The Ecology of Dialogue and Narratives in Sustainable Business Development

Schermafbeelding 2017-09-12 om 23.23.40

Design of Dialogues (video), 2017 by Vilma Machado (c)

How can dialogue contribute to sustainable business development in business? This was the key question of the key-note presentation delivered to the annual global conference of the International Society for Systems Studies (ISSS), on July 11th in Vienna.

“Dialogue expands knowledge and fuels learning. Narratives compact and summarise knowledge into stories. Stories travel lighter and faster than knowledge” — Olaf Brugman, 12 September 2017.

In the presentation, I argue that sustainable business development benefits from dialogue with stakeholders, and also that this dialogue both starts from narratives and also further develops or reinforces narratives. The presentation discusses practical examples of dialogue regarding sustainable business development, and conveys the following observations and conclusions.

  1. Dialogue is a tool for learning.
    Dialogue with stakeholders is a powerful collaborative tool for learning, design and implementation. Examples of these are partnerships between businesses and civil society, and also structured, large group dialogue methods such as the Syntegration method.
  2. Not in all dialogues do one or more participants have the intention to engage in collaboration, or to learn anything from the other participants. Sometimes, what is called a dialogue is a merely intended to deceive or to confront others, or to probe the other participants to know whether they have their act together and how that can expected to respond in case of public conflict. Sometimes, dialogue is just a ritual dance without intention to solve any issue and intended to create the ammunition to influence political opinions (“we tried to talk to them, but they aren’t open to discuss or improve anything, so we request regulation as the instrument of last resort”).
  3. Dialogue starts from narratives, the latter of which can be understood as a storified knowledge models compacted into a short version for easy transfer and communication. The narratives provide a summary of what actors do or intend to do, their motives, their views on facts and circumstances, their understanding of what they can influence and what they cannot influence, who their friends, allies or enemies are, what conflicts they are subjected to and how they treat others.
  4. Dialogue may reinforce or develop narratives: new perspectives, facts, relationships, motives, circumstances, acts and consequences can be included, others can be excluded. Trust between dialogue partners may be included into the narratives or mistrust can be reinforced. Dialogue provides opportunities to gain new insights, new knowledge and new narratives.
  5. Dialogue for learning can be exponentially more effective if focused on purposeful diagnosis, design or adaptations of social systems (organisations, subsectors of society (education, health, business, democracy etc), to solve certain issues or to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, for example.
  6. Dialogue for learning at larger scale can be exponentially more effective if conducted in settings designed to capture knowledge and narratives from experts and stakeholders, applying a variety of viewpoints, focused on designs for better function, and by using structured methods to achieve this. The Syntegration method invented by Stafford Beer (cf. his book “ Beyond Dispute. The Invention of Team Syntegrity”) and further developed and applied by, for example, Malik Institute are examples of such structured methods.
  7. Taking a systems-oriented approach to the diagnosing social problems and designing solutions that work must be deemed more effective than mere corporate governance regulations, stakeholder dialogue process manuals, voluntary industry standards or applying environmental and social performance criteria. The latter solutions merely provide constraints, whilst taking a systems-approach will put diagnosis, solution design, and action in the context of social systems’ outputs, outcomes and consequences.
  8. Patterns of dialogue, narratives, learning, actors and action form ecologies of shared meaning and purpose, and may be able to maintain a separate existence, grow, decline or perish. It seems to me that businesses that are better in capturing a wide variety of narratives to set up high variety dialogues and compact these into narratives of purpose, vision, strategy and objectives for performance may benefit from their higher variety and diversity, and that businesses that are more mono-dimensional, less open to dialogue, and are on a diet of simplified, inert narratives represent a lower capacity to effectively maintain a separate existence over longer time.

View the presentation:

Olaf Brugman — ISSS2017 conference , Vienna — 11 July 2017.
Video by Vilma Machado ©

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