Toward a Critical Realist Management and Consulting Framework Based on CDF

In this article, Otto Laske emphasizes the lack of a social ontology in present managerial and consultative thinking. Such a discipline helps social and cultural actors understand the antecedent social and cultural structures their concerns and projects are embedded in, as well as strengthen the likelihood that executing their projects will come as close as possible to the intended organizational and social results they are envisioning. Social ontology, deriving from R. Bhaskar’s and M. Archer’s work since 1980, offers managers a sense of place from which to view their meaning- and sense-making stance, not just their perceptions, from an objective place. More than that: it helps them understand “where they are positioned when they open their mouth to speak” and listen to others.

In contrast to empiricist frameworks of individual decision- making (like the Cynefin model), a social-ontology (SO) framework treats decision-making as a response of social actors to antecedent social and cultural structures they are unaware of as determinants of their project designs. Decision-making is seen as derivative of project design which in turn is conceived of as rooted in concerns linked to vested interests associated with roles in a social role matrix that is open to change by role incumbents. Rather than viewing decision-making as a starting point of adaptive functioning, such a framework treats it as the endpoint of a more or less successful journey toward understanding antecedent social and organizational constraints and enablements that human projects inevitably encounter.

Importantly, in an SO framework roles are not assigned or taken but created through a team dialogue based on complex, dialectical thinking practiced by all participants, although at different levels of cognitive development over the life span. It is the goal of real-time dialogue to witness and document that people at different levels of cognitive development conceive of social situations differently, as well as more or less adequately attuned to how they structure decision-making situations in the first place. Decision-making is seen as the origin of intended, as well as unforeseeable unintended, consequences that may run counter to the project design the decisions made sprang from.

Within an SO framework, navigating the vagaries of complex and chaotic situations is a three-phase process:

  • Phase 1: Understand the social and cultural antecedents of situations encountered which provoke project design and invite decision-making according to it.
  • Phase 2: Design and implement projects in response to such antecedents so that decisions made in executing projects are ‘in tune’ with such antecedents.
  • Phase 3: Make sure that the organizational and social structures resulting from project execution are optimally intended rather than unintended, to avoid the reproduction of, rather than achieving a transformation of, the social and cultural antecedents initially encountered.

The author sees the reason for the absence of social ontology thinking in the predominantly empiricist orientation of managers’ and consultants’ thinking for whom ‘perception’, ‘experiences’ and ‘data’ are the loadstars of their methodology¬† As a result, they are committing the ‘epistemic fallacy’ of reducing social reality to thought, mostly in the form of iron-clad logical models. However, social reality is not a bundle of experiences and actualities as they presume. Its enduring structures are emergent properties that are formed by social actors’ response to antecedent social and cultural structures which co-define their internal conversations about projects. Needed therefore is a re-education of both managers and consultants in the direction of becoming aware of the benefits of thinking twice, namely ontologically, that is, in terms of a pre-existing social reality they are embedded in and are responding to without being aware of it. Ontological awareness is strongly enabled by DTF, the Dialectical Thought Form Framework, that is modeled after R. Bhaskar’s Four Moments of Dialectic.

In sum: the absence from managers’ and consultants’ thinking of both adult development and social ontology (which is centered around human agency, and thus adult development) defines the double burden of their social mandate.

The article below points to a first Social Ontology Practicum that was designed to pave the way toward better informed management and consultancy thinking, and carried out in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021 at the Interdevelopmental Institute based on DTF.

Toward a Critical Realist Management and Consulting Framework