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Commenting on Management Situations

Hi, I need some assistance commenting on the following postings relating to management, communication, culture and leadership.

1)The most obvious model introduced by thinking about organizations as "organisms" is the "life cycle" -- new organizations come into being, mature, age, and die, just live all living things from amoebas to people. But it's a lot harder for us to tell the "organic age" of an organization than it is that of a person (the same could be said for our telling the age of an amoeba, I suppose, but presumably other amoebas manage to do so). It's even harder when you're dealing with an organization which doesn't have clear formal transition points. For example, the US military has been around for some 200+ years, and isn't likely to pass away anytime soon. Ditto a lot of big companies. The "life cycle" model that's quite informative when applied to Silicon Valley start-ups or online universities doesn't help much, on the overall level.

But, there's no question that within any large more-or-less permanent organization there's a lot of coming and going - some parts are on the rise, some are going down. Virtually all of you have moved around between units, and I suspect that it hasn't taken you long to tell the difference between an operation that's "young" and one that's "old". So here's the question: how do you tell the difference? And to what degree do the ways we tell the difference between an organization or organizational component that's in the earlier stages of its "life cycle" and one that's in the later stages resemble the ways we assess the life stages of individuals? Are there organizational analogues to gray hair and wrinkles? Are there transitions or clear changes that tell us our organization is aging? And finally, are we as individuals affected by the "age" of our organization, and if so, what do we do about it?

2) The brain metaphor is most useful in helping us to think about the idea of "knowledge" and how organizations create, maintain, and communicate data, information, and knowledge. Useful on some large levels, but it breaks down pretty quickly when we start to think about "units of knowledge" and the mechanics of transfer. In the organism, all its knowledge is the property of all parts of the system, with some minor qualifications. Your liver isn't going to accept a better offer from your friend and go off to join him, taking with it all your knowledge about how to turn blood toxins into bile. But in the organization, knowledge is generally pretty clearly compartmentalized into human-sized chunks that move around individually, don't always mesh well with each other, and often get very proprietary. Brains don't have any internal issues of "intellectual property" -- but organizations certainly do!So here's the question: Is organizational knowledge basically equivalent to the knowledge possessed by the individuals in the organization? Or is there maybe something rather different involved? Are there aspects of managing organizational knowledge that go beyond -- and maybe even sometimes conflict with -- managing individuals who embody that knowledge? If you have any stories about these problems, it might be helpful to share them if you can.

Finally (and thinking about this part is strictly voluntary) - is this metaphor perhaps dangerous? We can't really go too far wrong using the machine or organism metaphors - the worst that can happen is that they're incomplete and leave stuff unaccounted for. But might not thinking of an organization as a "brain" lead us to some really misleading conclusions about organizational information and knowledge? Or am I just blowing this out of proportion?

3) Human beings love stories. Well, perhaps cats and polar bears also love stories, but since few of us speak cat or polar bear, we're not really in a position to appreciate them in the same way. In all places and at all times, stories are the most effective medium of human learning - vastly more effective than any kind of direct instruction or advice or even modeling behavior. Stories take us intact inside situations, and let us participate in these situations in relatively trauma-free ways. In many ways, culture can be seen simply as a collection of more or less similar stories told by those on the inside to those whom they would have join them. Learning the culture is in fact learning the stories that define the culture. For the most part, this transmission of culture is not self-conscious - that is, neither those telling the stories nor those hearing them are consciously trying to transmit culture.

All of us who have had the experience of moving from one organization to another have experienced cultural shifts. Likewise, by the time we reach adulthood, most of us have considerable facility in moving into and joining new cultures, and we generally don't think a whole lot about it, unless the differences between the old and new cultures are fairly dramatic. The reason we don't need to think a lot about it is that we are carefully attuned to listening to the stories, even if they're not being told directly to us, and extracting lessons from them -- it's one of the most basic human skills.

Think a little bit about the issue of stories and culture and see if you can understand how this works in a more systematic way then you're accustomed to. Think back on some cultural change you've been part of in the not too distant past (or the distant past, if that's more informative) and see if you can remember some key brief story that was particularly important to you in helping you learn how to be part of the new culture. It might be something told directly to you, or maybe something you just learned about. If you can, try to describe this story briefly to your colleagues. What was it about? Who was involved? What was its moral? Was it intended to be instructive, or was it accidentally so? What made it particularly instructive to you? Why do you remember it? If you don't have a story of your own, please participate by asking questions of those who do have stories. Try to get them to be more analytical, and more informative. And feel free to offer your own comments and suggestions about what makes stories memorable and instructive, about the uses that managers might make of these culture transmission mechanisms, and about any other aspect of the process of entering and learning organizational cultures. I'll be most interested to see what we come up with here.

4) There's a body of literature devoted to a concept called "Substitutes for Leadership". Basically, the idea is that organizations can develop a set of structural characteristics and cultivate characteristics in their members such that actual "leadership" on the part of particular individuals is either unnecessary or, in some cases, actually undermined. There are three sets, briefly:

- Characteristics of Subordinates: Ability and experience, Need for independence, professional orientation, and Indifference towards rewards
- Characteristics of Tasks: Routineness, Availability of feedback, and Intrinsic satisfaction
- Characteristics of Organization: Formalization, Group cohesion, Inflexibility, and Rigid reward structure

You can read more about this approach if it interests you at, but it's not really necessary to discuss this question; you get the general idea. If the organization has a strong management culture, the work is heavily structured, and the individuals are internally motivated toward doing the job, then active leadership may be more of a hindrance than a help. What this really amounts to is making the political system of the organization less subject to individual manipulation.

So what do you think of this idea? Are leaders always really necessary, or can we make things work ok even if we don't have them? What sorts of situations might be helped by cultivating such a "substitute leadership" environment? Are there situations where this might be a bad thing? What about you personally - do you want a leader, or would you prefer essentially to be your own leader? It's one way to make organizations less political - but is it worth it? What do you think?

Solution Preview

I have answered the questions with some starting points for you. Interesting points of view that should make one think and put to use critical thinking skills.

1. In my opinion, the age is apparent because of the aging of equipment and furniture. Processes are streamlined because of experience and knowledge. Most of the organization has set rules and methods that are pretty stable and firmly entrenched in older organizations. In younger organizations, there are still issues to be worked out and processes are constantly being upgraded and changed. Things are new and more modern such as technology and equipment. There is a difference that can be seen and felt with enthusiasm and newness.

When organizations come into being though, they react in certain ways and have a more singular goal of remaining in business. People may been seen as trying to achieve the same. People are usually not created to focus on a single thing and that is why some organizations are less likely to ?fit? into a mold. Organizations also do not consider communication to be one of the primary goals to ...

Solution Summary

The solution comments on many different management situations.