Margaret Wheatley on Information

Why is there such an epidemic of “poor communications” within organizations? In every one I’ve worked in, employees have ranked it right at the top of major issues.

Asking them [employees] to identify smaller, more specific problems was pushing them in exactly the wrong direction, because the real problems were big—bigger than anything I imagined. What we were all suffering from, then and now, is a fundamental misperception of information: what it is, how it works, and what we might expect from it.

I believe it is information theory that has gotten us into trouble. We don’t understand information at all.

What’s curious about our misperceptions of information is that we all started out on a much higher plane of awareness. Remember playing “telephone” and being delighted and amazed at how the message got distorted with only a few layers? At a young age, we knew information for its dynamic qualities, for its constantly changing aliveness. But when we entered organizational life, we left that perspective behind. We expected information to be controllable, stable, and useful for our purposes. We expected to be able to manage it.

In the universe new science is exploring, information is a very different “thing.” It is not the limited, quantifiable, put-it-in-a-memo-and-send-it-out commodity with which we have become so frustrated. In new theories of evolution and order, information is a dynamic element, taking center stage. It is information that gives order, that prompts growth, that defines what is alive. It is the underlying structure and the dynamic process that ensure life.

We haven’t noticed information as structure because all around us are physical forms that we can see and touch and that beguile us into confusing the system’s structure with its physical manifestation. Yet the real system, that which endures and evolves, is energy. Matter flows through it, assuming different forms as required. When the information changes (as when disturbances increase), a new structure materializes.

In a constantly evolving, dynamic universe, information is the fundamental ingredient, the key source of structuration—the process of creating structure. Something we cannot see, touch, or get our hands around is out there, organizing life. Information is managing us.

Margaret Wheatley. Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe.

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