Covid 19: Power structures or power sources

The Johnson and Scholes cultural web is one that many in the organisation design/development field will be familiar with.  A full explanation of it is in G. Johnson’s chapter ‘Mapping and re-mapping organisational culture’ in V. Ambrosini with G. Johnson and K. Scholes (eds), Exploring Techniques of Analysis and Evaluation in Strategic Management, Prentice Hall, 1998.

It’s one that is well used.  Mindtools summarizes it, saying it comprises ‘six interrelated elements that help to make up what Johnson and Scholes call the “paradigm” – the pattern or model – of the work environment. By analysing the factors in each, you can begin to see the bigger picture of your culture: what is working, what isn’t working, and what needs to be changed. The six elements are:

  1. Stories – The past events and people talked about inside and outside the company.
  2. Rituals and Routines – The daily behavior and actions of people that signal acceptable behavior.
  3. Symbols – The visual representations of the company including logos, how plush the offices are, and the formal or informal dress codes.
  4. Organisational Structure – This includes both the structure defined by the organization chart, and the unwritten lines of power and influence that indicate whose contributions are most valued.
  5. Control Systems – The ways that the organization is controlled. These include financial systems, quality systems, and rewards (including the way they are measured and distributed within the organization).
  6. Power Structures – The pockets of real power in the company. This may involve one or two key senior executives, a whole group of executives, or even a department.’

Discussing this model with colleagues last week, led me to suggest that instead of ‘Power Structures’ we consider ‘Power Sources’ as that enables thinking of power in the multiple ways Gareth Morgan describes in his chapter in his book Images of Organization

Morgan says, ‘Power is the medium through which conflicts of interest are ultimately resolved.  Power influences who gets what, when and how.’  He goes on to say ‘the sources of power are rich and varied, providing those who wish to wheel and deal in pursuit of their interests with many ways of doing so’.  He then lists and discusses fourteen sources of power.

  1. Formal authority
  2. Control of scarce resources
  3. Use of organizational structure, rules and regulations  (On this one Morgan says, ‘The tensions surrounding the process of organisation design and resdesign provide many insights into organisational power structures’.)
  4. Control of decision processes
  5. Control of knowledge and information
  6. Control of boundaries
  7. Ability to cope with uncertainty
  8. Control of technology
  9. Interpersonal alliances, networks and control of informal organization
  10. Control of counter organizations
  11. Symbolism and the management of meaning
  12. Gender and the management of gender relations
  13. Structural factors that affect the stage of action
  14. The power one already has (personal power)

When I’m talking about Morgan’s sources of power, I add in a fifteenth – ‘Reputation and credibility’.

Thinking about the context and events now and of the last few months.  I’m watching all 15 sources of power playing out in organisations and in society and it’s notable that the Covid-19 pandemic seems to have amplified some of them.

Three that caught my attention during last week are:

Control of boundaries – the clearest one, for those now remote working, is the boundary between work and home life.  A recent newspaper article comments:  ‘Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared. … Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.’

In our discussions on culture last week for some the feeling of work overload came up, for others – those home schooling or working in shared accommodation, there’s an anxiety, for example, about appearing unprofessional when a child or dog bursts into Zoom view, or having flat mates hear sensitive information.  There are endless tips on controlling  current work/home boundaries but as one article says, ‘Very few guides, though, take into consideration the nuances of home life and the barriers different setups can impose on simply getting the job done.’

Observing the amplification of this source of power I wondered who it ‘belonged’ to.  Does the employer wield it as it raises some questions around job design, design of performance management, design of wellbeing and duty of care processes?  Or does the employee wield it in controlling (or not) his/her calendar and domestic responsibilities, or is it wielded by both parties (or other parties?)

Control of knowledge and information.  On this Morgan says, ‘power accrues to the person who is able to structure attention to issues in a way that in effect defines the reality of the decision-making process.’  In the Covid-19 crisis ways of handling information and knowledge vary from transparency (about what we know and don’t know) to deliberate decisions to censor or with-hold information, see, for example, an article from the Brookings Institute, Knowledge is power: Lessons learned from Italy’s coronavirus outbreak and also Nicholas Christakis video, Covid-19: social networks in which he talks about how health behaviors are contagious through social networks and the dangers of using formal/positional power to force with-holding of information. Among other examples, Christakis’s mentions the example of the Chinese doctor who tried to raise the alarm on Covid-19.

In the current situation where decisions are being made in a context of extreme volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) it’s important to have access to, and use,  several trusted sources of data and expertise. (See Which Covid:19 data can you trust?’).  It’s also wise to exercise critical thinking on the information and knowledge you do have access to.

Ability to cope with uncertainty.  Morgan suggests there are two types of organisational uncertainty – environmental uncertainty and operational uncertainty.  Most organisations are now in both types of uncertainty. Seeing some organisations being able to wield this power and others failing utterly (read Sinking, Swimming and Surfing)  begs the question of how to design for weathering uncertainty – on this take a look some of the plethora of advice on designing organisational resilience e.g. McKinsey’s Navigating to the next normal: The first 100 insights

Do you think that power sources would be a more useful exploration than power structures in working with the Johnson and Scholes model of organisational culture?  Which of Morgan’s power sources have you seen amplified in the current situation?  Let me know.

Image: Gary Klein, Mapping the Sources of Power, The knowledge and abilities that come with experience.