The Structure/Process Dilemma

Edgar Schein presented the opening session of the 2010 Organization Design Forum Conference, currently running in Denver. His topic was the structure/process dilemma in organization design. Refreshingly he started off by saying that when he was thinking about his presentation he asked himself the question: "What are my biases that might be of some use to people thinking about this topic?"

It turns out that he is biased towards thinking about process first and structure more or less last in an organization design: a view that I share but have yet to find the majority of line managers sharing. All too often (a blanket generalization) they equate organization design with fiddling with the boxes on an organization chart.

His argument for process first begins with three questions around the work. In order to do the work:

• Who needs to connect, coordinate, collaborate with whom?
• What kind of connection is needed?
• What kind of communication process should be designed?

He then gave a brief history on why these questions and the work process first approach make sense, citing the Bavelas and Leavitt communication experiments which aim to establish the link between structures and communication efficiency/effectiveness. "Given that there are many ways to organize an organization, the question arises how the pattern of communications within the organization affects the performance of the organization — it's ability to sell products, reduce costs, adapt to changes in environment, etc" (Quote from Stephen P. Borgatti Communication Structure and its Effects on Task Performance). Schein then went on to consider the notion of structured dialogues and the work of Bill Isaacs.

This historical perspective led Schein to observe that the process has to fit the task and the structure has to fit the process. So, all members of a work group have to collectively know, understand, and agree what there task is, figure out the process for achieving the task, and design the structure that allows the process to flow. Schein noted that this may involve upsetting cultural norms and establishing new norms for that workgroup which can be done on what he described as a 'cultural island'.

The point about the 'cultural island' is – going back to the three original questions – that to get work done requires connection, collaboration, and coordination, which in turn means communicating effectively.

Communicating effectively requires a relationship and relationships have to be built.
Because each culture has different rules for authority and intimacy management, the initial relationship building has to be on a cultural island in which the rules are temporarily suspended for the purposes of learning how to communicate in a trusting relationship. This he explained as:

• A relationship is some degree of mutual affirmation of what each member claims as his/her value in the situation 'face'
• The social order in all cultures requires that interaction be reciprocal, fair and balanced – social economics
• The rules of the social order specify the proper roles and proprieties of situations that involve authority and intimacy – social theater
• Trust is that I can say something about myself and that someone else will not take negative advantage of it.

What followed in the session was a practical exercise (tomorrow's blog) to illustrate the points about building trusting relationships for good communication and the need to suspend cultural norms in order to do the building. In summing up Schein reiterated that;

• Task effectiveness requires coordination and collaboration.
• That requires task relevant open communication. For example: If a nurse sees a surgeon about to cut off the wrong limb she should speak up.
• Open communication requires mutual trust, understanding and empathy. The nurse speaking up requires the conditions for speaking up.
• That requires building relationships of trust because to speak up you need a relationship which you feel is sustaining and will confirm your (positive) sense of self. See Erving Goffman's book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life on this topic.