A friend recently wondered whether,
"... a 'systems view' of organization might be easier for managers to go along with, feeling that they can pull ‘levers’, or follow seven steps. And whether a complexity view is too difficult for them to contemplate in terms of what they are supposed to ‘achieve’.
She further speculated on whether the technologies involved in organizational network mapping, sociometric badging1, and the like might make the complex reality more obvious to people.
I agreed that managers might well find a systems view of organization easy to contemplate, given that it encourages them to think in terms of abstract entities, which they can (supposedly) act upon 'as a whole', to bring about the results that they are looking for. But we both recognized that this is an illusion - misleadingly built on assumptions of scientific rationality, predictability, and control. I suggested instead that the main barrier to progress is the ease with which this narrative is so readily taken up by people whenever they are called upon to account formally for their own or others' practice. It is the constant repetition of this narrative that makes such approaches appear natural and commonsensical, rather than unhelpful and contrived.
For this reason, I said I was not overly enamoured with network mapping, sociometrics, and similar tools that abstract from the reality of people’s everyday, lived experience. These can all too easily be used to reinforce the belief that, by gathering and analysing sufficient data, managers will be able to 'fix' perceived deficiencies in the reported patterns of interaction; predict and control people’s behaviour; and ensure that the sought-after outcomes are achieved. And this serves only to perpetuate the myth2.
In conversations and workshops, I find that managers are well aware of the complex social dynamics of organization, because they participate in them every day. It’s just that this real-world experience doesn't fit with what they're supposed to be thinking, feeling, and doing. And it's on the latter that their contribution continues to be formally measured, recognized, and rewarded.
What managers (and others) need instead are more credible and more useful ways of making sense of - and talking about - what they find themselves thinking, feeling, and doing in practice. They will then be better placed to participate in those dynamics more purposefully, courageously, and skilfully.
A complex social process view of organization opens up this possibility and offers practical ways for managers to take this up in their own practice.
NOTE 1: Sociometric badges have sensors that track people’s patterns of movement around the office. The badges also detect when people are talking to colleagues, and how engaged they appear to be during those interactions.
NOTE 2: See earlier post on "Big Data" .