Getting Organized

By Robert C. Heterick, Jr.

Sequence: Volume 31, Number 2

Release Date: March/April 1996
The View from16th Street

There is a delightful Gary Larsen cartoon that shows a large, random pile of horses and cowboys in the middle of a western street. The Sheriff is admonishing his deputy in front of the saloon saying, "No, I told you, you have to organize a posse."

The defining organizational paradigm for the industrial age occurred early in the 20th century with the work of F. W. Taylor on scientific management and the development of the assembly line by Henry Ford. Since that time, a good many organizational theorists have refined the basic command and control model of the organization - some softening its rough, militaristic edges, some arguing for a more "scientific" foundation, some trying to put a human face on an otherwise mechanistic organizational viewpoint, and many expounding financial controls as the governor of the hierarchical organization.

Late in the 20th century we have been bombarded with the management theory de jour - quality circles, zero defects, zero-base budgeting, total quality management, best practices benchmarking and a host of others. They all have fallen short, perhaps with the exception of reengineering, because they haven't understood or internalized the lessons of networking. The governing motivators of networking are not capital, nor command and control, but rather diffused information and self-serving cooperation. The clear logic of the network in hardware is to push as much of the intelligence out to the nodes as possible. The manifestations in software are client-server, groupware and the World Wide Web. The operating strategies of networking are not designed to manage complexity but rather to permit the interoperation of simple elements.

The organizational theory that will successfully dominate the world of networking has less to do with management and more to do with leadership - not leadership in the charismatic sense that comes from the top, but leadership that exists and operates all throughout the organization. Such leadership is frequently not "scientific," nor the result of a formal planning process, but more heuristic resulting from a "hands-on" relationship with particular work processes - what Shoshana Zuboff has called informating the workplace.

The information age demands, and will enforce, a transition to empowered employees all throughout the organization. The organization will be successful to the extent those employees are free to and capable of exercising leadership. The organizations faced with the most difficult transition to the information age are likely to be those that never really bought into the industrial age management paradigm - the public sector, with higher education and health care being the two most obvious examples.

These organizations developed all sorts of work-arounds to compensate for their decision not to assume the command and control model. Absent the more immediate feedback that comes with private sector market elasticity, they tend to be far more inertia-bound than their aggressive private sector cousins, particularly than the high-tech industries that currently drive the economies of developed countries.

Overcoming the inertia of institutions of higher learning will not be easy and the evidence in so far from the past decade suggests that leadership from the top only won't be successful. In considering why, one conclusion is inescapable - the work-around organizational structure of generally autonomous faculty organized in departments has a different objective function than that of the organization taken as a whole. Higher education substituted a political process of special interest lobbying in place of the command and control model. In periods of increasing resources, a departmental focus on quality is not too much at variance with general organizational goals. In periods of resource constraints, the self-aggrandizement of the departments is frequently at significant variance with the cost minimization or other goals of the overall organization.

In a cross-cut matrix of mission goals and organizational structure you can identify the contribution of the organizational structure to the goals. What you can't seem to do is change that contribution. We shouldn't be too surprised, considering we fund the organizational structure, not the goals. This is particularly the case in higher education where we fund departments that have little if any incentive to understand overall organizational goals, much less modify their own sense of importance or objectives to enhance them.

It is time to discard old management models and replace them with structures suited to the Information Age. Only by finding structures that achieve overall organizational goals as a by-product of accomplishing personal goals will we be able to rationalize the reward system of the academy and make the transition from our current institutions into those of a learning society. As Adam Smith observed in the Wealth of Nations more than 200 years ago, "As each person intends only his gain, he is . . . led by an invisible hand to promote an end which is not his intention . . . . By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectively than when he really intends to promote it."

Robert C. Heterick, Jr., is president of Educom. [email protected]

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