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Journal of Management Studies, 18, i , 1981

THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY OF ISSUES AND


ISSUES OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY
COLIN EDEN, SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN
Centre for the Study of Organizational Change and Development, University of Bath

ABSTRACT

This paper describes research concerned with assisting groups in organiza -


-
tions handle their complex , ill structured policy issues in ways which we
believe are significantly different from many typical policy analysis projects.
It is our belief that many systems research, operational research and manage -
ment science projects have concentrated on ‘objective’, usually quantitative
data at the expense of losing their clients’ interest and commitment. Our
work is concerned with taking account of intersubjectivity in policy analysis
and evaluation . It is orientated to the construction of models that will be
owned by our clients because they recognize as legitimate, and explicitly take
account of, the subjective and particular knowledge of individuals within
organizations. They also explicitly take account of the interaction of shared
and individual knowledge as a group comes to define an intersubjective
group issue.

INTRODUCTION

IN his presidential address to the Society for General Systems Research, Sir
Geoffrey Vickers (1978) referred to the importance of ‘intersubjectivity’ as a
basis for understanding the development of science. He went on to argue for
greater attention to the concept in the development of the systems movement.
Over the past few years the authors of this paper have been attempting to pay
attention to intersubjectivity within groups in organizations and understand
ing its importance for effective problem-finding and problem-solving in
-
teams.
In this work we have sought to demonstrate the way in which issues are
individually construed by persons, so that different persons will all experience
different issues according to their own perceptions, interests and duties
( Armstrong and Eden , 1979 ; Eden and Sims, 1977 ; Sims, 1978, 1979 ) . Some
of our studies, such as those just listed, emphasize the individual nature of the
reality within which problems are constructed. Others ( for example Eden
Address for reprints : Colin Eden, B.Sc., Ph.D., Centre for the Study of Organizational Change
and Development, University of Bath, Bath BA 2 7 AY, England.

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COLIN EDEN SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN
and Jones, 1980) concentrate on the way in which a group of people can
build and rebuild issues for themselves. The studies with which we are con -
cerned in the present paper attempt to combine these two aspects by permit -
ting a group of persons to discuss and debate about explicated models of issues
without the need for those models to lose any of the subjective beliefs and
values which individual members may have and may have revealed about
those issues.
In this work and our current activities we therefore take an essentially
phenomenological stance on the nature of experience and the foundations of
knowledge. We consider that experience is, at root, confrontation with
phenomena rather than ‘facts’ or ‘laws’. All knowledge is therefore in one
sense purely subj’ective or personal knowledge as Polany ( 1958) describes it.
Whilst we acknowledge that notions of consensus, shared goals and shared
knowledge do exist, and that many teams do reach a genuine consensus and
‘team view’ we feel that because team communication reflects intersubjec-
tivity, meaning that individual subjects communicate with other individual
subjects, there is a need to look more closely at the individual understandings
and views of each member of the team. We also wish to examine carefully,
when teams feel they have a common appreciation of a situation, what it is
that they have created which is in some way additional to each individual
conception, and how this ‘tran-subjective knowledge’ ( Ward, 1920) is
interpreted by each team member.
-
The significance of this perspective to our problem solving practice is that,
-
unlike problem solvers who might choose to place themselves at either end of
a spectrum from behavioural scientists to systems scientists, we see no clear
demarcation between different types of roles for practitioners concerned to
assist the working of teams. Our experience as well as our conceptual orienta -
tion leads us to believe that the ‘policy’ issues perceived by individuals are
inevitably characterized by important idiosyncratic beliefs and values, and
concerns about the internal politics of the organization and relationships
with other team members some, if not all, of which are likely to be crucial to
policy choices perceived and made. Similarly ‘interpersonal’ problems of the
kind ‘the problem with Dick is that he never listens’ may be seen as important
just because the result for Dick is his colleagues’ refusal to implement his policy
proposals or for them the consequence may be an inability to influence policy
in the way that they would wish.
It is our feeling that neglect of the issues raised by the notion of inter -
subjectivity leads to results in research and consultancy which do not take
sufficient account of individual perceptions or definitions of situations and
lead, consequently, to ‘solutions’ which no one likes because they relate to
problems which no one owns ( Eden and Sims, 1977 ) . Coupled with a ‘strive
-
towards consensus’ model is an emphasis on problem jo/^Vz , rather than
^
xohltmflnding or problem-construction ( Sims, 1979 ) . Coupled with this
^
orientation is the view that derives from a notion that a team can be pre-

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THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY OF ISSUES AND ISSUES OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY 39
sented with a problem which is common to all of them and which they can
then set about solving, or that a team can relatively quickly agree upon or
discover the ‘real’ problem which has to be solved.

INTERSUBJECTIVITY IN TEAMS

When considering the working of teams in organizations it seems important


and indeed commonsensical that such working involves the interaction and
negotiation of shared and idiosyncratic understandings. A team is continually
involved in some process of negotiating reality amongst its members. Much
of this negotiation , however, is likely to remain implicit, as in most social
interaction. Members of teams are rarely given the facility, explicitly or
systematically, to explore different as well as similar perspectives. We see as
critical to working the intersubjective nature of issues the provision of a
facility for making explicit this process of negotiating reality. As Vickers
implies, issues belong to people ; an issue is not the ‘objective’ characteristic
of some objective sequence of events to be discovered by a consultant and
proferred by his superior expert judgement as the ‘real’ issue.
The usefulness of the notion of intersubjectivity, for us, is based in con-
ceptual necessity. Regardless of the philosophical bases of the following two
positions, we find the notion that individuals are separate and alone, each
inhabiting their own subjective reality, to be, in its extreme form , almost as
unhelpful as the opposing notion that the world is a place of facts which can
be proved or disproved , and about which we can all be expected to agree.
For ourselves, we find that it is best to conceive the world as being individu-
ally constructed , with each person’s reality being separate and distinctive,
and yet with that reality not being so far detached from other persons’
realities as to be incomprehensible to them . Usually we find that persons
believe their separate realities not to be so far unrelated to one another that
they cannot talk, debate, argue, negotiate across those separate and different
realities. Indeed, there are some points at which different persons’ realities
resemble each other so closely that we can speak as if they were matters of
objective fact.
Organizational situations are particularly well characterized by the notion
of intersubjectivity . Characteristically in an organization , members will have
a considerable cultural, organizational and social commonality among them,
which would enable two persons from that organization who had never met
before to communicate with one another with much greater confidence than
would, for example, an American airline pilot and a Papuan headhunter
who had never met before. At the same time, the different professional back -
-
grounds, political and religious beliefs, values, interests and so on of organiza
tional members mean that their understandings of the world are not so
similar that they can be regarded as equivalent ; if they were so, then meetings
could never have any significance for decision- making, but only for commun -

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40 ,
COLIN EDEN SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN

ication, and even the most cynical opponent of committee life would be
unlikely to make that claim. For these reasons we consider that intersubjec -
tivity is an important notion for understanding organizational worlds, because
it captures a characteristic experience for members of organizations.
The theoretical and conceptual commitment to the notion of the inter -
subjectivity of knowledge, which guides our work with teams is conceptually
derived from phenomenology ( see for example Bitter, 1973) , the sociology of
‘defining situations5, and the work of cognitive psychologists such as Kelly
(1955) and Neisser ( 1976). Here man is seen as constructing his individual
reality according to the psychological frameworks he has evolved to make
sense of and act in his world , rather than perceiving some objective reality. In
particular we find helpful the succinct aphorism of Thomas and Thomas
( 1928) where if ‘men define situations as real they are real in their conse -
quences . As Ball ( 1972 ) has said ‘what Thomas is basically arguing here . . .
5

is that . . . in order to understand social conduct we must look . . . to the


meanings of situations and the situated meanings within them as they are
phenomenologically experienced by the actors located within them5. As we
stated above this is not to suggest that meanings and realities are not shared.
We see a dialectic between the individuality of reality and reality as a ‘social
construction 5 (see particularly Berger and Luckman, 1966) in which mean-
ings are ‘socially sustained 5 and experienced ‘as social facts 5 ( Silverman,
1970) and it is this dialectic which gives rise to the complicated notion of
intersubjectivity which we have attempted to carry into our practice of
working with teams.
If we were seeking some concept which conveniently encapsulates what we
are paying attention to in devising ways of assisting teams it would be to find
ways of assisting the formal process of listening. By this we mean the listening
by a consultant to members of a team ; by members of a team to each other ;
by members of a team to themselves. What is consciously and carefully listened
to are the theories, attitudes, worries, values and political concerns that
members of the team have about the nature, causes and consequences of the
current situation and any picture of some preferred situation that they may
have. We believe that listening must also involve the provision of a tool that
allows members of a team to hold on to the complexity of the different bodies
of wisdom and desires of the team and above all allows that complexity to be
managed and negotiated through careful and explicit analysis.

ACCOUNTING FOR INTERSUBJECTIVITY THE MODELLING PROCESS

The client’s subjective or ‘assumptive world ( Young, 1977) is represented by


5

.
a cognitive map The map consists of concepts (idiomatically expressed in the
client’s own phrasing) linked by arrows representing a causal link between
the concepts of the form ‘Concept A has consequences for or can be explained
.
by Concept B5 There is also a facility in the mapping procedure to indicate

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THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY OF ISSUES AND ISSUES OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY 41
connotative, rather than causal, links between concepts. The process of map
construction and the use of the map is intended to facilitate the elaboration
and exploration by the client of his own belief and value system in relation to
particular issues. The cognitive map is similar in form to the influence
diagrams used in systems dynamics, but it is specifically orientated towards
an individual’s view of ‘reality’ rather than the aggregated models commonly
used in systems dynamics (Coyle, 1977 ; Forester, 1961, 1969 ; Meadows et al.,
1 9 7 2 ).
In our case it is important to note that the model is a representation of the
concepts and language used by members of a team rather than the representation of
some objective reality. The methods for coding from listening are described
in detail elsewhere ( Eden et al., 1979a ) and are an extensive development of
coding methods used by political scientists to model the belief systems of
foreign policy decision- makers ( Axelrod, 1976 ) . We have also developed a
suite of computer programs ( Eden et al ., 1979b) to aid the manipulation and
exploration of the cognitive maps which can quickly become too large for
easy manual analysis.
Working on intersubjective issues by attending to the individual views of
the situation means that the initial stages of a project involve the consultant
in several meetings with each member of the team. The first proper meeting
with each member rarely involves the consultant in any formal modelling or
analysis. This usually begins at a second meeting when the consultant can
feed back the cognitive map he will have constructed on the basis of his notes
or tape recordings of the first meeting. He can then begin a more structured
exploration of the issue, as it is defined by the individual , using the model as
the basis for discussion. The feedback can take place around a visual repre
sentation, with the consultant very often developing the model directly with
-
the client. In this he is undertaking ‘on the spot’ coding in response to the
modification and elaboration that invariably takes place as the client grasps
the nature and purpose of the model as a representation of his thinking with
which he can dialogue.
It is usually only at the stage where the individual client is satisfied the
model validly and adequately represents his image of the world , and there is
some part of which he feels ready to discuss with the other team members,
that there is a move to bringing the group (or possibly subgroups) together to
work on creating a team intersubjective model. The construction of an inter -
subjective model involves the consultant in combining the individual models
into one overall model, or, more particularly, those parts of the individual
models that the team members are prepared to reveal to others. This group
model is constructed strictly on the basis that concepts and relationships are
only aggregated or merged after explicit negotiation among the members of
the team . It is therefore likely to contain a significant number of contradictory
beliefs deriving from the different perceptions of the team members as well as
concepts that may have virtually identical verbal tags, the meanings of which ,

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42 ,
COLIN EDEN SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN
however, as elaborated through their conceptual and belief context may be
significantly different ( Eden, 1978) .
As a concept or relationship appears to be puzzling or contradictory the
members of the team can address these, and change the model if they so wish,
as an outcome of the discussion. A significant feature of using an externalized
model of qualitative beliefs and values appears to be that the process defuses
many of the possibly disturbing interpersonal dynamics of team negotiation.
This is because concepts are not attributed to any particular person except
as a consequence of an individual particularly choosing to identify it as his
own. The model, however , is a representation through which a group can
dialogue, with each other and with themselves, to construct an evolving
intersubjective definition of the situation.
It is perhaps worth noting that within our style of modelling we do not
assign strengths or importances to particular beliefs, and this is helpful for our
work on intersubjectivity. When a team member begins to look at the subjec-
tive understanding of an issue of another team member, the role of a facilitator
to this process ( Sims and Jones, 1980 ; Sims et al., 1979) is to help the person
not too quickly to assign weights to beliefs of others, but rather to consider
them and to toy with them, until he has formed an appreciation of how the
other came by and held his subjective belief, and what that belief means
within his world. This we consider to be the very essence of how the consider-
ation of intersubjectivity can be useful to team members.
When the team can agree that the model is representative of their problem
then they can begin to undertake the process of devising appropriate actions
through the identification of concepts that are central to the issue and revealed
in the model. Often this involves identifying, usually through computer
analysis, any critical qualitative feedback loops that may be broken or have
their direction changed . Analysis consists of exploring the ramifications of a
possible intervention for the valued outcomes of the members of a team. A
further stage has often been negotiation around a ‘pros and cons’ analysis of
the implications of actions that affect different values of different members in
different or contradictory ways. As we have shown elsewhere (Eden and
Jones, 1980 ; Sims and Jones, 1980) the cognitive map is a model in a form
that makes it possible for mathematical or quantitative analysis to be under
taken using standard computer simulation techniques. In this way it then
-
becomes possible for a comparative evaluation of quantitative and qualitative
outcomes to take place if required. Usually, however, the very process of
exploring an issue is sufficient to change the nature of the issue, often in such
a way that the devising of incisive or ameliorative sets of actions becomes
unnecessary and irrelevant.
The stage of negotiating the definition of the issue occurs over several ses-
sions. During this time the consultant often continues working at an individual
level as members of a team seek to evaluate, using their own individual
models, the implications of the group activity. The result of further individual

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THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY OF ISSUES AND ISSUES OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY 43
work invariably means modifying the individual’s map and , thus, possibly
adding concepts and relationships to the larger model. Similarly an individual
may wish to explore at his leisure the data contained within the larger model
and compare them with his own. Clearly this process enables the careful and
gradual change of mutual understanding which is evidenced as each indivi
dual map absorbs more concepts from the team map and, conversely, the
-
team map absorbs more individuality.
As a result of our involvement in a variety of different projects in the field
of housing policy, probation, publishing, health care, printing and commun -
ity relations, all of which have been conducted with a commitment to
intersubjectivity, we shall go on to comment upon the problems and para -
doxes of our methodological perspectives.

INDIVIDUALITY AND TEAMS

The need to take account of intersubjectivity seems overwhelming. It is also


clear that the deliberate attempt that it involves to address complexity can
appear both to a consultant and members of teams to be a debilitating pro -
cess, the outcome of which can be potentially destructive to a team. Most
particularly an awareness of complexity can sap the desire or felt capacity to
act. The world is complicated enough, it may be argued, without seeking to
make even more of the complexity explicit and , thus, even more of the diffi -
culties of acting effectively in the world apparent. This is particularly so when
whatever one does can be simulated to have both good and bad consequences
for somebody in the team.
Encouraging members of a team to listen both caringly and analytically to
each other is inevitably consuming of both time and energy. Organizational
norms can make it seem laborious and time wasting and thus procrastinating
of action where swift decisive action is highly valued and rewarded. As
Berlin ( 1978) argues ‘men of action cannot be called upon constantly to be
examining themselves’. Nevertheless, as Berlin goes on to argue, the examina -
tion of not only oneself but others can be an immensely rewarding experience
as one is given different spectacles with which to see the world. It can also be
a frightening one, and the anger and fear can be turned on to the consultant :
‘Several times over the years I have been confronted, almost accused, by
people whom I have endeavoured to help. They have gained the perspec -

tive to be able to talk about their own concerns differently which means
they have expanded their capacity to perceive things from several different
positions. This complicates the process of decision-making and they be-
come furious at me for robbing them in some way of the limited view of
reality which has provided them with a kind of stability. I become ambiva-
lent because I wonder if learning is worthy of that much anguish5 ( Mori
moto, 1973) .
-

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44 COLIN EDEN, SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN

Our experience suggests that the construction of individual maps and


sharing parts of them around certain issues undoubtedly does generate a
considerable quantity of data for each individual to assimilate. All members
at different stages usually express worries about the increased complexity
around the ‘original’ issue and the time needed to ‘get to grips’ with the data.
It seems to us, however, that the sheer wealth of data generated by each
member thinking about the original issue supports the need to pay some
attention to the individual constructions, and for the team members to gain
some ‘feel’ for what the issue looks like to other team members and, in particu-
lar, what issue it generates for them. In some instances, for example, the
presenter of an issue states that through the process of examining other
people’s maps he has become aware of the problems it creates for them and of
aspects of the issue which clearly worry them but about which he had not
been previously aware. The gaining of these additional views of the issue is
always felt to be important to the eventual satisfaction which each team
member gets from the possible actions taken by the team to tackle the issue.
Nevertheless it can also be frustrating to have to cope with the irritation all
of us can often feel when paying attention to the fears, ‘obsessions’, and
‘peculiar’ beliefs of our colleagues, however trusted and liked, when the
situation is after all so clear and obvious to ourself. Indeed perhaps the most
significantly problematic outcome for members of teams who have a belief
that they should, and can, work together through negotiation is the possible
discovery that they have sets of beliefs and values that are irreconcilable, not
over one issue alone, but all- pervadingly. The axiom that it is sometimes
better to leave certain stones unturned is based on a sound commonsense
understanding of the nature and needs of successful social interaction. The
view that ‘it is better to face up to problems rather than ignore them’ can be
cold comfort to those who feel hurt and bewildered by the removal of the
security that the people they work with every day share at least broadly and
in important aspects a similar perspective. It can certainly be cold comfort to
those who have little choice about whom they work with, as is the case in the
majority of organizations.
Respect for intersubjective issues within a team may also create team norms
which make it difficult for members to suggest compromise or agree action,
since to do so goes against the spirit of individuality established for the pro-
cess. This can lead to an equally unhelpful situation of ‘forced difference’ as
opposed to the more usual ‘forced consensus’.
It may also be unhelpful to expect that a definite outcome will be the
result of any particular investigation of intersubjective issues. It may be that
members of the team find it useful to have a deeper awareness of their
colleagues’ views, and a richer view of the team, and this additional under-
standing leads to changes in the way the team operates which are beneficial
in the longer term. For instance some members of teams often express the
view that they had, during the exercise, come to view certain aspects of the

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THE INTERSUBJECTIVITY OF ISSUES AND ISSUES OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY 45
team work in a different way and it helped them understand more clearly
what their colleagues were trying to say and do (see particularly Armstrong
and Eden, 1979 ). It may also happen that a more elaborate view of the
team and team members will enable the team to identify more easily issues
on which there is and is not a common interest and understanding, and
possibilities of concerted action. Even though a team may have started off
with the idea of finding a ‘team solution’ to the issues, it is equally valid for
them to recognize the different perspectives of each member on an issue, and
act individually in the knowledge of these differences. The team remains a
team because each member appreciates the legitimacy of this approach, and
not all issues will produce such extreme divergence of views. Because there is
-
not a well defined outcome does not mean that the issue has not been ade-
quately tackled, and it is perhaps equally valid to ‘find out a short way by a
long wandering’ ( Hardy, 1978) than always produce more ‘efficient5 out -
comes.
In the light of these problems why therefore do we persist in the belief that
paying explicit attention to issues of intersubjectivity is worthwhile ? Our
experience of working with many teams in several organizations (including
ourselves) , is that all participants, in the end, have found it valuable and
rewarding to pay attention to their own and each other’ s intersubjective
knowledge and concerns. The words ‘in the end’ are used advisedly. It has
been a feature of this work that most of the members of the groups, at
different times passed through a phase of anxiety or depression or disillusion -
ment as the process seemed to be too slow or complicated or divisive. Yet
these feelings did pass, as a consequence of the continued patience and
encouragement not only of ourselves as consultants but usually one or two
other members of the teams. The process was described by one individual in
a recent project ‘like working our way through a maze, with lots of blind
alleys, but we had to do this in order to find sensible strategies’. In the project
in which this individual was involved the outcome was a set of policy pro -
posals ; which meant that the team had participated in defining and creating
their own future within the organization rather than having it determined by
senior management. In other projects the outcome has not been a clearly
identifiable and ‘finite’ set of actions but a new awareness which has ‘dis -
solved’ rather than ‘solved’ the issue.
The team processes described in this paper, which emphasize listening to
other team members, reflection on issues, and careful exploration of individ -
ual views, implies a purpose and method for team work which is in contrast
to the way many teams reportedly operate in organizations, government and
voluntary groups. Managers are sometimes encouraged to have as few
meetings as possible and to get on with the ‘real work’. Similarly group chair -
persons are often anxious ‘to do the business efficiently’. Our feeling which
has been heightened by recent exercises on intersubjective issues is that work
which ignores individual perspectives can lead to an ‘efficient’ but spurious

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46 COLIN EDEN, SUE JONES, DAVID SIMS AND TIM SMITHIN

activity since many team members are not committed to the activity, and the
decisions have not benefited from the range of experience available within the
team .

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