The economy of discourses: a third order cybernetics ?
Philip Boxer & Vincent Kenny
Human Systems Management Volume 9 Number 4 pp 205-224.
This paper introduces the idea of, and necessity for, a ‘third-order cybernetics’. It does this through the critique and problematisation of the ontology of the observer as elaborated within a second-order cybernetics. The necessity for this third-order is directly generated from our work as strategy consultants and our needs to evolve an effective, coherent and ethical consultancy practice. The paper draws primarily on the writings of Lacan and Maturana to provide the epistemological presumptions upon which we generate a new characterisation of, and approach to, the business organisation. This new approach for the understanding of the business organisation is presented as an ‘Economy of Discourses’. This Economy is a description of the effects of a third-order in the second-order observer’s invention of himself as subject. We have formulated this approach as an aid for diagnosis, intervention and prognosis in our work with business organisations. We include two case studies, one of a chemicals-based manufacturer, the other of a large accountancy practice. In these two cases we seek to unpack and illustrate the way in which it is possible to use the new approach, and to highlight the principles which allow the consultant maximal movement and effectiveness in relation to his client system. We end by outlining the implications of our approach for an ethics of consultancy.