Developing new knowledge on organization design: part 1

The final section of the entry I'm writing for the encyclopedia 'Design and form: Organizational' for the 2nd edition of Elsevier's Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences is on explaining major directions for developing new knowledge about organization design and form. This has been incredibly challenging and I've been struggling with it all week and haven't been helped by feeling pressure from the deadline which was January 31 – so I'm a week late right now. However, I've finally come to the conclusion that there are three ways to think about directions for new knowledge:

  • Bridging practice and theory – that I'll talk about in this post
  • Looking at trends and fads that are 'out there' and potentially learning/developing knowledge from them. 'Neuro' is one that falls into the category of fad right now. See the blog Neurobonkers. But will it stay that way?
  • Scanning, listening and looking out for bits and bobs of information that aren't a trend or a fad but could have a big impact on 'connecting the dots', or getting a completely new insight or perspective that developed new knowledge. One item that caught my eye this week was on Bitcoin , 'Peek into the future, and it's possible to envisage this sort of technology being used to cut intermediaries out of trades of many kinds – beginning with payment systems such as Visa and moving on to banks, real estate and more. Transactions could be arranged, executed, verified and publicly recorded automatically'. Think of the organization design implications of that scenario.

I'm going to duck discussing definitions of 'new knowledge' as it's too difficult to determine what is 'new' and what is 'standing on the shoulders of giants' (as Google Scholar is taglined). And, as I said, this week I will look at just the first direction: In the next two weeks I'll discuss the other two directions. (After I've submitted the encyclopedia piece?!)

Bridging practice and theory
There is an ocean of research on organization theory. I'm surprised to find after looking along my bookshelves that I own eighteen academic/research based organization theory books – a drop in the ocean, but still. Some of these have a lot of highlighting and notes I've written but I have no recollection of doing this – and that memory failure made me wonder how one gets 'knowledge'. Have I integrated all the highlighted stuff so it's become part of what I know or, once highlighted, did I instantly forget it? Have I bridged the gap between theory and practice?

In any event as I was reading (or maybe re-reading but I don't know in some instances) I found some of it very heavy going e.g. 'Under norms of rationality, organizations and others assessing them prefer efficiency tests over instrumental tests, and instrumental tests over social tests. But efficiency tests are not possible when technical knowledge is incomplete or standards of desirability are ambiguous'… This is on page 97 of Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory in case you are thirsting for more like this.

Reading this sort of thing I am reminded why many managers I meet with hate 'theory' and 'ivory tower thinking' and just want something practical they can do to improve performance or achieve whatever it is that they are aiming for. And from the other side of the fence I can see why academics are rather dismissive of fads and quick fixes which are not underpinned by rigorous and validated research.

My impression is that in general academics tend to fight shy of discussing what will make the theories actionable in day to day organizational life. I don't know why this is since my experience of universities and other higher education institutions is that they would enormously benefit from any lessons on organization design that their own employees – faculty and administrative – could bring them.

But this reticence leaves a big gap between theory and practice attributed to a number of possible causes which one researchers suggests is due to academic 'fragmentation', 'self-absorption' and 'living in a self-indulgent state' (Starbuck, 2003). Further, although it is obvious that 'there is a very large body of [theoretical] knowledge about organizations and organizing , examples of effective applications of this knowledge in designing real organization are few and far between'. (Meyer, 2013).

Managers, as a wild generalization, don't help develop new knowledge because they tend to be lured into fad adoption. I suggested some reasons for this in my book Organizational Health:

Organizations are likely to be attracted to a fad if it is:

  1. Simple to understand, easy to communicate and associated with buzzwords and catchphrases
  2. Prescriptive in its approach – it tells manager what to do in things like seven steps, or five phases
  3. Encouraging of the successful outcomes by raising hopes even if there is little in the way of evaluative process attached to the sales pitch
  4. Universally relevant or one-size-fits all as shown by exemplars who have already adopted the fad.
  5. Easy to apply in practice or even partially apply by taking some elements of the method – this makes it easier to graft on to existing operations without whole scale change
  6. Able to speak directly to business issues of the day e.g. to downsizing in a recession
  7. Interesting because of its novelty but not so radical as to disturb the underlying status quo
  8. Given legitimacy by consultants or and their successful devotees – an endorsement by a management celebrity and/or their followers goes a long way even without any evidence of true results (Miller & Hartwick, 2002)

From both perspectives the lack of actionable learning going on between academics and managers is a pity because there is a lot that they could learn from each other. And this was recognized in the Organizational Design Community's 2013 Annual Conference. As Alan Meyer reported participants there (I was not present) 'faced the challenge of making organization design knowledge actionable'.

In his useful article Emerging Assumptions About Organization Design, Knowledge And Action (that I mentioned in a previous blog about the conference) Meyer, observed that 'most established design efforts are rooted in a rational model of action … scholars should understand organizations, consultants should translate scholars' understandings and practitioners should take action based on understanding' but noted that several conference participants 'offered support for a model of action that accumulates knowledge through feedback from experience instead of through analysis and anticipation. … In this model action becomes the basis for understanding'. (Meyer, 2013).

He presents a table of assumptions on the relationship between knowledge and action. One of the emerging assumptions is that 'Designing should unfold as an iterative sequence of experiments in which scholars, consultants, and practitioners collaborate in acting, evaluating, and designing.' I think this is an excellent assumption to test – the immediate challenge being to set this in motion, perhaps through through evaluation of the fad(s) in practice, scenarios, or metaphor development, or working as a multidisciplinary team on real organizational design issues to get to a solution and simultaneously develop theory around it.

How would you bridge the theory/practice organization design gap? Let me know.

Meyer, A. (2013). Emerging Assumptions about Organization Design, Knowledge and Action. Journal of Organization Design, 2(3), 16-22.
Miller, D., & Hartwick, J. (2002). Spotting Management Fads. Harvard Business Review(October), 26-27.
Starbuck, W. H. (2003). Shouldn't Organization Theory Emerge from Adolescence? Organization, 10(3), 439-452.