THE environment does not ex-sist: engendering ‘boundary’ as the object of psychoanalytic study

This is the abstract of the paper presented at the 2013 Paris Conference – Reworking Lacan at Work.  The term ‘ex-sist’ is used to emphasize the Latin derivation of ‘exist’ from ex-(s)istere, to stand outside (in contradistinction to ‘insist’).

Doing many different things at the same time
Psychoanalytic understanding is becoming essential to the study of work, management and organizations. The growing importance of ‘networks’ requires a concept of ‘boundary’ that points towards a different understanding of the psychoanalytic object in the study of organizations. A familiar example of a network organization is a clinic that must focus on the particular demands of its patients’ conditions. The tempo at which such a clinic operates determines the number of patients it is expected to have in treatment at the same time. If it is to be outcome-driven, the clinic must respond at this tempo by being able to synchronize and orchestrate different networks for each patient [1]. This ability to do many different things at the same time is not unique to healthcare organizations. It necessitates a shift in an organization’s locus of innovation from supply to demand [2]. In the place of markets comes a focus on the particular demands of customers within their contexts-of-use [3].

This focus means that the organization must place greater emphasis on its ability to create new forms of collaboration in order to create new propositions. It must adopt ‘shaping strategies’ that focus on ecosystems within which networks of organizations become the new economic ‘entities’ shaping competition [4]. With this comes ‘relationship economics’ organized around the particular context in which the demand arises [5]. Within these ecosystems, task systems become increasingly modular, aligned to customers’ demands through contractual networks [6]. These networks are increasingly independent of institutional boundaries, creating dynamic complementarities between them [7]. Horizontal task linkages become stronger than vertical ‘institutional’ linkages, producing the emergent models characteristic of complex adaptive systems [8]. These ecosystems are experienced by an organization as turbulent [9], the ‘effective complexity’ [10] of emergent models describing the extent of the complexity that an organization must take into consideration in choosing how to act.

Power is exercised differently in Networks
But not all organizations behave like outcome-focused clinics, using networks to do many different things at the same time in order to relate to their customers one-by-one. They more typically do one thing at a time for many different customers. They use hierarchy to impose a particular model on the way they capture value within chosen markets, this model defining the basis of their competitive advantage [11]. And while organizations may attempt to use hierarchies to consolidate positions while also using networks to address the challenges of complexity and change [12], this is difficult in practice because of the dynamic tension created between radically different approaches [13]. While the exercise of power by hierarchies is unipolar and defines what subordinates should do, the exercise of power within networks is multipolar, and enables different actors in the network to act from different understandings of what needs to be attended to. The radical difference is in how the models are authorized, that is whether authorization comes from a pre-existent model in hierarchies or from a particular chosen relation to a current local situation in networks.

With organised networks, the model that is read into the local situation is contingent upon the particular observer’s relation to what-is-going-on in that situation. But more than this, with a psychoanalytic understanding not all of what-is-going-on is observable even for those present. The observer experiences an absence or ‘lack’ in the situation. This presence of an absence ‘ex-sists’ in the sense of standing beyond or outside what can be said to be present, rendering the patient or customer subject of their demand [14]. The paper argues that the observer’s experience of what-is-going-on in the situation exhibits two different kinds of ontic distinction, homologous with Lacan’s sexuation formula [15].

Engendering ‘boundary’
The first of these distinctions is between behaviours that are singular, and behaviours that are symptomatic of some underlying model. ‘Primary task’ is a way of speaking about an underlying model that is necessary to an organization’s survival [16]. The second is between the singular and symptomatic behaviours in the particular situation, and the contexts in which those behaviours produce their effects. This second distinction defines a ‘boundary’ between behaviour and context, with context there always being that which ex-sists i.e. stands outside or beyond. Thus while the relation to each context constitutes a particular outside or beyond, these contexts do not add up collectively to an environment in general. It is in this sense that THE Environment does not ex-sist i.e. there is no universal environment, only particular environments. This second distinction therefore introduces an ‘engendering’ of the concept of ‘boundary’, establishing a difference between hierarchy and network.[17] A hierarchy acts unilaterally as if there is an environment in general, while a network acts multi-laterally in relation to particular environments.

Psychoanalytic understanding brings its own clinical concepts, practices and particular focus on what enables interventions to be effective [18]. Its focus is on the role of the individual within an organization, or on the organization as if it were itself an individual. Understanding the organization as hierarchical enables its ‘boundary’ to be used to constitute the organization as an object [19]. The paper describes the difficulties that arise in adopting this approach to making sense of the concept of ‘boundary’ within networks, and proposes the alternative engendering of ‘boundary’ as itself an object of psychoanalytic study.

On being, moved by the ex-sistent ‘more’
Psychoanalytic understanding also leads us to engage in a double reading of our relation to what we observe [18]. Implicit in the two distinctions is a third distinction concerning the ways in which what-is-going-on is or is not observable, constraining the ways in which it may be paid attention to [20]. The paper argues that to engender ‘boundary’ is to recognise that there is always an ex-sistent ‘more’ to be paid attention to, providing a basis for a critical approach to organization on the basis of its relation to ‘lack’ [21]. The paper concludes that the engendering of ‘boundary’ allows us to understand the radical difference between hierarchy and network in terms of a psychoanalytic object that is constitutive of the relation to desire.

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