Martin’s Musings: Emergence

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Harnessing Chaos: Understanding Chaos and Complexity in Organizations Using Human Values

The idea of chaos in organizations is nothing new. Many people have expressed the idea of describing human and organizational interaction as chaotic and complex (Goldstein, 1994; Goerner, 1994). But a key feature to understanding this chaos and complexity is to see the patterns that emerge from these interactions. Humans tend to interact with each other through the choices and decisions that are made. If one can understand the pattern of decision making of the individuals and the organization, then the true goals of the organization can be made apparent. This is a very powerful concept for allowing organizations to understand themselves and become more effective. Values are the filter by which we make these decisions (M.L.W. Hall, 1997). Understanding values therefore is a key to unleashing the complexity and power of an organization.

In the way in which people look for patterns in chaotic situations to help understand them, values measurement helps people understand the dynamics of organizational behavior by identifying patterns of value-based decision making. Historically, the difficulty in introducing the human relations dimension is that there have been as many approaches to human relations as there are understandings of the human being (Jackson, 1991). This made human relations measurement difficult. If one does not have a consistent method for understanding behavior it can make the human relations aspect of organizational interventions a guessing game. This ambiguity has fueled organizational consulting for many years. But what is more important is that it has people viewing organizational behavior as mysterious. This point of view has created a desire to “control” the organization rather than “harness” the power of it.

Chaos and complexity theory is about recognizing patterns in the seemingly unexplainable [Gleick, 1987], and using these patterns to gain greater understanding. Values measurement is about understanding and recognizing patterns of human and organizational behavior. In other words, values (and values measurement) can help one to understand some of the seemingly chaotic behavior that goes on in organizations.

A proposition of this paper is that a “new unified science of values” be introduced. This will provide a consistent and measurable way of dealing with the human relations component of an organization [B. Hall, 1993]. B. Hall and Tonna propose a theory whereby all human values are selected from a universal set of 125. This theory is based on over 25 years of human and organizational research into why people make the judgments or decisions they do. If one uses a definitive set of values, dealing with the human relations aspect of organizations can become easier by allowing certain elements to be viewed in a scientific, logical manner. This allows the organizational behavior patterns to be much more obvious. This unified method for understanding values when used with other organizational methodologies creates a holistic approach to solving problems that might not always be self evident.

Decision making is based on a combination of scientific (or otherwise “factual”) data and values [Robertshaw, Mecca and Rerick, 1978]. Factual data are the core elements needed to make the decision. Values can be looked as a filter by which we make decisions (or judgments) based on the factual data. The study of values are also cross disciplinary, and similar to the study of systems science, pulling resources from many disciplines [Rokeach, 1979]. This perspective is necessary to identify the values patterns that would not otherwise be apparent in an organization.

Values measurement is a key to understanding how values are understood within an organizational context. It allows one to see how the pockets of decision making in an organization can be congruent as well as diverse. And how different parts of the organization can have different values to another part but overall the decision-making can be congruent. And when the decision making is not congruent a values clarification process can be very helpful. Core values are the center to understanding these patterns of congruent and non-congruent decision making.

Taming the chaos and understanding the complexity of the organization is what this is all about. Identifying organizational values can lead to understanding the issues that most critically face the organization.

Organizational management techniques when used in conjunction with values measurement can help focus the organization and more importantly “tame” or “harness” the power of the organization. One cannot easily control this power or sanitize the uniqueness. But it does give one insight and also suggests how one might focus resources and energy.

Values measurement of both the individual and the organization, allows for views of the organization to be made from different perspectives. Looking at organizational values on a human (individual) scale allows one to see patterns emerge depending on position of the observer. For example, the values can be looked at in terms of developmental, cyclical and dialectical orientations. These are simply different perspectives or levels of resolution for looking at organizational behavior. What once seemed eminently chaotic may actually have a sense of elegance and order.

Human beings when studied closely (by some) can seem to be some type of irrational decision-making machine. If not irrational, at least very complex. When you put a group of these people together it would seem that they would be unable to make coherent group decisions, let alone get decisions made inside large organizations. Yet people can and do make good and coherent decisions daily.

In fact, people often look at this (group decision making capacity) as a powerful intangible element of organizations. This intangible gets various names: corporate culture, soul of the organization, core values, etc. And it is considered a very strong element within these organizations. People (consultants) make their careers trying to divine this information for client organizations. Many people feel that if they can get a hold of this intangible that they can understand how their organization is going to act. But often times it is very difficult to get this information accurately and reliably.

This “intangible” piece is the human relational element or organizational values. All too often, organizational interventions or organizational consultants employ methods that have little or no focus on the values operating in organizations. It is this lack of understanding of the human relations context that makes organizations appear inherently complex. (Conversely, those that have come at it purely from the human relations perspective have not had the organizational or “big picture” view.) It is basically a psychological view versus a socio-organizational point of view. Most people view through the lens of one or the other, they need to look through both lenses to get the whole picture.

Part of this is because organizational values are non-linearly dynamic (there is not a A causes B dynamic). But it has been generally thought that values are not something that could be easily or properly utilized in an organization. More important, however, there has been no way to measure or compare accurately this values information. But if one introduces values measurement techniques such as suggested above then this issue can be addressed.

Chaos is basically the study of non-linear dynamics. To some people it may appear that individuals make irrational decisions when in fact they make decisions that use a different set of values. Why would this matter? Values are core to human decision making. A conflict in values orientation is going to make other decisions not seem logical. A common refrain that seems to bear this out is, “We always make decisions that way, this way makes no sense.” Differing values orientations create this conflict. Keeping the values orientation congruent is key. Congruent values orientation make the organization more effective and efficient because it is not fighting the conflict of decisions based on differing values orientations. Consequently, values are the key to understanding how an organization makes decisions and moreover how they maintain effectiveness.

People like to make decisions with others that are congruent to their way of thinking. This natural tendency towards congruent thinking and decision making is a form of self organization. In an organization, the complexity of how individuals make decisions is distilled down because people will tend to focus on decisions that are closer to or congruent with others in the organization. Core values develop and patterns of decision making become apparent. Values, specifically organizational values, are emergent properties that appear in and allow the organization to organize around certain issues or ideas. This focus is what many people would term, “core values”.

Organizational values are the patterns that emerge by measuring the values of the individuals in the organization. Determining core values is not a black or white proposition. The core values simply identifies a tendency towards a type of group decision making behavior. It has at its core: desired cultural behavior, consequences, communications, processes, norms and goals.
The values interaction in organizations is non-linear in that it does not provide the “answers” for what the organization will do, but allows a predictive power to be enabled to see how organizations tend to react given their organizational values orientation (or core values).

The patterns from chaos theory that values measurement allows us to take a peak at, only scratches the surface. In a sense, it only allows us to know, as Sally Goerner suggests, the “spirit” of the organization [Goerner, 1994]. Matching the values with goals and objectives goals and objectives makes for very powerful, effective and efficient organizations.

A unique element of organizational values seems to be the way in which it lives in individuals in the organization (values of the organization are contained within individuals). The organization can spontaneously reorganize while maintaining a piece of the values orientation. The organization always manages to maintain its identity. Again, it is this is this idea of maintaining the spirit or soul of the organization.

Chaos theory and values measurement can work together with organizational management techniques to act as an analytical tool for organizational development. As these techniques develop, I think that we will find that we will be able to harness the power of organizations. Maintaining their efficiency and effectiveness without removing any of the characteristics that make the organization unique.

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February 11, 2002 - Posted by | Random Thoughts

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