28 January 2009

EMD VII: Alignment of Values vs. Alignment of Objectives

If you have arrived at this post directly, and are not familiar with my research, you may want to also visit some of the posts under the Valence Theory and Thesis labels, as well as reading the very quick primer.

One of the key descriptors that I use for traditional, industrial-age-conceived organizations is that they are purposeful. By this I mean that the organization’s goals or objectives are paramount, usually placed ahead of any other considerations. Thus, the effects that the purposeful organization creates in its respective social and material environments tend to be more-or-less ignorable by its management – externalized, if possible, but almost exclusively secondary to the organization’s primary purpose. If, somehow, those effects impinge on the attainment of said objectives, they quickly come into focus and become higher priorities. Examples abound: corporate social responsibility and ecological concerns have become important for marketing; dealing fairly with employees tends to improve productivity and output (until economic concerns lead to short-notice layoffs, reduced benefits, more contingent workers, etc.); advertising to children was a great idea to boost sales until there was the backlash accusation of psychological manipulation of the vulnerable; management consultation with employees works to build morale (often in the guise of "selling" management's ideas) until expediency and challenging circumstances necessitate “decisive” (read: autocratic, non-consultative) leadership.

And speaking of leadership, one of the key elements that contemporary leaders are taught in modern management schools is the importance of structurally insuring that employee’s personal objectives are aligned with those of the organization. Personal and group incentive plans, professional development, and all sorts of tracking systems (balanced scorecard, anyone? Ask me about the problematics of BS) are designed specifically to ensure such alignment.

However, among the clear distinctions between traditional BAH, and more contemporary UCaPP organizations that have emerged from my research is that organizations more consistent with the latter characterization tend not to be primarily purposeful. That’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. In fact, the respective purposes of successful UCaPP organizations tend to be pretty clear and well-focused. They also tend to be emergent, and therefore, any given organization’s purpose may take on a contingent nature. In other words, the UCaPP organization’s purpose tends to evolve over time based on the complexities of the contextual circumstances, and their specific interactions with those constituencies that become enmeshed with said organization. As one of my participants answered in response to a question about what their organization’s work comprises,
That’s a really hard question. … Our methodology is building long-term relationships. What we do is we do that. We find people in various ways with whom we feel we can form a common cause around some various social justice issues, and they’ll be issues arise depending on the context within which we’re working in these places. And follow the relationships. So follow the place in the centre where both we feel that we can engage and we can contribute, and the people with whom we are building the relationship also feel that they can participate in this relationship, and they’ll get something out of it, and it will be useful in the context in which they’re working.
Form common cause, that develops from alignment of values. Follow the relationships to that place in the centre (basho – from which the ba-form of the various relationships emerge) where both parties can engage. Only then can they both discover what will be useful in the appropriate context – in other words, the emergent purpose.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this description as exclusively appropriate to social justice organizations, or even charitable, good-works organizations. But in many cases, charities and even some organizations that began as grass-roots endeavours evolve into BAH corporate structures, losing that essential element of relationship and alignment of values that created them in the first place. Perhaps even more surprising is the converse: that some capitalist, commercial organizations – those that I would describe as being more-UCaPP in their behaviours – essentially follow this formula. Align the organization’s values with those of its members, and see what emerges that is useful in the context. Of course, in following this path, there are all sorts of disruptive (some might say, subversive) consequences to the way management has been done over the past several hundreds of years. But, as it has turned out, that may well be the emergent purpose of this very research.

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