Power and control

Taking advantage of sudden work stoppage, at least for some of us, due to Holiday Season. I've used the time to write and send off the third chapter of my forthcoming book on organizational health and start on the fourth chapter. Writing is a challenging process but I love doing it. Not just for the writing piece, in fact probably less for the writing and more for all the research that goes into the writing. I can spend hours on what someone called an 'internet binge' following lines of enquiry, but it's pretty much always worth the time investment. I learn a lot in the process and this feeds into my teaching and consulting work, and quite often I can send useful articles and websites to people I know would be interested in them. Thus fostering that skill we're all supposed to be developing of 'collaboration'.

So this current chapter is on control. What I've noticed is that there is some confusion between 'power' and 'control'. In my view they are different. Power is the ability of someone to impose their will even against resistance from others and results primarily from position in a social structure. This is known as positional power. And there are others sources of power: someone who controls access to resources may have little positional power but is able to use that resource power.

Control is manifested in things like formal rules such as those that give authority to supervisors in an organization, and thus grant them power to control the behavior of others. Control then is defined as the purposeful deployment of various mechanisms that act to corral organizations down a path that keeps them moving towards achievement of their business strategy and goals.

However, given that the noun 'control' has at least eleven meanings and the verb 'control' has eight, I start the chapter with some boundary setting around the word as it is played out in organizations. My plan for the chapter is to look at control in organizations from three perspectives

a) the formal controls that are used within organizations to keep performance and productivity in line with goals
b) the informal cultural controls that keep people in line with norms and mores
c) the leadership control, both by formal and informal leaders, who have positional power and influence to wield the various control devices, approaches, and techniques that impact performance and productivity

Sometimes the plan doesn't turn into the reality as I start writing, and sometimes it does for me but not for the editor. So things may change on the chapter content. But things are ok so far. What I'm not going to tackle in the chapter is the whole piece pertaining to organizational controls from external sources governments, professional associations, shareholders, and so on although I do touch on them at points.

I relate each one of the definitions of controls to each of the four system types: mechanistic, animate, social and ecological, proposed by Russell Ackoff. His systems work is being developed at the University of Pennsylvania in a 'collabratory', ACASA . Healthy systems are the topic of chapter 3 of the book.

Sidebar:This whole investigation into systems theory took me to Ervin Laszlo and a new university he was instrumental in setting up the Giordano Bruno GlobalShift University, that opens its doors on January 12 2012 and guess what? I registered for their on-line course, "2012: Know the World, Know Yourself.. . So if the book deadline has to be extended this may be one of the reasons.

Looking at controls in relation to systems makes the point that the range and variety of controls available for organizational use is vast. At their best the controls keep the organization running in a healthy way. But if controls are left unmonitored or deployed poorly or thoughtlessly then there are likely to be unfortunate repercussions as Apple Inc found out in 2010 when it appeared that worker conditions, including long working hours, and highly regimented operations in one of the factories, Foxconn, that supplied its parts were implicated in the rash of worker suicides at the plant. In the wave of publicity that hit Apple and in the face of criticism of plant conditions Terry Gou, Chairman of Foxconn Technology, said "We're reviewing everything. We will leave no stone unturned and we'll make sure to find a way to reduce these suicide tendencies".

What's interesting about control mechanisms is that they can be formal – those which are officially sanctioned and usually codified like rules and procedures. And they can be informal and derive from the norms and beliefs that guide employee actions and behaviours. What I'd like to know more about is how and whether controls are actively chosen in a whole systems way that guides the organization effectively. My experience is that there is very little conscious thought about what makes for a sensible control and what is a daft one. (Both formal and informal controls can be sensible or daft I've found).

But whether control methods are consciously chosen and if so in what circumstances and how this happens is another book altogether. For my purposes I am taking the line that some controls are chosen, e.g. the design of a performance appraisal system, some are imposed, and some arise from the history, culture and experience of the organizational members.

On this last, I read a delightful piece in Fast Company on Lenovo (the PC company) illustrating the part culture plays in attitudes to organizational control. In 2005 Lenovo, a Chinese PC company bought IBM's PC business for $1.75 billion. At the time things did not go so well. Lenovo's leadership team did not speak English and had no multi-cultural experience. There was also a significant culture divide. In one example quoted Liu, Leonovo's Chairman used to insist that late arrivals to a meeting stand in the corner, "a punishment he imposed even on himself." (Salter, 2011) Of course, I can imagine that a US/UK leader would love to stick latecomers to meetings in a corner but are prevented by various controls like bullying and harassment policies.

Recognizing the complexity of control 'choice' it is clear that organizations have scope to determine how and what constitute effective controls for their organization. But again, I wonder how many organizations look at their portfolio of controls and really work out how they are contributing to the value of the organization. A look at the controls in relation to the business model and impact these have on operational performance could end up saving a lot of money.

What's your view on organization/management controls? Do you think most controls were designed for bureaucratic, hierarchical organizations? What different controls are needed for today's flatter, networked and virtual organizations?