Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Flexibility, fluidity and chaos in organisations

I have a relaxed week- wonderful for catching up with articles and blogs. I read "organizing for fluidity" which had been on my pile for sometime. And I'm reading 'organisational dynamics' by Thijs Homan- in dutch. Both talk about change dynamics in organisations.

Let me start by a story from Kenya when I was studying a smallholder irrigation system. The engineers were surprised that farmers took so long to plough the fields. As soon as the water was on the fields, they would want the farmers to plough within a week or two, but what they would notice is that ploughing activities would continue for 6-8 weeks. When I lived there as researcher I discovered within no time that the polygamous households had a system whereby the husband or the sons plough all the fields. They would plough the husband's fields first, followed by the first, second, third wives' fields. With the same pair of oxen. So that makes it very logical. What surprised me is that the engineer were so caught up in their own way of thinking that they couldn't see the logic of the farmers. Which would have improved their work: the design of irrigation systems. See the need for feedback.

The article by Georg Shreyögg and Jörg Sydow brings across a few important points:
  • With rapidly changing environments organisational flexibility is a key pressing issue for organisations, in order to create new combinations of resources fitting the new context. This is often stated and recognised.
  • One common answer is towards fluidity in organisations and networked organisations, organisations in constant flux or 'chronically unfrozen', but this is ignoring the basics or organisational routines which allow for efficiency. This underestimates what is means to be organised.
  • Organisations can never fully understand their complex environment and therefore have to model uncertainty and complexity on a template on which members can act. Complexity reducing maps and routines. Organisations cannot escape their history (Schein explains this process very well in organisational cultures and leadership).
  • Organisational patterns are reproduced by agents who can and do introduce changes. However, the fluid, flexible organisation, always in flux, would have a high opportunity cost in terms of lost experience, low specialization, low economies of scale. Capabilities become fixed to those constellations that have proven to be succesful. And that allows for efficiency and specialization.
It is hence a dilemma for all organisations to balance fluidity and stability. Two solutions are described: organisational ambidexterity (designing subunits to be either efficient or innovative) and balancing countervailing processes. The latter consists of monitoring its stabilization mechanisms. If you want to know more about that, you may read the article, though it doesn't become very practical. I'm translating it by organising sufficient relevant feedback on how you are doing (like the engineers asking the farmers).

Thijs Homan describes change in organisations and distinguished 'planned change' from organic changes. In planned change situations management are often the eyes and ears for the organisation. But the questions is whether in a rapidly changing environment you don't need the eyes and ears of all people in the organisation? He describes different change patterns and local communities. Play is the situation whereby new sense-making is taking place, Game is when this is stabilized. A flexible organisation is in continuous state of Play and chaotic, it moves with every change in the environment. An organisation always in Game is stable.

Very interesting if we look at this from the perspective of a learning organisation. The chaotic organisation might be called a learning organisation because it is continously changing. However, you may not desire this as it is in-efficient.

So in a way both are saying that an organisation should be changing and responding to its environment but not all the time and not in all direction. Find the right balance. So that makes me think the concept of learning organisation is not very useful (and I don't hear it that often anymore anyhow)... Not sure what the practical implications are of this view, but I like it a lot.


David Koehn said...

Keep up the great posts! You ask all the right questions.

I like how you call out the "dilemma for all organisations to balance fluidity and stability."

This is what is so compelling about Social Learning. The people will ebb and flow their consumption and contribution behaviors based on the zeitgeist of the organization--this will manifest ebb and flow faster than " learning organization" can "manage" it.

Let me know if I can help you spread the message in any way.

David Koehn
Director of Product Strategy,
Saba People Learning
t: @davidkoehn

Joitske said...

Hi David, thanks for your kind words. You may help by forwarding the post to people who might be interested!

Anonymous said...

Hope you'll share any other thoughts you're developing on this. I'm definately interested!

By the way, I thought there are numerous people against a focus on 'learning organisations'? Or at least non-believers in the whole concept?

Hope more people read and respond to this post. I'd love to read others' views as well.