16 March 2009

More Chickens and Eggs

In the previous post, I asked, what came first, the purpose or the relationships? In it, I argued for the primacy of relationships as being fundamental to the nature of organization itself; purpose emerges from the relationships, in my view, not the other way around.

It shouldn't be surprising, then, to learn that among my research data is a commentary from the CEO of one of my participant organizations who reflects on the connection between business results and a significant change in organizational culture. A traditional, command-and-control culture was drastically changed to value collaboration and (to the extent practically possible) eliminate relative status, class, and hierarchy in valuing ideas and inviting participation and contribution, even when it comes to significant and strategic business decisions. So, given that the results of the biennial employee satisfaction survey showed an almost unbelievable improvement in the humanistic indicators of engagement and well-being (i.e., really, really improved morale), it was almost a vindication of the extreme cultural change when the bottom-line results came in. The CEO reports:
That was also a record year in business. So it was our record year. We had fallen to a margin that was completely unacceptable, some of our lowest revenue in our entire history of the business. So within two years we had our record year of eleven years in business.
Great stuff, right? However, the issue that this raises for me as an organizational researcher is, how do I move from jumping to the facile conclusion – that improved morale corresponds to improved business results – to be able to claim that a primarily relationships-focused organization is more effective than one that gives primacy to its purpose? The answer, interestingly, is that I cannot reasonably make that specific claim. At least, not directly.

Conventionally, there has been much studied and published on how to improve a working environment so that workers will become more productive, and perhaps even feel happier in the workplace. This stuff goes way back to the famous Hawthorne Experiment, and the early work of Roethlisberger and Dickson, the subsequent interpretations of Elton Mayo, the rise of the Human Relations Movement in management studies, leading up to contemporary interventions in Organization Development. However, the primary focus of all of these contributions continues to be one of instrumentality: effectiveness remains a measure of an organization’s ability to acquire and deploy resources in order to accomplish the stated goals and objectives of the organization. What I question is whether that specification is the appropriate definition of effectiveness for a UCaPP world.

These days, it is not that difficult to construct a legitimate argument that critiques striving for such effectiveness, both writ large in the context of organizations and economies, and writ small in the context of individuals seeking what they consider to be their personal due. Such an extreme focus on instrumentality and achieving objectives (to attain status, class, and privilege) has sewn the seeds of what in retrospect now appears to have been the inevitable economic and ecological collapse and catastrophe that clearly threatens order, stability, and perhaps even our civilization’s ability to sustain itself. In a world that is ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate, to change the fundamental premise upon which organizations are constructed necessitates a change in our collective understanding of what it means to be effective.

Simply put, to be effective is to be cognizant of the effects one intends to create, and actually bring about, in both the social and material (i.e., natural and physically constructed) environments. As effects are substantially distinct from goals and outcomes, an organization concerned first and foremost with its effects must be equally concerned with the ways in which it interacts within the social and material environments in which it participates, hence the primacy of relationships and a concern for tactility over vision. From the relationships it creates among all relevant constituencies, an organization enables and facilitates its intended effects, that are subsequently enacted via the goals, objectives, and outcomes for which it strives.

P.S. This is apparently the 600th post for What is the (Next) Message? Thanks to all those who have played along in the comments and private emails for your encouragement and contributions to my thinking. I hope you all continue to find useful, enlightening, and thought-provoking stuff for the next 600 (at least).

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