Boundaries and Knowledge in a Sufi Dhikr Circle


Received today the hard copy of this Special Issue with the overarching theme “Practical Wisdom for Management from the Islamic Tradition”. Have contributed a paper on “Boundaries and knowledge in a Sufi Dhikr Circle“:


The purpose of this paper is to infer, from the mystical Islamic tradition, practical wisdom for management development on knowledge transfer and storage as well as organizational boundaries.


Knowledge transfer and storage in the Sufi Dhikr Circle is a relational and collective endeavor. The Circle has fluid boundaries between the organization and the outside, as well as between intra-organizational parts. Knowledge and boundary processes reflect that the human being is a complex actor of “body, mind and heart” with multiple senses.

Practical implications 

Management development theory and practice may benefit through reflecting on the practices of the Sufi Dhikr Circle with regard to its group-collective, sense-comprehensive and actor-complex approach to knowledge storage and transfer, as well as the spatial, temporal and content fluidity both of intra-organizational boundaries in the Circle and vis-à-vis its environment. Conceptualizing the human as a complex actor with various senses may improve knowledge storage and transfer processes, as well as fluid de facto boundaries.

Originality & value

The observation of “different practice” which is shaped less by business discourse enables a critical reflection of “common practice” potentially leading to a new “best practice”. Reflecting on the practices of the Sufi Dhikr Circle and its conceptualization of human beings may contribute to the management development literature and practice on knowledge and boundary processes. Contemplating on what is different may help us to better comprehend what is common.

In a former version of the article, I briefly compared my ethnographic experience in a Sufi Dhikr Circle, a mystical Islamic organization, with Wacquant’s experience as a participant-observer of boxing. More here. Also presented an earlier version of the article in Morocco. More here.

Academic Entrepreneurship

Presented a paper co-authored with Thomas Bohné at this year’s Academy of Management Conference in Boston.

// The Interaction between Academic Entrepreneurs & Potential Academic Entrepreneurs

“In this article, we explore the interaction between academic entrepreneurs (AEs) and potential academic entrepreneurs (PAEs) within academia. We focus on why and how these two groups interact and investigate intra-organizational facilitators and barriers of this interaction. The findings from our case study of the University of Oxford show that AEs are providing PAEs with encouragement and credibility and access to an entrepreneurial network. However, we also find resentment of entrepreneurship within academia and that distrust among academics complicate interactions, as academics are less open about their entrepreneurial interests and activities. In addition, we find that the technology transfer office (TTO) is both enabling and disabling the interaction. The TTO is perceived by PAEs and AEs as supportive of entrepreneurship, but also as having only limited knowledge and often being subject to a conflict of interest.”


Zahnräder Network

Zahnräder transforms individual energy into collective movement. Together, the Zahnräder – wheels or gears – create change in and for society. The Zahnräder Network provides a professional platform to encourage as well as enable efficient and effective positive change by equipping its participants with capabilities to fish rather than the fish itself. And it offers a place – on- and offline – for structured interaction to contribute to a socially sustainable, innovative and multifaceted society.

// Social Incubator for Social Entrepreneurship

Zahnräder is a Social Incubator for Social Entrepreneurship. Members in our network have a strong desire to shape society, to have a social impact. Zahnräder is a platform for Social Innovation providing human, social, financial and cultural capital. Zahnräder acts as an “uncle (or aunt) doctor substitute support system” by encouraging and enabling changemakers making change happen.

Ability Usability
Internal Human Capital Cultural Capital, Motivation
External Social Capital Financial Capital, Credibility

// Conferences

At our conferences up to 100 participants come together – all of them as producers and no one just as a consumer. It is all about sharing: sharing knowledge, sharing your network, sharing what drives you, your goals, your ambitions, your vision. Participants speak about their projects, receive feedback, knowledge. Some join projects they encounter some recommend it to their friends. Together, we do not just “add up”, we multiply effort and subsequently impact.

// Support

We are grateful to have so many organisations like Youth for Europe, British Council, AKE Bildungswerk, Islamic Relief, VdM and the Sawasya Foundation supporting us. And we just won the Social Entrepreneurship Academy Act for Impact public choice award and 5000 €. Thank you all.

// Ashoka Changemakers Partnership

We have also just announced a partnership with Ashoka Changemakers. Through the digital community space, we hope to provide a professional online platform for Muslims with their diverse and invaluable projects which shape society; a place for sustainable change and social innovation where members can learn from each other, encourage each other, connect, seek funding opportunities and market their projects to the world.

// Structure

Currently, over 70 people are involved in the organization of Zahnräder. Being part of the organisation team is about changing yourself whilst changing society. Communication is primarily online via skype, basecamp and email. We are organized in a matrix-like organization with functional groups on the horizontal and working groups on the vertical axis. Functional groups are inter alia finance, communication, HR and IT. Working groups are the conference team, ZahnräderX local teams and the think tank.

// Quo vadis?

Zahnräder emerged in Oxford in spring 2010 and is only a bit over two years old. It subsequently evolved through the commitment of so many dedicated people. We managed by now to shift from a starting phase to a growth phase. The idea is to be sustainable internally and provide sustainable services externally. We will continue to passionately strive for positive change in society to make this place, our place, a better place.

Firm Knowledge & Fluid Boundaries

// Practical Wisdom for Management from the Islamic Tradition

The European Academy for Business in Society (EABIS) in partnership with Yale organised a couple of conferences on practical wisdom for management from religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions. I attended the conference at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, on practical wisdom for management from the Islamic tradition.

The conference was filled with fascinating insights into current research projects. Prof. Rafik Beekun, for example, presented on “Muhammad as CEO” and Prof. Muqtedar Khan on “Islamic Mystical Concepts for Governance and Management of Multicultural Institutions in the Age of Globalization”. More here.

// Ego, body & soul

I presented on knowledge and boundaries in a Sufi Dhikr Circle. The purpose was to infer “wisdom” from the Islamic tradition on knowledge transfer and organizational boundaries for organizational theory and practice.

As a participant observer I sought a deep immersion into a Sufi Dhikr Circle to conceptualize how firstly the organisation transfers and stores knowledge and secondly how boundaries through de-facto membership, identity and sense-making are enacted. The Circle had a socialized establishment of knowledge through collective, relational and personal knowledge transfer processes employing comprehensively all senses. And the fluidity of intra- and inter organizational boundaries allowed for flexibility as well as wider and stronger identification. The presentation can be found here.

// From “different practice” to “common practice” to “best practice”

I believe there to be considerable wisdom for management from traditions which are not much shaped by the mainstream organizational discourse. It provides insights into one organization which is not considered “best practice” but rather conceptualized as “different practice”. The observation of “different practice” consequently enables a critical reflection of “common practice” potentially leading to a new “best practice”.

Gemeinschaft & Gesellschaft

Zur 200. Ausgabe der Islamischen Zeitung gratuliert Zahnräder.

In einer Gemeinschaft sollte man einander kennen, einander helfen und gemeinsam Gutes schaffen. Doch wir leben in unseren Städten und Dörfern, Ländern und Staaten häufig aneinander vorbei. Wie können wir ein neues Miteinander schaffen, um an der Gestaltung unserer Gesellschaft mitwirken zu können?

Eine Lösung könnte ein Zweiphasenmodell sein. In der Theorie heißt das auf der Mikro-Ebene: Wenn man jemanden trifft, soll man sich zweimal drei Fragen stellen. Erstens: Wer bin ich, wer ist mein Gegenüber und wer sind wir gemeinsam? Diese Fragen sollen dabei helfen, die Situation zu verstehen. Zweitens: Wie kann ich meinem Gegenüber helfen, wie kann er meinem Netzwerk helfen, und wie kann der Gegenüber mir helfen?

// Wissen ist kein Nullsummenspiel

Das kann jeder für sich praktizieren.  Wir müssen lernen, bewusst aktiv zu helfen. Miteinander. Füreinander. Denn Wissen ist kein Nullsummenspiel. Ganz im Gegenteil.  Häufig ist bestimmtes Wissen in der Gemeinschaft nur bei einigen Wenigen vorhanden. Doch durch stetigen Wissenstransfer können alle profitieren und damit das Gemeinschaftspotential anheben und wahrnehmen.

Auf der Makro-Ebene brauchen wir hierfür institutionalisierte Netzwerke, Kommunikations- und Austauschmöglichkeiten. Sie dienen als Gerüst, durch das sich „Changemakers“  kennenlernen, Ideen und Visionen austauschen und Projekte entwickeln können. Solche Netzwerke bieten eine Professionalisierung und Stärkung des Engagements auf der Mikro-Ebene an. So kann eine Gemeinschaft an der Gesellschaft mitwirken.

// Zahnräder – Ein sozialer Inkubator

Zahnräder ist ein solches institutionalisiertes Netzwerk. Eine lebenswerte, chancengerechte und zukunftsfähige Gesellschaft braucht Akteure, also Engagierte, welche diese mitgestalten. Zahnräder sucht Leidenschaft und bietet eine Plattform, durch die Human-, Sozial-, Finanz-, und Kulturkapital erworben werden kann. Zahnräder ist eine Organisation von Muslimen für die Gesellschaft. Als sozialer Inkubator ermutigen und ermöglichen wir, leidenschaftlich und sozial nachhaltig die Gesellschaft zu verändern. Extern wie intern ist Zahnräder eine Plattform des Weiterentwickelns. Indem man gibt, bekommt man.  Zahnräder wandelt individuelle Energie in kollektive Bewegung um, um so die Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft nachhaltig zu verändern.

// Dankeschön

Wir von Zahnräder gratulieren der Islamischen Zeitung an dieser Stelle zu ihrer 200. Ausgabe. Die IZ leistet monatlich in Druckform und täglich digital als Medium des Austausches und Wissenstransfers einen unschätzbar wertvollen Beitrag in der Gestaltung von Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft. Vielen Dank!

A few thoughts on Twitter

I have been on twitter for two months and a few days. Who would have thought that constraining people exchanging thoughts to 140 characters would become such a successful business model? Twitter was founded less than six years ago. And what comes next? Up to 14 seconds’ videos or 140 pixel pictures?

// information, knowledge, wisdom

In a time of increasing information where knowledge competes with information, we need mechanisms to strive for knowledge and wisdom. Or to speak with Eliot: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Twitter constraints the number of characters but neither the number of posts nor the number of people we follow –  nor, of course, the time spent on Twitter. We may still end up in a net of over-information. Yes, tweeted information is now edited and concise, but it often becomes merely subdivided and two tweets substitute one other message somewhere hidden amongst other tweets.

// being an architect. 

What is fascinating is that we became to some extent the architect of our own information channels. We choose who to follow. This brings some freedom of information as well as flexibility to create our own information. Each of us has his customized newspaper and news channel. The media, the fourth power, in the hand of the people? Not quite, yet social media is powerful.

This new power brings responsibility which a society needs to reflect upon on a macro level: Are we well equipped to be the engineers of our own information streams? How do we educate ourselves to be prepared for the challenge to act as our own architects and the architects of our own surroundings? And what do these information structures make of us? Who creates these structures? And why?

// the strange

On a micro level, we need to constantly review our own thoughts as well as the structures we create around ourselves which shape these thoughts. We should look out for the non-obvious, the strange. So my advice: follow the strange from time to time, be shocked by what is out there outside our own comfort zone, in order to reflect on this comfortable turf we create around ourselves and in which explanation appears sometimes so simple. Let’s shake up our information syllabus and break out of  our very own information channels.

Social Incubator for Social Entrepreneurship

// New core team

This month the new core team, a fascinating group of people from various socio-cultural, regional and academic backgrounds, will continue what its predecessor has started. Zahnräder is almost two years old and over sixty people actively engage in the network’s organisation in various working and functional groups. Its mission can be conceptualized as a social incubator providing human, social, financial and cultural capital to social entrepreneurs. It is an enabling and encouraging platform acting as an uncle-doctor (or aunt) substitution system. More here.

// Energy -> movement -> social innovation

Zahnräder transforms individual energy into collective movement. Together, the Räder – wheels or gears – create change in and for society. The Zahnräder Network attempts to encourage as well as enable efficient and effective interaction by equipping its participants with knowledge to fish rather than the fish itself. And it provides a place – on- and offline – for structured interaction to contribute to a socially sustainable, innovative and multifaceted society.

networking as a changemaker

I attended a seminar last weekend and spoke together with my wife about „Networking as a Changemaker“. A few thoughts on this in the October blogpost (four hours too early – off to Oxford tomorrow):

// The Micro-side

Networking is a multiplication formula which only works if it is pursued correctly. If you meet someone what do you think? What is your approach for a meeting? Quite a few books are written on this topic but I would like to suggest two points to ponder upon – easily to remember and thereby easily employable.

The first is two have the following three questions in mind: Me? You? We? Or: who am I? Who are you? Who are we? This helps to understand the setting and act accordingly.

And the second set of three questions: What can I do for you or your network? What can you do for my network? And only then lastly: what can you do for me? I believe in this culture of helping others. If this is really about the I – well, it seems that helping others makes me happy. But it also seems to be the right thing.

Btw1: This seems to me to be essentially a very ethical question about our approach to life. How do I treat others? Why do I connect to others? Do I simply focus on my interests or is there more to it than trying to maximize my gains. What am I waking up for? Why do I (inter-)act?

// The Macro-side

Institutionalized networking should encourage and enable networking. It should provide a frame or plattform for the micro-side. According to Podolny and Page (1998), a networked organization is based on trust and reciprocity while a hierarchical organization employs authority. It is “ask” versus “make”.

For Goffee and Jones (1996) a networked culture is based on high sociability and high solidarity. Sociability measures the “sincere friendliness among members of a community”, whereas solidarity measures “a community’s ability to pursue shared objectives quickly and effectively”. If you intend to increase sociability, you should promote the sharing of ideas, interests and emotions by recruiting compatible people, augment social interaction, reduce formality, limit hierarchical differences and act like a friend, setting the example for kindness. If you aim to increase solidarity, you should develop members’ awareness of competitors, establish a sense of urgency, stimulate the will to win and encourage commitment to corporate goals.

Btw2: Again, what an organization does to us and we to it, is a deeply philosophical question about how we approach the institutionalized “us”. Does the macro-side provide the right encouragement and enable the right interaction – done rightly? Organizations may end up measuring and incentivizing the bad? What if the essential is hidden from us? What, how and why do we in our groups, organizations and states encourage and enable certain ways of (inter-)action?

Changemakers are actually bettermakers. They try to do better through change as well as conservation. Bettermakers need the right approach to (inter-)action on the micro-side and an encouraging and enabling macro-side. Let us start yesterday.

networks for social sustainability

I have just published an article on about networks and social sustainability. Networks are described as institutionalized platforms which encourage and enable exchange, interaction and all kinds of transfer. These networks can help us striving for social sustainability.

// An “uncle doctor substitute support system”

The socio-economic or ethnic background should not matter in a meritocratic society. But it does. There simply is a huge discrepancy between what is and what should. This is not socially sustainable. Social sustainability is one of the three pillars of sustainability – next to economic and environmental sustainability. It is all about people, planet and profit – though I don’t think profit captures it. But value does not start with a “p”, does it? But let us focus on people in this blogpost.

Networks have to substitute the missing uncle doctor. People from lower social or educational classes simply have a lower density and access to uncle doctors. Uncle doctor (or aunt doctor) hereby stand for a wise person, who can provide advice and help in all kinds of areas. Networks can act as an “uncle doctor substitute support system”.

// Us & between us

We essentially have us and what is between us: We could call us actors or agents and the between us a system or structure. Or in terms of network theory we have nods, connections and relations. Nodes are stations, connections are rails and the relations are trains travelling on rails between certain stations. We are nods connected to each other with certain kinds of relations.

These networks could and should strive for social sustainability. They key is to allow for changemakers and allow changemakers making change happen. Simplified we have two ingredients. Ingredient one: the person, actor, agent or nod: this entity needs to ask himself two questions: How can I help you? And: how can you help my network? Ingredient two: the system, structure or connections and relations. These need to encourage and enable interaction and exchange. Both together create a willingness and an ability to change.

// How to fish?

How does this look practically? As often: it depends. There are many ways to facilitate this. The goal is the creation of ability on the one hand and the usability on the other hand. The Zahnräder Network attempts to encourage as well as enable efficient and effective interaction by equiping its participants with knowledge to fish rather than the fish itself. And it provides a place – on- and offline – for structured interaction. More on Zahnräder in my blogpost for August.

// Shaping society

Ability and usability can be paired and focused on participating in and for a pluralistic and socially sustainable society. Networks can substitute the uncle doctor and contribute to social sustainability. In this society, no one must have the response – but everyone should feel responsable.