Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Conversations: for action, for clarification, for possibilities, for orientation

In the Adaptive Enterprise research that I had conducted between 1998 and 2001, I was primarily focused on conversations for action, towards a commitment action protocol. I extended, in 2008, those ideas into a research paper to recognize (at least) four types of obligations:

  • commitments to produce a deliverable;
  • commitments to follow a process;
  • commitments to provide a capability; and
  • commitments to contribute to a relationship.

These four types were not considered exhaustive, but helpful in understanding how service systems work.

In the background, I’ve always known that there are other kinds of conversation.  To be explicit about these, I’ll refer to a 1987 article by Terry Winograd (that was a revision of 1986 workshop paper reprinted in 1988).

Winograd provides the foundations back to speech act theory, from Austin, and then Searle.

Austin (1962) noted that not all utterances are statements whose truth or falsity is at stake. Performatives, such as I pronounce you husband and wife are actions, which can be made appropriately (felicitously) or not, but which are neither true nor false in a simple sense. Similarly, the language actions of commands, questions, and apologies are not descriptions of a non-linguistic world.

Searle (1975) identified five fundamental illocutionary points — things you can do with an utterance:

Assertive Commit the speaker (in varying degrees) to somethings being the case — to the truth of the expressed proposition.
Directive Attempt (in varying degrees) to get the hearer to do something. These include both questions (which can direct the hearer to make an assertive speech act in response) and commands (which direct the hearer to carry out some linguistic or non-linguistic act).
Commissive Commit the speaker (again in varying degrees) to some future course of action.
Declaration Bring about the correspondence between the propositional content of the speech act and reality (e.g., pronouncing a couple married).
Expressive Express a psychological state about a state of affairs (e.g., apologizing and praising).

[pp. 7-8]

The conversations for action tend to focus on the commissives, but the other illocutionary points happen as well.

Winograd describes three other types of conversations.

We distinguish several additional kinds of conversation that go along with conversations for action (CfA):

  • conversation for clarification,
  • conversation for possibilities, and
  • conversation for orientation.

There is no sharp line between them, but they are accompanied by different moods.

In a conversation for clarification the participants cope with or anticipate breakdowns concerning interpretations of the conditions of satisfaction for a CfA. The conditions are always interpreted with respect to an implicit shared background, but the sharing is partial and needs to be negotiated. As a simple example, the request “Give the patient some diazine” might evoke responses such as “Right now, or with the morning meds?” or “What dosage?” One can never guarantee that everything is totally precise. Precision is relative to each party’s implicit anticipation that the other party will have a sufficiently shared background to carry out the action in a satisfactory way.

In a conversation for possibilities, the mood is one of speculation, anticipating the subsequent generation of conversations for action. Specific conditions of satisfaction will emerge in the course of the conversation, and associated conversations for action will be initiated. Many gatherings that are called meetings are best conducted in this mood. The meeting is a failure if some action does not come out of the discussion. Some conversations for possibilities are highly routinized. For example, work rounds on a hospital ward is a routine conversation for possibilities, during which the medical team visits each patient and specific requests and commitments are generated.

In a conversation for orientation, the mood is one of creating a shared background as a basis for future interpretation of conversations. This shared background includes specific knowledge, interpersonal relations, and general attitudes. The most obvious examples are meetings labelled orientation, in which newcomers begin to develop the understanding that is required to function in the organization. Conversations for orientation are prominent in less formal settings (shooting the bull). Although the mood here is not directed towards action, it is important to recognize the importance of developing mutual orientation as the basis for future effective action and for appropriately shared interpretation of language acts.

Each of these types of conversation has its own regularities of structure, which in turn can be reflected in the design of the tools for conducting it.  [p. 15, editorial emphases and paragraphing added]

A case study of work in a hospital is analyzed for each of these kinds of conversations.  The context of the “larger web of conversations” is recognized.  These include written documents (e.g. on the quality of care), as well as non-written and/or uncaptured electronic communications that would have to be recalled as declarations by individuals with subjective interpretations and purposes.

The language action perspective is seen as superordinate to semantics, with profession-oriented meanings resulting in distinctions that may not be understood to practitioners out of an immediate context, let alone the layman.  Winograd surfaces some “blindnesses” that are introduced through the technological medium of computing.

Beyond having conversations recorded in writing or via electronic media, recognition of the above types of conversations may help communications and coordination in business, not only in superior-subordinate relationships, but also peer-to-peer relationships.  Haeckel (1999) calls for rigour as necessary but not sufficient in a commitment-based governance system.

The commitments made and and registered must also be authentic.  By authentic, I mean two things.  First, both parties must mean what they say and say what they mean — they must be sincere.  Second, each party must know and understand what they mean — they must be competent.  [p. 150]

Beyond commitments — in clarifications, in possibilities, and in orientation — these three principles are good practice:  (a) mean what you say, (b) say what you mean, and (c) know what you mean.  In a turbulent conditions, this third principle — to know what you mean — can be a challenge.  Reorienting, exploring alternative possibilities and/or gaining additional clarification may drive revisiting and renegotiating commitments made under uncertainty.


Stephan H. Haeckel, Adaptive Enterprise: Creating and Leading Sense-and-Respond Organizations, Harvard Business School Press, 1999.

Terry Winograd, “A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work”, Human-Computer Interaction volume 3, number 1 (1987-88), pp. 3-30, available at posted at

Terry Winograd, “A Language/Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work”, Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings (Irene Greif, editor), Morgan-Kaufmann, 1988, pp. 623-653.



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