Complex Organizations and Information Systems

Complex Organizations and Information Systems

Leoni Warne, Helen Hasan, Henry Linger
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch102
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In modern organizations, information, and particularly knowledge, is known to be the most strategically important resource. The defining characteristics of modern organizational forms are purported to be flatter hierarchies, decentralized decision making, greater capacity for tolerance of ambiguity, permeable boundaries, capacity for renewal, self-organizing units, continual change, and an increasingly complex environment (Daft & Lewin, 1993; Warne, Ali, Bopping, Hart, & Pascoe, 2004). Yet, many systems that are developed to support organizational activities continue to fail at an alarming rate (Hart & Warne, 2005; Warne, 2002). Many explanations have been offered for such failures (e.g., DeLone & McLean, 1992; Fortune & Peters, 2005; Lyytinen & Hirschheim, 1987; Sauer, 1993; Warne, 2002), but contradictions and stresses continue to confound organizations and their use of information and communications technology (ICT). The challenge for information systems (IS) research and practice is to articulate an organizational paradigm, including its structures, forms, and systems, that will enable the organization to be agile, innovative, and have the capacity to learn. This article discusses some of the parameters for a new contemporary model for organizations.
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A modern paradigm for organizations needs to focus on their ability to support knowledge work practices that integrate thinking and doing (Burstein & Linger, 2003). Such practices address both the production of goods and services and the means of their production. Most importantly, such practices rely on the ability to remember and learn from the past and to use this learning to make sense of current situations. It is these practices that enable organizations to effectively compete in a rapidly changing environment through their ability to respond flexibly to internal and external demands. Such flexibility is derived from the dynamic of a network-centric organizational form, the shift to knowledge as a critical resource, the emphasis on learning, and a recognition and acceptance of complexity as the modern context of organizations.

The ‘sensible organization’ is an articulation of such an organizational paradigm. The concept of a ‘sensible organization’ is related to the sense-making view of organizations (e.g., Weick, 1995; Wiley, 1994; Cecez-Kecmanovic & Jerram, 2002). There are three significant levels of sense-making (see Linger & Warne, 2001): individual, organizational, and an intermediate level involving teams, groups, or units. Knowledge has traditionally been understood at the individual level. It is often said that “only people know,” and individuals learn as they acquire knowledge from others. At the organizational level we use metaphors of ‘organizational learning’ and ‘organizational memory’ in the context of formal knowledge repositories, intranets, databases, and data warehouses that are invariably ICT based. The focus of most knowledge management initiatives is at this organizational level, while less attention has been paid to the collective knowledge at the intermediate level.

The focus of the sensible organization is the intermediate level since the informality, interactivity and adaptability of small teams defines a space for what is traditionally called ‘common sense’. Within this space, teams are able to construct shared understanding and take action based on that understanding, amid the accountability and constraints of the formal enterprise. In this sense, teams represent the site of most innovation and creativity in organizations, and consequently where the challenges and potential of a sense-making approach are most apparent. Sensible organizations therefore encourage the emergence of self-directed teams interconnected in a network-centric configuration as described in Warne, Ali, and Hasan (2005b).

What is proposed by the sensible organization is not new but a return to past skills that have often been overtaken by the bureaucratization of the workplace—a process that, in many instances, is itself a result of ICT-driven change.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Cynefin Framework: Defined by Figure 1 (adapted from Wikipedia).

Network Centricity/Centrism: Large bureaucratic organizations, and the people who work in them, are facing rapid and substantial changes which require new understandings, skills, and capabilities for the network-centric environment. In some of the early literature, the term ‘network-centric’ only referred to the connectivity achieved through technological networks, in particular the Internet and Web-enabled applications. However its connotation has expanded as ICT networks and applications are transforming the ways in which people gather, share and process information and knowledge, and consequently, on the ways they make decisions to act. This is having an impact in organizations: on their structures, their ways of working, on organizational learning, as well as on the ways people collaborate and form social networks. Many organizations are now hybrids of a traditional hierarchy, with a limited command and control structure, and a network-centric configuration allowing the emergence of self-directed groups. The domain of network-centrism now encompasses the organizational, social and cultural as well as the technical aspects of working in these changing, hybrid environments.

Sensible Organization: There are many things about work in today’s organizations that just do not make sense. We observe contradictions, stresses, and tensions everywhere. The advancements of science and technologies, which promised to take away the drudgery of the human condition do not seem to have fulfilled their promise. We have replaced ‘drudgery’ with the new disease of ‘affluenza’. We fondly reflect on the creativity and community spirit of pre-industrial age cottage industries and the subsequent de-humanization of the workforce in the assembly line of factories of the industrial age. The notion of ‘sensible organization’ is a return to the human and social values that have disappeared in the modern workplace. Sensible assumptions about most modern organizations, which have complex hybrid structures consisting of hierarchies and networks, is that they are often more like organic ecosystems than machines. Moreover, it makes sense to adopt the position that this mechanistic-organic hybrid is now a natural state of affairs and should not be resisted. Indeed this creates an ideal context for innovation, creativity, and growth—a context in which rational planning should give way to processes that stimulate patterns of propitious emergent activity with an emphasis on sense-making, unstructured decision making, and shared situational awareness.

Social Software (or Social Technology): A new civil digital culture has taken hold, in which so-called ‘social’ and/or ‘conversational’ technologies are providing unprecedented opportunities for everyday civil user activities. The attraction of these social technologies is their low cost, intuitive functionality, and connectivity. Social technologies provide computer-mediated environments that use applications such as Weblogs (blogs), Wikis, chatrooms, and various Web-based groupware systems. They support new forms of informal, network-centric interaction and activity between people, allowing and enhancing informal access to create and distribute information. These technologies empower ordinary people to have a global presence for business, political and social purposes. The new social technologies are tools of a rising digital democracy that provide users with a new flexibility and independence to support collective actions, knowledge sharing and decision making by self-directed groups. Social technologies, which support cooperative socio-technical systems, are being appropriated by enlightened enterprises which are transforming from traditional hierarchical structures to more network-centric configurations.

Complexity: Understood as a concept in various ways, yet not definitively defined in the literature. However, in recent times, comprehensive theories of complexity and chaos have become popular in many disciplines of both the natural and social sciences. These theories reflect the tension between the natural tendency for disorder to increase while humans strive to impose order by developing ever more interconnected systems. In business today success is no longer determined by a few single factors, but by systems with multiple interacting relationships. Thus complexity and chaos theories are being applied in organization science where both operations and management in human enterprises are becoming increasingly complicated. The response is frequently to impose greater planning, control, rules, and regulation. At some point, organizations reach a state of complexity where planning and control of mandated work-practices should give way to the provision of a supportive environment that allows innovation and creativity for problem identification and solutions to emerge. The former is likely to be exploitative and bureaucratic, while the latter can be networked and innovative.

Cynefin: (pronounced kun-ev’in): The name of a sense-making framework proposed by Snowden (2002) . It is a knowledge space with five domains setting the context for collective decision making which has been used in knowledge management as well as other applications including conflict resolution. The domains are, characterized by the relationship between cause and effect. The first four domains are 1. Simple or Known, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all; the approach is to Sense–Categorize–Respond , and we can apply best practice. 2. Complicated or Knowable, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge; the approach is to Sense–Analyze–Respond , and we can apply good practice. 3. Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance; the approach is to Probe–Sense–Respond , and we can sense emergent practice. 4. Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level; the approach is to Act–Sense–Respond , and we can discover novel practice. The fifth domain is Disorder , which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their comfort zone in making a decision.

Knowledge Work: The term ‘knowledge worker’ is attributed to Drucker (1959), who used it to describe someone who adds value by processing existing information to create new information that can be used to define and solve problems. The subsequent development of information and communications technologies has added new meaning to this concept. For the contemporary knowledge worker, managing the collective knowledge about his or her work is an integral part of the work itself, and thus is critical to the performance of the organization. Knowledge work reflects the self-directed work practices of individuals and teams, in almost every industry, who continuously engage in processes that create and exploit knowledge. The modern work activity system is located within a space defined by the doing, thinking, and communicating dimensions (Burstein & Linger, 2003).

Collective Activity Systems: The work of groups and teams can be viewed as collective activity systems which are carried out by people in support of their interpretations of their role, the opportunities and resources available to them, and the purpose for which the activity exists. Using the language of activity theory, this is both subjective, in the sense that it is a matter for individual interpretation, and objective, in the sense that the motives, purpose, and context are a vital part of the reality of human work. An activity is defined by the dialectic relationship between a subject (i.e., a person or small group of people) and the object of their work, which includes purpose, motive, and context. An activity both mediates and is mediated by the tools used and the social context of the work activity. This two-way concept of mediation implies that the capability and availability of tools mediates what can be done, and the tool in turn evolves to hold the historical knowledge of how a society works and is organized.

Social Learning: Learning that occurs within or by a group, an organization, or any cultural cluster, and it includes,• the procedures by which knowledge and practice are transmitted across different work situations and across time and• the procedures that facilitate generative learning that enhances the enterprise’s ability to adjust to dynamic and unexpected situations, and to react creatively to them. Social learning represents important processes that contribute to individuals’ abilities to understand information, create knowledge from that information and share what they know. Social learning is therefore intrinsic to the factors in organizations that enhance and enable the assimilation, generation, sharing, and building of knowledge that transforms an organization into a learning organization.

Requisite Variety: Principle proposed by Ashby (1957) suggesting that the internal diversity of any self-regulating system, such as an organization, must match the variety and complexity of its environment if it is to deal with the challenges posed by that environment. Diversity of knowledge and skill can provide a resource for innovation and learning, at all levels of organizational management. If the systems that regulate do not have enough (or requisite) variety to match the complexity of the regulated, then regulation will fail. The system will be out of control. If an organization is complicated or complex, it is likely to have plenty of variety; if it is simple (e.g., purely hierarchical), the variety is usually low and the organization will struggle with the current complex environment.

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