Authentic Storytelling Conversations for ActionAn Alternative to Cost-Cutting Logic of a Public University
Professor in Storytelling, New Mexico State University, David M. Boje (Adviser Old Friends Industries)
September 12, 2016

 How can we create a Public University system in support of research and learning when our State and our World are in a wicked problem situation that includes problem solving about “climate, water, food, population, health, and social justice” Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015a: 77).  We propose a study of how to Public University faculty and staff can engage in ‘conversational storytelling’ to understand, agree, and collaborate on effective action taking for wick problem situation we are in, and move out of the monologic of cost-cutting reengineering strategies of downsizing its own faculty and staff:” Identify opportunities for NMSU to consider for cost reduction through improvements to delivery model, business process, policies and the implementation of enabling technologies” (NMSU staffing projectline for reorganization, aka “Transforming NMSU into a 21st Century University).[1]

There are possibilities for our University faculty and staff to have storytelling conversations for action to develop alternatives to cost cutting that accomplish the vision: Transforming NMSU into a 21st Century University. We propose a kind of storytelling conversation praxis, built, in part, on an understanding of Ranulph Glanville’s conversation cybernetics (see 2015 special issue of Cybernetics and Human Knowing vol. 22, # 3).  We propose that First-order and Second-order cybernetic system thinking are inadequate to coping with wicked problems, and even have unintended consequences that make Public Universities, worse off.

 In First-order cybernetic (closed or mechanistic) systems there is a linear causality of deviation-counteraction that is not just the mechanistic systems understanding, it is stuck in deviation-counteraction of all forms of creative practices, that is particularly suited to the strategies of top-down State-Regents hierarchy and cost-cutting reengineering (downsizing) of college department (faculty) and operational units (staff), as a reaction to State higher education budget cuts, as a reaction to drop in oil and gas revenues as is happening now in New Mexico. Meanwhile little if any administrative positions are cut.

In Second-order cybernetics there is a recursive causal logic, known as open systems of deviation-amplification. But, the epistemology of open systems is unable to cope with State and University politics and the “messy muddle of things” Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015: 74), dengenates Public University systems into a politics of rhetoric due to a reductionist approach to sociomateriality (one that excludes materiality, in favor of immateriality of language games, political positioning, etc.). Thus there is need is for answerability ethics for actions. Glanville proposes this ethics of responsibility can be accomplished in design as a conversation for action, by learning together (IBID.).  We amend this to be ‘storytelling conversation for action; in a third-order cybernetics, which gets to the relation of materiality to immateriality.

Brief Overview of First-, Second-, and Third-Order Cybernetic Systems Theory
First-order cybernetics (closed systems) linear causal logic interacts with Second-order cybernetics cyclic logic (open systems adapting to environmental changes), in a Third-order cybernetics that brings the first two into dialectic mediations.

In practice ‘storytelling conversations for action’ works this way: Faculty and staff in storytelling conversations for action observe and reflect upon their own participation in closed and open systems of systems by doing historical and present storytelling. These interactions can lead to design-for-making changes, accumulated learning for effective action in the future, and conversations done in design teams to redesign and design-for systems that have alternative paths to the one (top down command and control path) the University is on now, which can and do create new possibilities and paths for project-service ecologies to emerge in ways that changes the ongoing system-to-system relationships of a Public University (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015a: 74-75).

We believe that the messy problems of State and Nation have a wider range of possibilities for response than cost-cutting, reductive logic that is grounded in the command and control model of Public University hierarchy. The flowering of storytelling conversations for positive action begins with face-to-face conversations, then meves to design-for-making focus groups, and storytelling conversation design teams that define actions for improving the messy problem situation of the University, state, and Nation. The design-for-systems changes conversational storytelling focuses on a third-order cybernetics model (Boje & Henderson, 2014; Henderson & Boje, 2015a & 2015b; Boje, Svane, Henderson, & Strevel, 2015).

“Goals require agency” (Dubberly & Pangaro, 2015a: 76). Such agential goals in conversational storytelling for action, can implement an upward spiral of reflective awareness, design-for-making changes, design-for-systems changes, to bring about a new and different product-service ecology of Higher Public Education, that changes the socio-economics and politics of system-to-system relationships. This upward spiral can counteract the monologic downward spiral of cost-cutting and faculty staff position reduction that has already claimed, to date, Sept 12, 2016), 120 positions.

There is a limitation in first and second-order cybernetic systems thinking that goes back to Ashby (1956: 1) who said, “materiality is irrelevant” to purposive systems. His reasoning is system thinking is limited to goals (purposes), and feedback, and can ignore flows of materials. This results in dualizing immateriality from materiality, as the basis of agency in ‘purposive systems’ thinking, in his theory of requisite variety.  It is part of the linguistic turn, which also banished materiality, and focused exclusively on immateriality models of social constructivism (See Bruno Latour’s 1997 critique; and Karen Barad’s, 2007, claim the linguistic turn turned too far in rejecting materiality, and focusing on discourse). For Barad’s ‘agential realism’ both materiality and discourse are agential, from her quantum mechanics perspective.

Does Public University have the requisite variety of immateriality (goals & feedback) to successfully design its research and learning (& operations) systems while placing materiality to the margins?  How did the five goals of NMSU arise, and why?

Vision 2020 goals are:[2]

  1. Academics and Graduation – Provide stellar programs, instruction, and services to achieve timely graduation
  2. Diversity and Internationalization – Provide a diverse academic environment supportive of a global society
  3. Research and Creative Activity – Promote discovery, encourage innovation, and inspire creative achievement
  4. Economic Development and Community Engagement – Drive economic, social, educational, and community development
  5. Resource Stewardship – Optimize resources to effectively support teaching, research, and service

“Standard & Poor’s has just issued notice that NMSU was downgraded from “AA” to “AA- Outlook is Stable,” citing reason for downgrade as declines in enrollment and operating deficits on an adjusted basis” (Slide presentation of Transforming NMSU into a 21st Century University, Sep 22, 2015).[3]

Board of Regents of NMSU and UNM had a joint meeting Sep 12, 2016 (Sun-News report):[4]

“Three of five NMSU regents attended the meeting Saturday afternoon, as did five of UNM’s six regents.

The meeting began with a presentation from Jim Peach, a Regents professor in NMSU’s department of economics and international business. Peach, who is widely regarded as an expert in New Mexico’s economy, gave an update and forecast on the state’s economic forecast ahead of the upcoming special legislative session.

“The outlook for New Mexico’s economy might best be described as ‘challenged,’” Peach told regents. “In late 2017, we may have as many jobs (in New Mexico) as we did in late 2007.”

Peach explained that New Mexico has been slow to recover from the recession, that New Mexico has trailed the rest of the nation in recovery efforts — largely because of the state’s reliance on the oil and gas industry — and the budget outlook for higher education.

“So often, legislators are quick to cut from higher education, because we have the so-called ‘tuition knob,’” said President of UNM Regents Rob Doughty. “I hate that analogy, and I would like for us to send the message that we have no interest in turning that ‘knob’ up any further.””

From First and Second to Third-Order Cybernetics using Storytelling Conversational Methods
The move from First- and Second-order cybernetics to Third-order cybernetics is something Søren Brier (1999; 2004; 2008) has developed in his theory of cybersemiotics. We believe it can be implemented in ‘authentic’ conversational storytelling practices (see new book in process on True Storytelling by Boje, Jens Larsen, & Lena Larsen). Within the normalizing discourses (and narratives) of oppressive power relations and disciplinary technologies, in and around organizations, it is difficult for people to not to become docile bodies useful to command and control. For Foucault (1979) this is the combination of microphysics of power and the macro-political biopower and bio-politics of our bodily subjectivization, occurring during neoliberalism (shrinking government) yet expanding governmentality (WTO, UN, NAFTA, etc.) that has gone global, combining with system-to-system global-local in Internet digital relationships of spatially distributed, yet virtual interactions that are as yet incapable of taming the messy problem situation that is now global.

Søren Brier’s (2011: 31)  ‘Cybersemiotic Star’ combines the second-order cybernetic ‘open’ systems theory of Luhmann autopoietic with the C. S. Peirce triadic (Firstness, Secondness, & Thirdness).  “In Peirce’s semiotics, everything in nature is a potential sign” (Brier, 2004: 646).

Firstness is chance/chaos that cannot be modeled by 1st-order cybernetic mechanistic linear causal logic because the wicked problems are nonlinear dynamic systems of systems (Brier, 2004: 638). The basic cybernetic is deviation-counteraction to allow movement (locomotion), and has been adapted for example to command and control mechanistic organization models of Public Universities engaging in cost-cutting reengineering downsizing of its faculty and staff to address decreases in oil/gas revenues of State of New Mexico legislature. Such epistemologies (1st-order cybernetics of command and control are also social construtivisms: “Of course, I speak of a constructivism that goes beyond the social constructivism that takes nature for granted and as objective and therefore is not able to incorporate a natural history of observing systems” (Brier, 2004: 638).  Closed systems purport and independence of being of anything else, which of course makes the monologic of cost cutting, appear as a TINA narrative (TINA means, there is no alternative).

Secondness of Peircean ‘pragmaticist realism’ can be related to second-order cybernetics of so-called ‘open systems’ of systems, in their recursive causal interrelationships, where the environment of organization-system is comprised of  the ‘law’ (or in this case legislature governance through Regents), as well as by the more organization-systems-environment in recursive self-organizing cycles between Public University and the State (in all that is political). It is what Peirce calls reaction, such as reaction of the Public University to the system of public funding cuts for higher education in the state of New Mexico. “This epistemological foundation of second-order cybernetics connects it to important points in Heidegger’s phenomenology. The important point from Heidegger is that as observers we are always already a part of the world when we start to describe it” (p. 639). We in New Mexico, who are working in Public Higher Education, are already part of public legislative strategies. Niklas Luhmann’s (1990: 3) 2nd-order open systems autopoiesis fits here, as Luhmann defines it “… autopoietic systems “are systems that are defined as unities as networks of productions of components that recursively, through their interactions, generate and realize the network that produces them and constitute, in the space in which they exist, the boundaries of the network as components that participate in the realization of the network.” Open systems theory has yet to overcome fundamental problems of the input-throughout-output-feedback loop of ‘open systems’ (known as deviation amplification loops) that is supposed to be let’s say dialectic with the deviation counteraction of 1st-order cybernetics (closed systems feedback loops).  There is a need for a much deeper understanding of self-organizing and self-producing interplay of 1st-order closed systems with 2nd-order cybernetic open systems of systems (IBID) in order to get at the ethics of answerability (Boje, 2008).

Thirdness is the dialectic notion of mediation, which brings the first (closed system) and the second (open system) into inter-relationships adjustments to habits.  Thirdness is summed up by one sentence by Peirce (1955: 322–323, as cited Brier, 2004: 644): “Chance is First, Law is second, the tendency to take habits is Third.” In Brier’s Cybersemiotic Star, there are sign relations not only in the Peircean triadic (Firstness, Secondness, & Thirdness), but it is embedded in the Four system domains:

  1. Life/Living Systems of organic evolution
  2. Inner Life/Consciousness Systems of existential development
  3. Sense/Meaning Systems of History of Culture
  4. Mater/Energy Systems of Big Bang Cosmology

This interpenetrate with

  1. Living embodiment
  2. Inner mental world
  3. The other, language
  4. Physical nature

At core, is a Language-Consciousness Social Semiotic Practice.

Figure 1: Brier’s Cybersemiotic Star — (Thomsen, 2011: p. 27) Source:

In the double-grounding of Peircean triadic, one foot is grounded in the materiality that is mind-independent, while the other foot is grounded, in first person [sensemaking & perception] experience. Third-order cybernetic systems are autopoietic in being living systems (Thomsen, 2011: 21).

Boje, D. M., & Henderson, T. L. (2015a). 2 Fostering Awareness of Fractal Patterns in Organizations. Perspectives on Change: What Academics, Consultants and Managers Really Think About Change13, 22.

Boje, D. M., & Henderson, T. L. (2015b). 2 Fostering Awareness of Fractal Patterns in Organizations. Perspectives on Change: What Academics, Consultants and Managers Really Think About Change13, 22.

Boje, D. M., Svane, M., Henderson, T. L., & Strevel, H. B. (2015). Critical corporate social responsibility in tamara-land: The role of tetranormalizing fractals. Book chapter for a Springer collection, Rodolphe Ocler (ed.).

Brier, S. (1999). What Is a Possible Ontological and Epistemological Framework for a True UniversalInformation Science’? The Suggestion of a Cybersemiotics. World futures general evolution studies13, 79-100.

Brier, S. (2004). Cybersemiotics and the problems of the information-processing paradigm as a candidate for a unified science of information behind library information science.>

Brier, S. (2008). Cybersemiotics: Why information is not enough!. University of Toronto Press.

Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2015a). Cybernetic of design: Conversations ofr action. Pp. 73-82, in Vol. 22 (nos. 2-3), Cybernetics and Human Knowing: A journal of cybernetics autopoiesis and cyber-semiotics; special issue on Ranulph Glanville & How to Live the Cybernetics of Unknowing.

Dubberly, H., & Pangaro, P. (2015b). How cybernetics connects computing, counterculture, and design. Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia.

Henderson, T., & Boje, D. M. (2015). Organizational Development and Change Theory: Managing Fractal Organizing Processes (Vol. 11). Routledge.

Thompsen, Ole Nedergaard. (2015) A functional discourse pragmatics contribution to the cybersemiotic star. Pp 27-76 in Torkild Thellefsen, Bent Sørensen, and Paul Cobley (Eds.) From First to Third Via Cybersemiotics: A Festschrift honoring Professor Søren Brier on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday. Copenhagen, Denmark: SI. Foragene. Rosennorns Alle 9, 1970 Frderiksberg.

[1] Project line, Transforming NMSU into a 21st Century University

[2] The Vision 2020 plan was previously adopted by NMSU’s Board of Regents in July 2014:  Vision 2020 Plan July 2014   Vision 2020 KPIs 4-4-15  and August 2013:  Vision 2020 Plan   Vision 2020 KPIs  The Living the Vision Strategic Plan was adopted by the NMSU Board of Regents in September 2009:  Living the Vision   Background:   LTV site

[3]  Transforming NMSU into a 21st Century University