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Dynamic Models of Organizations

management, business, organizations, dynamic models of organizations, loosely coupled model, self-designing model

Two recent approaches to structuring organizations reflect the more fluid organizational processes—the dynamic elements—rather than the typical rational designs of organizations. These approaches are possibly better observed through network strategies to uncover structure than by research methods used to obtain static pictures of organizational form.

The first approach which might be called the "loosely coupled" model, is posed as an alternative to a rational model of structure. The rational model is built on three assumptions: that organizations have one or a few goals, all consistent with one another; that information about various organizational contingencies can be obtained; and that environments are perfectly controlled. All these conditions, however, rarely exist.

These organizations are coalitions of various interests, that organizational designs are basically unplanned responses to contests among coalitions, and that organizational goals are numerous and conflicting. This view of organizations puts managers in the role of assimilators or processors of demands. The problem is that such managers are not in an action mode. To execute decisions requires more centralization, coordination, and order than would be possible in such a situation. Yet the attributes of structure that makes action possible limit management's ability to visualize alternatives, inhibit the receipt of conflicting information, and minimize the possibility of other steps appropriate to a more fluid environment.

A frequent adaptation to this situation is to have line management worry about the day-to-day problems of running an organization and have staff engage in such support functions as gathering information and forecasting. All too often, however, this strategy fails because line and staff goals are not compatible with one another. Thus, information gathered never reaches decision makers, or does so but is not used in the decision process.

Fortunately, several strategies are open to managers. One is to bring together various sources of expertise, using a focused format to obtain heterogeneous information. Delphi or nominal group techniques might be applied. Both techniques systematically query different experts about such factors as market characteristics, forecasts, potential actions, and environmental characteristics, with the goal of identifying a common body of information upon which to base action.
While this is an acceptable solution, a better one is to establish evaluation, reward, and incentive systems that define planning and environmental scanning as a part of a manager's job. One might also create internally differentiated, loosely coupled structures to confront various conflicting interests. When demands themselves are not tightly interconnected, it may be possible to satisfy conflicting claims by establishing subunits to do so. In this way, organizations typically establish consumer affairs or environmental impact departments to satisfy different demands.

Closely related to this view is the novel perspective of organizations as self-designing systems. The notion underlying this view is that there are different ways to think about what is valuable and what is worthless in organizations.

As an illustrative problem of self-design is Skylab 3, the first known example of a strike in space. In planning Skylab missions, Mission Control in Houston had reduced slack or discretionary time for the astronauts to the greatest degree possible. The astronauts were presented with a computer printout six feet long, with at least 42 separate sets of instructions for each day. They were programmed from the moment they awakened until the moment they went to sleep, with absolutely no room for the unexpected.

Unfortunately, by the time the Skylab 3 astronauts arrived at the space station, they found that previous missions had failed to return tools and other materials to their proper bins. Thus, before the astronauts could even begin the required experiments, they had to search for the missing tools and materials. The grounds for conflict were clear: Mission Control knew exactly how long it was supposed to take an astronaut to perform each discrete task and had specifically planned every activity. They even wanted the astronauts to do additional tasks not included in the original plan. On the other hand, to the Skylab astronauts Mission Control seemed to view them as automatons with no needs of their own. Completely unplanned was the fact that astronauts were human beings complete with human needs and limitations. Thus, when illness overtook the astronauts early in the flight, they did not have the ability to meet the crisis. Finally, Mission Control failed entirely to be sensitive to the breakdown of relations between ground control and the Skylab inhabitants. In frustration, the astronauts refused to do further experiments until Mission Control retreated from its demanding schedule. Skylab 3 became a sort of self-designing system when the astronauts aloft were given some authority to decide what was going to be done and in what sequence.

The underlying assumption of self-design is that organizational participants are at once both teachers and learners. The essential problem is to design an ongoing process with six major characteristics:

1. Provides for arranging and re-arranging of elements to change consequences from those currently happening
2. Provides for the continuous evaluation of ongoing designs and supports that evaluation
3. Focuses on the process to determine how it reflects the need for people and creates possible alternative arrangements of people and activities
4. Recognizes that each adaptation restricts future adaptability
5. Creates designs without following specific performance criteria
6. Recognizes that design is inseparable from implementation

The obstacles and benefits of self-design:
Self-design involves some difficult managerial actions, including the management of anarchy, the encouragement of doubt, the fostering of inefficiency, and the cultivation of superstition. If an organization wants to take control of its own destiny and designs, the changes necessary to pull this off are substantial. But those changes are not impossible. The likelihood of pulling them off, however, depends heavily on the attitudes of the managers committed to self design.

The business community awaits examples of self-designing systems, but in an increasingly technological and sophisticated world they make sense. As the environment of organizations undergoes more and more change, self-design may provide the flexibility that organizations will require in order to survive.

Published: 2007-04-17
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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