Structure, dialogue and change


My experiences of the last two years working with organisations have highlighted the importance of consciously managing the tension between structure and form.

Every structure is temporary. In any organisational system, the tension between structure and form needs to be managed creatively and in a developmental fashion. Whilst structure informs the prescription of functional form, the latter can hinder the emergence of meaningful structure, i.e., creating alignment of values, core processes, activities, and outcomes. A good, effective structure is the relational spaces held in ways that facilitate discontinuous innovation, i.e., integrating new experiences, shifting attitudes, paradigms and perspectives. The opposite of discontinuous innovation is reacting to change; a posture that puts one in a position that is always too late for efficient/effective change management.

It is important that structure is consciously managed to create spaces for collaborative learning and meaning making. Such conscious work with structure also gives opportunity for the creation of effective networking relationships. An effective structure allows for emergence of new life and new opportunities.

Narrow perceptions of structure and its management tends to lead to the exclusive focus on tinkering with form, with the risk of making it a simplistic instrument that, by not allowing human connectedness to thrive, squeezes all dynamism and progress out of organisational purpose, stories, values and interfaces. Alternative and more dynamic understanding of structure as something that goes beyond predictable form, creates room for relational thinking to galvanise human dynamism in the governance of organisations.

Structure needs to be perceived holistically as a guide to living a sustained, fulfilled and meaningful life of individuals and institutions. The function of structure, therefore, is deeper than the physical prescriptions of form. Such procedural formalising of relational processes is, without doubt, needed to enable the pragmatic management of complex social and organisational realities. The conscious development of organisational structure, however, requires the awareness that structures are living processes that facilitate the flow of complex, dynamic and changing conversations and relationships, including power relations. By nature, therefore, structures are changing discontinuously. Any prescribed form of structure is only a temporary measure that supports pragmatic management at a specific moment in time. Development happens only through change and growth—both of which need to be managed consciously.

Good governance in human communities and organisations, therefore, require the presence of systems and practices that facilitate dialogue and openness to timely change, including that of prescribed organisational forms.

Understanding how conscious management of structure creates opportunities for dialogue, collaboration and effective change management requires a deeper awareness of the relationship between the two related concepts of structure and form. In many instances they are used interchangeably and, it seems, any definitional difference between them is mainly nuanced within efforts to talk about structure.

This brief piece has avoided the temptation to steer in the direction of definitions. However, if there is indeed need to understand structure and form as separate entities, one surmises, from various readings, that it is helpful to perceive structure as something emerging out of the social context of conversations, people’s feelings, expectations and values, i.e., a specific social base that shapes the nature of interactions with significant others.

Form, on the other hand, is the prescribed and administered relational procedures that facilitates the maintenance of reality and identity formed through the various interactions in the social context. Looking at the two in such a definitional effort tells us one more thing with regard to usual managerial behaviours when confronted with change, that is, any disruption of prescribed procedure disrupts not only objective management of organisational processes, but is much more threatening because of the likelihood that such disruption will expose the subjectivity of the conversations involved in structure as an embodiment of the prevailing discourse.

Discourses are about what can be said and thought, but also about who can speak, when and with what authority. Discourses embody meaning and social relationships, they constitute both subjectivity and power relations. The prevailing discourse in any system is invisible to its users. Hence, structures are formed in systems or paradigms that are value-laden, where invisible power relations serve hidden interests that influencing learning and development outcomes.

Structure is sustained or revitalised by living reality through face-to-face conversations, with significant others. When the conversations, expectations, human needs, values or feelings informing specific structures become increasingly invisible, then the more visible form (formal structure) becomes more prominent, with the risk of obscuring the purpose, ethos and energy of the organisation. The form itself then becomes less meaningful and a source of stuck situations and conflict. This is because when conversations shift, people experience the need for new forms.

Needed insight into the relationship between structure and form, therefore, is enhanced by the understanding of structure as a reflection of the prevailing discourse, emerging out of conversations in the social context. This tells us that failing, or denying the need to change form when structure (people’s expectations and needs) has shifted, causes organisations to experience negative tensions and stuckness. Capacity development couched in the old paradigm, therefore, rather than facilitating discontinuous innovation, is reduced to an exercise in fixing or re-arranging form based on conversations and needs already overtaken by change. This also reduces development to sets of interventions or activities in crisis management

From experience I have learnt that organisations are better understood not by their forms, but rather by two other characteristics: their ethos, that is, the guiding missions, stories and values that motivate them, and their interfaces – the ways in which they relate to other organisations and institutions.


Nomvula Dlamini


Nomvula with Susan Steward and husband



Kuenkel, P, Gerlach, S. and Frieg, V. (2011): Working with Stakeholder Dialogues: Key Concepts and Competencies for Achieving Common Goals – A practical guide for change agents from public sector, private sector and civil society. Collective Leadership Institute

Taylor, James. Organisations and Development:Towards Building a Practice. The CDRA Development Practice Series. Community Development Resource Association