Social Business Design as a metaphor

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At the moment I’m reading Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organization (the 1986 edition). This is one of the lesser known management books, but well worth the time and effort to read although some of the ideas he introduces are quite challenging at times. But with all this talk of social media ‘buzzwords’ and debate about the meaning of concepts like Enterprise 2.0 etc, I felt it was time to re-ground my thinking. Another reason is that at Headshift we’ve also started to use a new language built around the Social Business Design framework.

In Morgan’s book he explores the use of eight different metaphors to understand ‘organisations’:

  • Mechanistic
  • Organisms
  • Brains
  • Culture
  • Political Systems
  • Psychic Prisons
  • Flux and Transformation
  • Instruments of Domination

Morgan draws on existing concepts from a range of areas – from management to physics – to describe these metaphors. Its fair to say that the metaphors get harder as you work through the book. However, critically Morgan doesn’t just describe them, he also looks at the strengths and limitations of each. The point being that there isn’t a perfect metaphor.

Near the end of the book Morgan starts to talk about the applications of these metaphors to the management and design of organisations. He points out that:

“there is a close relationship between the way we think and the way we act, and many organizational problems are embedded in our thinking… an appreciation of the close relationship between thoughts and action can help create new ways of organizing… we can overcome many familiar problems by learning to see and understand organisation and organisations in new ways, so that new courses of action emerge.”

Social Business Design in my view is just this. Another way of thinking about familiar organisational problems, combined with a way of taking action that takes advantage of “changes in technology, society, and work”.

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I can see a strong relationship between the organisational metaphors of organisms, brains and culture. These metaphors are a counter point to the successful mechanistic metaphor – and I can see many of the arguments against Social Business Design (and related ideas, like Enterprise 2.0) coming from the conflict between them. However, its quite interesting that Morgan commented back in 1986 that:

“Mechanistic approaches to organization have proved incredibly popular, partly because of their efficiency in the performance of certain tasks, but also because of their ability to reinforce and sustain particular patterns of power and control… However, there can be little doubt that the increasing rate of societal flux and change poses many problems for organizations based on mechanical designs”

(Of course, he is just one of many voices over the last few decades saying the same thing, e.g. Charles Handy)

Similarly, those that just want to place business ‘culture’ or ‘emergence’ at the centre of this change, need to be aware that these are also just particular (but useful) metaphors, rather than being the only true view point. In this respect, I suspect many of the real barriers are better understood through the other metaphors (Political Systems, Psychic Prisons, Flux and Transformation and Instruments of Domination) as these reflect some of the darker human complexities that actual make up organisations. The short version is that change is hard for many different reasons!

For example, individuals in an organisation many resist new social computing technology not because it doesn’t not work or does not add value, but simply because this change threatens their self-image of where they fit. Or they reject it simply because someone else in the organisation presented the idea. (Of course, they will apply a mechanistic view to present their arguments as a rational response!)

If inherently the totality of the organisation fights against change, then neither the Social Business Design approach or any other management concept alone will be able to overcome this challenge alone. However, the great thing about social computing and Web technologies is that where the organisation is open to change in even a small way, then they allow us to take a human-centred approach that:

  • Involves people who will be affected by the change from the very beginning;
  • Supports safe experimentation and ‘agile’ solution development (rather than being locked into a choice of solution); and
  • Allows people to finish (and continue evolving) the design of the solution as they start to use it.

Change with Social Business Design becomes a journey with that organisation, not a one off intervention.

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5 thoughts on “Social Business Design as a metaphor

  1. I love the Social Business definition, even if it is clear that it involves some radical changes in attitude. I think you are right when pointing at internal resistance at any changes, whatever the reason behind this resistance is. On the other side, maybe it’s just a matter of leadership. If you have a charismatic boss driving the company towards the application of social business, success will follow. If there is no clear leadership nor defined road map, not only Social Business process application will be successful but the entire company is in danger.

  2. Thank you for this post. I am following the discussion on modern organizational theory for some time already, and I am happy to see someone going back to some more grounding work. I’ve read Morgan’s books as well some time ago, and was about to go back to it recently.I had experience in setting up a few organizations and the insight it gave me was that very much in line with what Morgan was saying. It’s the culture of conscious observation of the processes that take place between team members that can lead to amazing and innovative results. The “social business design” is a new term coined for some of the theories that finally see their (hopefully) main stream emergence and application.

  3. Thank you for illuminating Social Business Design: leadership, culture, organization, and group mind. Just to add one more metaphor for “the darker human complexities that actually make up organisations”: Corporate Alzheimer’s Customers, employees and suppliers notice the symptoms. Hate it when it happens, and they feel forgotten. Can Social Business Design lead to remedies from within? The visionaries at http://corporation2020.org appear to think so.

  4. I love the Social Business definition, even if it is clear that it involves some radical changes in attitude. I think you are right when pointing at internal resistance at any changes, whatever the reason behind this resistance is. On the other side, maybe it’s just a matter of leadership. If you have a charismatic boss driving the company towards the application of social business, success will follow. If there is no clear leadership nor defined road map, not only Social Business process application will be successful but the entire company is in danger.

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