Category Archives: ideology

Responding to Complexity and Uncertainty: The Agile Organisation

Over the past two decades, management consultants and academics at business schools have increasingly stressed what they view as the rapidly increasing levels of complexity and uncertainty in the environment that all organisations have to respond to and many have labelled these conditions ‘ hyper-competition’ or ‘high velocity competition’. To deal with these conditions, consultants and academics have called for organisations to become ‘agile organisations’. The ‘agile organisation’ is also described as ‘the entrepreneurial organisation’ and ‘the resilient organisation’ and the hallmarks of this kind of organisation are its high speed of response to change and its focus on the customer which calls for customized  rather than standardised offerings. The notion of the agile organisation therefore originates in the discipline of strategic management with its concern for competitive advantage; in manufacturing production systems such as Total Quality Management, Just in Time, Lean and six sigma with their concern for high quality, customized batch manufacturing; and also in Agile Software development and its concern for teams and partnerships with customers. In short, the concept of agile processes was initially primarily concerned with product manufacturing and software development and from these areas it has come to be simply applied to all other organisations including both private and public sector service providers, without much reflection on whether this is appropriate or not. So when did these developments occur and how widespread are they?

 A quick search of Google Scholar reveals that over the decade ending in 1993 there were 56 journal papers which referred to the agile organisation at some point and over the same period some 14 referred to hyper-competition while no papers referred to the resilient organisation but over 20,000 used the term ‘complexity’.  Over the rest of that decade the number referring to agile organisations rose to 442 and the number referring to hyper-competition rose to 416 while 43 referred to the resilient organisation and there were some 19,000 references to complexity. Over the first decade of this century, there were nearly 5,000 referrals to the agile organisation, about 3,500 to hyper-competition, 385 to the resilient organisation and some 40,000 to complexity. Interest in agile and resilient organisations facing hyper-competition, uncertainty and complexity is, therefore, very recent and even now not all that widespread. Despite recognizing complexity and uncertainty, however, the prescription is overwhelmingly for managers to design organisations that can successfully deal with the supposedly ‘new’ conditions. There is very little radical reflection on what the recognition of uncertainty and complexity, which has always characterized the conditions which members of organisations have to act into, means for the possibility of designing organisation in the first place. There is very little inquiry into how members of organisations have always dealt with uncertainty and complexity. This is, perhaps, not a surprising observation when one takes account of the strength of management and leadership thought collectives and the thought styles that they perpetuate. This post reviews notions of organisational agility and resilience as responses to rapidly rising complexity and uncertainty. Continue reading

Further thoughts on the similarities and differences between CMS and complex responsive processes

At this year’s conference Hugh Willmott, Research Professor of Organization Studies at Cardiff University, gave a key note on the financialized organisation during which he made a strong argument for the rehabilitation of political economy as a focus of research in organization studies. Additionally, he began engaging with complex responsive processes noting similarities and differences with critical management studies (CMS).

In this post and the next I will try to continue this discussion, noting points of overlap and contrast as a way of exploring the difference that makes a difference. One of the difficulties of doing this is that CMS is a broad and diverse church which contains a spectrum of opionion. So the basis of the exploration will be the latest edition of Hugh’s book co-written with Mats Alvesson, Making Sense of Management: a Critical Introduction. This post develops the input I gave at the June conference. Continue reading

Values and Norms – insights from Norbert Elias (Part 1)

I was recently reviewing a research narrative in which Max, the researcher, was describing what was happening in a health care organisation that was undergoing an organisational merger. Max had responsibility for leading a programme of work aimed at improving the care of patients with diabetes. This involved redesigning their treatment pathway to improve their disease management and reduce what were regarded by the organisation’s management as unnecessary and expensive admissions to hospital, which it thought could be better managed in the community. This work required him to bring together clinicians and managers from three former organisations, one of which he had worked for prior to the merger. His research interest is in exploring the concept of “transformation” and the narrative describes a series of meetings he is having with staff about the work. These meetings are proving difficult, because it is clear from what is being said that the groups from the three organisations have strong “we” identities arising from their former organisations and are all involved in stigmatising gossip based on their prejudices about each other. Max finds himself defending his former organisation when this is being criticised and also feels surprised and uncomfortable when it begins to appear as though the perceived source of the problem- the hospital- may not be the only cause of the problem – as he and his colleagues had formally perceived.  He describes vividly the detail of a very difficult meeting in which one of the influential Doctors loses their temper and refuses to co-operate with colleagues from one of the other former organisations on the grounds that what is being proposed could compromise patient care. Max describes the frustration and anxiety this raises for him and others – including a discussion with his manager Carl, in which he is told that “failure is not an option”. Continue reading

On Being Managed. Ethics as conflictual process.

In going about my work doing organisational consultancy for the healthcare community,I have recently been struck by increasing references to managing as some kind of self evident right as if the term itself was incontestable and represented a quasi divine ordering of things reminiscent of the feudal .

Last week I was asked by managers to engage with three separate 
situations in which this right was apparent at the outset of the conversation.

In the first I was told,

‘nobody in this day and age can say that they don’t need to be managed’.

In the second and third situations I was offered the explanation that team difficulties were caused by,

‘not being used to being managed’

and that

‘they have got away with doing their own thing for far too long’.

Continue reading

Further thoughts on the tools and techniques of leadership and management

In this blog I hope to develop some of the points made in previous blogs on the tools and techniques of management. What is generally meant by the term ‘tools and techniques of leadership and management’ is ways of applying instrumental rationality to solve problems and control outcomes. In fact, in an ambiguous and uncertain world none of these tools and techniques can do what is claimed for them but they do constitute the techniques of disciplinary power which enable leaders and managers to control the bodies and bodily activities of
people in the organization. All of these tools and techniques take the form of rules, procedures and models. However, there is a difference between competent performance, on the one hand, and proficient, expert performance, on the other.
The difference is that following rules, procedures and models may produce competent performance, but proficient, expert performance requires moving beyond the rules, procedures and models. Management tools and techniques of
instrumental rationality may promote competence but the development of expertise is beyond them. Experts are unable to articulate the rules governing their performance because they simply do not follow rules; instead, as a consequence of long experience, they exercise practical judgment in the unique situations they find themselves in. Through experience they are able to recognize patterns, distinguishing between similarities with other situations and unique differences. The patterns they recognize are the emerging patterns of interaction that they and other people are creating. In other words, they are recognizing the emerging themes in conversation, power relations and ideology reflecting choices. The key resource any organization must rely on is surely this expert interactive capacity in the exercise of practical judgment
by leaders and managers. If we cannot identify rules, procedures and models  as ‘drivers’ of expert practical judgment, does it follow that we can say nothing about practical judgment and have to leave it as a mystery?

I do not think there is anything mysterious about the exercise of practical judgment and we can inquire into the exercise of practical judgment and explore whether it is possible to identify any ‘techniques’ of practical judgment. Continue reading

Some thoughts on the 2011 CMC conference

I wanted to write about some of the themes  at the CMC conference this year as an invitation to further discussion, and perhaps as a way of involving others. There were a number of things which happened during the weekend which I think made a strong case for the methods being developed by the Complexity Research Group at the University of Hertfordshire and the importance of paying attention to the experience of every day life.

So I was struck by a quite ordinary intervention by Iver Drabaek in the final plenary of the weekend. This was a session convened to explore what different conference participants were doing in their work and to ask whether insights drawn from the complexity sciences, or from complex responsive processes were proving helpful in what people found themselves trying to do. There had been a number of diverse observations about what was going on in the group: that the discussion didn’t seem to be leading anywhere, or that it wasn’t easy to speak into the big group, as we struggled to make sense of this particular way of meeting together. As Nick Sarra has pointed out, there often is a struggle in big group discussions, and sometimes this struggle is about avoiding the discomfort of recognising each other in this kind of context.  Iver pointed out that for him it was different. It wasn’t that he was holding back but that every time he went to speak into the group he found that he had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, depending on what the last person had said. This for me was a very good example of what we are trying to describe on the faculty at Hertfordshire when we are drawing attention to the transformative potential of everyday interaction. Iver was displaying a patient attention to everyday experience, his own experience of the group, which then raised ideas of recognition, mutual recognition, identity and ideology for me. In drawing attention to the way that he was responding, to what was going on for him in the moment and articulating it, he provoked me (without of course realising it) into recognising myself in what he was saying. I would expect that for others it called out an entirely different response, or perhaps no response at all, but in that moment I came to understand my own participation in what was going on, recognising myself in the other, differently. Continue reading

Leadership as the Agency of Disciplinary Power

In 1977, Zaleznik published a paper drawing a distinction between managers and leaders. According to Zaleznick , managers differ in motivation from leaders and in how they think and act – they emphasize rationality, control, problem solving, goals and targets. They co-ordinate and balance conflicting views and get people to accept solutions. They are tactical and bureaucratic. Leaders work in an opposite way. Instead of limiting choices, they develop fresh approaches and open up new issues. They project their ideas into images that excite people. They formulate visions and inspire others to follow them. It is also generally thought to be the role of an organization’s leaders to shape its values or culture, understood to be the deep seated assumptions governing the behavior of the individual members of an organization. One of the most influential writers on leadership and organizations, Schein , said that the primary function of leadership was the manipulation of culture. An equally influential writer, Senge , talks about the building of a vision, purpose and values as the ‘governing ideas’ of the organization. In successful companies, leaders are supposed to deliberately construct values and teach their people in training sessions to act according to them. The leader forms a personal vision and builds it into a shared vision through ongoing dialogue in which people suspend their assumptions and listen to each other. So we now think in terms of a distinction between leaders as the top people who articulate visions and provide direction and a hierarchy of managers who implement what is chosen by their leaders, all in the interests of shareholders. According to this dominant discourse, the leader is presented as an unconstrained, autonomous individual with the ability to choose what happens to an organisation, while managers are presented as highly constrained individuals who must be aligned to the leader’s direction and implement the actions required to follow it.

Since the 1990s, there has been an increasingly rapid growth in the provision of leadership development programmes, provided not just by the elite business schools and consultancies but even more by the education and development departments of most organisations. Leadership academies and programmes have been established by governments and others to provide for leadership development, for example: the International Leadership Association, the Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK, and programmes for the military, defence, health and higher education. Even academic researchers at universities are invited to go on a leadership programme. This trend is not confined to the UK but is as much in evidence throughout Europe and North America. Such programmes are now common throughout the developing countries too. Participants on these programmes are introduced to one or more of the leadership theories indicated in the previous section, usually presented in a ‘model’ claimed to be specific to the sector mounting the programmes. It is quite common for participants to be presented with: exercises using various games; experience of the theatre, for example, actors and directors may interpret the leadership qualities of, say, Shakespeare’s Henry V; conducting an orchestra; engaging in various outdoor activities such as trekking through the wilds and dealing with hazards such as mountains and river crossings. The aim is for participants to have the experience of leading teams in addition to understanding the theories of leadership so that they will be more likely to apply them in practice. Also participants are often asked to identify the leadership qualities of great leaders, such as Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, so that they might imitate them in order to improve their own leadership skills. Continue reading