Company directors

Organizational Epistemology - Leaning into the Future - The Intelligence Advantage - The Ascendant Organisation
November 24, 1995

Organisational life is being transformed by the gradual creation of the "contract culture", precipitated by the "enterprise" era of the 1980s, the new technology of the 1990s and the social revolution of the two-earner family as we enter the new millennium. At present, one in eight British workers is self-employed, between 1984 and 1994 the number of men in part-time work doubled and in the last quarter of 1994 more than 74,000 fulltime jobs disappeared and were replaced by 173,000 part-time positions. The implications of portfolio careers, multiple short-term contracts, part-time working and the electronic "home" office are far-reaching. These developments have spawned a range of theories and books exploring the "organisation of the future", what it should be or where it is likely to go. These books fall loosely into this genre.

In The Ascendant Organisation Peter D. Wickens draws on his experiences at Nissan and from the academic literature in the field. For him, the corporate world should operate on two major axes, "commitment" and "control", but frequently does so only on the latter and usually "externally imposed". He contends that there are roughly four primary types of organisations: * alienated (where control is high and commitment is low) * apathetic (where control and commitment are low) * anarchic (where commitment is high and control low) * and, ideally, ascendant (where control and commitment are high).

He argues throughout the book that "the ascendant organisation combines high levels of commitment of the people and control of the processes to achieve a synthesis between high effectiveness and high quality of life leading to long-term, sustainable business success". He is suggesting that organisations of the future require working environments in which every worker is a "knowledge worker", provided with a range of skills and trusted to act accordingly.

Examples abound of how this can be done or has been done in various companies, with homilies in abundance - "the reward structure must be an outcome of good management, not a substitute for it". or "the common element is not a greenfield site but a greenfield mind". This is a well-written book, easily accessible, with plenty of corporate examples of good practice and an underlying message that organisational life will never be the same again, and that we should not be frightened of it. Indeed, as Wickens concludes: "There comes a time when you have to make a stand and just do it!"

Michael McMaster's book, The Intelligence Advantage, carries the theme of organisational change even further. It enthuses about the "intelligent organisation", which "refers to the capacity of an organisation as a whole to gather information, to innovate, to generate knowledge and to act effectively based on the knowledge that it has generated".

The author argues that to survive organisations must themselves be flexible, collecting data and acting upon them. This book is more theory driven than Wickens's, with some examples from corporate life, but premised on a philosophy that information and knowledge should help the organisation change its mission, structures and operating procedures in meeting the needs of its customers and employees.

The philosophy is in the paradox that "change is here to stay", and that the companies that survive will be "intelligent organisations" or what is also referred to as "computational entities". "Computation," the author says, "is not a mathematical term, but instead a broader term which includes the ability within the organisation to make sense of input and internally generated output." This is a more academic and thoughtful book than The Ascendant Organisation, with fewer corporate examples and more of a "philosophy of corporate life" feel to it, epitomised by George Bernard Shaw's reflection that "no question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious".

This is a well-written, well-thought-out book containing much proverbial food for thought rather than practical examples of successful organisational structures.

On the other hand, Organizational Epistemology by Georg von Krogh and Johan Roos is steeped in theory and in the philosophical traditions of central Europe. The authors explore theories of human cognition (autopoiesis theory) and chaos in the context of understanding managerial and organisational behaviour. This is done by focusing on knowledge and the processes of knowledge, defining "organizational epistemology" as a collection of perspectives, theories and concepts related to the following set of issues:

* how and why individuals within organisations come to know * how and why organisations, as social entities, come to know * what counts for knowledge of the individual and organisation * what are the impediments to organisational knowledge development.

This is not a book for the faint-hearted student of management or even intelligent manager for that matter, as it describes a complex set of ideas, concepts and organisational systems that are difficult to follow and certainly difficult to understand in the context of living organisations. Some of the concepts become clearer in chapter ten when a case study of an organisation in the United States is highlighted, but overall the writing style and the organisation of the volume are difficult to follow and tortuous to interpret. There is a Platonic quality to the whole volume that may find a more sympathetic home in the field of organisational sociology or philosophy than in that of generic management or organisational sciences. Nevertheless, it emphasises the growing importance of the construct highlighted more clearly by McMaster of the knowledge-based or intelligent organisation.

At the other extreme from organisational epistemology and philosophy is Leaning into the Future by George Binney and Colin Williams. This is a practitioner's guide, as the subtitle suggests, to "changing the way people change organisations".

The book focuses on the massive changes taking place in organisations, and suggests not a "top-down" or even "bottom-up" approach but one that combines the strengths of each. Indeed, the book's title, Leaning into the Future, reflects this. They suggest that "central to 'top down' change programmes is the emphasis on leading change I every successful change process we have seen has evolved individuals who are clear about what they do and do not want I Central to 'bottom up' approach is the realisation that processes of radical change involve learning for everyone involved, including those who seek to lead." Therefore, the ideal, according to the authors, is to combine leading and learning (ergo learning), so that "they lead in such a way that learning is encouraged".

This is a book that explores how the changing organisation can be helped during the process of change, the "do's and don'ts", the paradoxes, the enthusiasts and resistors and the like. It is easy to read, slightly prescriptive but in an engaging way, and will be of use to those armies of human resource managers eager to cope with the constant drip, drip of the dreaded organisational r's - reorganisation, restructuring and redundancies. There is a great deal of common sense that will be useful to many, but not to the reflective who will turn to organisational epistemology to gain cognitive solace.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology, UMIST.

Organizational Epistemology

Author - Georg von Krogh and Johan Roos
ISBN - 0 333 60987 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 214

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments