Design, Develop, Create

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Theories of Organisation

What theories underpin contemporary coordination and communication approaches? How do are these theories arrayed and structured organizationally, what tools, and knowledge are assumed and necessary to manage the implementation/delivery mechanism? How might we interpret or theorise the underlying processes taking place in this cycle of learning and adaption, because of course technology and systems don’t evolve of their own accord. If we can assume that the organizational system for high tech development is itself a knowledge intensive system, with some (but only partially) immutable structure, then we can employ organizational theory to make sense of (and perhaps manage) these systems.

Organisations are a kind of social order that we ourselves take part in constructing to give shape to special forms of collective action. As Max Weber observed, take away the people and organisations are nothing (Weber, 1949). However sociologists remain divided on the topic of the structural status of organisations and even society. We generally treat social structure as if it is real. Indeed there may be as yet unidentified physiological/psychological mechanisms bases for social patterning, they remain at the moment however, mere conjecture. But even if the human mind produces society and social structure through some as yet unknown intricate biological mechanism, the putative extrapolation of such a function from the individual up to the level of organisational forms, indeed to cultural, social and societal forms (Compte, ), is still the realm of science fiction rather than of science.

Whatever about the status and debates in organisation theory and sociology we still want (and need) to understand and make sense of organisations, especially as we are all in various ways involved in their production. Understanding how we go about doing this is important because our very understanding is in some way bound up with our experience of organisations. The ways we make sense of organisations attunes us to how we interact with others. The language we use, the ways of thinking about events and contingencies encountered from day to day predispose us to ways of interpreting work and our working lives.

Assuming that there is as yet no unambiguous physiological or functional mechanism underlying the phenomena of social organisation; how then do we make sense of organisations even as they appear to surround us and constitute the fabric or our organisational lives? Metaphor is one way. The language and concepts we use in everyday speech govern to some extent our perceptions, distinctions and decisions. Metaphor is one way of interpreting and making the complexity of everyday situations comprehensible. A metaphor can represent a working hypothesis, a theory of what is happening, how it happens, who is involved etc. Metaphor is an approach we all use, almost without thinking about it, to interpret and simplify everyday realities. Lackoff & Johnson (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) argue that organisational realities are constructed in language, and that metaphor is a pervasive and necessary element of this.
“Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the work, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)
“Metaphor pervades our normal conceptual system” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980)
The prevalence of metaphor and its role in constituting organisational meaning may be a crucial instrument for interpreting and managing social interaction and (potentially) organizational design. Skilled and effective managers and professionals appear to have an innate ability to ‘read’ organisational situations, analyse and diagnose them by forming theories of what is happening and devising strategies to address situations (Morgan, 1986). There may be a direct association between a manager’s abilities to ‘read’ situations and their operating theories of organization. A metaphor lends a particular view or insight into a situation, one that ‘frames our understanding’ (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980) of what is going on; it is an operating theory of the situation.

Gareth Morgan (1986) offers eight images of organisations for interpreting and diagnosing conditions and situations (Table below).
Table: Eight Images of Organization (Morgan, 1986)

Lets look at three of these images (organisations as Machines, as Organisims, and as Brains) as ways of interpreting organizational systems and thinking about how to organise systems development.

“When managers think of organizations as machines they tend to manage and design them as machines made up of interlocking parts that each play a clearly defined role in the functioning of the whole.” (Morgan, 1986)
The machine metaphor has become so pervasive that it is often simply unquestioned. Mechanistic models are one of the foundational concepts of organization theory although the software development industry appears at times to have a special attachment to it.

Functional mechanistic organisation design may be a direct analogue of the organization’s dominant product architecture or be based on process specialization. Product analogue organization maps the macroscopic structure of the development firm along functional lines to the functional organization of the product. Process specialization is where rather than the organisation's product determining the design of the organisation, the organisations processes (chains of activities) determine the structure of the organisation. These processes (e.g. maintenance, new product development, consulting) govern the divisional structure of the firm even though at the micro level (in sub groups or teams) individuals may still apply a mapping between the product design and their own roles and responsibilities. For example specialist engineers will own specific code modules for new development, fixes etc.

“The problems of mechanistic visions of organisation have lead many organization theorists away from mechanical science and towards biology as a source or ideas for thinking about organization.” (Morgan, 1986)
The metaphor of the organisation as an organism presents a view of the organisation as having needs and existing within the wider environment that impacts it. The organism itself consists of interdependent organs and is situated within an environment or ecology. It may have relations with other organizations and belonging to a type or species.

Certainly the ideas of biology have also, like those of mechanisation, filtered into popular discourse. Biological thinking has become one of these background assumptions constituting modern thinking. Organisation theorists have adapted the idea of an organism to that of organization; existing in an open system, adapting to its environment, interacting with other organisms, and applying the notion of fitness, surviving, and evolving over generations. The organism metaphor conveys ideas of a life-cycle, health, reproduction, predators, prey, food, waste, etc.

Organisations as mechanistic or as organisms assume and encode very specific models of learning and knowledge. Mechanistic feedback control loops are goal driven error minimising functions. The classic negative feedback loop is the underlying theory for many organisational principles. The Plan Do Check Act model (ISO, 2000) achieves product conformity by first planning, acting, detecting the error between what was desired and what was achieved, and then adjusting (Figure below). The organisational system applies an adaptive approach to achieving convergence with some defined objective or goal. Such cybernetic or feedback systems in organisations apply this kind of action/learning method to dealing with uncertain situations.

Figure: PDCA single loop learning of the Demming cycle

Single loop learning is characterised by negative feedback, assessing the difference between what was desired and progress to attaining it. The error or difference is measured and then minimised, further action is dictated and the process continues until the goal is achieved. This kind of cybernetic feedback loop may be explained by the example of picking up a pen. In a sense we pick up an pen by ‘avoiding not picking it up’ (Morgan, 1986: 85). The argument goes that iswe make a guess or approximation of where the pen is then gradually adjust our hand’s position towards it.

PDCA is a kind of ‘single loop learning.’ (Argyris, 1977) A single loop learning organisation designed around PDCA is good at producing and refining well defined products efficiently, predictably, and within high quality tolerances (think Six Sigma) but they may not be as effective at responding to changing requirements and dynamic competitive environments. One problem with simple learning models is that they can be inherently incremental, focused on perfective rather than more radical adaptive learning. The PDCA or the single loop learning model is perfective rather than adaptive.
Throughout the 1990’s Kodak “kept making the process of manufacturing and distributing chemical-based film more efficient instead of devoting attention to making the shift to digital photography” (Amabile and Khaire, 2008)

Put another way, the single loop learning model doesn’t tell us much about adapting the organisation to changing circumstances, new goals. An intelligent person for example, situated in a particular context treats learning in a fundamentally different way. We can conclude that as with individuals, organizations can step out of single loop cybernetic goal directed action by reflecting. According to Morgan, overcoming the organisational limitations of single loop learning involves: Institutionalising review, challenging norms, challenging policies, challenging operating procedures, reporting on change in the operating environment, and encouraging on-going debate, encouraging innovation (adapted from (Morgan, 1986)). All of which will however generate organisational tensions if single loop learning is institutionalized through the organizations structures and procedures.