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What does science have to offer to the field of organizational design?

posted Feb 18, 2015, 8:00 AM by John Oliver   [ updated Feb 18, 2015, 11:55 AM ]

It is a curse and a blessing that organizational design is such a complex subject. 

A blessing in that you can never get bored in such a vast and rich subject area! 

And a curse when it repeatedly occurs that the more you go into the detail, the greater the challenge in keeping connected to reality and being able to communicate the insights to a broader audience.

In my experience of the organisational design field, there are great dangers in getting swept away in the infinite number of angles that one can approach organisational design from, whether from research papers, books, management gurus, all visionary CEOs.

This danger is principally because in a complex field such as organisational design there are both diverging and convergent phenomena. And putting the two together is as mystifying as trying to combine the arts and the sciences.

One fundamental starting point in helping anyone in this field I believe is to first of all be very clear about the different categories of perspectives, and to be able to any one time explaining which specific perspective one is taking and what are the underlying assumptions.

When looking at which categories so much of the literature around organisational design for them to, I see an imbalance in what is for me the "divergent" perspective category (values, cultures, behaviours, motivations, inspirational visions), and the "convergent" scientific category. 

These categories can be also described as being either dialogical (divergent) perspectives or diagnostic (divergent) perspectives. Such categories were evoked by authors such as EF Schumacher in his book the Guide for the Perplexed (a follow up book to Small is Beautiful).

Well, you might say, this is completely normal since organisational design is primarily a social science. 

Meta-theoretical approaches (such and Integral Theory) illustrate the possibilites of "both-and" thinking and the value of a balanced scientific and humanities approach.

It is with this meta-theoretical and integral perspective in mind, that I believe that there are scientific methodologies that can be applied to the dimensions of individual cognitive capacity for managing complexity (e.g. Kurt Fischer's dynamic skill theory), and equally a scientific approach to measuring to what degrees do collaboration systems accommodate complex relationships (e.g. Sociocracy).

Elliot Jacques is a leading figure in organizational design who centered his work around a vertical scale of increasing complexity, with his "Stratified Systems Theory". Roles within organizations unavoidably have contrasting differences in time-span horizons (just one dimension upon which increasing complexity can be measured), and people's experience / training will influence at which level they are most comfortable.

This is just the very tip of the iceberg in addressing this topic, so the follow!