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Deborah Booth

How the Complex Social Process View of Organisations can increase Business Profits in a Low-Growth Economy

Chris’s explication of the dynamic nature of organisational processes and his characterisation of these as ‘the ongoing negotiation of meaning’ is compelling. No one who has ever observed and reflected on their own experience as the member of a formal organisation could fail to recognise the influence of locally dominant themes (narratives) on the practical implementation of the formal organisation; nor of tacit assumptions beyond conscious awareness on the individual sense-making which informs the coalescence of people around conversational themes which they find meaningful.

Many years ago, for example, I was invited to find out why aircraft baggage handlers at Heathrow were resistant to the formally agreed resolution of a chronic industrial relations dispute. I found that their trades union representatives had little more understanding of what the details of the dispute actually represented ‘symbolically’ to those involved than the airline’s managers and professional negotiators. No one had thought it important to listen to the conversations in the Loaders’ Hut, and when I did it became apparent that what had been expressed as a dispute about formal procedures was in fact a series of competing narratives (local conversations) expressing dissatisfaction about the relative status of categories of employee who looked identical in the formal organisation. Failure to comprehend the dominant local narratives cost the airline many millions of pounds in persistent strikes by baggage handlers. Even worse, the situation remained unchanged for several years afterwards because the ‘culturally familiar pathway’ of airline senior managers precluded the (deeply challenging) idea that any members of the lowest caste of airline workers might deserve the symbolic dignity usually reserved for customer contact staff.

In times of fast economic growth, business leaders can afford to give their employees the impression that the formal organisation is all-powerful (and I think they believe it, too. But when market growth is slow, profits can only be made on the back of improved employee productivity. Any organisation leader who attempts to get more, or better, results from the same employees, for the same money is in the business of negotiation, even if they don’t acknowledge this openly. Q: What can business leaders negotiate with, if not cash? A: symbolic values. A wise organisation leader, seeking a cost-effective increase in productivity in a slow market, could do worse than to take Chris’s advice and ‘pay attention to the “here and now” of everyday interaction'. If they were to so, they would gain an understanding of the local dynamics within their organisation and, building, I hope, on what Chris says, the ways in which symbolic support for local cultural values might be tacitly ‘exchanged’ for a greater commitment to organisational goals; potentially facilitating increased productivity through innovation, customer service etc, in the way airline managers eventually decided to tackle the baggage loader ‘problem’.

The wisest of all would employ an organisational analyst with great sensitivity and subtlety who is unlikely to be blinded by the organisation’s taken-for-granted assumptions and who has the analytical skill and experience to make sense of the local conversations to which he is party. In other words they would want Chris Rodgers . (I apologise for failing to hide my admiration for Chris . I know of no one else who combines the modesty of a deep listener with an unrivalled understanding of organisational dynamics.) Sorry, Chris.

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