On setting out on this quest, to compare my 1980 thoughts on specialist planning with the dynamics of informal coalitions (see Footnote), I suggested that it would be a voyage of discovery. I hadn’t yet reacquainted myself with the original text! This point was brought home when I first read the source chapter for this post, entitled Acquisition, Deployment and Management of Resources.
At first sight, there didn't appear to be any extracts that drew attention to the underlying dynamics of organizations by way of analogy with the planning task. However, on re-reading the text, I discovered three important areas in which parallels can be drawn between the paper's comments on specialist planning and the informal coalitions perspective of organizational dynamics.
- Extract #19 – Surfacing the underlying themes and patterns that are organizing interactions, activities and outcomes.
“The term ‘resource’ alludes to any means through which [the organisation] derives benefit. In this sense, every factor – actual or potential, tangible or intangible – can be a resource.”
The paper uses a quotation by Hicks H (1972, The Management of Organisation) to underline this point:
“… the definition of resource stated above recognises a much broader scope and includes,
‘every thing, every person, every, concept, and every condition that an organisation has to work with’.”
“Whilst functional expertise is an obvious focal point for the planner’s attention, Ewing notes that the abilities that count most for planning may not be on the surface at all but may instead run across and through various operations and activities:
‘Although subtle, they are unmistakably in evidence and have a persuasive influence on performance. They can be developed (or damaged) just as surely and systematically as can any functional ability’. (Ewing, D.W.,1968, The Practice of Planning).”
In a similar vein, it is important for those leading and facilitating change to look beyond the surface-level manifestations of what’s going on and to look for wider – and more hidden - patterns of thinking and behaviour. These both significantly affect, and are affected by, the activities and outcomes that emerge.
- Extract #20 – Seeing all organizations as unique – even those that appear to be identical.
Interestingly here, Ewing seems to be talking about what – some 20 years later – Hamel and Prahalad referred to as the “core competence of the corporation” in their 1990 HBR article of that same title. The paper identifies a few of these abilities relating to power station management (which was the focus of the paper), before going on to say:
“Whilst not necessarily unique when taken separately, such abilities might combine
to produce a profile unlike that of other locations and enable the station to achieve what, in similar circumstances, might be impossible for others.”
Viewing organizations as complex social processes also recognizes this uniqueness. As such, it rejects the notion that generalized principles and practices can be successfully transferred between organizations, in the ‘plug and play’ way that is usually adopted.
In Informal Coalitions, I describe organizations as dynamic networks of self-organizing conversations. And so, notwithstanding the patterning processes that are referred to in Extract #19, above, this uniqueness also applies to the in-the-moment interactions that make up everyday organizational life.
Since the characteristics reflected in these last two - seemingly contradictory - extracts apply simultaneously, this draws attention to the inherently paradoxical nature of organizations:
- Extract #21 – Embracing the paradoxes of organizational life.
Although, not referred to directly in the original text, these separate extracts implicitly recognize that behaviour in organizations is, at one and the same time, both patterned and unique; structured and emergent; predictable and unpredictable; and so on.
This chapter in the paper once again returned to the themes of power and influence, which we looked at in an earlier post.
- Extract #22 – Building coalitions of support for ideas, perspectives and actions.
This discussion of resources recognized “the ability … to influence the behaviour of others” as “a further class of resource” and saw power and influence as “recurring themes throughout this examination of [the] planning [task].”
Although, as mentioned before, this reflects a more instrumental view of power (as something that can be acquired, deployed and managed, for example), the centrality of power to organizational dynamics comes through loud and clear.
What resonates most strongly here is the use of a further extract from Charles Handy’s seminal work, Understanding Organisations – at that time in its first edition:
‘Power and influence make up the fine texture of organisations, and indeed of all its interactions… Organisations can be looked at as a fine weave of influence patterns whereby individuals or groups seek to influence others to think or act in particular ways.’ (Handy, C., 1976, Understanding Organisations).
A central thesis of Informal Coalitions is that such 'groupings' are forming and reforming continuously, as people coalesce informally around particular ideas, viewpoints and actions (or “conversational themes”). This occurs, as Handy suggests, as a result of individuals or groups seeking to influence others to think or act in particular ways. Building active coalitions of support for what are perceived to be organizationally beneficial changes is the essence of the change-leadership task. Other 'players' will, of course, be seeking to build coalitions of support for positions that run counter to, or which seek to modify, the currently dominant line.
Although not using this language, the paper recognizes that “the deployment and management of the organisation’s resources can be significantly distorted” by these “political realities of organisational life”.
So, despite my initial fears that this chapter had little to say on the dynamics of organizational change, three very important aspects of these dynamics have come to the surface. On our next stop on the 'journey' we will revisit the issue of control in organizations.
This is one of a series of posts that draws extracts from a 1980 paper on the nature of the specialist planning task in organizations. The challenge is to see if and how this might relate to the view of organizational dynamics that is embodied in informal coalitions. More of the background can be found in the initial, context-setting post: Re-membering the past – The seeds of informal coalitions? Extract numbers follow on from those in earlier posts in the series.
Earlier posts in the series include: