22 March 2006

Very Initial Thoughts on a Valence Theory of Organization

Brief thoughts on a new insight into my research problem. [Previously: I propose reconstructing the concept of organizational effectiveness to focus on the effects that an organization creates in its total environment, through processes that include environmental perception, a “third loop” of feedforward added to Argyris’s double-loop learning, and adding an “orientation: outer-inner” axis to Quinn & Rohrbaugh’s competing values framework. These are mechanisms that can be used to screen for organizations that are actively cognizant of their complex network effects, and to explain a mechanism whereby organizations can achieve this new awareness. But what, precisely, do we mean by “organization?”]

Manuel Castells (1996) traces the evolution of organizations – particularly vertically-integrated corporations – through the 20th century, and especially, through the latter decades of the century as instantaneous electronic communications and information technologies have augmented organizations’ scope and reach.
The most important obstacle in adapting the vertical corporation to the flexibility requirements of the global economy was the rigidity of corporate cultures. ... In the 1980s, in America, more often than not, new technology was viewed as a labor-saving device and as an opportunity to take control of labor, not as an instrument of organizational change.
Castells identifies two distinct analytical descriptions of organizations:
organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal; and organizations in which goals, and the change of goals, shape and endlessly reshape the structure of means
The first is bureaucracy; the second, enterprise. He continues:
I propose a definition of the network enterprise: that specific form of enterprise where system of means is constituted by the intersection of segments of autonomous systems of goals. Thus the components of the network are both autonomous and dependent vis-à-vis the network, and may be a part of other networks, and therefore of other systems of means aimed at other goals. The performance of a given network will then depend on two fundamental attributes of the network: its connectedness, that is its structural ability to facilitate noise-free communications between its components; its consistency, that is the extent to which there is sharing of interests between the network’s goals and the goals of its components.
His examples are organizations and enterprises that have been enabled by the technologies that have enabled so-called globalization, that are sometimes more amorphous, and sometimes akin to the composite entity created when one considers a corporation and its supply chain in toto. What Castells has not done is specifically account for the plethora of permutations and combinations of people organizing to collectively accomplish a set of objectives (irrespective of whether all objectives are explicitly shared by all participants). In other words, by creating the new conceptual construct of network enterprise, Castells avoids the (rather messy) necessity of defining organization, or creating a unifying conception that might usefully connect organizational artefacts of the past to artefacts of the (present) future.

If one considers an organization as a distinct, definable entity, with discernable and definable boundaries, it should be relatively easy to determine whether any given individual is a member of the organization or not. In practice, this is not so easy to accomplish as network-like effects begin to be observable. Are seasonal or temporary contract workers members of the organization for which they work? How does one account for project teams whose members might be employed by multiple, distinct companies? Is a volunteer who works daily as “equal” a member as one who only works once a week – or once a month? How does one measure the size of the volunteer organization to which both belong? Can we account for consultants who are intrinsic to in-house project teams for the duration of a project, but may also be working for other companies simultaneously?

While each of these situations is directly explainable by Castells’s network enterprise construct, defining the practical extent of each of the organizations is not. I suggest that the difficulty is related to our conventional conception of organization as a box or container, within which are the participants, much like Pennings and Goodman’s “organizational set,” and Castells’s construct in terms of networks of “components.” Rather than defining an organization in terms of a network of its components (subunits, individuals, functions) consider instead a network of relationships that interconnect components. Thus, an organization can be considered to be an emergent entity, relative to a contextual ground, comprised of a network of relationships and effects among autonomous components, each of which may be an individual or an organization similarly defined. An organizational entity is therefore delineated according to the valence and regularity of those relationships, where the understanding of valence is drawn from a elemental, chemical analogue: The ability of a substance to interact with another or to produce an effect; the capacity of something to unite, react, or interact with something else.

In a conventional organization, the valence of relationships is relatively strong and regular (e.g., through hierarchical and administrative structures) within, and relatively weak (say through contractual relationships) without. The organizational boundaries may be semi-permeable, but the shape is well-defined (think of a solid). In a so-called virtual organization, or distributed team, or community of practice, the valence of the bonds are relatively weaker so the organization is perhaps somewhat more amorphous (think of a liquid), but nonetheless interconnected with a degree of mutual interdependence that maintains the valence. If several members of the community of practice decide to collaborate on a specific project, the valence of those specific relational bonds strengthens, possibly to the point of creating something that resembles a traditional organization. The former community of practice is not necessarily destroy; inevitably, it is changed via the complexity effects introduced by changing the valence of those particular relationships. The organization that was the former community of practice takes on a different shape to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the multiple valences of the remaining relationship and effects bonds.

Of course, lots of issues and implications remain to be figured out over the next phases of my research, such as the diverse nature of the bonds, how to reconceive pragmatic aspects of organizational design and management, how to negotiate the challenges to conventional conceptions (for example, I think that the notion of “permanent” and “temporary” workers no longer has meaning in a valence theory of organization; there’s probably a hundred more similar constructs that must be reconsidered).

This is brand new, and very raw, thinking for me, but I suspect that by understanding organizations as networks of relationships (of variable valence), all of our prior organizational thinking can be accommodated, our current challenges can be explained, and our future can be anticipated – all through a useful and comprehensive vocabulary.
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