Friday, May 8, 2015

Foundations of a General Theory of the Organization I (definition and dimensions)


Since I started my professional career (22 years ago and counting, how does time fly!) I’ve been fascinated by “organizations”, from the mom & pop corner store near my first job site  to the humungous multinational corporation I worked for, with almost 100,000 employees distributed across 49 countries, and everything in between including churches, political parties, sport teams, nations… a fascination initially born from antagonism, whose early form I found reflected in a little known novel: I still remember the jolt of identification I felt when reading, still in High School, The Water-Method Man, by John Irving, where a friend of the novel’s main character is a documentary filmmaker (Ralph Packer) who is opposed to any form of human association, and devotes his work to denounce all of them (the title character, Fred “Bogus” Trumper, just goes along as occasional sound editor). My youthful and contrarian fixation has softened considerably (and nowadays I style myself as an active member of a number of groups, starting with the family I myself ended up forming and being responsible for), but the interest and curiosity about what makes people renounce at least part of their independence and freedom to form more or less structured congeries, to submit to common rules and to participate willingly in the shared narrative of those communities, to the point of explaining themselves through such narratives (even with the sad but unavoidable consequence of sharpening that definition through the exclusion of those outside the group, which suddenly are deemed somewhat defective humans, when not outright less-than-human), that interest and curiosity have not dimmed a bit.

After doing consulting work for a dreary number of those organizations (admittedly a very particular subset of them, composed by those formed with the overwhelming and restrictive end of maximizing the economic return to their owners –which we will find later on that hides and obscures the real reasons why people join them and interact with them), and studying an even bigger number from a scholarly perspective (religions, cults, sects and ideologies are part and parcel of the History of Philosophy) nowadays I’m paid for developing, finessing and optimizing the functioning of the particular organization I work for, so I have unavoidably developed a general theory of the organization (it sounds mildly better in German: Allgemeine Organisationtheorie –AOT, or even Allgemeine Gesellschafttheorie –AGT if we focus on organizations that are at the same time societies, which constitute a particularly interesting subset), which I will be developing and formalizing in a number of subsequent posts (which may or may not end up being as long as my previous series on metaphysics, you are all warned).

Let’s begin with the basic outline of such a theory, defining what an organization is, and then we could move towards summarizing what previous efforts have been made of explaining how they work (and why they exist in the first place). Both the definition and the review of previous explanations constitute the “foundations” I referred to in the title.   


Without further ado, I propose the following operational definition of the subject of our interest:

An Organization is a set of human individuals (members) that cooperate towards the achievement of a definite end. That cooperation entails the acceptance of certain rules, known by at least some of the members, that specify what is expected of each (duties) and what protections they can count on (rights)

Dimensions of the organization

There are a number of features that immediately come to mind and allow for very different arrangements under that common definition. Exploring those features will make clearer what we are talking about and they will be helpful later on to classify the organizations subject of our study. Those determining features of all organizations are:

·         Adaptability: some organizations are intended for a (shorter or longer) limited period of time, in which for it to be successful the end of the organization must be achievable. The Apollo project or a SuperPAC for an electoral cycle in the USA are examples of organizations with an intended definite duration. On the other hand side, some organizations are set up with the explicit intent of lasting forever, the Catholic Church or IBM being opposite examples of indefinite duration. In both cases, organizations differ in the extent to which they can adapt to changing circumstances within their lifespan. Some have built-in mechanisms to alter their statutes and regulations to better reflect the changes in their environment, whilst others lack those adaptation mechanism, and have to rely on sheer size or strength to weather the potentially negative impact of those external changes. European Nation States would be an example of the first kind, all of them having regulatory bodies that contemplate how to modify the different laws (from the fundamental one –the constitution to the more detailed norms and regulations) to reflect a changing social reality, as would also be some flexible companies that have considerably change their way of working to adapt to the changing preferences of the clients (IBM, Microsoft, Apple, although all of them passed through periods of turmoil when it seemed they could not adapt fast enough and would be crushed by forces they could not control). The aforementioned Catholic Church (or may be the European Union, the jury is still out on that one) would rather be examples of organizations not adaptable at all, sticking to their founding principles and their traditional way of doing things no matter what the dominant current of external opinion is.
·         Dominance: Not all the organizations occupy the same amount, or influence to the same extent the life of their members, and we reflect this degree of influence with the dominance measure, which (in a necessarily rough and tumble manner) reflects the percentage of a member actions that is determined by his belonging to the organization (or, which may be easier to measure, the percentage of the member’s waking time that is devoted to further its end). According to this measure, the companies people in advanced economies work for tend to rank very high in the dominance scale. People spend in them (supposedly working non-stop and doing as directed and regulated by their contracts) between 1,800 and 2,400 hours per year (depending on the country and the level of commitment of the employee), if we assign 7 meager hours per day to sleep, there are 6,205 waking hours in a year, which means the intensity of the organizations we work for is between 29% and 38% (leaving between 71% and 62% of their waking time “free” for the pursuit of other, more private interests, although long commutes can significantly dent how much of that time is actually freely available). An interesting case is posed by the potential overlap of the multiple organizations a person may belong to. In the case of religious affiliation, one is supposed to submit to her church’s commands 24 hours a day, so the dominance of such organizations would in theory be 100%. In practice I’m inclined to believe it is much less, there being important differences between churches, and even more between individuals within the same church. You may spend weeks working with a protestant or a catholic without knowing (or being able to deduct much) about her faith, whilst her job’s content, revealing her position in the organization she works for (her duties, her skills, the resources she can command, her commitment level) is apparent just after a few minutes of interaction. However, even before that you may have known if he were a Hasidic Jew or a Muslim (I have had to resort back to the masculine article to stand for the generic because in those particular cases it most likely would be a “he”, both religions are inherently opposed to let women work), and it wouldn’t take much longer if he were a Mormon (rejecting coffee, plus a distinct code of dressing are quick giveaways), hence my contention that even within religions, some are organized to occupy their devotes’ lives much more dominantly.
·         Voluntariness: although we have used the term “cooperation”, the members of the organization can be forcibly compelled to such cooperation (under different degrees of duress), thus we can distinguish between voluntary organizations like the Red Cross or the Kiwanis and involuntary organizations like a slave plantation or (where there still is compulsory conscription) the army. There are different levels of compulsion, and different means, from the outright threat of bodily force to subtler psychological manipulation ways of coercing members against their will (the existence of such an independent will being a problem of the first order which we will need to temporarily sidestep)
·         Isocracy: all organizations have to make decisions in the pursuit of their ends, as they all start with limited information on the difficulties they may find or the actual yield of the resources they intend to apply, and no foundational charter can be so complete and exhaustive as to determine what every member has to do ate very moment and how they have to act in every and all situation which may develop whilst discharging their duties. The participation on those decisions (and the recognition about who can legitimately participate in them, or whose decisions have the authority to be enforced) may be distributed in more or less unequal ways, which we reflect with the measure of isocracy (from ancient Greek, iso meaning equal distribution and kràtos meaning rule, or decision-power). By the way, I’ve preferred isocracy to the more traditional concept of democracy as the latter (etymologically meaning “government of the people” instead of “government of the equals” or “government equally apportioned”) is not general enough, applying specifically to the field of politics, and presupposing a homogeneous set of actors (the demos, or “people”) that may limit the range of application of the theory (for example ,there is no way to consider a nuclear family or the workers of a multinational company a demos). That said, we can after some thought find examples of very isocratic organizations (where decision power is highly distributed, and all the members have an equal say in every decision), like merchant guilds in Renaissance Italy or a handful of egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies; on the other extreme, there are abundant examples of highly autocratic organizations, where power is very much concentrated at the top and only a few (in the most extreme case, only one) take decisions that affect everybody, from the army of any country in any age to most modern corporations to the Inca empire (which, by the way, made it so vulnerable to foreign conquer once its head was captured)
·         Simplicity: there are a number of ways of measuring the simplicity of an organization, but we will stick to a reasonably simple one: how many different roles there are (formally recognized within the organization as having different duties and different rights), either because they are at different hierarchical layers (so at least as many roles as hierarchy levels) or because they have responsibility over different areas of concern of the organization. We can further distinguish between absolute simplicity (total number of different roles) and relative simplicity (number of roles divided by number of members of the organization). We do this because although simplicity is generally inversely correlated with size (organizations with more members tend to need more specific roles to coordinate and supervise them, thus being more complex, or less simple) it is far from a perfect correlation. Let’s take again the Catholic Church as an example. The number of roles within it (not getting too fine grained within the Vatican curia minutiae) is quite small (pope, bishop, cardinal, priest, monk, nun, lay), so its absolute complexity is small, it is a very simple organization. Given its size (above one billion nominal members), its relative simplicity is much, much bigger, probably one of the biggest around (the closer to zero the value, the bigger the simplicity, in this case it is less than 7x10E-6 persons per role). A very different case is offered by the childless marriage we also considered before. In an egalitarian society as ours there is only one role (spouse), so it is the simplest organization conceivable, although it’s relative simplicity is quite less due to its also minimal size (one role divided by just two people gives us 0,5 persons per role). Traditional marriages were even less (relatively) simple, as there were differentiated roles for the husband and the wife, taking the relative simplicity to a whooping 1 person per role (we can dream of some Borgian secret society where each member  holds a plurality of roles, taking that quotient above one, but in real life it would be utterly impractical).
·         Equality: although the need of different roles (with their accompanying different duties and rights) already presuppose a certain level of inequality, we are specifically dealing here with how equally the burdens and rewards of belonging to the organization are distributed (and to what extent the former are proportional to the latter). In a highly unequal organization the burdens are borne disproportionately by one segment of the members, and the rewards enjoyed by a different segment, as in a Medieval fiefdom (where serfs did all the work, under threat of punishment and even death, and with very little or none safeguards, while the lord and his retinue enjoyed almost all the products of the serfs’ labor). In a more equal one, even allowing for some differences, members would enjoy the rewards in proportion to the burdens imposed on them, and both would be quite similar for all the members. It is interesting to note that there is some correlation between the measure we defined previously of isocracy, and this new one of equality, as the distribution of works and rewards is typically an ongoing decision made within the organization, and when that decision is itself distributed, and everybody has an equal say in it, it is most unlikely they will opt for a highly unequal apportionment of the common product (not entirely to be discarded, specially if they may end being all of them better off under such inequality, as postulated by Rawls under the principle of the same name), while in a very autocratic organization those at the top would find it very easy to overcompensate themselves (as I said before, unadulterated human nature)
There are a number of features of organizations that are not included in the previous list for good reasons. Although they are obviously important my contention is we do not need to make them part of a model that (as we will be seeing in following posts) is exactly as complex as it should be. For completeness sake I’ll complete the list with the most obvious, but again do not expect them to be discussed again, or to be given much consideration when we discuss how to build the perfect organization
·         Size: measured in number of people that consider themselves part of the organization, there can be very big ones enlisting millions of individuals (like the traditional Nation State) and very small ones with just a handful of them (like a childless marriage, which actually constitutes the minimal organization regarding size, with just two people forming it). It can alternatively be measured by the geographical extent of the space on which their members reside (which can vary from the minuscule, like the organization of philatelists of the tiny village of Sturunivopol, in Siberia, to the huge which spans the whole globe)
·         Inclusiveness: some organizations aspire to universal membership, and profess to be open to everybody regardless of race, gender or age (note I’ve limited the list of excluding factors to biological aspects we do not have much control over). Some go a step further and expand their membership appeal to people with different ideologies, aesthetic preferences and sexual orientations, while others limit who can apply to subgroups with a limited range of options in any of those fields

So those are the main dimensions to characterize an organization, summed in a neat acronym we could call it the ADVISE model, as it measures Adaptability, Dominance, Voluntariness, Isocracy, Simplicity and Equality. As you may have noticed each dimension varies between to potential extremes, but I will argue later on that one of the possible values of each dimension is preferable in most situations to the other, so it is most conductive to successfully achieving the organization’s end for it to be:


Now, to ensure the robustness and completeness of the mode, in my next post I will indulge in a bit of historical research of the main theories that had been advanced to explain why organizations arise, and how best to structure and shape them.

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