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I am interested in exploring how workplaces are actually changing (not the hype). This blog is my place for thinking out loud about what I see happening - or not happening.

Monday, March 10, 2008

A minimalist approach to organisational dynamics

The image today is street sculpture, old tube trains, in the Spitalfields area of London.

I have been threatening to explore Weick's analysis of what happens when nine people work together. Weick recommends adopting a minimalist approach to understanding organisational dynamics. He reckons if you can understand nine, you can understand what can happens when thousands work together.

To me, this sounds useful in helping us better understand collaborative dynamics in enterprises. Part of the rationale for starting this blog is frustration at the sweeping claims made for how digital technologies like social computing, collaboration and mobile technologies, emerging at the same time as fundamental economic, demographic and geographic shifts, are going to lead to a tsunami of organisational transformation. I have said repeatedly in previous posts, who knows what will happen?

W.Edwards Deming is supposed to have said that “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” That's what I think. I also think that existing knowledge provides foundation, 'first principle' guidance on how to understand, anticipate and adapt for business leaders who are able and willing to change.

Weick's Analysis of Nine

Starting at the very beginning, Weick says that the dynamic action of organising is accomplished by processes, and that processes have elements that need to be described. The elements in organising are "individual behaviours interlocked among two or more people". The basic building block of organising is a dyad, that is two people. Behaviour between two people is contingent, that is influenced by and dependent on the behaviour of the other. People change each other's behaviour at the level of the dyad.

Weick calls this unit of analysis an interact. He says, "the unit of analysis in organising is contingent response patterns, patterns in which the actions of an actor, A, evokes a specific response in actor B - which is then responded to by actor A". This further response by actor A completes the sequence and is referred to as a 'double interact'.

The core contention his classic book, The Psychologyof Organising, is that the double interact is the stable component in organisational growth and decay (more about this much later).

Weick sees the crucial transition point in organising dynamics happening from:

one person to two

from two to three

from three to four

from four to seven

and from seven to nine.

We have already seen that two creates interdependence, reciprocal behaviour and accomodation to another person. The next transition from two to three creates the possibility of alliances. As Weick says, this is a key transition point because now there is the possibility for control, co-operation, competition, manipulation and influence. He continues, "these phenomena, formerly suppressed, now become more visible and subject to manipulation and sanction".

Now in my mind, this begins to link with enterprise social networking and collaboration. Social networking technologies present the possibility of making visible previously hidden networked relationships and interactions. Even so, my experience of being a member of online networks has shown me that hidden dynamics still go underneath the apparent openness and and sharing.

Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. I will continue with the other transitions in the next post. For the moment, I think my diagram (all rights reserved) shows how complex the interactions among just three people can be - one person is complex enough. And then our behaviour is highly dependent on another two complex and constantly changing people. That's even before the moderating influence of the social and physical environment is considered.


Benjamin said...

It sounds interesting! I look forward to reading. There are definitely going to be some new social scripts in the workplace, now that previously hidden relationships are increasingly visible. Or at least, that people think that they are increasingly visible.

Anne Marie McEwan said...

Hi Benjamin!

Thanks very much for your comment :-)).

I think that what people choose to make visible or not behind enterprise firewalls will be highly contingent - on prevailing culture (is it safe, trusting, is sharing what people do?), incentives for sharing (what's in it for those sharing?), what are the rewards etc - a whole host of factors.

Even where relationships and information flows are made more visible through social computing, you can be sure that invisible networks of relationships and information flows will continue to co-exist. I agree very mch with your view, "Or at least, that people think are increasingly visible"

Whether these informal networks are destructive or creative, well that is also contingent on the social and organisational environment.

In my opinion.

Benjamin said...

I think the issue is not just inside/outside the firewall. It is the 'departmental firewalls' that social media really disrupt. Managers used to employees communicating through them are suddenly out of the loop and there is full visibility into what their team is doing. That is scary stuff for many.

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