Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Archive for the ‘Consulting’ Category

On the contradictions of consulting (and management) rhetoric

with 6 comments

Introduction

Successful management consultants are often seen as experts and trendsetters in the business world. The best among them are able to  construct convincing narratives about their expertise and experience, thereby gaining the  trust of senior managers in large organisations.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to pull this off?

In a paper entitled, The Invincible Character of Management Consulting Rhetoric: How One Blends Incommensurates While Keeping Them Apart, Jonas Berglund and Andreas Werr discuss how consultants, unbeknownst to their clients, often draw from two mutually contradictory forms of rhetoric to construct their arguments: rational (scientific or fact-based) and practical (action-based). This renders them immune to potential challenges from skeptics.  This post, which is based on the work of Berglund and Werr, is an elaboration of this claim.

Background and case study

Typically management consultants are hired to help organisations formulate and implement strategic initiatives aimed at improving organisational performance.  On the ground, such initiatives usually result in large-scale change initiatives such as organisation-wide restructuring or the implementation of enterprise systems.  Whatever the specific situation, however, consultants are generally brought in because clients perceive them as being experts who have the necessary knowledge and practical experience to plan and execute such transformations.

A typical consulting engagement consists of many interactions between consultants and diverse client-side stakeholders.  Berglund and Werr begin their paper with a description of an example of such an interaction drawn from their fieldwork in a large organisation. In brief: the  example describes a workshop that was aimed at redesigning business processes in an organisation. The two-day event was facilitated by the consultants and involved many stakeholders from the business.  I reproduce their description of the event below so that you can read it in its original form:

The event begins with a plenary session. The 25 participants—a selection of key persons on different levels in the organization—sit around a u-shaped table in a large room. Three consultants sit at one end of the table. One (a bit older than the others) is Ben, the project manager.

At 9 am sharp he rises and enters the stage. A nervousness is reflected in his somewhat impatient movements and way of talking. This is an important presentation. It is the first time since the ‘kick off’ of the project, that it is being delivered to a larger audience. Ben welcomes the participants and briefly introduces himself: ‘I am a consultant at Consulting Ltd. My specialty is BPR [Business Process Reengineering]. I have worked extensively with this method in the telecom industry.’ He also briefly introduces the two colleagues sitting at the end of the table. But the consulting team is not complete: ‘We are waiting for Alan, a portal figure and innovator concerning BPR.’

Ben suggests beginning the seminar with a brief introduction of the participants. After this has been completed, he remarks: ‘we clearly have a massive competence here today’. Thereafter, he leaves the floor to Ken, the CEO of the company, who says the following:

‘There are many reasons why we are sitting here today. The triggering factor has been the rapid growth rate of the market. But why should we start working with BPR? I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made—we focused on the current situation instead of being creative.’ Following this introduction, the importance of the project is further stressed. ‘The high growth rate of the market demands a new way of working . . . The competitive situation for the company is getting harder; the years when the customers just came to us are over. Now we have to start working for our money . . . The reason for this project is that we want to become the best from our owners’, customers’ and employees’ perspective.’

After this presentation, Ben takes over the floor again: ‘I have something to tell you. I want to report what we have done in the project so far . . . We have worked in four steps, which is a quite typical approach in reengineering’, he says, showing a slide headed ‘Method for Implementation’, which depicts four project phases arranged in the form of steps from the lower left to the upper right. The more detailed exploration of these phases, and the related activities occupy the group for some minutes.

Thereafter, a sequence of transparencies is shown. They describe the overall situation of the company using well-known business concepts. The titles of the slides read ‘Strategic Positioning’ (the model presented under this title has strong similarities with the BCG [Boston Consulting Group] matrix), ‘SWOT Analysis’, ‘Core Competencies’, and ‘Critical Success Factors’.

I expect many readers who work in organisational settings will be able to relate elements from the above extract to their own experiences with management consultants.

Although the case-study is dated,  the rhetoric used by the consultant is timeless. Indeed, in such plenary sessions, the main aim of  consultants (and client-side senior management) is to justify the proposed changes and convince client-side staff to get involved in implementing them.  This is as true now as it was a decade ago, the rhetoric used has hardly changed at all. What’s more interesting, though, is that their arguments taken as a whole are often inconsistent. To see why, let’s take a closer look at two kinds of rhetoric employed by consultants.

The rhetoric of reason

Consultants often legitimize their proposed actions by claiming to use “established” or “proven” methods. At the time of the case study (remember this was in the 90s), BPR was all the rage and, as a consequence, there were a number of contemporary books and articles (both in research and trade journals) that consultants could draw upon to legitimize their claims.  Indeed, many of the articles about BPR from that era delved into things such as critical success factors and core competencies – the very terms used by Ben, the consultant in the case study.  By doing so, Ben emphasised that BPR was a logically justifiable undertaking for the client  organisation.

However, that’s not all:  by referring to a stepwise “method for implementation,” Ben makes the process seem like a rational one with an “if we do X then Y will follow” logic. Of course, real life is never that simple, as evidenced by the statistics on failed BPR projects. Consultants often confuse their clients by presenting the map which is the idealised process as being equivalent to the territory that is organisational reality.

The rhetoric of action

To be sure, those who run organisations care more about results than models or methodologies. As a result,  consultants have to portray  themselves as being practical rather than theoretical. This is where the rhetoric of action comes in.

Ben’s reference to his “extensive experience in the telecom industry” and his invocation of   “Alan, the portal figure and innovator” are clearly intended to emphasise the consulting organisation’s experience and “innovative approaches” to  implementing BPR initiatives. Notice there are no references to reason here; there is only the implicit, “trust me, I’ve done this before”, and (if not that, then), “trust Alan, the portal figure and innovator.”

Ben’s spiel is backed up by the CEO;  consider the CEO’s line, ” …I have worked a lot with process improvement, and I have failed many times, but then I heard a presentation by Alan and everything fell in place. I saw the mistakes we had made…

The boss heard the BPR Gospel According To Alan and had an epiphany; everything just “fell in place.”

Discussion

The short case study illustrates how consultants shift back and forth between two essentially incompatible modes of rhetoric when speaking to clients: a rational one which assumes the existence of objective management models and a normative one which appeals to human behaviours and emotions. This enables them to construct narratives that, on the surface, seem plausible and convincing, and more important, are hard to refute.

Although the rhetoric of reason refers to an idealised world of management models, its power and appeal  cannot be overstated. As the authors state:

The belief in experts and their techniques is firmly anchored in the modern belief in rationality. In our culture ‘the notions of ‘‘science’’, ‘‘rationality’’, ‘‘objectivity’’, and ‘‘truth’’ are bound up with one another’. Knowledge is power, and formalized knowledge is praised as the only legitimate form of knowledge, offering hard and objective truth in correspondence to reality.

Indeed, consultants play a huge role in the diffusion of new knowledge and models in the wider business world, thus perpetuating the myth that management models work.

On the other hand, consultants must show results. They have to portray themselves action-oriented and hence Ben’s attempt to establish his (and his organisation’s) credibility via credentials. This mode of rhetoric downplays scientific-rational thinking and highlights  wisdom gained by experience instead. As the authors state:

The chain of argument usually goes like this: merit always prevails over privilege; management knowledge is often contrasted with scientific, theoretically informed knowledge, which is regarded with suspicion by managers; and a persons’ track record and ‘hands-on’ experience is regarded as more important than expertise in general management skills acquired through extensive education.

Another facet of the rhetoric of action is that it emphasises the uniqueness of each situation. This is based on the idea that things in organisations are subject to continual change and that the lack of a stable configuration and environment makes it impossible to employ management models. The implication being that the only way to deal with the mess is to create a sense of collectivism – a “we’re in this together” attitude. The  concept of  organisational culture plays on this by portraying an organisation as this unique, wonderful place in which everyone shares the same values and deep sense of meaning. As the authors state:

The management literature discussing corporate culture is filled with religious and magical metaphors of the leader stressing the less rational sides of the organization, emphasizing the role of ceremonies, rituals, sagas, and legends (to mention only a few), in creating a system of shared values in the organization.

Seen in this light, the CEO’s references to Alan’s epiphany-inducing presentation, the “competitive situation,” and the need to “start working for our money” are attempts to generate this sense of collectivism.

The foregoing discussion highlights how consultants and their allies draw upon incompatible modes of rhetoric to justify their plans and actions. This essentially makes it difficult to refute their claims: if one tries to pin them down on logical grounds, they can argue based on their track record and deep experience; if one questions their experience, they can point to the logic of their models and processes.

…but we are all guilty

Finally, I should emphasise that management consultants are not the only ones guilty of using both forms of rhetoric,  we all are: the business cases we write, the presentations we deliver, the justifications we give our bosses and staff are all rife with examples of this. Out of curiosity, I re-read a business case I wrote recently and was amused to find a couple of contradictions of the kind discussed in this post.

Conclusion

In this post I have discussed how consulting rhetoric frequently draws upon two incompatible kinds of arguments –rational/fact-based and practical/action-based. This enables consultants to present arguments that are hard to refute on logical grounds.  However, it isn’t fair to single out consultants: most people who work in organisation-land are just as guilty of mixing incompatible rhetorics when attempting to convince others of the rightness of their views.

Written by K

August 1, 2013 at 10:55 pm

Overcoming the corporate immune system – some lessons from the dengue virus

with 5 comments

Introduction

The term  corporate immune system  was coined by James Birkenshaw  as a way to describe the tendency of corporate head offices to resist entrepreneurial initiatives by their subsidiaries.  In the present day, the term has also been used  to refer to the tendency of organisations to reject or suppress novel ideas or processes that employees may come up with. This post is about the latter usage of the phrase.

The metaphor of an immune system is an apt one: apart from being a good description of what happens, it also suggests ways in which one can overcome or bypass managerial resistance to initiatives that are seen as threats.   In this post I build on Stefan Lindegaard’s  excellent article,  to discuss how the Dengue virus  can teach us a trick or two about how employees can  get around the corporate immune system.

The mechanics of Dengue infection

Dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever, is endemic to many tropical countries. Its symptoms are  fever, severe headaches, muscle and joint pains and a characteristic skin rash. Dengue is caused by a virus that is transmitted by the Aedes Aegyptii mosquito which can be identified by the white bands on its legs.   Although it originated in Africa,  the Aedes species is now found in most tropical and sub-tropical countries throughout the world.

There are four closely related strains (or serotypes)   of the Dengue virus– imaginatively named Dengue 1 through Dengue 4. This has interesting consequences as we shall see shortly.  First let’s have a quick look at what goes on in the human body after a bite from carrier mosquito. My discussion is based on this article from the Scitable website.

Once a person is bitten by a carrier mosquito, the virus starts to infect skin cells and specialised immune cells  (called Langerhans cells) that are near the site of the bite. The  infected Langerhans cells travel via the bloodstream to the lymph nodes which are responsible for producing  white blood cells (WBCs) that combat infections.

The WBCs are the body’s first line of defence against an infection. The problem is WBCs generally do not succeed in destroying the Dengue virus; worse, they actually end up getting infected by it.  The infected white blood cells then  help in spreading the virus to other organs in the body.

However, all is not lost because the body has another line of defence – the adaptive immune system – which produces antibodies that target specific intruders. Once the infection spreads, the adaptive immune system kicks in, producing antibodies that recognise and neutralise the virus.  The fever an infected person experiences is a manifestation of the battle between the antibodies and the virus. In a healthy person, the immune system eventually wins and the person recovers.

Now here’s the interesting bit: a person who has been infected by the virus gains long term immunity, but only against the particular Dengue serotype that he or she was infected by.  If  the person is bitten by a  mosquito carrying another serotype, the antibodies for the old serotype actually assist the new strain to spread within the body.  Essentially this happens because the antibodies for the old strain   see the new strain as the old one and thus attempt to engulf it. However, because the virus is different, the antibody cannot bind with it completely. It thus forms an antibody-virus complex within  which the virus is still capable of replicating.

These circulating antibody-virus complexes then infect other white blood cells which in turn carry the virus to other parts of the body. This results in a higher volume of virus in the bloodstream than would have occurred otherwise, and hence a more severe infection. This is well known: subsequent infections of Dengue often lead to considerably more severe symptoms than the first one.

The above description is sufficient for the present discussion, but you may want to see this article to learn more about this fascinating virus.

Overcoming the corporate immune system

The processes of primary and secondary Dengue infections hold some lessons for those who want to gain executive support for proposals that might be just a tad too radical for their workplaces.  A direct approach, wherein the idea is pitched directly to executives  is unlikely to work for at least a couple reasons:

  1. The generic corporate immune system (akin to white blood cells in the human body) will attempt to take it down. This is typified by the  generic, “It will never work here (so let’s not try it)” response.
  2. Let’s assume that you are at your persuasive best and manage to get past the generic first line corporate defence. You still cannot rest easy because, in time, managerial ingenuity will come up specific managerial objections to the idea (these are akin to strain-specific antibodies).

However, all is not lost, we can take inspiration from the secondary infection process described in the previous section. The second serotype is able to do a more thorough job in infecting its host because antibodies actually help in transporting the virus through the body.  This happens because the antibodies do not fully recognise the virus and thus bind with it incompletely.

So the trick to getting your idea past the corporate immune system is to cast it in terms that are familiar to managers and to get them to have a stake in it. Here’s one way to do this:

  1. Make a connection between your idea and an already well-established element or aspect of your organisation. Be sure to stress this connection in your pitch (see point 2). This way, the idea is seen as a logical continuation what already exists – i.e. it is seen as old rather than new, much as the old serotype antibodies see the new strain as the old one.
  2. Present your idea to a manager who may be in a position to help you, seeking her advice on it.
  3. Take the advice offered seriously – i.e. modify the idea in a way that incorporates the advice.
  4. Re-present the idea to the  manager, thanking her for their advice and emphasising how it makes a difference.
  5. If they are receptive, ask her if she’d would be willing to socialise the idea amongst her peers. If you have genuinely taken her advice,  chances are she’ll be willing to do this. After all, the idea is now hers too.

The above are generic  steps that can be tailored to specific situations. For example, the same principles apply when writing a business case for a new system or whatever – emphasise continuity and get people to be a part of the idea by offering them a stake in it. The bottom line is that the corporate immune response can be “tricked” into accepting novel ideas, much  as the human immune system is fooled by the Dengue virus.

Conclusion

The metaphor of a corporate immune system not only provides an evocative description of how organisations kill novel ideas, but also suggests how such organisational resistance can be overcome. In this post  I have described  one such strategy based on the fiendishly clever dengue virus.

Written by K

July 3, 2013 at 10:04 pm

The paradox of the learning organisation

with 15 comments

Introduction

The term learning organisation  refers to an organisation that continually modifies itself in response to changes in its environment.   Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that a learning organisation is an ideal worth striving for.  The reality, however,  is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed  from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.  In this post, I elaborate on the paradoxes of learning organisations, drawing on an excellent and very readable paper by Paul Tosey entitled, The Hunting of the Learning Organisation: A Paradoxical Journey.

(Note:  I should point out that the term learning organisation should be distinguished from organisational learning: the latter refers to processes of learning whereas the former is about an ideal type of organisation. See this paper for more on the distinction.)

The journey metaphor

Consultants and other experts are quick to point out that the path to a learning organisation is a journey towards an ideal that can never be reached.  Quoting from this paper, Tosey writes, “we would talk about the fact that, in some ways, the learning organization represented all of our collective best wishes for Utopia in the workplace.” As another example, Peter Senge writes of it being, “a journey in search of the experience of being a member of `a great team.”  Elsewhere, Senge  suggests that the learning organisation is a vision that is essentially unattainable.

The metaphor of a journey seems an apt one at first, but there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, the causal connection between initiatives that purport to get one to the goal and actual improvements in an organisation’s capacity to learn  is tenuous and impossible to establish.  This suggests the journey is one without a map. Secondly, the process of learning about learning within the organisation – how it occurs, and how it is perceived by different stakeholders – can expose organisational hypocrisies and double-speak that may otherwise have remained hidden.  Thus instead of progressing towards the the ideal one may end up moving away from it.  Tosey explores these  paradoxes by comparing the journey of a learning organisation to  the one described in Lewis Carroll’s  poem, The Hunting of The Snark.

Hunting the Snark (and the learning organisation)

Carroll’s poem tells the story of ten characters who set of in search of a fabulous creature called a  Snark.  After many trials and tribulations, they end up finding out that the Snark is something else:  a not-so-pleasant creature called a Boojum. Tosey comments that the quest described in the poem is a superb metaphor for the journey towards a learning organisation. As he states:

Initially, when reflecting on personal experience of organizational events… I was struck by the potential of the dream-like voyage of fancy on which Carroll’s characters embarked as an allegory of the quest for the learning organization. Pure allegory has limitations. Through writing and developing the article I came to view the poem more as a paradigm of the consequences of human desire for, and efforts at, progress through the striving for ideals. In other words the poem expresses something about our `hunting’. In this respect it may represent a mythological theme,a profound metaphor more than a mere cautionary moral tale.

There are many interesting parallels between the hunt for the Snark and the journey towards a learning organisation. Here are a few:

The expedition to find the Snark is led by a character called the Bellman who asserts: “What I tell you three times is true.” This is akin to the assurances (pleas?) from experts who tell us (several times over) that it is possible to transform our organisations into ones that continually learn.

The journey itself is directionless because the Bellman’s map is useless. In Carroll’s words:

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!

Finally, the Snark is never found. In its stead, the crew find a scary creature called  a Boojum that has the power to make one disappear. Quoting from the poem:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The journey towards a learning organisation often reveals the Boojum-like dark side of organisations.  One common example of this is when the process of learning surfaces questions that are uncomfortable for those in power. Tosey relates the  following tale  which may be familiar to some readers,

…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.

One could argue that a certain kind of learning – that of how the organisation learns – occurred here:  the employee learnt that certain questions were out of bounds. I think it is safe to say, though, that this was not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.

In the preface to the poem, Carroll notes that the Bellman there is a rule  –  Rule 42 – which states, “No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm,” to which the Bellman (the leader) added, “and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one.” This rendered communication between the helmsman and the crew impossible. In such periods the ship was not steered. The parallels between this and organisational life are clear: there is rarely open communication between the those steering the organisational ship and rank and file employees. Indeed, Tosey reformulates Rule 42 in organisational terms as, “the organization shall not speak to the supervision, and the  supervision shall not speak to the organization.” This, he tells us, interrupts the feedback loop between individual experience and the organisations which renders learning impossible.

(Note:  I can’t help but wonder if Douglas Adams’ famous  answer to the life universe and everything was inspired by Carroll’s rule 42…)

In the poem,  the ship sometimes sailed backwards when Rule 42 was in operation. Tosey draws a parallel between “sailing backwards” and unexpected or unintended consequence of organisational rules.  He argues that organisational actions can result in learning even if those actions were originally intended to achieve something else. The employee in the story above learnt something about the organisational hierarchy and how it worked.

Finally, it is a feature of Rule-42-like rules that they cannot be named. The employee in the story above could not  have pointed out that the manager was acting in a manner that was inconsistent with the intent of the programme – at least not without putting his own position at risk. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of learning, though of a rather sad kind.

Conclusion

Experts and consultants have told us many times over that the journey towards a learning organisation is one worth making….and as the as the Bellman in Carroll’s poem says: “What I tell you three times is true.” Nevertheless, the reality is that instances in which learning actually occurs tend to be more a consequence of accident than plan, and tend to be transient than lasting. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Snark may turn out to Boojum:  people may end up learning truths that the organisation would rather remained hidden.   And therein lies the paradox of the  learning organisation.

Written by K

June 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm

On the evolution of corporate information infrastructures

leave a comment »

Introduction

In the last few decades two technology trends have changed much of the thinking about corporate IT infrastructures: commoditisation and the cloud.   As far as the first trend is concerned,  the availability of relatively cheap hardware and packaged “enterprise” software has enabled organisations to create their own IT infrastructures.  Yet, despite best efforts of IT executives and planners, most of these infrastructures take on lives of their own, often increasing in complexity to the point where they become unmanageable.

The maturing of cloud technologies in the last few years  appears to offer IT decision makers an attractive solution to this problem:  that of outsourcing their infrastructure headaches. Notwithstanding the wide variety of mix-and-match options of commodity and cloud offerings, the basic problem still remains: one can create as much of a mess in the cloud as one can in an in-house data center.  Moreover, the advertised advantages of cloud-based enterprise solutions can be illusory:  customers often find that solutions are inflexible and major changes can cost substantial sums of money.

Conventional wisdom tells us that these problems can be tackled by proper planning and control.  In this post I draw on Claudio Ciborra’s book, From Control to Drift: The Dynamics of Corporate Information Infrastructures, to show why such a view is simplistic and essentially untenable.

The effects of globalisation and modernity

The basic point made by Ciborra and Co.  is that initiatives to plan and control IT infrastructures via centrally-driven, standards-based governance structures are essentially misguided reactions to the unsettling effects of globalisation and modernity, terms that I elaborate on below.

Globalisation

Globalisation refers to the processes of interaction and integration between people of different cultures across geographical boundaries. The increasing number of corporations with a global presence is one of the manifestations of globalisation. For such organisations, IT infrastructures systems are seen as a means to facilitate globalisation and also control it.

There are four strategies that an organisation can choose from when establishing a global presence. These are:

  • Multinational: Where individual subsidiaries are operated autonomously.
  • International: Where work practices from the parent company diffuse through the subsidiaries (in a non-formal way).
  • Global: Where local business activities are closely controlled by the parent corporation.
  • Transnational: This (ideal) model balances central control and local autonomy in a way that meets the needs of the corporation while taking into account the uniqueness of local conditions.

These four business strategies map to two corporate IT strategies:

  •  Autonomous: where individual subsidiaries have their own IT strategies, loosely governed by corporate.
  •   Headquarters-driven: where IT operations are tightly controlled by the parent corporation.

Neither is perfect; both have downsides that start to become evident only after a particular strategy is implemented. Given this, it is no surprise that organisations tend to cycle between the two strategies, with cycle times varying from five to ten years; a trend that corporate IT minions are all too familiar with.  Typically, though,  executive management tends to favour the centrally-driven approach since it holds the promise of higher control and reduced costs.

Another consequence of globalisation is the trend towards outsourcing IT infrastructure and services. This is particularly popular for operational IT – things like infrastructure and support. In view of this, it is no surprise that organisations often choose to outsource IT development and support to external vendors.  Equally unsurprising, perhaps, is that the quality of service often does not match expectations and there’s little that can be done about it.  The reason is simple:  complex contracts are hard to manage and perhaps more importantly, not everything can be contractualised. See my post on the transaction cost economics of outsourcing for more on this point.

The effect of modernity

The phenomenon of modernity forms an essential part of the backdrop against which IT systems are implemented. According to a sociological definition due to Anthony Giddens,  modernity  is “associated with (1) a certain set of attitudes towards the world, the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention; (2) a complex of economic institutions, especially industrial production and a market economy; (3) a certain range of political institutions, including the nation-state and mass democracy”  

Modernity is characterised by the following three “forces” that have a direct impact on information infrastructures:

  • The separation of space and time: This refers to the ways in which technology enables us reconfigure our notions of geographical  space and time.  For instance,  coordinating activities in distant locations is now possible  – global supply chains and distributed project teams being good examples. The important consequence of this ability, relevant to IT infrastructures such as ERP and CRM systems,  is that it makes it possible (at least in principle)  for organisations to increase their level of surveillance and control of key business processes across the globe.
  • The development of disembedding mechanisms: As I have discussed at length in this post, organisations often “import” procedures that have worked well in organisations. The assumption underlying this practice is that the procedures can be lifted out of their original context and implemented in another one without change. This, in turn, tacitly assumes that those responsible for implementing the procedure in the new context understand the underlying cause-effect relationships completely. This world-view, where organisational processes and procedures are elevated to the status of universal “best practices”  is  an example of a disembedding mechanism at work. Disembedding mechanisms are essentially processes via which certain facts are abstracted from their context and ascribed a universal meaning. Indeed, most “enterprise” class systems claim to implement such “best practices.”
  • The reflexivity of knowledge and practice: Reflexive phenomena are those for which cause-effect relationships are bi-directional – i.e. causes determine effects which in turn modify the causes. Such phenomena are unstable in the sense that they are continually evolving – in potentially unpredictable ways. Organisational practices (which are based on organisational knowledge) are reflexive in the sense that they are continually modified in the light of their results or effects.  This conflicts with the main rationale for IT infrastructures such as ERP systems, which is to rationalise and automate organisational processes and procedures in a relatively inflexible manner.

 Implications for organisations

One of the main implications of globalisation and modernity is that the world is now more interconnected than ever before. This is illustrated by the global repercussions of the financial crises that have occurred in recent times. For globalised organisations this manifests itself in not-so-obvious dependencies  of the organisation’s  well-being on events within the organisation and outside it. These events are  usually not within the organisation’s control So they have to be  managed as risks.

A standard response to risk is to increase control. Arguably, this may well be the most common executive-level rationale behind decisions to impose stringent controls and governance structures around IT infrastructures.  Yet, paradoxically, the imposition of controls often lead to undesirable outcomes because of unforeseen side effects and the inability to respond to changing business needs in a timely manner.

 A bit about standards

Planners of IT infrastructures spend a great deal of time worrying about which standards they should follow. This makes sense if for no other reason than the fact that corporate IT infrastructures are embedded in a larger (external) ecosystem that is made up of diverse organisations, each with their own infrastructures. Standards ease the problem of communication between interconnected organisations. For example,  organisations often have to exchange information electronically in various formats. Without (imposed or de-facto) standards, this would be very difficult as IT staff would have to write custom programs to convert files from one format to another.

The example of file formats illustrates why those who plan and implement IT infrastructures prefer to go with well established technologies and standards rather than with promising (but unproven) new ones. The latter often cause headaches because of compatibility problems with preexisting technologies.  There are other reasons, of course, for staying with older technologies and established standards – acceptance, maturity and reliability being a few important ones.

Although the rationale for adopting standards seems like a sound one, there are a few downsides too.  Consider the following:

  • Lock in: This refers to the fact that once a technology is widely adopted, it is very difficult for competing technologies to develop. The main reason for this is that  dominant technology will attract a large number of complementary products. These make it more attractive to stick with the dominant standard. Additionally, contractual commitments, availability of expertise, switching costs make it unviable for customers to move to competitor products.
  • Inefficiency: This refers to the fact that a dominant standard is not necessarily the best. There are many examples of cases where a dominant standard is demonstrably inferior to a less popular competitor. My favourite example is the Waterfall project management methodology which became a standard for reasons other than its efficacy. See this paper for details of this fascinating story.
  • Incompatibility:  In recent years, consumer devices such as smartphones and tablets have made their way into corporate computing environments, primarily because of pressures and demands from technology savvy end-users. These devices pose problems for infrastructure planners and administrators because they are typically incompatible with existing corporate technology standards and procedures. As an example, organisations that have standardised on a particular platform such as Microsoft Windows may face major challenges when introducing devices such as iPads in their environments.

Finally, and most importantly, the evolution of standards causes major headaches for corporate IT infrastructure planners. Anyone who has been through a major upgrade of an operating system at an organisation-wide level will have lived this pain.  Indeed, it is such experiences that have driven IT decision-makers to cloud offerings. The cloud  brings with it a different set of problems, but that’s another story.  Suffice to say that the above highlights, once again, the main theme of the book: that infrastructure planning is well and good, but planners have to be aware that the choices they make constrain them in ways that they will not have foreseen.

Summing up

The main argument that Ciborra and his associates make is that  corporate information infrastructures drift because they are subject to unpredictable forces within and outside the hosting organisation. Standards and processes may slow the drift (if at all) but they cannot arrest it entirely. Infrastructures are therefore best seen as ever-evolving constructs made up systems, people and processes that interact with each other in (often) unforeseen ways.  As Ciborra so elegantly puts it:

Corporate information infrastructures are puzzles, or better collages, and so are the design and implementation processes that lead to their construction and operation. They are embedded in larger, contextual puzzles and collages. Interdependence, intricacy, and interweaving of people, systems, and processes are the culture bed of infrastructure. Patching, alignment of heterogeneous actors and making do are the most frequent approaches…irrespective of whether management [is] planning or strategy oriented, or inclined to react to contingencies.

And therein lies an important message for those who plan and oversee information infrastructures.

Notes:

Sections of this post are drawn from my article entitled, The ERP Paradox.

Written by K

April 3, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the terminated PMO

with 12 comments

“Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”

Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not like interruptions when he was surveying a crime scene.

Holmes walked around as he always did,  in apparently random fashion, his sharp eyes darting from here to there taking in the details –  the process flowcharts on a wall,  project schedules displayed over on the other side,  the printed portfolio reports  that lay on the table and the many other artefacts that are part and parcel of a PMO.

After watching  his friend  for what seemed like an eternity, Watson could hold his curiosity no longer: “What’s your guess, Holmes?” he asked.

“I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.” He looked up sharply, “You should know better than to ask Watson….”

“I know, Holmes, but my curiosity gets the better of me. What do you think happened?”

“Ah yes, what I think. What I think is not important, Watson,” he said, wagging his index finger in his friend’s direction. “We must focus on what we know – the facts.”

“So, what are the facts?” asked Watson wearily. His friend could be an insufferable pedant.

“You know my methods, Watson. Look around you. What do you see?”

Oh, they were going to play that game again. Shaking his head in exasperation, Watson said, “Why don’t you save time and tell me, Holmes. You are the genius, not I.”

“Ah Watson, sarcasm does not become you. Anyway, I take no offence and will offer you some hints so that you may begin to discern the real reason for the failure of this PMO.”

He walked over to the flowcharts on the wall and asked,” Tell me Watson, What are these and what do they  tell you?”

Watson  walked over to the charts, looked at  them intently and said, “I think we can safely say these describe project management processes.” Then, jabbing his finger at a chart, he continued, “This one  describes the process of authorisation. It seems sensible enough –  a need is identified, a business case drawn up and submitted to the project governance board, it is evaluated against certain criteria and then a decision is made on whether the project should be authorised or not. And look at this one, ‘tis a work of art….”

“Do you know, Watson,” interrupted Holmes, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these attractive flowcharts, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which they may be subverted.”

“Huh?” blurted Watson, not knowing quite what to make of this.

“I see you are perplexed, Watson. Let me put it another way,  a  PMO may require that project managers comply with certain process, but it cannot enforce compliance.”

“So you think the PMO failed because it could not get project managers to follow processes?”

“Yes, Watson. But experience tells me that although that may be a visible symptom, it is not the cause. You’re a doctor so  I don’t need to tell you that identifying symptoms is necessary but, to cure the disease, one must find the cause. It is all too easy to label the symptom as the cause – many  consultants have done so, and have thus made recommendations that are worse than useless.”

“Worse than useless? I don’t understand, Holmes.”

“Yes, worse than useless. If  organisations focus on curing symptoms rather than causes, they will end up exacerbating the underlying dysfunctions. For example, if a consultant mistakenly labels the fact that project managers did not follow processes as the cause, the organisation may put in place procedures that forces managers to comply with processes. That, as you will no doubt appreciate,  is doing exactly the wrong thing – it will only make things worse.”

“Why is it the wrong thing? Surely if they are forced to comply, they will and the processes will then be followed as they should be.”

“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, shaking his head in exasperation, “that’s the army man in you talking.” He continuted sharply,  “This is not the military, Sir! This is the messy world of organisation-land where people are autonomous agents even though management orthodoxy would have us believe otherwise.”

“’Tis a matter of discipline, Holmes. Surely you do not advocate letting project managers behave as they would want – as, how do you say it…autonomous agents.”

“ You know Watson, may be you are right,”  said Holmes.  “Perhaps when a man has special knowledge and special powers like my own, it rather encourages him to seek a complex explanation when a simpler one is at hand.”

“Indeed, I think you are over-complicating matters my dear Holmes. This is an open and shut case – a failure of enforcement and compliance.” said Watson.

“Possibly, Watson. However, the truth is not to be found here in the PMO. It lies elsewhere, in the hallowed heights of the executive floor… Anyway there is a more immediate matter that needs our attention: it is late and the sun sinks rapidly. We must make our way to that fine establishment I noticed at the end of the street – I could do with a pint or three.”

“Well said, Holmes!”

The two made their way towards the exit.

———

“Come,  friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act,” murmured Holmes, as the two of them entered the elevator. They had come to the head office to meet the executive director.

The two found their way to the meeting room on the executive floor and entered.

“Hello Holmes, it is good to see you again,” boomed the executive director, “and I see you have brought Dr. Watson with you. Good to see you too, sir. Do come in and meet my management team.”.

After the mandatory round of introductions and business card exchanges, the director continued,”I take it you have something for us, Holmes.”

“Yes sir, I have a number of questions.“

“Questions? I don’t understand, Holmes. We hired you to find us some answers about the failure of our PMO, and you tell me have  a few questions. I take it you have some answers too. The CIO expects answers not questions,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“No,I have no answers…but a hypothesis that I hope to validate soon.”

“I do not understand the need for this drama,” said the director.

“Watson here will tell you that I can never resist a touch of the dramatic.”

“OK, Holmes, you had better get to it then,” said the director shortly.

“I’ll get right to it sir,” he said, and turned to face the seated managers. “Ladies and gentlemen, pray what was the objective of your PMO?”

There was a stunned silence. Finally, one of the managers spoke up, “Surely that is obvious Mr, Holmes.”

“Thank you.  I do realise my question may seem a little simple minded to you, but I beg that you answer it in a way that you would to someone who knows nothing about PMOs.” He turned to the executive director for confirmation.

“Yes, yes, answer his question,” said the executive director impatiently.

“OK, if you insist. The basic objective  of the PMO can be summarised in a line. It was to ensure that all our strategic projects are delivered on time, within the agreed budget and to the required standards of quality.  Needless to say,  the PMO failed to deliver: as I recall, out of the 12 strategic projects we have, 8 or 9 are in serious trouble – over budget and/or time by more than 50%,”  said the manager. “That is all the relevant detail… I trust it is not too much  for you, Mr Holmes,” he added.

“”I am glad of all details, whether they seem to you to be relevant or not,”  retorted Holmes. Then,  in a gentler tone, he asked, “How exactly was the PMO expected to achieve these objectives?”

The managers looked at each other, nonplussed at the question.

Finally,  one of them asked, “Mr. Holmes, what do you mean by “how”? I do not understand your question…and I think I speak for my colleagues too. We followed the advice of Lord Gartner and Baron McKinsey in setting up our PMO. Among many other things, we are fully aware of the importance of giving a PMO complete authority to oversee and control IT projects across the organisation. I am sure  you are aware that our PMO had implemented a set of proven best practice project and portfolio management standards to ensure control and oversight.”

“Yes, we have seen the process charts…they are impressive indeed,” piped up Watson. Holmes gave him The Look.

“That is so, and the fact that some projects have succeeded shows that the processes do work,” said  another manager.

“My dear sir, results without causes are impressive but assuming a causal link between them, sans proof, is not,” said Holmes. “Let me ask you a simple question, sir. Would you say your organisation is unique – one of a kind?”

“Of course it is,” said the manager. “We have just been voted a ‘best employer’ and we won several industry awards in previous years. Indeed we are unique.”

“…and yet you implement standardised processes?”

“What is your point, Mr. Holmes?”

“Let me spell it out: your organisation is unique, as are your people. Right?”

“Yes,” said the manager. Others around the room were nodding their assent.

“In view of your uniqueness, don’t you think you ought to develop – rather evolve – your own unique  processes in collaboration with your project managers rather than impose one-size-fits-all “best practice” standards on them?”

“But…why should we do that…and how ?”  Asked the executive director.

“Sir, I’ve already answered the “why.” I will leave the “how” for you and your team to figure out. Whatever else you do,  I  cannot overemphasise the importance of including your frontline managers and employees in the discussions about how your PMO should function,  and also in selecting and designing appropriate processes.”

“I see…,” said the director thoughtfully.

“Sir, your PMO failed because it attempted to transplant practices that allegedly worked elsewhere into your unique –dare I say, special – organisation. As was inevitable, the transplant was roundly rejected: your people found the processes strange, even arbitrary, and resented them. Consequently, they found ways to work around them instead of with them. Failure of your PMO was preordained because of your focus on processes rather than intentions.

The executive director nodded thoughtfully, as the penny dropped. “Thank you Holmes,” he said, “I see your point….finally.”

“Thank you sir…and thank you all,” said Holmes nodding at each of the seated managers in turn. “There is much work for you all to do now, so Dr. Watson and I will show ourselves out.”

The two gathered their papers and left, shutting the door behind them gently.

“Never underestimate the power of a question to illuminate the truth,” said Holmes sententiously as he and Watson entered the elevator.

Watson rolled his eyes; his friend was brilliant, but he could also be a pompous ass.

——–

Acknowledgements:

Thanks to Arati Apte and Paul Culmsee for encouragement and feedback on earlier drafts of this story.

Notes:

  1. Spot the quote (for Sherlock Holmes trainspotters):  there are eight quotes from various Sherlock Holmes adventures in this post; most are verbatim, but a couple of the longer ones have been adapted to fit the narrative.
  2. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to have a look  at the other business fables on this blog.

Written by K

March 19, 2013 at 8:01 pm

“Strategic alignment” – profundity or platitude?

with 6 comments

Introduction

Some time ago I wrote a post entitled, Models and messes in management, wherein I discussed how a “scientific” approach to management has resulted in a one-size-fits-all  approach to problem solving in organizations.  This is reflected in the tendency of organisations to  implement similar information technology (IT) systems, often on the  “expert” advice of carbon-copy consultancies that offer commoditized solutions.

A particularly effective marketing tactic is to advertise such “solutions” as being able to help organisations achieve  strategic alignment between IT and the business.  In this post I discuss how the concept of “strategic alignment” though seemingly sensible, makes no sense in the messy, real world of organization-land. My discussion is based on a brilliant paper by Claudio Ciborra entitled, De Profundis? Deconstructing the concept of strategic alignment.  The paper analyses the notion of alignment as it is commonly understood in the context of  IT– namely as a process by which IT objectives are brought in line with those of the organization it serves.

Background

The paper begins with a short chronology of the term strategic alignment, starting with this  highly cited paper  published by Henderson and Venkataraman  in 1993. The paper describes the need for alignment between business and IT strategies of companies.   More importantly, however, the authors detail a “Strategic Alignment Model” that purports to “guide management practice” towards achieving alignment between IT and the business. However, as Ciborra noted four years later, in 1997, it was still an open question as to what strategic alignment really meant and how it was to be achieved.

Fast forward 15 years to 2012, and it appears that the question of what strategic alignment is and how to achieve it still an open one. Here are some excerpts from recently published papers:

In the abstract to their paper entitled, Strategic Alignment of Business Processes, Morrison et. al. state:

Strategic alignment is a mechanism by which an organization can visualize the relationship between its business processes and strategies. It enables organizational decision makers to collect meaningful insights based on their current processes. Currently it is difficult to show the sustainability of an organization and to determine an optimal set of processes that are required for realizing strategies.” (italics mine)

Even worse, the question of what strategic alignment is is far from settled.  It appears that it means different things to different people. In the abstract to their paper entitled, Reconsidering the Dimensions of Business-IT Alignment, Schlosser et. al. state:

While the literature on business-IT alignment has become increasingly mature in the past 20 years, different definitions and conceptualizations have emerged. Several dimensions like strategic, intellectual, structural, social, and cultural alignment have been developed. However, no integrated and broadly accepted categorization exists and these dimensions are non-selective and do overlap…

This begs the question as to how meaningful it is for organizations to pursue “alignment” when people are still haggling over the fine print of what it means.

Ciborra dealt with this  very question 15 years ago. In the remainder of this post I summarize the central ideas of his paper,  which I think are as relevant today as the were at the time it was written.

Deconstructing  strategic alignment

The whole problem with the notion of strategic alignment is nicely summarized in a paragraph that appears in Ciborra’s introduction:

…while strategic alignment may be close to a truism conceptually, in the everyday business it is far from being implemented. Strategy ends up in “tinkering” and the IT infrastructure tends to “drift”. If alignment was supposed to be the ideal “bridge” connecting the two key variables [business and IT], it must be admitted that such a conceptual bridge faces the perils of the concrete bridge always re-designed and never built between continental Italy and Sicily, (actually, between Scylla and Charybdis) its main problem being the shores: shifting and torn by small and big earthquakes….

The question, then, is how and why do dubious concepts such as strategic alignment worm their way into mainstream management?

Ciborra places the blame for this squarely in the camp of academics who really ought to know better. As he states:

[Management Science] deploys careful empirical research, claiming to identify “naturally occurring phenomena” but in reality measures theoretical (and artificial) constructs so that the messiness of everyday reality gets virtually hidden. Or it builds models that should be basic but do not last a few years and quickly fall into oblivion.

And a few lines later:

…practitioners and academics increasingly worship simplified models that have a very short lifecycle….managers who have been exposed to such illusionary models, presented as the outcome of quasi-scientific studies, are left alone and disarmed in front of the intricacies of real business processes and behaviors, which in the meantime have become even more complicated than when these managers left for their courses. People’s existence, carefully left out of the models, waits for them at their workplaces.

Brilliantly put, I think!

Boxes, arrows and platitudes

Generally, strategic alignment is defined as a fit, or a bridge, between different domains of a business.  To be honest it seems the metaphor of a “bridge” seems to distract from reflecting on the chasm that is allegedly being crossed and the ever-shifting banks that lie on either side. Those who speak of alignment would do better to first focus on what they are trying to align. They may be surprised to find that the geometric models  that pervade their PowerPoint Presentations (e.g. organograms, boxes connected by arrows) are completely divorced from reality. Little surprise, then, that top-down, management efforts at achieving alignment invariably fail.

Why do such tragedies play out over and over again?

Once again, Ciborra offers some brilliant insights…

The messy world, he tells us, gives us the raw materials from which we build simplified representations of the organization we work in. These representations are often built in the image of models that we have learnt or read about (or have been spoon-fed to us by our expensive consultants). Unfortunately, these models are abstractions of reality – they cannot and must not be confused with the real thing.  So when we speak of alignment, we are talking of an abstraction that is not “out there in the world” but instead only resides in our heads; in textbooks and journal papers; and, of course, in business school curricula.

As he says,

…there is no pure alignment to be measured out there. It is, on the contrary, our pre-scientific understanding of and participating in the world of organizations that gives to the notion of alignment a shaky and ephemeral existence as an abstraction in our discourses and representations about the world.

This is equally true of management research programs on alignment: they are built on multiple abstractions and postulated causal connections that are simply not there.

If academics who spend their productive working lives elaborating these concepts make little headway, what hope is there for the manager who  to implement or measure strategic alignment?

Is there any hope?

Ciborra tells us that the answer to the question posed in the sub-heading is a qualified “yes”. One can pursue alignment, but one must first realize that the concept is an abstraction that exists only in an ideal world in which there are no surprises and in which things always go according to plan. Perhaps more importantly, they need to understand that implementations of technology invariably have significant unintended consequences that require improvised responses and adaptations. Moreover, these are essential aspects of the process of alignment, not things that can be wished away by better plans or improved monitoring.

So what can one do? As Ciborra states:

…we are confronted with a choice. Either we can do what management science suggests, that is “to realize these surprises in implementation as exceptions, build an ideal world of “how things should be” and to try to operate so that the messy world that in which managers operate moves towards this model….or we suspend  belief about what we think we know…and reflect on what we observe. Sticking to the latter we encounter phenomena that deeply enrich our notion of alignment… (italics mine)

Ciborra then goes on to elaborate on concepts of Care (dealing with the world as it is, but in a manner that is honest and free of preconceived notions), Cultivation (allowing systems to evolve in a way that is responsive to the needs of the organization rather than a predetermined plan) and Hospitality (the notion that the organization hosts the technology, much in the way that a host hosts a guest). It would take at least a thousand words more to elaborate on these concepts, so I’ll have to leave it here. However, if you are interested in finding out more, please see my summary and review of Ciborra’s book: The Labyrinths of Information.

…and finally, who aligns whom?

The above considerations lead us to the conclusion that, despite our best efforts, technology infrastructures tend to have lives of their own – they align us as much as we (attempt to) align them.  IT infrastructures are deeply entwined with the organizations that host them, so much so that they are invisible (until they breakdown, of course) and  even have human advocates who “protect” their (i.e. the infrastructure’s) interests! Although this point may seem surprising to business folks, it is probably familiar to those who work with information systems in corporate or other organizational environments.

A final word:  many other management buzz-phrases, though impressive sounding, are just as meaningless as the term strategic alignment.  However, I think I have rambled on enough, so I will leave you here to find and deconstruct some of these on your own.

Written by K

February 21, 2013 at 9:43 pm

On the shortcomings of cause-effect based models in management

with 4 comments

Introduction

Business schools perpetuate the myth that the outcomes of changes in organizations can be managed using  models that  are rooted in the scientific-rational mode of enquiry. In essence, such models assume that all important variables that affect an outcome  (i.e. causes) are known and that the relationship between these variables and the outcomes (i.e.  effects) can be represented accurately by simple models.   This is the nature of explanation in the hard sciences such as physics and is pretty much the official line adopted by mainstream management research and teaching – a point I have explored at length in an earlier post.

Now it is far from obvious that a mode of explanation that works for physics will also work for management. In fact, there is enough empirical evidence that most cause-effect based management models do not work in the real world.  Many front-line employees and middle managers need no proof because they have likely lived through failures of such models in their organisations- for example,  when the unintended consequences of  organisational change swamp its intended (or predicted) effects.

In this post I look at the missing element in management models – human intentions –  drawing on this paper by Sumantra Ghoshal which explores  three different modes of explanation that were elaborated by Jon Elster in this book.  My aim in doing this is to highlight the key reason why so many management initiatives fail.

Types of explanations

According to Elster, the nature of what we can reasonably expect from an explanation differs in the natural and social sciences. Furthermore, within the natural sciences, what constitutes an explanation differs in the physical and biological sciences.

Let’s begin with the difference between physics and biology first.

The dominant mode of explanation in physics (and other sciences that deal with inanimate matter) is causal – i.e. it deals with causes and effects as I have described in the introduction. For example, the phenomenon of gravity is explained as being caused by the presence of  matter, the precise relationship being expressed via Newton’s Law of Gravitation (or even more accurately, via Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity).  Gravity is  “explained” by these models because they tell us that it is caused by the presence of matter. More important, if we know the specific configuration of matter in a particular problem, we can accurately predict the effects of gravity – our success in sending unmanned spacecraft to Saturn or Mars depends rather crucially on this.

In biology, the nature of explanation is somewhat different. When studying living creatures we don’t look for causes and effects. Instead we look for explanations based on function. For example,  zoologists do not need to ask how amphibians came to have webbed feet; it is enough for them to know that webbed feet are an adaptation that affords amphibians a survival advantage. They need look no further than this explanation because it is consistent with the Theory of Evolution – that changes in organisms occur by chance, and those that survive do so because they offer the organism a survival advantage. There is no need to look for a deeper explanation in terms of cause and effect.

In social sciences the situation is very  different indeed. The basic unit of explanation in the social sciences is the individual. But an individual is different from an inanimate object or even a non-human organism that reacts to specific stimuli in predictable ways. The key difference is that human actions are guided by intentions, and any explanation of social phenomena ought to start from these intentions.

For completeness I should mention that functional and causal explanations are sometimes possible within the social sciences and management. Typically functional explanations are possible in tightly controlled environments.  For example,  the behaviour and actions of people working within large bureaucracies or assembly lines can be understood on the basis of function. Causal explanations are even rarer, because they are possible only when  focusing on the collective behaviour of large, diverse populations in which the effects of individual intentions are swamped by group diversity. In such special cases, people can indeed be treated as molecules or atoms.

Implications for management

There a couple of interesting implications of restoring intentionality to its rightful place in management studies.

Firstly, as Ghoshal states in his paper:

Management theories at present are overwhelmingly causal or functional in their modes of explanation. Ethics or morality, however, are mental phenomena. As a result they have had to be excluded from our theories and from the practices that such theories have shaped.  In other words, a precondition for making business studies a science as well as a consequence of the resulting belief in determinism has been the explicit denial of any role of moral or ethical considerations in the practice of management

Present day management studies exclude considerations of morals and ethics, except, possibly, as a separate course that has little relation to the other subjects that form a part of the typical business school curriculum. Recognising the role of intentionality restores ethical and moral considerations where they belong – on the centre-stage of management theory and practice.

Secondly, recognizing the role of intentions in determining peoples’ actions helps us see that organizational changes that “start from where people are”  have a much better chance of succeeding than those that are initiated top-down with little or no consultation with rank and file employees. Unfortunately the large majority of organizational change initiatives still start from the wrong place – the top.

Summing up

Most management practices that are taught in business schools and practiced by the countless graduates of these programs are rooted in the belief that certain actions (causes) will lead to specific, desired outcomes (effects). In this article I have discussed how explanations based on cause-effect models, though good for understanding the behaviour of molecules and possibly even mice, are misleading in the world of humans. To achieve sustainable and enduring outcomes  in organisation one has to start from where people are,  and to do that one has to begin by taking their opinions and aspirations seriously.

Written by K

January 3, 2013 at 9:46 pm

%d bloggers like this: