Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Reading :: The Agile Organization

Originally posted: Tue, 13 Dec 2005 01:28:07

The Agile Organization: From Informal Networks to Complex Effects and Agility

by Simon Reay Atkinson and James Moffat

The Agile Organization is primarily interested in applying insights of postmodernism and complexity theory to military organizations, and secondarily to applying the same insights to other organizations. "Postmodernism" here is used a bit differently than what we often see in rhetoric:

In this regard, too, the philosophy of Post-Modernism?that denies any single truth or belief?may also be reflected in our understanding of organizations and how they form and aggregate. The networks we consider are held together by certain trusts in which individuals believe. These trusts and beliefs are often different from those that define others and it is these that make the group or organization ?different.? Where these different organizations come into contact and/or overlap, certain rules of conduct are necessary to define how they work together if conflict is to be avoided. These rules need to reflect the underlying beliefs and truths by which the different organizations exist. (p.9)

This is a fairly good summary of the book's themes. The problem the authors face is that organizations are not as tightly structured or delineated as they were in the past because interconnections have become much easier to make. So organizations form and aggregate in different ways. And the common thread is "trusts and beliefs" and how they are negotiated. This is the turf of rhetoric ? the study of argumentation ? and the authors indicate throughout that after a long era of work rationalization, the centralized hierarchical structures that have often hedged in negotiations are breaking down. They list key properties of complexity that are emblematic of the "agile" organizations they study:

1. Nonlinear Interaction. The interaction between neighboring entities is nonlinear. Small changes can have large effects.

2. Decentralized control. The natural systems we have considered, such as the coevolution of an ecosystem, are not controlled centrally. The emergent behavior is generated through local interactions.

3. Self-Organization. We have seen how such natural systems with a large number of degrees of freedom can produce extended ordered structure, without the need for guidance from outside the system.

4. Non-Equilibrium Order. The order (for example the space and time correlations) inherent in an open, dissipative system existing far from equilibrium.

5. Coevolution. We have seen how such systems are constantly coevolving. Clusters or avalanches of local interaction are constantly being created across the system. These correspond to dispersed correlation effects in space and time, rather than a central imposition of large-scale coincidences in space and time.

6. Collectivist Dynamics. The cascades of local interaction that ripple through the system. (pp.36-37)

For all that, the authors lightly touch on what they see as the central way to understand complexity in organizations: mathematical analysis (p.43). This strikes me as counterproductive since such an analysis seems to assume stable nodes, and a truly "agile" organization's nodes would seem to be continually changing and defining one another. (See actor-network theory's work on defining actors.) Nevertheless, the authors have some really interesting insights. Take this section on work organization in industry, which sounds as if it has been taken from Victor and Boynton:

The linear production line in the car industry is a clear example of a series of bounded and unchanging specializations that form part of a management by detail (micromanagement). This works wonderfully well provided that everyone wants a black Model T Ford. However, in today?s and tomorrow?s market environment, demand is more likely to include small batches of complex products, each with varied characteristics. In this much more variable and dynamic environment, the response has been to abandon the production line in some cases in favor of a number of very specialized cells that can self-organize in different ways through a process of mutual negotiation. (p.92)

The authors go on to discuss how small organizations are initially bound by trust and kinship; as they scale larger, these bonds of trust tend to become formalized to allow scaling, and eventually "The network ceases to be self-organizing and scale free, and changes to being a network of formally defined locally clustered cells with longer range links between them: a Small World" (pp.110-111). This account of scaling is more structured than actor-network theory's, but perhaps less so than activity theory's. The problem, of course, is the ontological problem I mentioned earlier.

The authors also propose a proportional relationship between the system and the management process: the more agile one is, the more agile the other must be. "Each person in the chain was rigidly controlled within a tightly applied stovepipe and delivered an output as required by the input. There was little or no lateral movement?each function could be undertaken within the guidelines provided" (p.156). In the industrial age, neither management nor process were agile, and the result was "stovepiping," the partitioning of the organization into noncommunicative sectors (p.127). The Information Age model is decentralized, emergent management (p.130); the authors relate this model to the complexity concepts mentioned earlier through a succinct table (p.132). A little later, the authors provide an interesting analysis of British and US military agility that indicates a mixed bag. Agility will require changes for these organizations: "For both countries, it will require controlling less and commanding more" (p.167). They argue for "concessive" decision-making, which is

about trust: trusting in individual staffs and commands to do the right thing and so enabling one or another to lead, as guided by other involved and so pre-connected parties. Ultimately, it should allow command to exercise authority, seamlessly, across services, staffs, and nations. (p.181)

And that brings us again to trust. The authors argue that trust must be established and exchanged within one''s organization but also across organizations (p.188). And although the authors are particularly talking about military organizations, the lesson seems to be applicable to other sorts of organizations as well.

Overall, this was an interesting read, although a little light on the scholarly side.

Update: Simon Reay Atkinson emails:

Thanks for your positive review of our work - we appear to be scoring a few goals! You are right to conclude that we may be scholarly light but our intent was to take a few non-specialist horses to water and get them to drink a little at the well. We also hoped to raise questions particularly regarding Command and Control: to paraphrase President Clinton, 'It's Command and Control, Stupid'. That leads into some interesting questions and dilemmas - how, for example, does an organisation become more networkable. Back to Command and Control.

Yes, I thought this was a really intriguing point: the military can't get away from command, but it can rethink how command is accomplished. The Agile Organization argues that organizations need to concentrate on "controlling less and commanding more," devolving decision-making while retaining the overall command. That is, overly hierarchical organizations tend to micromanage through strict and often inflexible rules and command chains; flexible organizations set goals, but allow considerable discretion in terms of how the goals are accomplished. Atkinson and Moffat do a great job of demonstrating concrete ways in which this realignment works. And although they focus on military organizations, I can't overemphasize the intriguing connections with new economy/distributed work literature.

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