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Enhancing Organizational Performance

The Cynical Organizational Theory

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Sometimes it seems like every organization out there, be it a consulting firm or a corporation, has a theory or model of organizational culture or some component of culture; there are literally hundreds if not thousands of them. Many of the organizations with these models have “data” to back up the claim, to prove that their approach is correct. Can all of these different models be correct? What is really going on here? Are these models robust enough to work in different situations and do they fulfill the basic requirement of a good model; can they be used to make predictions?

I am going to ask you to bear with me for a few paragraphs as I set up what I believe to be an important comparison between the world of physics and organizational theory. I will do my best to make the physics understandable and correct, but realize please that I am not a physicist.  Here goes.

Physicists had a problem. They had theories; models of how things were supposed to work but those models only worked under certain circumstances and were incompatible with each other. Newton’s laws of gravity work very well while you reside on the earth, but Einstein came along and his work on gravity contradicted Newton. Newton thought (and his equations stated) that gravity would effect things over distance instantaneously while Einstein thought (and his equations stated) that gravity traveled in waves and that its’ effects would take time to propagate over a distance through hypothesized gravity waves. They both could not be right. Einstein was proved right through rigorous experimentation.

While Einstein’s work explained some of the mysteries in the universe it was inherently incompatible with quantum mechanics. If one was right the other was wrong. Einstein thought that laws were laws and they should always lead to the same predictable outcome. Quantum mechanics introduces the notion that certain outcomes are unpredictable (such as exactly when an electron would emit light) and led to the famous saying attributed to Einstein “God does not play dice with the universe”.  The original quote was “Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us closer to the secret of the ‘Old One.’ I, at any rate, am convinced that He is not playing at dice.”

String theory or Super String theory is being used to bring all of these differences into alignment. It is the closest thing out there to what is called a grand unifying theory. It remains to be seen whether rigorous experimentation will be able to prove that this is the real answer to how the universe works. It is likely impossible that we will ever be able to measure or examine strings directly but planning is underway to look at some of their indirect effects. A string is hypothesized to be the smallest component of all matter.

Remember at one point it was thought that all matter was made up of atoms and atoms were the smallest component. Then electrons, protons and neutrons were found to make up atoms. Then along came a host of different type of quarks that make up those components. Things continued to get more and more complex, in terms of the number and type of quarks making people very uneasy, since simplicity or elegance of structure was just not there. The kind of simplicity or elegance of structure that makes you feel that something is right whether you are operating in the world of physics or in the world of organizational theory. The breakthrough that simplified things and took it down to once again basic components with simplicity and elegance was strings. All quarks, hence all matter was made up of tiny vibrating bits called strings. The shape the string takes as it vibrates and the speed of it’s’ vibration determine the properties it exhibits.

Side note: The reason we will never be able to view strings directly is partially due to just how small they are (incredibly) and what you need to be able to do to see things. In order to see things you need to use an agent (our eyes use photons), that is smaller than what you are tying to observe; the smaller the agent the sharper the picture. In order to see an atom you can use a stream of electrons which when bounced off the atom and then visualized to reveal its structure. This works because electrons are smaller then the atoms they are being used to see. If strings are indeed the smallest thing that there is, there is nothing smaller to use as an agent to see one and make out its details.

Ok, what does all this have to do with organizational theory?

Organizational theory is not all that dissimilar to the physicist’s predicament. As mentioned in my opening paragraph there are many different theories out there regarding organizations, all with the expected “proof” that they are correct. But due to the nature of these theories, as opposed to the physicists, just because one is correct does not necessarily mean the others are wrong. One could argue that they are all part of the picture, but none are looking at the picture as a whole, or measuring the picture at the level necessary to make out its detail.

What would be required to prove one of these theories above the other would be predictive data. In other words based on the theory being able to say if the data comes out this and this way here is what is going to happen in the organization. No one can do that, nor will they be able to do that in the near future. They can only go so far as to say this is what may happen (or maybe not).

When psychologists have a theory of how things should work and that is then “linked” to real world outcomes, the results are talked about in terms of the tendency for one variable (an item or dimension from a survey for instance) or set of variables to move in conjunction with an outcome. Linkage work has been done with outcomes such as sales volume, absenteeism, injury rates and a host of other metrics. All the linkage work I have seen is not done a priori but rather in a post hoc fashion – meaning the models are not used in a predictive fashion but rather after that fact on a data hunt.

Physicists are able to use rigorous scientific experiments to prove or disprove concepts and theories. And while the units of measure they use can be described as arbitrary, all physicists use the same standardized units. For instance a light year is an arbitrary measure. It is the distance that light travels in one earth year. Why an Earth year? Why not an Earth 2 year or 9 months? Not to mention the fact that the Earth’s orbit time around the sun is changing ever so slightly. Why not a Mars year etc.? Even though the definition is arbitrary, once set the same unit can be used by all physicists as a standard unit of measure.

An inch, another measure of distance, really doesn’t have to be an inch, but by use of a common definition – just how long an inch really should be, communications from one person to another, from one organization to another regarding lengths is possible. This is how things like houses and other objects get built to specifications. (The people who built my house must have had a somewhat different definition of an inch, but that is another story.)

There are no common measures in use today to measure organizational culture across organizations.

A frequently used technique to observe and measure organizational culture is the employee survey. There are several major problems with a survey process used to design the “correct” theory of organizational culture. First, the conclusions drawn from each survey is limited by what is asked. For instance, safety would not show up in a model of organizational culture if the model builder did not include a question about safety as they collected they built the survey in the first place. With no data about safety any model derived empirically, through inspection of the survey results, would show that safety is not important, for it did not show up in the data. Safety does not show up potentially not because it is not important but because it is simply not asked about.

With most organizations wanting to have as short a questionnaire as possible, many topic areas get left off, meaning that models of organizational culture that these surveys are built around are just thought experiments. The composer of the survey has to have a model in mind about what is important to ask in the first place and then uses the resulting data to illustrate that they asked the important questions resulting in circular logic. How do they know about the questions that they did not ask? They could be important as well.

Secondly, the measuring tools used across organizations are not standard. Do we want to build a unique model for each entity – that may be fine, but if each entity needs a different model (…as the number of quarks multiplied), an unease should begin to settle in. Where is the simplicity? And then you really don’t have a model that can be used for prediction but simply a description of the organization at a point in time – a model that works only under certain circumstances.  

Thirdly, some of the models I have run across use internal analysis to define the model and the success of the model. The survey questions that are collected from the organization include both the independent and dependent variables. That means that I may use a question like “how would you rate your satisfaction at the present time” as a dependent variable and a question like “rate the in-house training you have received” as the independent.  

Statistically the two are compared. Are the people who rate training also the ones who are more satisfied? If so training becomes part of our model. This approach is really measuring the internal consistency of the various sections of the questionnaire, they measuring the same thing, as opposed to comparing the training questions to an objectively collected external measure of job performance. Are the people who received training better able to actually perform their jobs? If so then our training is effective and training is an important component of our model. If not, if may simply mean that the training was not done well.  This is akin to saying that I know that the atom is the smallest piece of matter that exists because it is the smallest I can see. It may be the smallest you can see simply because you are not using the right agent. 

Each organization out there measuring organizational culture is using different sets of questions; often times with different scales, many times calling their question set or scale proprietary. This of course flies in the face of ever being able to develop a truly robust theory of how organizations function. Even those organizations that use “normative” questions are suspect. Many times the “norms” are modified to meet a client’s need, wording modification or even worse scale modification are not uncommon.

I recently came across an article which published “norms” of organizational behavior in response to a standard set of questions by country. This article was trying to point out differences that exist by country in response to a standard set of questions. The largest differences in response patterns to a single norm item is often driven by the occupation of the respondent (holding tenure constant) rather than other factors.  When examined, this article did not hold constant the types of organizations, or number of organizations in each country, and it certainly did not hold constant the occupations and tenure levels of the people in each country being asked the questions. The differences they were trying to point out without this context can not be interpreted in any manner, let alone to illustrate expected differences by country. I am afraid that this is the state of much of the world of organizational theory. The data that gets collected within an organization maybe ok, but the aggregation of data across organizations immediately begins to become suspect, and yet these grand theories of organizational behavior are based on just that sort of data.

There is no agreed upon unit of measure, there is no agreed upon methodology on how to measure. There is no smallest unit –  like the string –  that can be pointed to and say “this is what underlies everything”.

Given the state of the science, at best all of these models should be referred to as frameworks – “this is our framework, based on the questions that we have asked previously, that we feel is important to ask here capture to measure your organization’s culture”.

Given my cynical nature of the current state of organizational modeling I am not going to offer you any models, only a framework. What framework do I think is important? What will be my attempt at simplicity, at cutting through the clutter, creating my own version of strings?

In its simplest form I suggest the following. Message, Performance, Future (MPF). An action oriented framework for describing organizational culture and a framework for change.  Just what is Message, Performance, Future?

MPF, is what I believe is the underlying basis of an effective organizational culture- the smallest unit if you will if what is important. It can be applied at all levels of the organizations, from the senior most people in the organization to the first line supervisor. It is an underlying framework that allows other models to be laid over the top. So a model of engagement, or quality improvement, or turnover reduction etc. can overlay this framework.

Message: describing for employees what the organization is about and their role in achieving that goal. Consistency of Message is also important and will be discussed elsewhere.

Performance: the organization providing the employee what they need (in the broadest sense) to get their jobs done – done in congruence with the organizational goals.

Future: to feel appreciated for what you have accomplished and see a future for yourself within the organization.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

November 19, 2009 at 3:12 pm

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