An Integral Approach

By Chris Chittenden

“Human beings have a variety of intelligences, such as cognitive intelligence, emotional intelligence, musical intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, and so on. Most people excel in one or two of those, but do poorly in the others. This is not necessarily or even usually a bad thing; part of Integral wisdom is finding where one excels and thus where one can best offer the world one’s deepest gifts.”

… Ken Wilber (b.1949) US, philosopher

One of the great influences on my work has been the integral approach developed by American philosopher Ken Wilber. The integral approach incorporates what Wilber calls “the big three”. The idea of the big three is that in every situation involving a human being (or any other sentient being for that matter) there are always three aspects involved – an individual’s inner subjective experience of the situation (known as the “I”), a group’s inter-subjective inner aspect of the situation (known as the “We”) and an external more objective view known as the “IT”). Hence “the big three” is also known as the “I”, “We” and “It”.

The “I” involves our inner experience includes such aspects as our emotional states, our thoughts and physical sensations. It is the experience that only an individual has and is not shared with anyone else.

The “We” can be seen as the relationships and culture within which we exist. It includes things such as shared stories and beliefs, dynamics of authority as they relate to power and trust and is inter-subjective.

The “It” refers to what we can measure, quantify and point to as true. It is what is commonly termed an objective view and so whereas the “It” domain is very black and white – something is true or not, the “I” and the “We” are domains of interpretation.

The obvious question here is, “What does this have to do with organisational life?” To answer that question, it is important to look at the underlying idea of what an organisation is and how it works. The modern organisation evolved from the Newtonian idea that the universe can be seen as a machine. This view has a strong bias towards the “It”. Many management theories stem from this idea and so we find ourselves in an organisational world dominated by key performance indicators and management by objectives. From an integral perspective this is an idea way out of balance.

To understand this better, let’s look at an example. Information technology systems play a central role in today’s world of work. Many organisations are in some state of introducing a new IT system. Whenever a new system is to be introduced, the vast majority of the effort goes into fitting the system’s functionality with the organisation’s measurable goals and processes. This makes sense as a computer system is fundamentally mechanical. However, an organisation consists of human beings who live in an individual and shared subjective experience of the world. Hence, even though the process can be well designed, it is going to be placed into a context of an individual’s subjective experience of that system and placed against a cultural background. This is why many IT implementations are not as successful as is expected. Not because the system’s functionally is inappropriate, but because not enough thought is given to how to introduce the system into the culture and what an individual user’s experience will be like.

Using an integral approach, these different perspectives – the “I”, the “We” and the “It” - are catered for and in doing so a more comprehensive and effective way of doing things can be designed. One that caters for the nature of human beings. As the integral approach is universal, it can apply to any human endeavour. As a result, there are people around the world working on integral business models, integral health systems, integral environmental solutions and integral political systems, to name just a few.

Herein lies a great opportunity for an organisation. By developing approaches that incorporate “the big three”, an organisation can develop better ways of doing what they do and giving themselves the opportunity to thrive in these more challenging times. They can create an integral organisation.

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© 2009 Chris Chittenden