Design and form: organizational?

In August this year I got this email:
In this email, I wish to invite you to write a chapter for the 2nd edition of Elsevier's Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences: the new volume on Organizations and Management.

We are pleased to invite you to write a chapter on the topic of "Design and form: Organizational." The chapters are intended to summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge.

The new edition is slated for publication in 2015 and new authors will be requested to submit their chapter within 6 months of accepting the commission. Chapters should be between 3000-5000. You are welcome to invite co-authors if you wish.

Having learned that I must pause and think before accepting things I wrote back:
I think it would be fascinating to write. I'm not sure how you selected me for the invitation but I guess you know that I am not an academic in the sense of having any peer reviewed papers published. I do write fairly practical books for managers trying to steer away from popular hype and magic formula suggestions/approaches. I am a day-to-day consultant in the field and have not yet found the silver bullet for any organizational issue.

What I write would be drawn from the research that I keep up with – neuroscience in business is one such example – but not heavily academic. If that approach is acceptable then I'd be happy to consider doing the work.

The editor did not see fit to withdraw his invitation. In fact he said:
As I explained in my initial invitation, we seek chapters that summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject, draw links to other subjects, and explain major directions for developing new knowledge. This implies familiarity with the academic literature on a subject, plus insights into the issues that will drive future thinking and practice in the field. Your knowledge as an expert practitioner in organizational design would therefore be an advantage.

For your information, I also attach the relevant chapter from the first edition of the encyclopedia. The authors do not wish to revise it, and hence we are seeking a fresh approach. But it does give you an idea of what has been written previously.

I looked at what had been written previously (if you would like this chapter I can send it to you). It's interesting and I learned a fair bit from it. Here's how it opens:
Organization design refers to the formal structures, practices and processes through which organizations seek to accomplish organizational goals. Interest in organizational design stems from two intellectual trajectories (see Bolman and Deal 1997). Industrial analysts such as Frederick Taylor, Henri Fayol, and Lyndall Urwick were interested in using 'scientific management' to design organizations to create maximum efficiency. This work produced an interest in issues such as the specialization of tasks and the nature of hierarchy, authority, and responsibility. A second trajectory emerged through the work of Max Weber who was interested in how, as part of the increasing rationality of society, organizations were being designed according to bureaucratic principles such as impersonal authority, hierarchy, and systematic controls.

It's written from the perspective of what I would call the history or theoretical underpinnings (such as they are) of organization design and there's nothing wrong with that, but as I understand it my task is to develop from this base.

I've been thinking about the piece since then and now that the submission date is approaching it's front of mind. I'm not sure how to tackle it. I'm struggling with many questions related to the three points of the brief which, to recap, are:

  1. Summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject
  2. Draw links to other subjects
  3. Explain major directions for developing new knowledge

Summarize the state of current knowledge on the subject. Well I don't want to get into a philosophical debate on what is 'knowledge', but my questions relate to 'whose knowledge'. People I interact with have very different types of knowledge – line managers, academics, HR practitioners, organization design consultants and now organizational design visualization developers, all have different perspectives on organization design and thus different 'current knowledge'. I've noticed that there are also cultural perspectives that come into play on 'current knowledge'. Mapping the 'current knowledge' could be tricky and take the full word count.

Draw links to other subjects: another minefield as I can't think of a subject area that organization design doesn't link to in some way or other. I did notice that the authors of all the items quoted in the original bibliography were men. And on this observation wondered whether I could write a women's perspective on 'design and form: organizational' with links to women's studies. Out of interest I just checked the editorial team membership of the Journal of Organization Design. There are 27 members of whom 6 are women. So what does this tell me? Not much really because there are also 7 Danish members of the team which could argue for links to the subject of 'Denmark'.

Explain major directions for developing new knowledge: I think this is a more fruitful area for exploration as it's where all the heat around organizational design and the impact of technology and neuro science is. But they are not the only big drivers of new knowledge – the way we think about government, policies, labor migration, nations and cultures, privacy and security, social value, demographics and the environment are among some of the other topics and issues driving new knowledge around the design and form of organizations. But which of these are more or less important than others? I remind myself that I have a word limit and am not writing the entire Encyclopedia. But there could be a jumping off point from Alan Meyer's excellent article Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action in which he states:

'I believe that an amalgam of mutually reinforcing beliefs, theories, and methods honoring the notions of linearity and equilibrium has held back the application of design knowledge, but the field shows signs of switching to a new set of assumptions that embraces non-linearity, self-organization, and emergence (Meyer, Gaba, & Colwell, 2005).

He then discusses three related sets of assumptions, 'focusing respectively on the essence of organization design, the basis of design knowledge, and the nature of action required to enact a particular design.' I really enjoyed the point he makes that 'Academic designers of organizations have, by and large, regarded their products as conceptual models. Organizational practitioners have, by and large, regarded them as metaphysical abstractions' because in the world that I work in that's exactly where the 'whose knowledge' comes into play. Where is the valuable intersection between academic theorizing and practitioner call for action that will develop new jointly-constructed knowledge rather than reinforce suspicions and prejudices?

So, for the moment I'm stuck. My immediate next step is to go and re-read parts of Gareth Morgan's book Images of Organization – his ability to show the different lenses through which organizations can be viewed is fascinating and relevant to students and practitioners of organization design, and might spur me into new ideas. I'm also going to read A Very Short Introduction to History as when I was initially thinking about the commission I was thinking of a history of organization design but then realized that history is interpretation. We can change the history by changing the story. As John Arnold's book describes 'There are many stories we can tell about the past, and we are not, perhaps, as free as we might imagine in our choice of which stories to tell, or where those stories end.' Sampling the field of historiography could yield some useful insights. Although I am committed to setting off writing the piece I'm but not sure yet where I will go with it.

Do you have any views on what you would find useful in a section on Design and Form: Organizational for the 2nd edition of Elsevier's Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences that I'm told 'promises to be the definitive, authoritative, peer-reviewed, electronic encyclopedia for the social and behavioral sciences in the 21st century'? Let me know.

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