
comparison and critique, such that only the self-referential awareness
of nevertheless being able to move on provided a certain support.
New communication media such as radio and television, on the one
hand, and the computer, on the other, introduce new kinds of meaning
surplus and wait for yet another culture form to handle it. Radio
and television, the telecommunication of sound and picture, transform
the whole world into perception being communicated without forcing
the communication, as the oral and the literal still did, to distinguish
between communication and perception, and without enabling the communication,
as a bonus to that distinction, to know how to answer the communication
with either yes or no. It is as difficult to reject the communication
of sound and picture as it is difficult to accept it. The computer
adds to that by presenting its user (and observer) with a self-evident
surface, the screen, being the intransparent effect of an unknown
mechanism hidden inside the machine or outside in the Internet.
Luhmann does not suggest a specific culture form able to handle
the effects of the social introduction of radio, television, and
computer. We may speculate on Marshall McLuhans media and
George Spencer-Browns form being possible candidates since
the former makes the invisible visible (the medium is the
message, McLuhan 1964) and the latter is an attempt to calculate
with unmarked states (draw a distinction, Spencer-Brown
The essays presented at the workshop Management Out of Networks
and Systems organized at the University of Witten/Herdecke
on April 5, 2001, and published in this issue do not attempt to
develop a theory of society perspective on management. And they
are far from trying to figure out a possible culture form of management.
Instead, they focus on the question whether there is a possible
sociology of management and what type of argument such a sociology
would pursue. Yet while exploring a range of quite different ways
to answer that question they surprisingly exhibit a common thread.
They are all, in some way or other, interested in the notion of
emptiness. More than any one of the papers, the discussion at the
workshop fleshed out that common thread. While being haunted by
the usual suspicion that an interest in emptiness proves of a certain
frivolity and is typical of an academic style too much impressed
by light-handed (if not empty, sic!) intellectual thinking,
the concept popped up nevertheless in the discussion of any one
Thus, Eric M. Leifers concepts of target and content ambiguity,
made evident by the help of dog stories, show how successful management
has to take into account how status is to be gained and to be lost.
Not being able to be sure who is addressed by managerial communication
and about what question opens up a field of organizational potential
that would get unnoticed and unused by any explicit, that is full
and clear communication. Leifers General Principle about the
advantage of reaction over action should be read in the perspective
of being able to let emerge the roles suited to exploit the potential
of a situation. Knowing in advance what this potential may be, kills
Christoph Deutschmann shows that the recent regime of consultants
and shareholders does not lead to an abolition of the former regime
of managers but forces this regime to upgrade to an impression management
directed at inside and outside observers alike that excels in symbolic
behavior, hypocrisy, and mimicry. Anybody being able to look into
that kind of symbolic behavior called by the general name of governance
would discover an emptiness which veils a very different kind of
managerial behavior the language of consultants and shareholders
in different ways is ignorant of.
Michael Powers paper extends on this argument by pointing
out that procedural, that is content free, definition of new standards
in accounting, quality, and risk management enable the management
to free different kinds of organizations from the imperial
influence of a state setting (locally failing) substantial standards.
Instead any organization is made part of an organizational fields
exhibiting a neoliberal kind of control. Of course,
any standard is nothing else but its performance, but here again
the old knowledge of French moralists (and Kant) holds that beginning
with empty motives yet pursuing the standards of your milieu you
end up living and being these very standards.
There is no other way, the Günther Ortmanns and Harold
Salzmans paper seems to say, when dealing in strategy but
to introduce emptiness in order to get the necessary space for recursiveness
and structuration. Emptiness, introduced by the acknowledgment of
the future being unknown, is the frame of a possible exploration
of possible futures in a present that is the only time available
for any kind of action. Power, the authors add, is essential for
being able to survive, and to turn into ones profit, such
a risky game. Yet reading their paper the reader may as well assume
that the power being present both seduces everybody else into submission
and forces them to realize the real emptiness behind it. Power once
again frames material emptiness by social order. It depends on the
situation whether the frame or the content being framed receives
the most attention.
Harrison C. Whites paper delivers the theory to that function
of emptiness by showing how strategies depend on identities being
always under threat either try to mobilize or to be mobilized in
order to receive the resources considered necessary. One way to
get strategy at all therefore consists in mobilizing the identities
being at stake. Strategies are the result and the objective of attempts
at social engineering that end up, as any marriage is able to show
as well, in bounding oneself into the bonds offered to the other.
Because it is not difficult to notice the ensuing dilemma of being
bound, strategy has to include degrees of freedom, copied into the
form of strategy out of the form of the liberal society.
This way it is possible to replenish the awareness of any identity
of being out of control and therefore having to relate to some form
of control or other.
Thomas Khurana shows how the seemingly introvert language of literary
and philosophical deconstruction recently has become subject of
the most extrovert consultancy concepts. Derridas phrase deconstruction
is the case proves to be right nowhere more so than in the
area of company reorganization that in concepts like that of the
business migration goes so far as to abandon even ideas
like core competencies and clear-cut boundaries. Yet Khurana shows
as well that the deconstruction of the company stops short of the
issue which is most at stake in Derridian writing, the issue of
identity. No consultant risks emptying that very anchor of any self-reference
able to motivate the next move on. Thus, deconstruction in consultancy
exactly covers any possible aspect of company structures, yet falls
short of showing the company the impossibility of its
autopoiesis as well.
And there is no way and perhaps no need to do so, argues Fritz
B. Simon in his paper. The consultant is indeed deconstructing any
authority of the manager sticking to any specific structure of the
company, only to reconstruct that very authority by enabling the
manager to invest his or her knowledge and subtlety into the stimulation
of intelligent communication processes instead. An intelligent
communication process once again is triggered by insights into the
emptiness of any definition of any structure and purpose that the
organization may be tempted to rely on in order to secure its reality
My paper finally is trying to show using a model of Lenins
Bolshevik revolution that any management consists in identifying
the void attracting possible identities to invest their unfulfilled
possibilities into that void. That strikes a familiar, if not male,
sound. But it attracts the female gaze as well.
The idea of emptiness is revealing in our context of a possible
sociology of management because it works like a bridge concept.
It deconstructs any teleological management thinking cherished by
German Betriebswirtschaftslehre and Anglo-Saxon Management Studies
alike, still accepts modern restlessness, yet already opens up the
area of research for a possible new culture form. This new culture
form may consist in being able both to turn any possible form into
the medium of a possible different form and to consider any of these
forms as a calculation on the codependence of marked states and
This is the reason why we looked at the workshop and in the papers
published here for a sociology of management out of networks
and systems. Both the network perspective and the systems
perspective answer the classical Hegel problem of transition between
one state and the next one. The systems perspective points to a
way of reproduction made as attractive as unavoidable by any one
selection being a selection among other possible selections awaiting
their once again selective realization. This is why Luhmann (2000)
analyzed the communication of the decision as unit act of any organization.
There is no way to decide upon anything without thereby producing
uno actu the awareness of possible alternatives to be made invisible
or to be exploited afterwards depending on the states of the organization.
The network perspective proves useful in modeling how marked and
unmarked states are both distinguished and codependent giving way
to oscillations between actual and possible states that calculate
possible next states. This is why White (2002) analyzes asymmetries
of production networks. These asymmetries indicate at any instant
where to rely on when seeking ties to that network, on one or the
other side of the asymmetry, consequences of that choice already
being visible. Systems and networks together provide ways to check
on the forms being useful to explore the invisible space of possible
Management today does not stop with setting goals and compensating
for any choice of goals by staying restless. It certainly dreams
of having to do just with the culture forms going by the names of
Aristotle and Descartes. Yet any serious kind of management studies
should go beyond that dream and look for managements ways
to chart the territory of organization, society, human beings, technology,
and nature alike. The papers published in this issue try to show
that there is something inherently social even to management in
its ability to link states not in a technical, that is causal, way
but in ways of distinction, relation, and codependence, that is
in ways of communication. Management is not just a way to secure
efficient and effective operation. It is a way, and even a practice,
of nesting different possibilities (work, profit, service, tax)
inside each other. In a way, it transcends organization being at
any instant its most unfaithful yet most knowledgeable observer.
Somehow there is a new culture form hidden inside the social practice
of management. It may not be the only one able to handle the meaning
surplus produced by radio, television, and computer. But it may
be an interesting one. We need more sociology to research into that
kind of questions.
Witten, July 2002
Luhmann, Niklas (1997): Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt
am Main: Suhrkamp.
Luhmann, Niklas (2000): Organisation und Entscheidung. Opladen:
McLuhan, Marshall (1964): Understanding Media. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Spencer Brown, George (1972): Laws of Form. New York: Julian.
White, Harrison C. (2002): Markets from Networks: Socioeconomic
Models of Production. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP.
Prof. Dr. Dirk Baecker, Fakultät für das Studium fundamentale,
Universität Witten / Herdecke
Alfred-Herrhausen-Str. 50, D-58448 Witten