Book Review

Russ Volckmann

Mark G. Edwards. Organisational Transformation for Sustainability:
An Integral Metatheory. New York: Routledge, 2010.

by Russ Volckmann

About The Book

Russ Volckmann

edwards coverBill Torbert, interviewed in this issue of Integral Leadership Review, wrote the foreword. There he wrote, “Once every generation or so, a field-defining scholarly statement appears. Mark Edwards’s metatheory for organizational transformation is such a book for the field or organizational change and transformation.” I very much agree. This comment captures the metaview of this book. Not only is this an excellent example of scholarship, but a clearly written, well presented treatment of a very complex topic.

Edwards draws on multiple disciplines to examine the principles and development of a metatheory that will embrace all of the “true but partial” approaches to organizational transformation and sustainability. Torbert makes several points in this Forward worth noting, with some embellishment by me:

  • This book would be a far more difficult read were it not for the skill that Edwards uses in helping us navigate through an extraordinarily complex set of sources, approaches and concepts.
  • Edwards has expertly laid out argument, counter-argument, contributions and shortcomings of the words of others that is always constructive in its tone.
  • The works of developmentalists (Wilber, Kegan, Torbert, etc.) are included in the exploration of fields of study where they have been neglected.
  • The book’s attention to sustainability provides an approach to transformation on multiple levels from individual to societal.

The existence of multiple theories and approaches to fields like organizational development, sustainability and leadership provides the backdrop to this book. Looking back at about 40 years at the field of organizational development it has been clear that the field is characterized by individual theorists and practitioners having their favorite theory, model, and intervention. While I believe this has been grounded in a set of widely shared values about the importance of people in addressing organizational change, there have also been those approaches that focused more on structure. Yet, even when focusing on process, organizational development tended to focus on interactions among people. In the case of leadership, the field is even more fractured. There have not been frameworks that would help us integrate these true but partial models and theories. We had no metatheory, at least not one we could explain very well.

My assumption is that most of us have given very little attention to metatheory. There has been some discussion of it in Integral Leadership Review, principally from Mark Edwards in the dialogue we published that ran from August 2006 through October 2008. I learned a lot from Edwards that has helped me in my own writing about Integral Leadership and in my teaching PhD students. In fact, reading Edwards has become required for my advanced PhD seminars. Do you have to be an advanced PhD student to appreciate Edwards’ contribution? No, I don’t think so, but it will be useful to contextualize what this book is about and to relate it to your meaning and sense-making processes in many aspects of your life.


Some readers are likely to reflexively turn away on seeing the terms theory or metatheory. This would be a big mistake. Not only would there be a loss of significant learning to be gained about organizational transformation and sustainability, but there would be a lost opportunity to learn about ourselves as well. The former is explicit in this work, but the latter is more subtle. At the risk of adding an unnecessary or unwanted dimension to what Edwards intended, I suggest that each of us is in need of considering his work on metatheory for our own way of understanding ourselves and our relationships with the world. This is one of the values I associate with Ken Wilber’s work: it provides a way of organizing information in a way that assists us in our meaning making.

Each of us holds a metatheory in our minds, albeit rarely attended to. As Edwards cogently points out, theory is a significant aspect of our worldview. The theories we hold shape our sense of reality, explanation and potential. Much of the history of human life on this planet has been about worldviews in conflict. This is true on many levels, as Edwards would say, micro, meso and meta. Our metatheories guide us in selecting what information is important in any given situation. This is no less true for you and me than the researcher. They contain notions of cause and effect, circularity, development, values, ethics, plus a host of variables that we must organize in order to make choices, plan for the future, and learn from the past.

While metatheory is relevant on the personal level, perhaps it is more obviously so on the collective. Whenever we engage with each other in bringing significant change and transformation to the world around us, we use our metatheories to guide us. When we want to create a new business, change the culture of an organization or embark on new strategic directions in an enterprise, our metatheories are engaged. This process is not as simple as I may be implying, which is another reason why Edwards’ discussion is so valuable. It helps us see not only the ways we have of making sense of the world but of potentially making more successful change activities.

We deal in a world of competing theories about what works and what doesn’t, about what is valuable and what isn’t. Edwards includes a quotation from Karl Popper that says it brilliantly,

I do admit that at any moment we are prisoners caught in the framework of our theories; our expectations; our past experiences; our language. But we are prisoners in a Pickwickian sense: if we try we can break out of our frameworks at any time. Admittedly, we shall find ourselves again in a framework, but it will be a better and roomier one; and we can at any moment break out of it again. (Popper, “Normal Science and It Dangers,” 1970)

Boxes, within boxes, within boxes…

In the face of our growing understanding of the complexity of the world in which we live, simply having a theory about organization, plus a theory about leadership and a theory about sustainatility will not serve us well. We need to find ways to integrate these different ways of understanding and seeing operative variables and relationships across domains. It is likely that no one of us can master all of this, but this makes it even more important to find collective approaches to problem definition and intervention that will allow individuals to work together in a more generative and collaborative way.

Edwards’ contribution is designed to go beyond explaining and understanding transformational events that use restrictive models while working with some research paradigms and theoretical orientations. At the same time, he continues very much in the integral tradition of retaining valued learning and perspectives from the past. He does this through integrative metatheorising, an approach that seeks to welcome theoretical pluralism and find frameworks to embrace them. His challenge is to use a conceptual research method of metatheorising to develop a flexible and integrative framework for organizational transformation.

Value of Metatheory

There has been no secret about the fact that the study of organizations has been seriously fragmented for a long time. Theorists compete with theorists, consultants with consultants. No doubt this is due to the multi-disciplinarity of the field. Within the historic structures of academia, we would find organizational theories and methodologies in sociology, political science, philosophy, business, economics, anthropology, and psychology. More recently, they have been joined by perspectives from quantum physics, complexity theory, neuroscience and more. Where there is a discipline you will find a theory that someone has applied to organization, defined broadly. Why broadly? It seems the field itself is fragmented into those interested in the design and structures of organizations, in human resource management, communications and information management, leadership, accounting, organizational learning, organizational development and more. With all of these fractures in the study of organizations and in their development, change and transformation, is it any wonder that the field is fragmented? It is a Humpty-Dumpty and, so far, all of the horses and men have failed to put the pieces back together again.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the study of leadership. In fact, the most notable effort at integrating several theoretical and discipline-based theories about leadership failed in its efforts, despite notable contributions from the participants. Quest for a General Theory of Leadership (Goethals and Sorenson, 2006) was prompted by James McGregor Burns. Despite his and others’ sense that it would be most useful to begin with an organizing framework (or metatheory) the group decided to build a general theory inductively. It didn’t work. Today, the group is wiser for their effort but no visible progress has been made toward a general theory.

In light of this maelstrom of concepts, principles and theories, Edwards points to three areas of need for metatheory: pedagogy, application and academic research. In terms of pedagogy, this has been a significant issue in higher education (see the series on Transdisciplinarity and Higher Education by McGregor and Volckmann in Integral Leadership Review, March and June 2010; more contributions to this series are forthcoming.) In working with PhD students I find that they are emerging from an environment of juggling competing theories to one of integrating them. There is hope for pedagogy, and Edwards’ contribution to this is exceptional. However, this does raise one issue that I have, though it is more with the publisher than with the author.

The world of application is where there is also a need for attention to metatheory. The history of transformational interventions in organizations is littered with the corpses of failed attempts. Any approach that can foster better integration across disciplines and contexts has tremendous value added potential. It is in this realm where Edwards opens his discussion of integral and integrative approaches, including integral metatheorising.

  • It is applicable across many disciplinary contexts. This is important for academic institutions engaged in multi- and even transdisciplinary research in medicine and disease prevention, engineering, computer sciences and the like. Also, it is not just among disciplines, but applicable to the fact that more and more universities are engaged in partnerships, even across national lines, to attend to the challenges of the day. On top of that, university researchers are working side-by-side with researchers and implementers in industry and the social sector. I would suggest that this is a trend of globalization. We are no longer seeing just the growth of global businesses, but the growth of networks of institutions around the world. Having a metatheoretical approach that can help integrate these efforts will be invaluable.
  • Integrative metatheory is appreciative. In the world of organizational development and transformation, the appreciative approach of David Cooperrider, Suresh Srivastha and their colleagues at Case Western Reserve University (more recent work since Srivastha’s retirement has been a collaboration between Cooperrider and Diana Whitney.) As the appreciative approach to organization change helps to reduce barriers to exploring opportunities for innovation and transformation, metatheory serves this purpose, as well. It reduces the tensions between theories and creates a container where all can be held with the understanding that they are all true, though partial.
  • The concept of an integral or integrative approach has a history in the arena of metatheory, thereby building on prior work in the endeavor.
  • Edwards’ approach to metatheory builds on prior work, including Wilber, Torbert, as well as both advocates and critics of metatheory.

Edwards writes,

“these metatheories, particularly AQAL (Wilber) and DAI [Developmental Action Inquiry, Torbert] have several qualities that make them well suited to the resource role in the field of organizational transformation. These metatheories: (i) have been represented in organizational transformational literature since the beginning of research in this field, (ii) have shown extensive integrative capacities in organizational contexts, (iii) can be applied on a multilevel basis and (iv) incorporate multiparadigm perspectives in building their metatheories.” (24)

Thus, an integral or integrative approach of some sort is supported and called for.

Rather than making this review longer than the book itself, I will focus on two areas of this work: metatheory building and the attention to AQAL and DAI. The former may not be of much interest to those who are not drawn to metatheory or who have not heeded my comments about meaning making and sense making, but the latter should be of particular interest to those who are interested in one form of integrative theory and its application.

Metatheory Building

The scientific method and intellectual passion meet on this journey to metatheory building. But this is a journey of many paths: traditional scholarship, dialectical method, metatriangulation and multipradism inquiry, sociology approaches and mid-range theory building. Edwards parses and identifies the limitations of each. Wilber’s AQAL is a product of traditional metatheorizing. As such it suffers from its relative isolation from other metatheorists. Wilber worked his way through hundreds of books and then “wrote the book in his head.” (88) This method relies on the personal capacities of that one individual.

The use of metatriangulation that draws on several paradigms or theories to build a metatheory. Sounds just kuje what is called for,However, its use essentially has resulted in reproducing a foundational framework and has not evolved metatheory. But here is where Edwards first raises the issue of lenses, one that proves to be central to his approach later in the book. The importance of lenses is greater than any individual lens. It is in the relationships among and between the lens.

Building on these approaches to metatheory building, Edwards lays out a general research design and method that includes the following phases (summarized here):

  • Groundwork (setting context and parameters).
  • Domain Specification (setting boundaries of relevant domains).
  • Design (data collection approach).
  • Multiparadigm Review (ordering the data/materials at multiple levels).
  • Multiparadigm Analysis (collating, comparing and refining lenses).
  • Metatheory Building (laying out the relationships among lenses by connecting them to an exemplar topic).
  • Implications (“metaconjectures” (truth claims and logical propositions) are used to the relationship between midrange theory and metatheory).
  • Evaluation (examining the metatheory and self-reflection in a hermeutical fashion in this iterative process of 1-8).

While Edwards applies this to organizational transformation, we can step back a bit and reconsider how we as individuals can improve upon metatheretical constructs in our own meaning and sense making. There is a process suggested here that involves both data gathering and framing about what is exterior to the individual, as well as attention to interiority. While it is highly unlikely that most of us will re-enact the iterative eight steps above, perhaps we can mine them to learn and evolve our worldviews.

Here I am suggesting that the cognitive development aspects or line of our evolution can engage with other lines (emotional, values, ethics, etc.) by working through a process not unlike what Edwards describes. It would require us to do something like this:

  • Clarify what it is we want to learn more about.
  • Consider the boundaries of our learning in this domain.
  • Articulate how we understand what is important about variables and what variables can be excluded.
  • Look at the choice of lenses we are using to organize these variables.
  • See if there are additional lenses that would lend clarity to our efforts and apply those.
  • Articulate what we learn about the domain and about how we are organization information about the domain through our lenses.
  • Specify the implications for implementation.
  • Evaluate potential outcomes for such efforts, including for our worldview.
  • When necessary, reiterate.

In addition to more intuitive approaches, this can be used when analysis would be valuable.

Lenses and Transformation

Edwards’ application of his approach to organizational transformation is quite thorough, including offering fifteen transformational paradigms and representative theories (103-104). He reconceptualizes these through methods known as bracketing and bridging within and between paradigms. This results in 15 conceptual lenses from bracketing and thirteen conceptual lenses through bridging. The former includes transformational states, stakeholders, learning process, dialectical change, and transformational leadership types. The latter includes familiar integral categories such as inter-external organizational environments, streams as multimodal nature of organizational life, perspectives, states, and health-pathology. Both include spirituality. In the first, it includes stages of development, purpose and meaning of spiritual process, connectedness and spiritual leadership. In the latter there is “profound meaning making, deep purpose & paradox.” (106-107)

Lenses that focus on the “what” of transformation include deep structure, developmental holarchy, ecological holarchy and governance holarchy. Note this: Each lens is focusing on a different holarchy. These are not lenses for looking at the same holarchy, but choosing one focuses our attention on an aspect of the individual or collective (in this case) holarchy.

Lenses that focus on the “why” of transformation include internal-external, transformation-translation, interior-exterior, agency-communion and health-pathology. Edwards’ discussion of each of these lenses appropriately appreciates the way they are being used in relation to organizational transformation and recognizes how applications are often focused on one side or another of the pairs. This demonstration is more than worth the price of the book to organization change consultants and theoriest.

Lenses also focus on the “how” of transformation. These include systems dynamics, learning, process, evolutionary selection and social mediation. The latter was of particular interest to me because of Edwards’ emphasis on the role of mediation based on the work of Vygotsky. Here attention on the relationships between individuals or institutions is mediated by “language, technologies, social norms and cultural assumptions…The mediation lens offers an alternative to those theories that conceptualize transformation as an innate, internal capacity of organizations.” (118)

Other lenses focus on the “who” of transformation. Included here are stakeholder, states of consciousness, perspectives and postmodern lenses. Many of these are very familiar with those interested in integral theory and will not be explored further, despite the fact that they are essential lenses in sense and meaning making.

There are also meta-level lenses. These include spirituality, steams and types. Again, these are concepts familiar to those interested in integral theory and its application to development. It is important to note that the streams lens promotes discovery of many aspects of the transformation process. The streams amount to domains of transformation, for example, culture, structure, and management systems. For example, emeritus Stanford University professor Jerry Porras and his colleagues used four groups or streams:

  • Social factors
  • Organizing arrangements
  • Technologies, and
  • Physical arrangements.

Porras noted that these streams are interconnected and mutually influencing in a transformation process. By using the strams lens researchers are able to see the multidimensionality of transformation and avoid what Wilber has called line absolutism.

Such a large number of lenses lead Edwards to explore how they can be integrated. To address this, he offers a set of categories, including holarchical, bipolar, cyclical, relational, perspective and multiparadigm. These can be used to examine the relationships between lenses. Here his work is largely supportive of Wilber’s approach, particular in terms of the Pre/Trans Fallacy due to the tendency for some theorists to conflate lens categories. This is particularly the case in reducing multilevel developmental models to a stage bipole and then aligning them with a valid bipolar structure. After providing examples, Edwards provides ten guidelines for avoiding these problems. For example, “Identify and, wherever possible, utilize the full range of levels for all holarchical lenses.” (145)

His next area of exploration is on organizational sustainability. In applying the developmental holarchy lens he suggests the stage model of pre-conventional, conventional, post conventional and post-post conventional stages of sustainability. At the post conventional stage you have the committed organization in balancing social, economic and environmental concerns. This is followed by the sustaining organization as a developmental process for organization and stakeholders and, eventually the sustaining organization in which sustainability is integrated into all aspects of its being and doing. He then applies many of the lenses to the question of sustainability and offers an integral etatheory for organizational transformation. Here his technique of using diagrams is very helpful in contrasting and including models, such as bipolar and cyclical in the same model.

Metatheory and Integral

Edwards closes his book with an evaluation of integrative metatheory and a proposal for integral meta-studies. His critiques are not unfamiliar to those who have been reading the work he has published in Integral Review,Integral Leadership Review and the IntegralWorld.netwebsite or in his conversations with Ken Wilber at Here are some of the highlights.

First, for an integral approach, despite its being used for evaluative assessment of existing theory, the principle of non-exclusion requires going beyond evaluation to situating theories in an “integrated metatheoretical framework.” [198] The appropriate use of lenses reduces reductive approaches. Furthermore, in the case of bipolar lenses, such as gender, an integral approach deters focusing on one end or the other, which otherwise leads to serious conceptual misunderstandings.

Edwards has introduced a series of additional lenses to the originals proposed by Ken Wilber. This adds a level of complexity to the framework. My sense is that working with these lenses at the micro, meso and macro levels will make it possible, over time, to not only develop refinements of Edwards proposals, but to help us build greater clarity about the relationship among lenses.

Building clarity needs to begin with a deeper understanding of the AQAL holon. Edward points out, “it is unclear whether the four quadrants refer solely to an individual or to the encounter between an individual and its social environment.” [219] I have suggested that Wilber’s acknowledging a distinction between individual and collective holons treats them as two holons encountering each other. AQAL can be thought of this way, particularly in light of Wilber’s suggestion that each quadrant is a holon. An additional approach would be to create a model like the one I put forward in, one that treats them as separate holons. In addition it introduces the phenomenon that Edwards presents on Vygotsky’s notion of mediation.

Edwards writes,

Global problems of the scale that we currently face require a response that can navigate through theoretical pluralism and not be swallowed up by it. In saying that twenty-first-century metatheories will need to be different from the monistic, grand theories of the past. They will have to be integrative rather than totalizing, pluralistic rather than monistic, based on science and not only on philosophy, methodical rather than idiosyncratic, find inspiration in theories from the edge more than from the centre and provide means for inventing new ways of understanding as much as new technologies. (223)

This represents the foundation for the extraordinary work that Edwards has gifted to us. This series of points is the point.

There are several (perhaps numerous) growing rivers of activity that are in harmony with Edwards’ propositions. Examples include The International Center for Transdisciplinary Research (CIRET), MetaNexus, transdisiciplinary projects in higher education (see McGregor and Volckmann, Integral Leadership Review, June 2010 for a striking example), and many more. Even a recent study by IBM in which they interviewed more than 1,500 CEOs (See Notes from the Field, Prasad Kaipa et al, Creative Leaders, Integral Leadership Review, June 2010 and the IBM study: is pointing to growing complexity and various approaches businesses can take to addressing it. There is a recognition that we will not be able to address global complexity with the approaches we have used in the past. More and more we will need to rely on networks and partnerships across boundaries that we have drawn, but that may be of no greater utility than many of the boundaries drawn between regions to establish nation states. Approaches such as Edwards’ are an important step in moving toward increasing our capacity for working with this complexity.

The challenge now is to build on this work.

Note: The price of this book is $110 (Routledge just discounted it to $99 on their website). That is just too much for financially struggling graduate students. Before I knew the price (I listed it before it was actually published,) I required it for a seminar on Integral Leadership. When I learned of the price, I encouraged those students who had bought it to return it and we would use other sources for Edwards’ work. For their finances, this was the right thing to do, but for their learning, it was not. There is so much of value here for serious students that I still hope they will read the book. I do not understand Routledge’s business model that supports such pricing. Even libraries in the U. S. are struggling with budget limitations as a result of the financial downturn of the last few years. Hopefully they will release the paperback version for a more reasonable price.

Goethals, G. and Sorenson, G., eds.( 2006). The Question for a General Theory of Leadership. Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar.

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