Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reading :: The Temporary Society

The Temporary Society: What is Happening to Business and Family Life in America Under the Impact of Accelerating Change
By Warren Bennis and Phillip Slater

In one of his articles on adhocracies, Mintzberg sources the concept to Alvin Toffler, but also references the original 1968 edition of this book. Although it doesn't use the term "adhocracies," it does forecast some of the changes we associate with them. And although this is definitely a general readership book in the mold of Future Shock, it does give us some idea of what sorts of changes the authors were seeing in organizations at the time.

The copy I bought is the 1998 edition, in which the authors provide a new preface and retrospectives that come in front of each chapter. This preface summarizes some of the themes, so we'll start with it.

Bennis and Slater argue that bureaucracies tend to share certain characteristics:

  • A strong division of labor. Bureaucracies overlay institutional hierarchies, which tend to be divided into departments. 
  • Narrow specializations. Implied in this strong division of labor are narrow specializations. Bureaucracies tend to compartmentalize specializations in departments. 
  • Hierarchy and levels. In a rigid bureaucracy, the manager operates as the official communication and coordination point for his or her department. Although people in the department might informally chat with others in different departments, officially, they communicated via the chain of command.  
  • Command and control. Finally, bureaucracy assumes a command-and-control structure. In an institutional hierarchy, people higher in the hierarchy are assumed to have more information by virtue of their positions. They also tend to have more experience in their given department, having worked their way up the hierarchy in that department. Thus they are assumed to be in a better position to make decisions than those lower in the hierarchy. The greater access to information gives them the ability to command effectively, while the greater experience gives them the ability to control those in their specialty due to their understanding of the job. (p.xii)

Bureaucracies, they say, are set up to control, order, and predict. Given a slow-changing institutional hierarchy, offering lifelong employment, bureaucracies offered a way to make sure those with the most experience got the most information and (theoretically) made the best decisions.

But, they argue, "The organizations of the future will resemble networks or modules. The successful ones will have flattened hierarchies and more cross-functional linkages. The three words that best describe the mind-set of this paradigm are acknowledge, create, and empower" (p.xii). They equate this shift with democracy and claim that this shift is inexorable in business and society (p.xiii).

Diving into the original (1968) parts of the book, we see them developing this argument. They argue that "democracy becomes a functional necessity whenever a social system is competing for survival under conditions of chronic change" (p.10, their italics). Although bureaucracy is okay "for simple tasks under static conditions," it's not okay "for adaptability to changing conditions, for rapid acceptance of a new idea," etc. (p.10, citing a paper by Bennis).

Given this point, they say that bureaucracies will be more limited:
Tomorrow's organizations will be federations, networks, clusters, cross-functional teams, temporary systems, ad hoc task forces, lattices, modules, matrices—almost anything but pyramids. The successful ones will make problem finding, not problem solving, their first priority. They will be led by people who embrace error, even the occasional failure, because they know it will teach them more than success. Such organizations will be led by people who understand, as scientists do, the primal pleasure of the hunt that is problem solving. (p.63).
And on the next page:
In Chapter One, we predicted the end of bureaucracy as we know it and the rise of new social systems better suited to the twentieth-century demands of industrialization. This forecast was based on the evolutionary principle that every age develops an organizational form appropriate to its genius, and that the prevailing form, known by sociologists as bureaucracy and by many businessmen as "damn bureaucracy," is out of joint with contemporary realities. (p.64).
Bureaucracy, they say, faces four threats:
1. Rapid and unexpected change
2. Growth in size where the volume of an organization's traditional activities is not enough to sustain growth ...
3. Complexity of modern technology where integration between activities and persons of very diverse, highly specialized competence is required 
4. A basically psychological threat springing from change in managerial behavior (p.66). 
So what will succeed bureaucracy? Their prediction sounds very familiar if you've read Toffler.
The social structure of organizations of the future will have some unique characteristics. The key word will be temporary. There will be adaptive, rapidly changing temporary systems. These will be task forces organized around problems to be solved by groups of relative strangers with diverse professional skills. The group will be arranged on an organic rather than mechanical model; it will evolve in response to a problem rather than to programmed role expectations. The executive thus becomes coordinator or "linking pin" between various task forces. He [sic] must be a man who can speak the polyglot jargon of research, with skills to relay information and to mediate between groups. People will be evaluated not according to rank but according to skill and professional training. Organizational charts will consist of project groups rather than stratified functional groups. (p.83)
And thus "work groups will be temporary systems, which means that people will have to learn to develop quick and intense relationships on the job and learn to bear the absence of more enduring work relationships" (p.84). Indeed, they later state that "Individuals will be brought together on the basis of talent and availability, and geographic location will be less of an impediment than prior commitments" (p.92).

Just a side note. Notice the lack of agents here. "There will be adaptive, rapidly changing temporary systems." "The group will be arranged..." "Organizational charts will consist..." "Individuals will be brought together..." Underneath all of this change, Bennis and Slater still envision large, persistent organizations in which people work and by which they are deployed, across work groups, across specialties, across the country.

Let's leave it there. The Temporary Society previews some of the themes that we see later in Toffler's Future Shock (1970) and then, in much more analytical detail, in Mintzberg's The Structuring of Organizations (1978), and eventually in far less detail in Wellman's Adhocracy (1993). Although it doesn't make nearly the contribution of Toffler's or especially Mintzberg's books, it does give us a good idea of the organizational changes people were beginning to see in the late 1960s.

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