04 February 2006

Thoughts on Organizational Effectiveness

If the common greeting among people in general is “how are you?” the equally common greeting when you meet a friend doing a Ph.D. is, “so how’s the research going?” Of course, I’m still at the stage where I’m doing literature, but it’s literature with a very specific focus: I’m attempting to both understand the construct of “organizational effectiveness,” and reconstruct it as a reversal to use as instrumentation when I get to the point of conducting my real empirical research.

So far, I’ve been reading stuff from the 1960s and 1970s, around the time when management thinkers were realizing that there was more to a successful organization than production and efficiency. Turns out that there is a key question that I raise in my reconception of organizational effectiveness that my supervisor, Marilyn Laiken, found particularly insightful. Chris Argyris talks about espoused theory vs. theory-in-use, or the gap between how people say they will act and how they really act. Marilyn responds that the practice of Organization Development intervenes to make people critically aware of that gap, and to bridge the gap so that people (to use a trite cliché) “walk the talk.” Argyris has other articles and books in which he talks about the challenge of doing this, and how complex defensive mechanisms are created by people and organizations to minimize the embarrassment created by the existence of that gap. (A good article from Harvard Business Review on this subject is his “Good Communication that Blocks Learning,” July-August, 1994.)

I ask an additional question: How do we know that an organization’s (or person’s for that matter) espoused theory is consistent with the intent of that theory in the context of the larger societal environment? In other words, if a company were to “walk the talk” – actually achieve a near-perfect alignment between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use – how does anyone know that the actions and behaviours undertaken in their theory-in-use will actually create (or even simply enable if we don’t want to be overly deterministic about it) the intended effects?

The extreme illustration that Marilyn came up with might be a dictator bent on ethnic genocide (think Nazi Germany, Rwanda, Darfur – there are just too many of them). The dictator’s espoused theory was that the ethnic minority had to be eliminated as they were the cause of society’s problems. His theory-in-use encompassed practices that involved stripping the ethnic minority of their citizenship, their rights, their property and material possessions, and finally their freedom and humanity. They were shipped off to be exterminated, or simply murdered in place. There was near-perfect alignment between the dictator’s espoused theory and his theory-in-use. However, the intended effect was to create a better society. It is not clear at all – in fact the argument is quite the contrary – that the espoused theory would enable a societal environment in which the intent could be fulfilled.

My concept of effect-ive theory takes into account the nature of the espoused theory’s effects in enabling an intended environment, with that intention being clearly articulated. In doing so, it goes beyond the inward focus (or to be generous, the organization-centric focus) of almost all strategic examinations of an organization’s vision or mission. Organizations that consider their effectiveness strictly in terms of their own operations, and their own direct stakeholders, do not consider indirect effects on other organizations, society at large, the biological environment, and so on. The traditional view of business most often views competitors as “the enemy” (and often considers its customers in practical terms as “the enemy”), and therefore any consideration of effects on those constituencies are viewed in terms of aggression, violence and predation.

In a UCaPP world, such a view is not only untenable and unsustainable, but (I argue) irresponsible and ultimately self-destructive. One example that comes easily to mind is the telcos’ call for the likes of Google, Yahoo and MSN to pay protection money to the carriers to prevent latency degradation. In the traditional Industrial Age model and worldview, these companies are leeches, “using” carriers’ long haul backbones without providing benefit to the carriers. In the UCaPP worldview, the carriers would realize that their long haul backbones become less valuable without customers’ access to Google, etc. It would be a PR and marketing disaster, exacerbated by the emergent transparency effects of the ‘net, particularly among the people who would be the target customers for the service.

The difference between the UCaPP construction of organizational effectiveness, and an Industrial Age view of organizational effectiveness is the difference between successful adoption and adaptation to becoming (in Manual Castells’s words) a network enterprise, and becoming obsolesced.

A friend with whom I had this conversation comments: “My thought at the end of your musings is, you're assuming that a corporation actually has a conscious thought about the effect they desire. I'm not so sure that's the case.” This is an interesting observation that highlights the crux of the issue. In a linear (literate) world, corporations don’t have conscious thoughts about the effects they desire. That’s the way businesses have been organized, and that’s the effect that occurs – no thought outside of the corporation itself and its immediate “stakeholders.” In a UCaPP world, there is a recognition that corporations create specific effects beyond their direct cause-and-effect connections, and that these effects can be conceived and anticipated, and therefore can be thought about beforehand. This realization takes the corporation beyond the sociopathic behaviours that were highlighted in the movie, The Corporation, and begins to impart a sense of existing in a social context, in much the same way that children are (ideally)socialized into “caring and sharing”, or grow up instead with various degrees of sociopathy.
[Technorati tags: | | | | ]

No comments: