Organization vs. Spontaneity

E. Forrest Christian Change, Computers/IT, Theory 4 Comments

Social Life of Information continues to fit into the overall approach I’ve been leaning towards of the need for both informal and formal methods.

Yet while it’s clear that self-organization is extraordinarily productive, so too is formal organization. Indeed, the two perform an intricate (and dynamic) balancing act, each compensating for the other’s failings. Self-organization overcomes formal organizing’s rigidity. Formal organization keeps at bay self-organization’s tendency to self-destruct. Markets help society escape the rigidities of planning. PLanning, meanwhile, preserves markets, providing the regulation to maintain competition and prevent monopolies…

The use of deliberate structure to preserve the spontaneity of self-organization may be one of humanity’s most productive assets….

In all such cases, organization has help to foster and focus humanity’s most valuable resource: its infinitely renewable knowledge base. As we have tried to show, organizations play a critical part in the step from invention to innovation, the transformation of ideas into products and processes. Once you have a well-defined product or process, markets take over. But before that, organizations, large and small, play a vital role in organizing knowledge, practice, and practitioners.

[— p. 171-2]

The yin and yang of formal and informal organizational methods is often lost on us. We have a tendency, I have noticed, to push either one or the other. Computer folk tend to espouse anti-organizations, ones based on “flat” principles and self-organizations or emergence. It is interesting that Brown and Duguid come to this conclusion after a lengthy discussion of invention and innovation in Silicon Valley. They focused on the many stories of inventions that went nowhere at their old place of work, Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), home of Ethernet, the GUI, the personal computer and the Desktop metaphor.

(We can argue that Doug Englebart actually developed the first GUI, the oNLine System [NLS]. If you want to see an amazing point of invention that did not make the leap to innovation, take a look at his prescient demonstration of 1968. It has networking, a mouse, and a basic GUI. According to one observer, it was so beyond normal computing at the time that it was greeted “like “a UFO landing on the White House lawn”.)

PARC, it has been noted, fumbled the future: they invented so much that made Xerox no money at all. It was only after Steve Jobs of Apple Computer came over to look at their personal computer work that someone made something of it. He made the Lisa, which bombed, and then the Macintosh, which didn’t. PARC’s inventions were technical but needed social components to go with them. They also needed the formal organization in which they could be launched.

I know that when I started saying that INFOSEC, the small boutique I worked for and still work with, needed some standard processes so we didn’t keep on inventing the wheel on administration, I was greeted with “you process guys are all the same.” Which made no sense to me. They were used to people who wanted standardized processes around the work that they innovated, which I agreed made no sense. They saw formal processes as bad and informal as good. Unfortunately, that made their boss power more insidious since it had to exist only in the shadows.

Informal advocates don’t understand that without formal structure, you will have only chaos. Formal advocates don’t understand that without proper informal abilities and management, you have a heartless company that only drains it’s people. You have to have both and they are complementary. Concentrate on one and not the other leaves you with a mess. You have to do both together, for they work in tandem, partners in creating the world we want to live in.

Julian Fairfield, in Levels of Excellence [buy it at Dymock’s if you aren’t in Australia; they seem to have the best shipping rates] says much the same thing. He advocates the formal structural ideas of Jaques’s Requisite Organization but shows how they must be married to informal methods like team building. I’ve always believed that the formal structures gave the informal methods something to hang on. If you want one popular press management book, buy Fairfield’s Levels of Excellence. It joins All Change / The Project Manager’s Secret Handbooks in my all-time top spot.

Ronald S. Burt, of the University of Chicago, would probably argue that the formal structure allows you to have “structural holes” in which innovation can take place. When you don’t have a formal structure, the holes are very hard to determine. By having a clear formal structure that matches the underlying reality (extant vs. chart), you give employees the ability to self-organize within the structural holes, creating innovative forms that are outside the boundaries of the organizational structure, strictly speaking, but that continue to serve the organizational goals, generally speaking. The trick is to not look too deeply at what people are doing, letting them have discretion over their own work, responsible for the outcomes and for being within broad policy and work guidelines, rather than being responsible for following specific procedures.

Brown and Duguid discuss that, too, that the best way to grind a company to a halt is to “work to rule”, where all workers follow the rule book strictly. The French do this very well and nothing gets done all day.

Mixing the formal and informal organizational techniques provides us with a tension that we must learn to be comfortable within. The structural techniques are always buliding permanent structures while the informal techniques are always pulling them apart. We build only to tear down. We tear down only to build anew again.

I’m not sure that this is the same as the old battle of Centralization vs. Decentralization but it’s similar.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 4

  1. The move from fundamentalism to living with tension is a sign of maturity. I think I’ll blog about this. I’ll trackback if I do.

  2. Pingback: a hundred degrees

  3. Reviewing this composition inspires a few thoughts:

    1) There is freedom only within sound structure.
    2) Nothing is as liberating as a good set of rules.
    Knowing where to start and where to end is significant. In any situation where people are left with holes that provide for an opportunity to self-organize there is something inherently wrong with the hierarchical structure. This is distinctly different from assembling a project team (which RO fully supports) with a clear task assignment for the team, which allows for collateral working and teamwork, (and an opportunity for creativity,) to deliver the objectives.

    There is a misconception that is conjured up when one hears the distinction formal structure. Many automatically hear conservative, military, class distinction, autocratic, etc. Jaques would not only advocate the need for creativity at work he would also promote that what is being sought after in the referenced “informal” sense as described here is essential to the functional capability of a requisite managerial system. Views may converge nevertheless if one was advocating that employees need not work within manager subordinate role relationships in a hierarchy that is requisitely structured. Consider that anything other than this will either organize to the extent it can into it or will meet considerable difficulty in attaining any level of efficiency.

    I’ve both read Julian’s publication and spoke directly with him. He’s a brilliant fellow and has quite an intruiging inquiry progressing with respect to the independent and integrated functions of the segmented human brain and how the stem, limbic and neo cortex relate to human development, CIP, etc. “Levels of Excellence” does promote the benefits of both RO and an approach which considers the McKinsey “7-S” model summarized below. I have had considerable difficulty being able to distinguish anything non-requisite about the McKinsey model.

    McKinsey 7-S Model:


  4. Post

    The brain stuff that APFG is referring to has to do with some theories that Julian Fairfield has about differences in the brain and perhaps a bit a social Darwinism. I’m willing to hear him out on it, but I’m not sure if it isn’t bad science. You can read more about it at this summary of Julian Fairfield’s presentation at the 2003 annual conference of the Secondary Principals’ Association of New Zealand. Plus, his understanding of Christian philosophies is pretty simplistic, and I would suppose that the other religions he cites come out just as poorly.

    That said, I loved his book which did not have more than a side mention of this theory. Remember, just because Linus Pauling became obsessed with Vitamin C after his wife died doesn’t make his earlier scientific and political work any less important. (He’s the only person, that I know of, who won two Nobel Prizes; one in chemistry and the other the Peace Prize.) Working a Darwinistic interpretation of social development has proven problematic over the past century. But the concepts are pretty interesting.

    The idea of structural holes actually works well with Jaques’s discoveries. You actually don’t want too tight of a hierarchy, something Jaques seems to espouse. Let people have discretion over their jobs rather than telling them how to do it. The role is defined by a set of restrictions and not the definitions of what you can do. This creates structural holes in between departments where discretion is used. It’s a complementary theory rather than displacement.

    Good point about the need for right structure: the holes Burt talks about are those between groups. With a Requisite organizational structure, managers are probably less likely to fear their subordinates talking with folks in other groups.

Tell Forrest how wrong he is: