Fads, trends and scenarios: new knowledge on organization design, part 2

Last week I looked at bridging the gap between theory and practice to generate new knowledge around organization design. I also said there are two other ways of generating new knowledge

  • Looking and trends and fads
  • Collecting bits and bobs of information that could connect dots to form new knowledge

So this week it's looking at the trends and fads that are 'out there' and thinking through how to learn or develop knowledge from them.

I see I've already got four blog posts related to trends and fads Trends for Talent Managers, Organizational Trends, Trend Spotting and Foresight, and Management Fads and Trends. Also I have a chapter in my book on Organizational Health on the topic. I think it's vital that organization design practitioners are alert to trends and fads and can make sound or at least considered judgments on whether/how to respond to them. (See February 2014's tool of the month that is about deciding whether to adopt a fad).

Note that a fad is different from a trend. As a said in my book 'A fad is something that captures the popular imagination and is adopted with wild enthusiasm for a relatively short period of time. Thus fads progress through a fairly swift lifecycle of introduction, growth, maturity, decline, and then 'death' (that is drop out of fashion) or 'mainstreaming' (that is absorption into the way things are done – losing the connotations of fad).'

A trend is a month by month or year by year movement of a metric. Trends in organizations are collected on performance-based data, obviously the financials, but also include customer satisfaction, company reputation, productivity, and employee engagement among others. Trends are often shown graphically as 'trend lines' drawn from quantifiable metrics collected over time.

Thinking about organization design – how should you treat fads and trends? Well, treat both thoughtfully and with skepticism. I like the critical thinking advocated by Stephen Brookfield who tells us to be reflective which involves identifying: truth, context, assumptions and alternatives. (See my blog on Reflection where I discuss this in more depth).

There are masses of websites doing trendwatching. A post on LinkedIn lists a selection of 18 of them. It's a nice eclectic list that covers a lot of ground but misses some relevant to organization design like demographic and workforce trends. The UKs Office for National Statistics is a mine of useful trends for the UK on these.

Consider the time period that makes something a trend rather than a fad. Sometimes things look like trends but they suddenly drop into the fad category. Take the sale of tablets as an example: Look at the sales trend over time from 2010 when they entered the market to end December 2013. Sales were increasing quarter by quarter until they appear to have peaked. Now read the piece Our Love Affair with the Tablet is Over .The point made is that 'What we are witnessing today is a merger of phones and tablets, not just at Netflix but everywhere, which is why this decade's attempt at tablets is nearing its death -— just four years after Jobs launched the original iPad.'

So what about organizations that have invested in tablets for employees? Were they sensible? Ahead of the curve? Misplaced in their thinking? Now having to justify sunk costs? Is the commentator who thinks our love affair with the tablet is over right or wrong? How would you find out? How could you identify the current and forecast truth, context, assumptions and alternatives around tablet purchase and use? If you could how would it affect the way you thought about your organization design in terms of things like workplace, technologies, workforce, and policies? What knowledge could we generate from the tablet example that would inform organization design activity?

One of the things that is very hard is making the sound judgment on trends and fads. There's a research project going on investigating how to improve forecasts because 'we can't even be sure that the forecasts guiding our decisions are more insightful than what we would hear from oracles examining goat guts. Worse still, we often don't know that we don't know.' (Tetlock & Gardner, 2013) Take a look at the website about this research tournament that is drawing on crowdsourcing to try and develop new knowledge about forecasting (and thus, perhaps onward to organization design). Any one can register to be part of round 4. The researchers say that 'participants can improve their forecasting skills through a combination of training and practice, with frequent feedback on their accuracy'.

Another way of developing new organization design knowledge is developing scenarios around trends. In his book The Art of the Long View, author Peter Schwartz said that 'scenarios are . . . the most powerful vehicles . . . for challenging our 'mental models' about the world and lifting the 'blinders' that limit our creativity and resourcefulness.' He suggests the point of scenario exercises is 'to identify the two or three factors or trends that are the most important and uncertain' and work with them. There are lots around now to choose from: robotics, bio sciences, climate change, demographic trends, political trends …

I think that scenarios could offer great scope for organization designers as an alternative to systems models as they foster strategic conversations 'that question whether that which has been impossible might become possible and which investigate how that which has been possible might end.' Thus strategic conversations around scenarios become 'a process of future oriented sense making that attends to cognitive, psychological and social aspects, surfacing the biases inherited from past or extant cultures and institutional norms and preferences in preparing options for choice in decision making. … these conversations in turn enable more courageous foresight.' (Ramirez & Wilkinson, 2013)

How do you create new organization design knowledge from trends and fads? Let me know

Ramirez, R., & Wilkinson, A. (2013, October 19). Rethinking the scenario 2 x 2 method: grid or frames? Technological Forecasting and Social Change.
Tetlock, P., & Gardner, D. (2013). Who's good at forecasts? The World in 2014, 81.