Hands across the divide

Weeks ago, Jim sent me three questions that he’s posing to various organization design/development practitioners and some leaders he knows.

  • What is the involvement – ideal and actual – of your most senior leaders in the organisation design work you carry out?
  • What conceptual and practical understanding of organisation should they really have in order to make the right contribution?
  • How would you typify the level and content of the understanding they do have – and how do you try to equip/help them to make the contribution they should?

I haven’t yet got around to answering them, but they suddenly leapt back into mind when I was on a recent call with some members of the Organization Design Community (ODC) where we were discussing three topics.

  • The challenge of the bridge between academics and practitioners
  • The new world of organization design
  • The practical aspects of bridging the gaps between academics and practitioners

I then got a suggestion from someone else that an organization design programme I’m involved with go through the ODC Accreditation process.  Looking at the requirements for this, I learned that:

‘To receive ODC accreditation, a provider’s design course or workshop must meet a set of requirements. These requirements have been jointly developed by leading academics and professionals in the field of organization design. Twenty-two minimum core requirements are contained in three categories:

  • Design Concepts and Principles
  • Design Types
  • Redesign and Change

My first thought was that twenty-two is a lot of ‘minimum core requirements’ but I let that pass as I’m practicing with a meditation tape that tells me ‘it may be a thought, but you don’t have to think it’.

I moved onto other thoughts which I did begin to think – they revolve around Jim’s questions, the ODC conversation, and the accreditation requirements.  What the three have in common are some reflections and questions around the relationship between theoretical concepts and practical application of organization design, and who needs to know what in order to make an effective, informed and value-add contribution to organization design work.

My experience of working with leaders is that, for the most part, they are very impatient with, not to say dismissive of, anything that smacks of theory or academia.  When leaders do organization design work it is still largely based on fiddling around with an organization chart, moving people and reporting lines with little to no reference to design concepts/theories.  (I got a terrific sketch the other day of the ‘make it like this’ variety.  I’m tempted to put it as the image for this blog but won’t).

Happily, I’ve met a few exceptions to this type of leader – usually they’re people who’ve taken courses in organization behaviour or similar, and equally happily I’ve met other leaders who start off with a ‘make it like this’ mindset but are willing to be curious to learn why lines and boxes are not ‘design’ and taking the lines and boxes approach is very unlikely to result in the outcomes they are looking for.

Done thoughtfully, with a knowledge of systems, complexity and behavioural theory, organization design is ‘the ultimate edge … is so critical that it should be on the agenda (along with a professional designer) of every meeting in every single department’ says Tom Peters, (co-author of In Search of Excellence) He goes on to say that ‘Design, like lifestyle, is one of the few differentiating factors, and companies that ignore the power of elegant and functional design will lose.’

Elegant design is not the result of adjusting an organization chart or looking purely in terms of ‘structures’.  It is the result of line-managers and OD consultants – who might be internal or external to the organization:

  • understanding what people on the ODC phone discussion called ‘the framing theories and related skills’ for organization design. (These framing theories and related skills come from academic research).
  • interpreting and converting the framing theories and related skills from a theoretical, research perspective and language to practical and pragmatic design tools and frameworks
  • applying these skilfully and thoughtfully into on the ground organization design work
  • working with academics to refine the theories and develop new theory from careful evaluation of the outcomes of the original thinking.

Making this happen in practice is the challenge.  Here are four ways of joining hands across the divide between academics and business people to the mutual benefit of both.

1.  University research departments partner with an organisation or organisations to conduct research on a specific topic. This could be initiated either way through a ‘call for participation’.  I have done this successfully on three occasions. For example, I commissioned one of the pieces of work described in When the Bases of Social Hierarchy Collide: Power Without Status Drives Interpersonal Conflict 

2.  Someone in each business organization could be the named co-ordinator of relevant research, its dissemination, and its practical application.  I haven’t yet worked in any large organization where there is a comprehensive database of employees taking academic programmes or a method of capturing the dissertations they do and assessing their value in terms of extending or applying their research.  Doing this could result in  cadre high value-add scholar-practitioners developing in the  organization.  See To wear many different hats: how do scholar-practitioners span boundaries between academia and practice?

3. Academics and line managers could work together to discuss how the theoretical research can be converted into practical application and what organizational issues would benefit from research and theory development. This could happen on executive programmes, for example, as one of the activities or learning sessions.  This was a suggestion made on the ODC phone call.

4.  Academics could take their own work and develop it into to a practical tool for application. For example Andrew Sturdy, and Nick Wylie wrote an academic paper Transformers, enforcers, specialists and independents which aimed to ‘identify, describe and evaluate the different ways in which formal collective change agency is structured in specialist units inside 25 diverse organisations.’

The theoretical framing of the paper is based on and developed from Sturdy et al’s earlier research work, see for example Management as Consultancy and Beneath and Beyond Organizational Change Management: Exploring Alternatives

From their paper (Transformers … ) Sturdy and Wylie developed a very short, practical, ‘how to’ guide – Managing Change without the use of external consultants: how to organize consultant managers.  It’s easy to grasp but grounded in theory.  I’m using it as a discussion tool with line managers and executive teams as we consider establishing a change function.

How would you, or are you, bridging the academic/practitioner organization design gap to help ensure elegant organization design?   Let me know.

Image  Hands Across the Divid© Copyright zoocreative and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

One thought on “Hands across the divide”

  1. In my experience having a sound method or approach to organisational design is half the battle. This should be underpinned by academic research but it is important that the steps and techniques are practical and easy to follow. It should not be necessary to leaders to absorb a lot of theory – many would baulk at this – but most will see value in the rigor of structured approach.

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