Concept formation and organisational transformation

This is an Adaptation, Information Management Technology (AIMTech) event taking place at Leeds University Business School on Friday 25 January 2019

Studies of organisational categorisation are largely interested in the positioning of products and producers in markets, and “the vast majority of research on categories has rested on family resemblance – assessments of how similar an entity is to exemplars stored in actors’ memory” (Durand, Granqvist & Tyllström, 2017, p. 11). The limitations of this stance are twofold. On the one hand, categorisation tends to collapse when we face radical innovations that rely on decentralized development involving multiple parties with different objectives and backgrounds (Vergne & Swain, 2017). On the other hand, categorisation is of little help in transformations in which actors struggle to forge a new purpose and meaning for their organisation. The latter limitation prompted Hibbert and Cunliffe (2013) to turn to so-called threshold concepts as means of transformation and reflection.

We suggest that it is time to open up organisational concept formation as a field of study, aimed at understanding organisational transformations as agentive processes oriented toward equity and sustainability. From the point of view of activity theory, organisational transformation is foundationally a question of ’why?’ and ’where to?’ – what is the object of the activity, what are its inner contradictions and what is its historically emerging zone of proximal development. A conceptualization of the object may be called functional concept (Engeström & Sannino, 2012; Greeno, 2012). Functional concepts are future-oriented, they are loaded with affects, hopes, fears, values, and collective aspirations. They embody time-bound collective intentions or visions of future development and change. Functional concepts are not necessarily well articulated and verbally defined; they may take shape in materially enacted modalities.

To understand functional concepts and their potential in organisational transformations, we will examine four cases:

  1. building large wooden fishing boats at the Bay of Bengal in India,
  2. constructing collaborative pest management among greenhouse tomato growers in western Finland 
  3. supporting sustainable physical mobility in the home care of the elderly in Helsinki, Finland
  4. generating and implementing the principle of Housing First in the national strategy for eradicating homelessness in Finland.

We will analyse the cases to answer the following questions:

  • What types of functional concepts may be identified?
  • Through what kinds of interaction and collaboration are different types of functional concepts formed?
  • What kinds of instruments are used in the formation of different functional concepts?

We will conclude by sketching implications of the analysis for further research and interventions.

For further information, please contact Steven Hawkins at

About the speaker

Yrjö Engeström is Professor Emeritus of Adult Education at University of Helsinki and Professor Emeritus of Communication at University of California, San Diego. He is Director of the Center for Research on Activity, Development and Learning (CRADLE), and serves as visiting professor at Rhodes University in South Africa and at University West in Sweden. In his work Engeström applies and develops cultural-historical activity theory as a framework for the study of transformations in organisations, communities and work activities. He is known for his theory of expansive learning and for the methodology of formative interventions, including the Change Laboratory method. Engeström’s most recent books are From Teams to Knots: Activity-Theoretical Studies of Collaboration and Learning at Work (2008), Learning by Expanding: An Activity-Theoretical Approach to Developmental Research, 2nd Edition (2015), Studies in Expansive Learning: Learning What Is Not Yet There (2016), and Expertise in Transition: Expansive Learning in Medical Work (2018), all published by Cambridge University Press.