Tag Archives: organizational change

Interdisciplinarity and the Iron Cage

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

James Monroe's Iron Cage and Concrete Sarcophagus by Tony the Misfit

When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!

Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior.  On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in.  One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.

Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker, in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants. 

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

Video Spiral Feedback by flight404

But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.

Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.

In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.

How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the  overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!

Striking the Right Chord

Whatknow’s comment on Wesch’s YouTube movie,
A Vision of Students Today, which I posted on Back to School, got me thinking about the Communication Culture and Technology Program’s orientation, which takes place tomorrow.

I had been pondering the situation, wondering what is the right chord to strike? 

I had been pondering the situation, wondering what is the right chord to strike? How might I best introduce the Program; characterize its unique, and very special aspects; as well as set the new students on the right path? Whatknow’s comment on my Blog gave me a great idea!

In his comments, Whatknow identified himself with many of the students in Wesch’s film. He comes to class, much as they do, together with all of his digital artifacts. These allow him to multitask and draw on resources from a wide array of sources–all the while class is in progress. But Whatknow’s purpose is not to undermine authority, nor to question and/or diminish the content provided by the professor. To the contrary, his aim is to enhance his learning, by bringing multiple and diverse information sources to bear, and allowing them to converse–in real time–with one another. Isn’t that what learning is all about?

Grateful Dead in Central Park

Grateful Dead in Central Park

When reading Whatknow’s comments, the process that came to mind was that of JAZZ IMPROVIZATION. Pursuing the metaphor, I found that organizational theorist Karl E. Weick has actually used the metaphor of Jazz to analyze organizational improvisation and change. As Weich characterizes the similarities, both jazz and organizational adaptation require a rigorous and common grounding in skills, routines and structures, which then allows participants the wide-ranging freedom to build around them, develop themes and variations of their own, and then to rejoin one another in a greatly enhanced, and far more innovative, output. As the musician Ken Peplowski describes this process:
 

We name the key, count off the tempo and start the song and it’s the first time that we’ve ever played together. But the reason we can do this is that we have a common vocabulary, and we listen and react to one another.

Like Jazz players, who discover their ideas and new approaches in the very process of playing their music and getting constant feedback from others, students in the CCT Program try out different venues, build on them in creative ways, and then encounter the curriculum and research that is right for them. The underlying CCT structure, which allows students this flexibility, is a commitment to interdisciplinarity, a sound theoretical grounding in multiple disciplines, strong methodological skills, a modular curricula, a knowledgeable and creative faculty, helpful mentoring, and a collaborative and interactive student body. As is the case in any jazz group, The CCT Program, taken in its entirety, comprises an adaptive, on-going, interdisciplinary, community of practice, with each member doing his or her own thing–in delightful harmony with others.

Thank you Whatknow for your comments on my Blog. When it comes to orientation, it is always good to step back and reorient yourself.