I've noticed that many of the on-line conversations on organizational complexity tend to gravitate towards a discussion on the need for more empowered ways of working. At first sight, the two themes of empowerment and complexity seem to fit naturally together. After all, the former implies fewer formal controls, a shift towards more localized decision-making, and more direct cross-functional interactions.
However, it strikes me that this is not a helpful way of looking at the dynamics of complexity in an organizational context. Nor does it do justice to what I would see as the social desirability - as well as commercial necessity - of tapping into the vast wealth of talent that often lies dormant in organizations.
So what is the problem with coupling these two concepts together?
To begin with, when I was a practising manager I was very committed to what might be described as the "empowerment agenda". Rightly, this is rooted in high expectations of people's willingness and ability to contribute. And, as a consultant, I still keenly advocate approaches that set out to enable people to excel, rather than those that assume that people won't perform unless they are tightly controlled by targets, formal appraisals and the other trappings of 'modern' HR practice.
At the same time, I think that it is important not to confuse the advocacy and adoption of a more empowering approach to management practice with an understanding of the underlying dynamics of organization. Too often, consultants and writers who claim to be speaking from a complexity perspective talk of self-organization as a design parameter. On that basis, they advise managers that they should create structures and systems that will "allow greater opportunity for self-organization to occur". But, self-organization is not a matter of management choice. It is a given. It occurs just as much in a so-called "command and control" regime as it does in one designed to facilitate widespread self-management. The nature of the interactions and the outcomes that emerge will inevitably be substantially different in each case. But the underlying dynamics of organization - that is, the complex social process of everyday, local interaction - will be the same.
Positive engagement taken for granted
Secondly, the empowerment agenda is almost always spoken about in terms that imply universally positive engagement with its principles and practice. But one consequence of viewing organization in terms of the complex social processs of human interaction is a recognition that these dynamics are uavoidably ‘messy’ and political. That is to say, different – and often conflicting – interests, ideologies, identities, influences, and idiosyncrasies – are at play in all interactions. These and other shadow-side themes do not disappear simply because managers happen to be pursuing what might be seen as a socially more progressive and more inclusive agenda.
From idealized design to complex reality
Thirdly, it is important to recognize that the formally stated aims, ambitions and values of empowered self-management reflect an idealized view of the desired working relationships. People will necessarily interpret and enact these generalized statements of intent in ways that reflect the day-to-day realities of their specific local circumstances. That is, their response will reflect the unique conditions that exist at that time, in that situation and within those interactions.
Like any other intention that a manager (or anyone else) might have, the enactment of an empowered approach to the management of work is subject to the complex social dynamics of organization. It is both mistaken and misleading to suggest that the adoption of the former will somehow reduce or overcome that complexity - however appealing such a thought might be to hard-pressed managers. It is arguably worse still to claim that the adoption of this - or any other 'do this and you'll get that' prescription - will guarantee success and make the future more controllable.
Adopting a more empowering and enabling approach to work might well be a choice that is open to managers. Designing out the complexity of human interaction is not!