As you know, our world is primarily organized in ways that rely on vertical coordination. Someone with greater authority makes decisions, and others follow. And if two or more people disagree on anything, they take the question to someone "above" them, to avoid conflict by deciding for them.
Business organizations are generally structured as hierarchies of authority, with a CEO at the top directing an executive management group. Each of them, in turn, directs a group of middle managers, who direct groups below them, all the way down to supervisors and team leaders, who direct the people "on the shop floor" who actually "do the work." Everyone understands that managing is work too, but common usage is that people are either managers or workers. Still, managers understand all too well that managing is hard work. And it's getting harder.
As our world has accelerated, managers no longer have all the answers, and their direction tends to ignore or suppress the knowledge and information of group members who are doing the work. This sub-optimizes the potential for shared judgment and the effectiveness of the work group. It's the work group as a whole that can best generate the required information about needs and problems, and possible solutions. "No one knows as much as all of us."
But since our shared mindset has not yet changed, managers still get paid for deciding and directing, even though in most circumstances the consequences of their decisions are not easily evaluated. So, many managers cultivate the habit of hiding their confusion, and at least looking decisive. Decisiveness in a complex organizational environment is highly valued, and leads to promotions—all the way to the top. But decisiveness does not necessarily equate with good judgment, or wisdom. To make things worse, most people habitually collude in avoiding their own insecurity generated by complex, ambiguous situations by passively delegating upward to "the person in charge."
Public and not-for-profit organizations use the same framework, and generally try to emulate what they imagine is the efficiency and orderliness of business organizations. This, unfortunately, often leads them to become more "businesslike" and rule-bound, rather than more responsive and effective. Government organizations thus tend to be the most bureaucratic (that's where the word comes from—"we'll have to refer your request to the Bureau of Endless Red Tape.")
Schools and colleges have similar administrative structures, and also use this model within the classroom. The teacher or the professor knows more than the students, and conveys that information, usually via lectures, then verifies that students have acquired the requisite knowledge. The implicit learning that is transmitted, of course, is that the world functions as a hierarchy, and that those with more knowledge and authority direct the rest. Most schools thus prepare people to become passive factory workers—at least the factories of the past.
This vertical coordination model and its underlying assumptions have been termed "Design Principle One" by Fred Emery, Eric Trist, and others. In a ground-breaking study they discovered that teams of workers in a coal mine had developed a horizontal coordination approach. Without the help—or hindrance—of a supervisor, they worked out with each other how the day's work could best be done, and by whom. Rather than relying on skill specialization and division of labor among various team members, they learned continually from each other, and could perform most of the required functions as needed. When managers tried to return them to a "well organized" way of working directed by a supervisor, both their efficiency and morale declined markedly. Allowed to return to their own team-based approach, they regained their high performance.
Emery and Trist described this as the use of self-managed cross-functional teams, and termed the horizontal coordination approach "Design Principle Two." They discovered that it was based on both a high degree of teamwork and on the more effective task methods such teams devised, and continually improved. They termed these two components the social system (teamwork) and the technical system (work methods). Since the two elements were clearly interdependent, they coined the term socio-technical systems. They then found that they could engender change toward Design Principle Two by involving members of other organizations in a process they called Socio-Technic Systems Redesign.
Since that time, many successful STS Redesign projects have been carried out. At an auto assembly plant, for example, a whole team of workers rides on the assembly line and puts a car together from beginning to end. Then they proudly engrave their names on the engine block. Some businesses have derived such great improvements that they consider the new methods a significant competitive advantage, and are reluctant to allow visitors to their production facilities.
There have been relatively fewer applications in public and not-for-profit settings, though the potential benefit is great there, too. And educational institutions lag behind in this respect as well. What would happen, do you think, if a college emphasized collaborative shared learning among students—and among professors?
And what might emerge in a municipality, or a government agency such as, say, the FDA or FEMA, if it shifted away from vertical control and toward an approach of horizontal collaborative community, including employees, service recipients, and stake-holders?
One could say, in fact, that in some ways the National election we have been engaged in is about a choice between Design Principles One and Two.
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