NW 32: Organizing in Times of Uncertainty – Research Perspectives of Organizational Education

NW 32 Organizational Education

Organizing in Times of Uncertainty – Research Perspectives of Organizational Education

Terror, war, right-wing-extremism, climate change - Network 32 discusses uncertainty in its relevance and multiple meanings for learning and education in, by and between organizations. Uncertainty is inherent to the dynamics of multiple political, economic, and social conditions of organizing and has recently been conceptualized as a socio-cultural, ontological and epistemological core category for theorizing and doing empirical research on organization. The term of ‘uncertainty’ has famously been highlighted by John Dewey, whose seminal work is of key interest for issues of uncertainty in organizational education. Against technocrat and mechanistic ideas and patterns of organizing, Network 32 reflects on the theoretical, empirical, methodological, and ethical dimensions of uncertainty for organizational education research. In doing so, the Network calls for exploring a variety of paradigmatic claims regarding uncertainty in, for example, the discourse, strategy, dynamics, and practice of Organizational Education.

The Call
As Organizational Education is interested in organizational learning in, by and between organizations, uncertainty in its multiple meanings refers to diverse strategies of organizing in the tension of openness and control. In an age of uncertainties and especially in times of terror, war, right-wing-extremism and climate change, the political, economic, socio-cultural and epistemological dimensions of organizational education face a decrease in clear alignment. Network 32 explores the different notions and implications of ‘uncertainty’ as a phenomenon, a concept, a socio-political reality shaping conditions and effects in and of organizing and as an epistemology of and for organizing.

Theoretical perspectives may be differentiated in several ways. In a more obvious notion uncertainty might be addressed as an external condition to be situated and positioned in (- theories of the VUCA world; e.g. Bennett & Lemoine 2014). In a second perspective on uncertainty, Weick & Sutcliffe (2001) asked for the rationalities and practices of organizing under such contextual conditions of uncertainty. Where do traditional approaches of planning and control not work or even worsen the situation of managing, and how does organizational learning perform, and to what effect, in such dynamically uncertain contexts? Referring to ‘high reliability organizations’ like aircraft carriers, nuclear power plants, firefighting crews, and others, Weick and Sutcliffe have been searching for the ability to discover and correct errors before these escalate into crisis. This stream of thought discusses uncertainty as a challenge of organizing and reflects on the question of how to deal with the unexpected.

A third stream of thought refers to an epistemological notion of uncertainty. Since postmodern, poststructural, and process theories of organizing oppose notions of calculability, controllability, and the feasibility of ‘modern’ organizing (Holtbrügge 2001), uncertainty can be understood not only as a condition or a mode of organizing, but as an epistemological and ontological foundation of our times. English (2023) discusses the contribution of the educational philosopher Dewey to refer to existential uncertainty, arguing for transformative learning and democratization in the face of uncertainty. Hence, Dewey’s notion of uncertainty (1929) is explicitly linked to a call for democratizing societies as well as (self-)organizing and democratizing organizations in society (1927/2012).

This claim, linking uncertainty and democratization, is core for learning in, of and between organizations. It connects to learning in and through the organizing of development projects to address grand challenges, such as sustainable energy development, sustainable health and welfare innovation, digitalization and generative AI, or well-being, participation and belonging among young people. Democratizing organizing and organizations involves the experience of existential uncertainty (Dewey 1964; 1969) which can be reflected in and from an organizational education perspective (Elkjaer 2018). Uncertainty, in this ontological sense, as fundamental to processes of organizing, instigates debates on ethics, care, participation and inclusion as key also in organizational education. Making such concerns fundamental to democratic organizational development, learning, and co-creation (Simpson and den Hond 2022), we need to take into account the tensions within learning in uncertainty, too (Elkjaer 2022).

So how to operate and organize toward a Democratic Bildung Discourse” (Moos 2023)? How can the potential of “indeterminate situations” for organizational learning be explored in organizational education research? As a challenge to organizational education research, creative democracy in organizing can still be seen as a “task before us” (Dewey 1991). If so, the contribution of Mary Parker Follett, another original proponent of American Pragmatism, offers the idea of “integrative thinking” in progressing organization (1924) and navigating by the law of the evolving situation (1925). Organizational democratization might then even connect to a philosophy of education, where non-affirmativity is claimed as a feature of critical pedagogical thought and action (Benner 2023).

Uncertainty-affinity might well lead to conceptualizing alternative strategies of organizing, indeed. Such contributions may explore productively creative approaches to uncertainty such as processes of searching for and posing problems rather than jumping to the comfort of immediate solutions. Integrative and democratic creative (Follett 1923; 1924) education in organizing then can be discussed as non-affirmative practice opposing “traditional, transmissive” and “reductive-progressive” (English 2023) forms of organizational learning. Listening and Relationality then might become core qualities of a nonaffirmative Organizational Education.

Since Organizational Education draws on theories, methodologies, and ethics concerning uncertainty not only as a condition but as a generative source (Göhlich et al 2016), Network 32 is interested in theoretical contributions, empirical papers covering all fields of human activity (education, health, industry and others) including the socio-political crisis we are facing today. The network 32 invites methodological contributions and reflexive reports of transformative organizational education.

Contact Person(s)
Prof. Dr. Susanne M. Weber (link convenor) (susanne.maria.weber(at)uni-marburg.de)

Benner, Dietrich (2023): On Affirmativity and Non-affirmativity in the Context of Theories of Education and Bildung. In: M. Uljens (ed.), Non-affirmative Theory of Education and Bildung, Educational Governance Research 20, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-30551-1_2

Bennett, Nathan; Lemoine, G. James (2014): What VUCA Really Means for You. Harvard Business Review. Nr. 92, 1/2

Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and Its Problems: An Essay in Political Inquiry. Edited and with an Introduction by Melvin L. Rogers. (2012). Published by: Penn State University Press. www.jstor.org/stable/10.5325/j.ctt7v1gh.

Dewey, J. (1929): The Quest for Certainty. A Study of the Relation of Knowledge and Action (Gifford Lectures 1929) New York. Putnam.

Dewey, J. (1964). Demokratie und Erziehung: Eine Einleitung in die philosophische Pädagogik. Münster: Westermann.

Dewey, J. (1969). The ethics of democracy. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The early works, 1882-1898. Volume 1. 1882-1888 (pp. 227-249). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1888).

Dewey, J. (1991). Creative democracy- the task before us. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The later works, 1925-1953. Volume 14: 1939-1941 (pp. 224-230). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. (Original work published 1939).

English, Andrea (2023): Dewey, Existential Uncertainty and Non-affirmative Democratic Education. In: M. Uljens (ed.), Non-affrmative Theory of Education and Bildung, Educational Governance Research 20, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-30551-1_6

Elkjaer, Bente (2018): Pragmatist Foundations for Organizational Education. In: Göhlich et al (ed.): Handbuch Organisationspädagogik. Wiesbaden. Springer. pp. 151-16

Elkjaer, B. (2022). Taking stock of “Organizational Learning”: Looking back and moving forward. Management Learning, 53(3), 582-604. doi.org/10.1177/13505076211049599

Follett, M. P. (1924/2013). Creative experience. Longmans, Green and company.

Follett, M. P. (1925/2013). The Giving of Orders, in Metcalf, H. C., & Urwick, L. (2004). Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett. Routledge, pp. 50-70.

Göhlich, M. et al (2016): Research Memorandum Organizational Education. Studia Paedagogica, 23(2), 205–215.


Holtbrügge, D. (2001). Postmoderne Organisationstheorie und Organisationsgestaltung. Wiesbaden: Deutscher Universitätsverlag.

Moos, Lejf (2023): Operating in an Outcomes-Based and a Democratic Bildung Discourse. In: M. Uljens (ed.), Non-affirmative Theory of Education and Bildung, Educational Governance Research 20, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-031-30551-1_6

Simpson, B., & den Hond, F. (2022). The contemporary resonances of classical pragmatism for studying organization and organizing. Organization Studies, 43(1), 127-146.

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2001). Managing the unexpected: Assuring high performance in an age of complexity. Jossey-Bass.

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