Play to build organisations’ social capital

Social Capital is more than the individual / human capital- Build it with LEGO

The simplest questions are the toughest to be faced. Methodologies like LEGO SERIOUS PLAY (LSP) are said and proved to have a huge effect on organisations. Right, organisations. But what are organisations? And how LSP can be beneficial?
It might sound a stupid question, though I think that there are no stupid questions just wrong assumptions. In order to  better understand the context, I had a look to some classical authors in organisational theory. I’ve looked back at what literature says about organisations: literature is still a huge resource when it is part of a search for answers. I’ve started with classics, those authors that most managers today should be familiar with to better understand the context as it is.
Weick (1979) says that organisations are ‘identifiable social entity pursuing multiple objectives through the coordinated activities and relations among members and objects’ (:3) and later, in 1984, Daft & Weick write that organisations are ‘open systems that process information from the environment’ (:285) so that are seen as meaning systems (:293).
Scott (1987) focus on people when stating that “organisations are social structures created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of special goals” (:10).
Chia (2000 :514) says that organisations are social objects constituted by discourse.
The social nature of organisations seems clear: organisations are made by people.

All these definitions, which are even less than the top of the iceberg of classics organisational theory, all recall concepts related to collectivity, group and social interaction. However, if we look closer to organisations divisions and practices, how is such a social dimension considered?

If organisations are social entities where people are called to contribute, the real resource should lie in this kind of social and relational capital, more than in the human one – seen as a detached and interchangeable element – a concept reinforced by the idea that the change in individuals is not meant to change the outcome (Weick 1979 :33). However, if we think back to our working experience, we see that individuals are often called to fill skills’ gap with limited consideration of the social environment that the person will become part of and how he might affect or be affected by the relational environment.

Because it should be kept in mind that  organisations are not contexts influencing activities of actors, they are actors themselves, they are collective actors (Scott 1987 :7).

Nevertheless, the reality in most organisations has not changed much from what Weick described more than 30 years ago (1979 :237) when he highlighted the problems that large organisations face: communication among people is not even, someone has the right to talk more than others, time is also a constraint limiting interaction, the dimension of the organisation requires a leader and someone to control, and people tend to form clusters. Especially this last point, the spontaneous formation of clusters, is an element that should inspire organisations to capitalise on this humans’ natural tendency to group to exploit such a tendency to increase collaborative attitudes and behaviours. Nevertheless, the  behaviours that Weick identified are still part of the ordinary situations that most professionals faced once at least. And such reiterate behaviours, focusing on the individual detached from the relational context, are often cause of internal tensions that are then brought to the surface by the difficulties and obstacles that the organisation, as a social actor, faces.
Despite a theoretical recognition of organisations’ social nature, organisations do not always exploit their social and relational capital and, somehow, they keep thinking in human/individualistic rather than social/relational resources terms, focusing on the part but not properly considering the whole and the relationships between the parts. If something doesn’t work in the (social) system [organisations are said to be systems], the responsibility tends to be attributed to the individual rather than to the relations and dynamics of the collective actor: the responsible is attributed to a single individual rather than being considered the outcome of any sort of social and relational dysfunction.

If organisation own an unexploited capital  made by relationships and collective behaviours, how could the whole system function, if it does not consider both the parts and the whole, if individuals are seen interchangeable elements, functional to a goal, detached from the social dimension? How could such an under-exploited dimension be properly taken advantage of?

To shift from an organisation model based on individuals to a social resource model focusing on dynamics and relationships between its parts, community-based activities become key factors to enhance and capitalise on organisations’ social resources and in such a context, playing, a spontaneous and community oriented activity, can represent an important ally. Although considered an unproductive activity, playing focuses on social and cognitive outcomes, that develops the capacity to understand meaning in context  (Statler & Roos 2002, Statler & Al. 2009) framing the social context and relationships (Statler & Roos 2002).
As an expressive activity, playing allows participants to construct their collective identities (Gadamer 1982) as people are spontaneously called to reflect on their identities and values and through such a reflection, they can build a collective identity (Statler & Al. 2009) that ties them and represent a truly constitutive element of the organisation as a social entity.

A social entity needs a shared identity and a shared identity comes from a focus on the social and relational dimension. In such a scenario a playing activity that takes advantage of the community-oriented approach leading to the construction of a shared identity through the development of a shared language and shared social practices (Huizinga 1950) can already be extremely beneficial, but putting it together with the a tridimensional, embodied cognition approach can be revolutionary.

The human minds works in three, or more, dimensions where hands enhance the material construction of ideas and concepts with great details, as they reduce the distance between thought and action: given this, the use of creative tools with endless possibility of combination and low barriers of entry can make the act of play an extremely productive activity from the social and relational point of view.

Capitalising on the tridimensional thinking enhanced by an external material object that also involves a physical activity that connects mind and body enhances a reflective process, where participants generates theories and knowledge in their minds while constructing models and by constantly interacting with their object (Gauntlett 2006). In such a process, each element and object participant use, it also carries and triggers meanings (Said & Al. 2001).
The use of LEGO induces reflection, as building takes time and the requires an intense work of abstraction and conceptualisation; the construction of objects that represent participants’ worlds are metaphorical, helping individuals to organise their experiences of society, but they also enhance the communication and meaning making between people: constructed objects have an emotional significance that is shared both through a story-telling activity and by bricks’ embedded potential for co-construction (Said & Al. 2001, Statler & Roos 2002). LEGO SERIOUS PLAY workshop, because of their nature, spontaneously overcome the organisational difficulties identified by Weick (1979).

The embodied experience and the imaginary situation takes participants from the real world, dominated by things and actions, to a world of meanings (Linder & Al. 2001) where playing develops individuals’ ability to understand meaning in contexts and it helps them to recognise and organise social rules (Statler & Al. 2001): in one word, by playing people construct their social and relational capital. In such a constructive and constructivist experience, playing within an organisational context enacts processes where individuals reflect, act, adapt and construct who they are both as individuals and as a collective group (Statler & Al. 2009). By enacting a constructive process where participants are called to shift from the human/individual resource perspective, where they are seen as functional elements in a system, to a wider relationship dimension, where they create, literally co-construct the social capital based on shared meanings, practices and identities, organisations can overcome the individualistic paradigm and make the most of their social nature, exploiting what they really are: collective actors.


AA.VV. (2002). The Science of LEGO SERIOUS PLAY. In E. D. llc (Ed.). Enfield USA: Lego Group.
Chia, R. (2000). Discourse analysis as organizational analysis. Organization, 513-518.
Daft, R., & Weick, K. (1984). Towards a model of organizations as interpretation systems. Academy of Management Review, 284-295.
Gadamer, H. (1982) Truth and Method.
Gauntlett, D., & Holzwarth, P. (2006) Creative and visual methods for exploring identities. Visual Studies, 21(1), 82-91
Huizinga, J. (1950), Homo ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Boston: Beacon Press
Linder, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2001). Play in organization. Retrieved from
Said, R., Roos, J., & Statler, M. (2001). LEGO speaks. Working Paper 20. Retrieved from
Scott, W. R. (1987). Organizations : rational, natural, and open systems (2nd ed.). London: Prentice-Hall International.
Statler, M., & Roos, J. (2002). A place to play: innovating the practice of strategy research. Imagination Lab. Retrieved from
Statler, M., Roos, J., & Victor, B. (2009). Ain’t Misbehavin’: Taking Play Seriously in Organizations. Journal of Change Management, 9(1), 21-21.
Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing (2nd ed.). Reading, Mass. ; London: Addison-Wesley.

2 Responses to “Play to build organisations’ social capital”

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