13 March 2009

A Chicken and Egg Question

I have come to distinguish between what I call “the purposeful organization” and “the valence organization.” One is based on the objectives, goals, and outcomes that the organization achieves, the other is based fundamentally on the relationships among all the members of the organization. This, however, suggests a question: what came first, the purpose or the relationships?

The former example – the purposeful organization – is what I perceive to be the conventional definition of organization, that is, a group of people who come together to accomplish a particular purpose. When they come together, they eventually create various relationships, but the organization’s objectives, goals, and outcomes – its purpose – is primary and sustains over time, irrespective of the people. This, of course, leads to the BAH notion (ex Frederick Winslow Taylor and Scientific Management) that people are interchangeable, so long as the replacement “parts” (people) have the same specifications as did the “original equipment,” and that the management protocols are well-defined and rigorously adhered to (ex Henri Fayol).

In a valence organization, people create multiple relationships among each other and the purpose of the organization is an emergent property of the people in relationship. Change the people and you change the relationships; hence, you change the nature of the organization itself. It is almost inevitable that the purpose of the organization will similarly change to a greater or lesser extent, as will its ways and means of accomplishing that purpose. However, Valence Theory also includes an action theory of effects: the nature and characteristic of the organization is expressed in the effects it creates throughout its social and physical environment – in other words, through its tactility, who it touches and how it touches them. To maintain a consistent valence organization is to maintain its tactility, although the means and specific objectives that create its various effects will inevitably change as the complex social and physical environment in which it exists changes according to the principles of complexity.

So which comes first, the purpose or the relationship? I think its fairly evident: You can achieve relationship without a purpose, but you cannot achieve a purpose without relationship.

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vobla said...

very interesting post. i've been discussing this with an organizational psychologist last year, specifically re a failed partnership i was a part of.

like yourself, i was of the opinion that relationship should come first no matter what. this lady was saying the following: there are organizations ("clubs") that are formed around specific people and for this people. then there are other ones that are project-driven.

however, she stated, in contemporary business it is largely project-driven, so humanistic factor would not be a #1 priority (a #2 definitely): without clear division of labour and role assignment a business relationship today simply can't exist, purely for the sake of "sticking together".

my 5c.

Mark said...

My argument for Valence Theory probes the assumption made by the organizational psychologist, that "contemporary business is largely project-driven" (i.e., "purposeful"). I would argue that the modern (not contemporary) notion that defines organizations came out of the 17th century as a response to secularization and industrialization. It was certainly useful, as it created modernity and gave us the 20th century (which some people might suggest is problematic in itself, but I digress...) However, I would equally argue that contemporary reality of being ubiquitously connected and therefore pervasively proximate calls for a basic conception of organization that is consistent with that reality. The organizational psychologist is correct in identifying the way things have been. I simply question whether it's appropriate for organizations - including contemporary businesses - to remain in the industrial age.

Joanna Fletcher said...

I think today the word relationship is so loaded as we use it to describe "domestic interdependent partnerships" (CCRA) so people think that a lot of time and energy is required to be in relationship with many people.

The nature of relationship itself is changing largely because of technology. It is now possible for me to receive status updates from 78 people every day - through Facebook. I know where people are going, what they are doing, what they like, how they are feeling, from what they choose to show me. Some lead by inviting me to join events and groups; I choose how and when to participate. A large business runs the same way despite rules and job descriptions and deadlines.

Mark, I think you are talking about making the system truly visible to itself. Do you agree?

Mark said...

Wow! You've raised an awful lot there, Joanna. Let me start at the end. "I think you are talking about making the system truly visible to itself. Do you agree?" Yes. Yes I do agree, because that's what doing theory does: make systems truly visible to themselves in ways that are "better" (in some respect or other; actually I prefer "more useful") than the previous theories, models, explanations, and mechanisms of visibility.

"Some lead by inviting me to join events and groups; I choose how and when to participate. A large business runs the same way despite rules and job descriptions and deadlines." Your characterization of Facebook (as an example of UCaPP) is bang on; your leap to the way a large business runs only occurs in organizations that tend towards the UCaPP end of the BAH-UCaPP spectrum. In more-BAH organizations, a person is only "invited" to participate in a project if they have a particular instrumental contribution to make (that has been predetermined), AND (in most cases) if they are of the appropriate hierarchical level in the organization to have earned the privilege of participation (or conversely, to be stuck with participating in their role). It's a question of who gets to greet the guests, and who carries around the hors d'oeuvres and collects the dirty plates (and then is sent packing when the hors d'oeuvres are finished). One of the things I've found while making the system visible, as you describe, is to notice that more-UCaPP organizations tend to do more inclusive inviting of participation, and the participation itself is more holistic, rather than instrumental for a given, relatively boxed, function or issue. If this way of being in an organization feels more in-tune with what's generally going on today, well, that's the point of characterizing UCaPP and BAH organizations. I'm not saying that BAH organizations are necessarily bad (although sometimes I do). The question is simply, do you, as an organization, want to be more in tune with the systemic changes occurring in society, or would you prefer to remain rooted in a more Industrial Age mentality? (Hint: All business schools to my knowledge tend to promote the latter.)

As for the loaded word "relationship," I agree that it has become a Humpty Dumpty word, meaning precisely what anyone wants it to mean. That's why, in my research, I try to be careful to use "valence relationship" to refer to those specific types of exchanges that (I suggest) create organization. It does take time and energy to create valence relationships. We tend to be more used to the fungible-forms of the various valence relationships (eg. do your job, get paid; I'm the Vice-President of Soft drink Distribution for FizzCo; we recycle all the paper on which our executives print their emails), so they seem to be somewhat easier to enact. Creating the ba-forms of valence relationships (that specifically enable UCaPP organizations), takes quite a bit of time and concerted effort, and a shift in the way we each, individually, connect to the organizations of which we are members.