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Viewing GISC as a Network Through a Gestalt Lens

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

By Barry Camson


I recently completed a study that looked at GISC as a network. The thesis of this study was that the community aspect of GISC which we have long been familiar with and appreciated really constitutes a network. Perhaps, the best way to describe it is as a latent network which in order to actualize its potential as a network requires our naming it, developing some language that enables us to speak about it as a network and recognizing the network characteristics that it possesses. All of this facilitates our intentional interventions to strengthen GISC as a network.

There are a variety of network attributes about which we could speak. I have previously written about many of these.[1] On this occasion, I would like to view GISC as a network through a Gestalt lens.


Levels of system – the network level of system.

I have expanded common Gestalt categories of levels of system to include the network level of system which I believe is qualitatively different from the other levels. Though it is not always the case, I posit the network level of system as a type of the “largest present system” (LPS). Though a group could be a network, more often I suggest we would find a network as existing across organizational boundaries or extending into a regional, national or global community.


Well-developed and less-developed.

Networks commonly reflect what is well-developed and less developed. Network aspects that are well-developed or over-developed often involve a cost reflected in what is less developed. For example, when specific people in a network are over utilized as resources, it often means that other people are under-utilized. Network theory explains that without conscious intervention the adage that the “rich get richer” can often be the case. The consequences of this could be bottlenecks around the over-utilized person and isolation and lost input from the under-utilized person. Focusing on what is well-developed or less-developed is useful as a point of diagnosis and change. It allows us to “re-balance” the network.


Creative tensions: connection and production.

Networks have purposes and to be effective should have clearly acknowledged purposes. Networks vary in terms of what might be the purposes of the network. One schema of categorization views networks as having purposes of connection, alignment and production. These are evolutionary stages of a network in which the network first establishes connection, then may choose to build on this by aligning around a common ideology or language. Then a network may choose to add production as a purpose.[2] Often purposes co-exist.

GISC has a purpose of connection supported by a culture of connection and values around interpersonal competency. At the same time, GISC has a purpose around the production of training, workshops, consulting and writing. Members vary in terms of their valence towards the purpose of connection or production. There is a creative tension within GISC on a network level of system between connection and production.

The Paradoxical Theory of Change can be applied here. Following this approach, the GISC network as a whole could be made aware of the existence of each polarity within the network. The practice of network mapping is an intervention that would increase awareness by visualizing these two creative tensions in operation within GISC. It could dramatize the network energy devoted to each. The role and value of each polarity within the GISC network can be acknowledged. This could in turn lead to explicit conversations about the role of both qualities.


Value propositions as structures of ground

Purposes are translated into value for members, customers and the public. This can be reflected in value propositions that cover each of these groups. The value proposition becomes an organizing and orienting mechanism for the network. Possible value propositions for GISC could be:

  • Improve professional competencies and effectiveness.
  • Transfer skills and theory.
  • Build interpersonal competencies.
  • Create good relationships.
  • Build a better world.

A value proposition acts as structured ground[3] in the network which then continues to influence future figure formation.


Integration of strategic and intimate.

This tension between production and connection can also be seen as a tension between the “strategic” and “intimate.” Another way of looking at this tension at GISC is arguably between the world of OD, leadership and organizations and the world of therapy. In the first, the effective completion of tasks is primary. In the second, relationships and intimacy are primary.

GISC constantly strives to integrate these two worlds. In the past, a major way that GISC ensured the integration of these two was through Edwin and Sonia [Nevis]. They represented, as founders and as husband and wife, the real and symbolic effort to maintain this integration. This integration remains an inherent challenge of the 21st century Gestalt enterprise.


The network cluster as a manifestation of figure formation.

A network competency is the ability to form fluid figures throughout the system in response to new internal and external challenges. Members join in new and different relationships with one another in responding to these challenges. Both the Healthcare and Education Initiatives at GISC are good examples of how GISC organized itself to respond to these challenges. When people have been energized to come together in pursuit of new knowledge or action, the result is what has been called a cluster or community of practice or simply a new initiative.


Creation of a fresh figure as a path to innovation.

For GISC to be sustainable, it needs to exist as a fluid overall figure composed of other fluid figures. This fluidity results in ongoing fresh and rich figures. In this regard innovation becomes key. This includes innovation in programs and services, in governance and in the underlying content and process theories of the GISC network. Innovation needs to flow into action and into contact that changes GISC members, organizations and the world.

Innovation requires a diversity of members. It requires a movement of members into and out of the GISC system in order to keep the system fresh and fully in tune with its environment. It requires contact among members of GISC that is rich and in keeping with system values around connection. It requires a flow of knowledge from outside in, from inside out and throughout the system. Innovation requires clear goals from the core governance mechanism and ample space for new ideas to emerge that furthers GISC system purposes. Innovation requires an appropriate degree of support for these points of collaboration.

In essence, innovation arises from the integration of planfulness and emergence just as it does from the intimate with the strategic. Innovation requires sufficient goal directed behavior to make good contact with the surrounding business community as well as serendipity that makes contact with the hearts, minds and souls of its members.


Awareness as an intervention

I believe that networks are qualitatively different from traditional organizations and that interventions need to be adjusted to this new reality. The practitioner community is in an early stage of doing this. At this point, I want to posit one intervention for the network level of system that has strong continuity with Gestalt practice. This is the critical role of awareness as a guiding intervention. Though the concept is familiar, its application is more challenging at this level of system.

The thesis of this article is that we help to further the network potential of GISC by being more aware of its nature as a network. One can ask, is there a phenomenology of networks? We can observe and point out aspects of network governance, inclusion, interaction, funding, facilitation and knowledge sharing. We can also reflect back who talks to whom, about what, with what frequency, in what groupings. We can also point out how the flow of work overlaps with these groupings.

The challenge at the network level of system is how to cultivate this awareness at a network level of system.

It is my hope that the insights set out in this article will help everyone involved in GISC continue to make it a vibrant and giving network.


Barry Camson is an organization development consultant and trainer and professor of management ( He has been a Gestalt practitioner for many years. A current focus of his work is on using networks effectively to connect, do business and support innovation. He can be reached at

[2] “Net Gains,” Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, v.1, Pg. 33.

[3] “Gestalt Reconsidered,” Gordon Wheeler, 1991.

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