The Source of Systems Conflicts

Unraveling the knot

[ Return to Complexities ]

Complexities are some of the most perplexing in organizations. Luckily the concept of systems provides a wealth of clues about where the problem might lay, and what might be done.

The key distinction is between organic systems and purposive systems. Companies are formed to deliver a product or service, take care of a particular customer group, or leverage a technology. Organic systems emerge without direction out of the interaction of interdependent players. People just talk, and a culture emerges. People have lunch with who they prefer, and a friendship network emerges. People assess each others' strengths, and an informal influence network emerges.

Organizations are always a mix of deliberate, directed structures right along side organic, emergent structures. The organizational chart captures how it was intended to operate, but anyone in the company can tell you that the real structure is quite different. The following chart will focus on the differences between organic vs. purposive systems.

  Organic Systems Purposive Systems
Purpose Organic systems have no purpose; they are not future-oriented. In organic systems, individuals act only in response to their minute-to-minute circumstance. We sometimes impose an imagined purpose to explain the long-term trajectory of organic systems, but we have not discovered the "purpose" of the system; we have only imposed a purpose for our comfort. Designed to produce products or services, take care of a population, or leverage some technology. The purpose preceded the existence of the organization.
Environment The environment is largely given and non-negotiable. The environment can be chosen to some degree; companies can compete in distant markets or rely on goods imported from other economies. They can negotiate alliances, engage in mergers, and form supply chains.
Feedback Feedback from environment is immediate and direct. It has a compelling influence on the emergence of the system. Feedback is mediated, distorted, and delayed; employees often unaware of how their work is received in the marketplace. Content of feedback is as much symbolic as it is substantive. The system may evolve quite oblivious to how the environment views them (at least for a while).
Basic unit The individual or the small working group are the most powerful units; networks and more elaborate units emerge from the interaction of these basic units. Organizations are more heavily constructed, and constructed at all levels: job descriptions, departments, project teams, programs, lines of business, divisions, or other units. In addition, employees may base actions on their association with a social class, bargaining unit, employee group or professional association.
Boundaries Rich interdependence leads to a network or web structure. Organic structures do not respect formal boundaries; employees may be more involved with friends and colleagues than they are with their formally designated team mates. Imposed partitions within companies and artificial boundaries attempt to constrain lines of communication, the flow of authority, or the alignment for cooperation or competition.
Time Organic systems have only the present; all the lessons of the past and hopes for the future are embodied in today's beliefs and choices. The history of a species is written in the genetic code of each individual. Likewise, the history of an organization is written into the attitudes, beliefs, and inclinations of each employee. Companies construct histories through their culture and imagine futures through their planning efforts. These provide the context for present actions; often more influential than the realities of the present.

The purpose of this table is to facilitate finding the friction points between the organic side of the company and its purposive side. For example, procedural documentation captures the directed definition of work flow, but the informal friendship network may define another sequence or impose different criteria for success. An enterprise-wide data system may squeeze out all the resource buffers for greater efficiency, but those buffers may have been the way people established their authority, their status, even their own self-esteem. So complaints about the new data system may focus on the complexity of the computer screens, when the real issue is compromised self-definition. Or, the strategic planning process may try to impose objectives and establish accountabilities, but employees may still appeal to their private authority network to decide "what's most important to work on now".