The Disruptive Competence: The journey to a sustainable business, from matter to meaning

by Fabiaan Van Vreckham, Belgium 2015

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Review by: T. Owen Jacobs, Ph. D., Principal and Co-Founder of Executive Development Associates, RBL Senior Fellow of Executive Leadership Assessment and Development, senior psychologist at the US Army Research Institute and former Leo Cherne Distinguished Visiting Professor of Behavioral Science Chair at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. 


In The Disruptive Competence, Van Vrekhem has attempted a most ambitious extension of Elliott Jaques' thinking on requisite organization and human capability (Jaques, 1989; Jaques & Cason, 1994).  The impetus for this extension appears to be a combination of many factors, among them concern about increasing rate of change in business and society, on the one hand, and (my inference) a concern for the extent to which business (and other) organizations perceive the importance of creating social value in addition to shareholder worth.  On the one hand, the book is interestingly pragmatic; on the other, it is interestingly idealistic.  

In his early work, Jaques postulated first five and then seven levels of role complexity, heuristically categorized by time span.  He also identified seven corresponding levels of human capability, characterized rigorously by level of abstraction and the way information is processed.    Van Vrekhem builds on this formulation, by integrating Jaques' concepts with concepts about the evolving self (Kegan, 1982) and the mental models (p. 15) required for understanding complexity.  In so doing, he has built a seven level "dimensions" model which perhaps can best be described as a prescriptive structure of values for large scale organizations.   

The book is organized into seven chapters and a conclusion.  In my view, the core of the book is found in Chapter 2, How Entrepreneurs Create Value.  This chapter explores "meaning-Making" – the way in which people give meaning to knowledge, experience, relationships, and themselves.  He cites Kegan in support of his assertion that meaning-making is inherently present in the individual.   He then contrasts Piaget (people go through cognitive development stages that enable them to think more complexly) (p.27) and Pascual-Leone [thinking is organized into two levels:  Working memory, which is "… determined by our mental strength to define the volume and the kind of information that needs to be processed" (p. 27) and the mental content which is "…the stored knowledge and experiences."  (p. 27)]  He then cites Jaques' work as a continuation of Piaget's work, and outlines basic theory:  four levels of abstraction (the complexity of information itself:  concrete verbal, symbolic verbal, abstract conceptual, and universal) and the way information is processed (declarative, cumulative, serial, and parallel).   These combine to create seven "cumulative complexity stages" (p. 29).  

He now appears to use both Jaques and Kegan.  From Jaques he takes "cumulative complexity stages, viewed as dimensions, and from Kegan he takes perspective taking.  In essence, people search for balance with the perceived reality; in this process, elements undergo a transition from subject to object.  Basically, we can give meaning only to what we perceive as object in the Kegan sense.  This produces a transformation of awareness and new ways of adjusting to the environment.  Successive transformations produce seven "dimensions":  quality, service, positioning, differentiation, reputation, societal contribution, and societal progress.   However, these seven dimensions are not conventional RO levels; rather, they look at levels of work not from a perspective of what people do but rather a perspective of the value they add. In effect, he has postulated seven levels of awareness that are increasingly complex, and which, in his view, are prescriptive for organizations that create societal value.  That is, the first requirement is quality of product or service – as perceived by those receiving the product or service.  The second is service in the sense of " playing with quality parameters that address customer needs. " (p. 47)  At the highest level "… dimension not only the quality criteria, the circumstances, the contexts, the roles, and the inner motives are given meaning, but the societal context from which these drives are given meaning is transformed from subject to object.  The leader, therefore, becomes aware of the fact that he or she judges the drives from the perspective of his own societal image.  This enables consideration of alternative or additional images in order to ensure societal progress and integration." (85)  

Perhaps the best insight into his overall purpose is in his conclusion for this chapter:  "In essence it is about a coherent process of value creation, and ultimately of a society that sustains itself, and that is able to work towards further development by reflecting on and especially by looking at other ecosystems or forms of society." (89) That is, his ultimate objective is social progress, and organizations that are aware of their systemic role will understand this and to some extent create strategy to satisfy this expectation.  As each "level of complexity" is added, added value is created.  So his seven dimensions are more like values than like complexity categories, though he has shown in his development how each "simpler" dimension is made "object" by each "more complex" dimension.  

While Chapter 2 is, in this reviewer's view, the heart of the book, the author in Six additional chapters relates the fundamental structure to: The essence of business (Ch. 3), Complexity and strategy (Ch. 4), Complexity and Organizational Development (Ch. 5), Complexity and the Employee (Ch. 6), Complexity and Consultancy (Ch. 7) and Complexity and Democracy (Ch. 8).  The logic across these chapters seems clear.   "The more an organization succeeds in adding dimensions to its product, it will create a customer willingness to pay a higher price for it for the simple reason that the value proposition has increased as well." (p. 104)  So Van Vrekhem is prescriptively advancing some important propositions about value creation and future organizational well-being.  The best potential for long-term survival comes from environmental awareness that enables inclusion of all seven "dimensions" of value defined in his model.  

Clearly, not everyone would agree with the seven dimensions he has defined, and perhaps not even with the priorities assigned.  However, from this reviewer's perspective, he has succeeded nicely in broadening perspectives about levels of managerial complexity and executive development.  He also has succeeded in drawing attention to the organization as a co-acting member of society.  Far too often, the perspective is on the individual executive or executive team, and the personal attributes thus brought to the role.  Holistically, organizations are viewed by those in their environment as entities – the organization's "brand." They are information sensing and processing systems (e.g., Daft & Weick, 1983; Miller, 1978), "making meaning" and setting strategy accordingly.  In Van Vrekhem's view, those organizations with the value proposition embedded in his seven dimensions will sense the environment better and achieve a better fit within their societies over the long term. 

Not everyone will find this an easy read.  And it is made more difficult by formatting and editing that is somewhat different from that found in most books edited in this country.  However, this reviewer found it an intriguing and worthwhile read.  It may or may not be seen as an advance within the requisite organization field conservatively defined.  However, it should be seen as a useful primer on how successively more complex levels of understanding probably should develop in organizations that seek to fit most productively – and symbiotically -- within their societies.   


Daft, R. L. & Weick, K. E., (1983). Toward a Model of Organizations as Interpretation Systems. (ONR Technical Report TR-ONR-DG-04) College Station: Texas A&M University.
Jaques, E. , (1989) Requisite Organization. Gloucester: Cason Hall.
Jaques, E. & Cason, K., (1994). Human Capability. Gloucester: Cason Hall.|
Kegan, R., (1982). The Evolving Self. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Miller, J. G., (1978). Living systems. New York: McGraw-Hill.


Review by:  Jerry L. Gray, Ph.D.  Dean Emeritus and Senior Scholar, The I.H. Asper School of Business, The University of Manitoba

Van Vrekhem, Fabiaan (2015). The disruptive competence. Compact Publishing: Kalmthout, Belgium 

The pioneering work of Elliott Jaques on requisite organization, human capability and mental processing have been the foundation for many research studies, scholarly and practitioner articles, and management books focused on the theory and practice of management. This book is an example of using Jaques’ theories and research to extend knowledge in a related area. It both strengthens the utility of Jaques’ proposals, as well as creates new perspectives in understanding how organizations grow and are sustained through increasingly complex strategies.

The author builds on Jaques’ seven levels of complexity in requisite organizational theory by integrating them with his seven building blocks (“dimensions”) for organizational success. His examples illustrate this interaction from historical examples, as well as suggesting future occurrences (“disruptions”). Having a reasonably comprehensive understanding of Jaque’s requisite organizational concepts would be helpful in gaining a full understanding of the author’s theory. But even at the most basic level, the book will certainly stimulate thinking in how to make organizations more effective.


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