To institutionalise…or not to institutionalise?

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Ison (2010, 9) highlights his concern that – to date – we have failed to institutionalise systems thinking and practice in society in general and in organisational practices in particular.  I noticed that some of my student colleagues have commented on the course forum or their own blogs about whether ‘institutionalisation’ is desirable or not – this resonated with my gut reaction.

Is this really something we want for systems thinking and practice?

It all boils back to how we understand the nature of institutions and the purpose of institutionalisation.

My very unscientific study this morning on the general understanding of this term involved me asking one “lay-person” – my husband – whether he associates the word institutionalise with positive or negative connotations.  His answer was quite vehement – “ohh negative of course” – my structured interview then continued with “why?”.  He said “well it strips people of its individuality to make them fit with the institution”.  His view – which probably is representative of the general understanding – is that institutions are about conformity and about shaping – and constraining individuals.  ‘Institution’ also gets associated with organisational entities such as the state and large corporations – it is what ‘they’ do to ‘us’.

The conversation made me revisit my first assignment for the course TU872 Institutional development: conflicts, values and meanings.  Unsurprisingly – given the title of the course – this explored the nature of institutions.  I am going to revisit parts of my essay now and see how that casts light on the notion of institutionalisation of systems thinking and practice.

Drawing on Brett (2000: 18) and Knight (1992, 2) I understand institutions as:

sets ‘of rules that structure social interactions in particular ways’, based on knowledge ‘shared by members of the relevant community or society’

But there are different nuances in this drawn out by different authors.

In giving prominence to institutions as “systems of collective rules and practices which enable, or even force, individuals to work together for common purposes” , Brett (2000: 47) draws out what sociologists would call a ‘structural approach’ to explaining what determines people’s behaviour  – i.e. “external social structures determine people’s actions”(Open University 2005: 36).

A complement to this structural approach to understanding what influences the way people behave is the action approach. From this perspective, “people interpret the world, internalise it and are endlessly remaking it” (Open University 2005: 36). However, as Engberg-Pederson (1997) points out this assumes actors are independent of their social environment and ignores the symbolic nature of institutions. He states that “[b]y organising social life, institutions give meaning to action” (ibid: 188). In doing so, he brings attention to the fact that institutions are shared meanings, as well as sets of rules. Individuals cannot act independently of institutions, because their way of perceiving and interpreting the world and the decisions they make are shaped by the meanings carried within them.

Institutions “frame our lives” (Open University 2005: 10) but they are social structures that “we actively make and remake […] during the course of our social activities” (Giddens 1997: 705). This means that they whilst they may “constrain what we do, they do not determine what we do” (ibid).

Institutions endure over long time periods but constantly change. The change may emerge from social processes which are sometimes visible only in retrospect (institutional development as history) or the change may result from deliberate action (institutional development as intervention).

So – back to Ison (2010,9) – how do I interpret what he is saying.

I think my initial reaction was to think of institutions as ‘rules’ (rather than meanings) and restrict the notion of systems practice to methods.  This strikes fear in me – institutionalisation would mean a tick-box and unthinking approach to systems practice.  Systems approaches would become a new set of constraints – new straight jackets.

But that was missing the point – it was missing the whole relational dynamic of systems practice.  And it was missing the meaning carried within institutions.

If systems thinking and practice was institutionalised it would mean that individuals would be naturally socialised into a framework of systems ideas.  It would mean that methods and social technologies used in organisational practices would be both systemic and systematic.  We would collectively perceive and interpret the world with a ‘systems’ lens (as opposed to over-using a reductionist or linear cause-effect one as now).  We would share a discourse – or language – for describing the world/society and communicating about it in a systemic way.  Adopting a disposition of systemic inquiry and social learning would be entirely normal.  Inquiry, praxis and ‘knowing’ would be valued, rather than just knowledge.  Authenticity would be more evident in our relationships.  This way of being would be carried in the institutions around us – it would be normalised.

If systems thinking and practice were institutionalised and we collectively adopted systemic inquiry as the norm – then I think something interesting would happen – institutions themselves would be re-made more easily – society could move on from unhelpful or unethical paradigms and norms because we would be constantly questioning what we take for granted and be more aware of what we do when we do what we do.  This feels like Senge’s notion of the learning organisation elevated to a learning society.

Is this the narrative of hope that Ison (2010, 324) refers to?  I certainly hope for it.


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

Brett, T (2000) ‘Understanding organizations and institutions’ from Robinson, D, Hewitt, T and Harriss, J (eds) Managing Development: Understanding Inter-organizational relationships. Sage Publications in association with the Open University: London, pp17-48

Knight, J (1992) Institutions and social conflict, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge [cited in Brett 2000: 18]

Open University (2005) Institutional Development: theory, policy and practice, Part 1 of TU872 Institutional Development: conflicts, values and meanings, Open University: Milton Keynes

Engberg-Pederson, L (1997) Institutional contradictions in rural development. European Journal of Development Research Vol 9:1 pp 183-208

Giddens, A (1997) Sociology, 3rd edition, Polity Press: London [cited in Open University 2005: 36]

One thought on “To institutionalise…or not to institutionalise?

  1. Helen,

    wonderfully said – there is little to add from my perspective. Thankyou for taking time to unpack the concept ‘institutionalise’ which as your posting suggests is a difficult one to deal with in our English language.


    PS as the course goes on I hope it becomes more appratent that I consider there is scope to act purposefully to shape the insitutionalisation process as well as to become more aware of how institutions frame/constrain/facilitate.

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