Publication 7686

Beyes T. P. (2005) Observing observers: von Foerster, Luhmann, and management thinking. Kybernetes 34: 448–459. Fulltext at
Purpose: The paper discusses possible implications of Heinz von Foerster’s notion of second‐order cybernetics for management thinking. The purpose of this paper is to outline challenges of as well as prospective further developments for management theory that emanate from second‐order cybernetics. Design/methodology/approach – As a conceptual paper, the paper tries to develop its findings through theoretically applying von Foerster’s insights to management thinking’s conventional assumptions. When looking for applications of von Foerster’s approach within the social sciences, at least in german‐speaking countries one sooner or later comes across Niklas Luhmann’s system sociology. Hence, Luhmann’s version of the theory of the observer is introduced and its take on organization and management is briefly outlined. Drawing upon von Foerster’s and Luhmann’s reflections, possible implications for management thinking are presented – ideas that might be disagreeable for “classical” management science but might set out a path for further developments of management thinking. Findings: What difference might second‐order cybernetics (and autopoietic systems sociology) make for management thinking? As a conclusion, deliberately poignant statements are formulated, calling for a higher degree of self‐reflection, for critical readings of conventional texts, for more complex descriptions of organizations and for a more modest, low‐key take on management theory’s endeavours. Originality/value – Whereas first‐order cybernetics has been fairly well‐received in management theory, second‐order cybernetics, which poses troubling questions to conventional epistemologies, remained relatively unpopular. Acts of “observing observers” reclaim these questions, possibly leading to valuable insights for researchers and reflected practitioners alike.

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