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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Organizational Micro-Organisms

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“When I die, I want to die like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like all the passengers in his car.” – Will Rodgers

Go outside and pick up a handful of dirt. Your life and the life of most creatures on this planet is possible not because of what you see in the dirt but largely because of what you don’t see. At the micro-scale the Earth teems with life, much of it overlooked by us as we wend through our daily routines. This largely unnoticed life is more than important to the health of our planet for it forms the very foundation upon which other life can exist. Without the smallest of creatures, the mirco-organisms which create the conditions upon which other life depends, the earth would be barren, unable to support our existence.  Being human, a good chunk of us do our utmost to destroy these foundational creatures, or due to our obliviousness, like the grandfather who fell asleep at the wheel, make their existence as tenuous as possible.

Organizational surveys as they are often currently conducted like to measure the “big picture”, but I have begun to wonder if those of us who conduct surveys for a living are missing the leaves because all we tend to focus upon is the beauty of the forest. But without the leaves the forest will die.

The notion is this. There are fundamental underlying conditions that need to be present within an organization for that organization to truly thrive for the long term. These fundamental conditions form the basic building blocks of organizational life and hence success.  I think we have intuitively known about this and there are historical questions, which I now think of as primitive attempts to get at these conditions that have existed on surveys for a long time.

Take for instance an item that asked employees to rate their co-workers. This item tries to go beyond the formal structures of the organization, training or lack-thereof that the workers have received, the pay or benefits they obtain etc. It tries to get at something more underlying – do you like/respect/want to be around the people you interact with day-to-day? It was pretty much a constant in surveys up until about 5 or so years ago. The typical response to that item was in the mid-80 percent or higher on favorability. In other words people in general liked their co-workers. It was really unheard of for this item to be unfavorably rated. It just did not happen.

When all else in an organization was rated poorly, you could always turn to the management team and say, well at least people like their co-workers, that is a starting point, a place from which you can build. But now I think it was simply a poorly written question, for while people did indeed like their co-workers it clearly did not get at the fundamentals, the micro-organisms necessary for the organization to thrive. There is also an issue with very positively rated items, in that they have imbedded in their response pattern less information then items that are more moderately rated and hence the organization can learn little from these items. The same could be said of the generally derided item about having a best friend at work.

Physicists use something called an effective theory approach for problem solving. It is an approach that utilizes the theory that makes most sense at the distances or object size that you are studying. Newton’s theory of gravity is just fine if you are on the earth’s surface studying an apple falling from a tree, but Einstein’s approach to gravity is necessary if you want to be able to solve problems that involve planetary distances. And Einstein’s theory does not work at the sub-atomic or quantum level. For that you need string theory. This approach implies that organizational surveys should ask about only those things you could hope to measure and see within the organizational world at the distances or sizes you are studying. The physicist’s approach implies that measuring the forest and ignoring the leaves is just fine if you can show that the forest is what leads to the outcomes that you desire, such as customer repurchase intentions. What is left out is that the forest will in fact perish if the conditions do not exist for the leaves to thrive, to create the forest in the first place.

It is very clear today that many approach organizational surveys without having a real understanding of the unifying state that allows us to measure the basic building blocks of successful organizational functioning, those things that are foundational to creating the conditions that allows an organization to thrive, to become vital over the long term.

I was recently sent a note about a document new Apple employee’s see it goes like this:

“There is work and there’s your life’s work. The kind of work that has your finger prints all over it. The kind of work that you would never compromise on. That you’d sacrifice a weekend for. You can do that kind of work at Apple. People don’t come here to play it safe. They come here to swim in the deep end. They want their work to add up to something. Something big. Something that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Welcome to Apple.”

Whether those conditions exist for each and every employee of Apple is of course a good question and one that I can’t answer here, but the notion that there is more to work than work is very clear. If everyone in every organization felt that way just imagine what we could accomplish.


© 2012 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.


Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

May 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm

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