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This chapter is from the book

A Total System Approach

The target for change is the organization—the total system, not necessarily individual members (Burke & Schmidt, 1971). Individual change is typically a consequence of system change. When a norm, a dimension of the organization’s culture, is changed, individual behavior is modified by the new conforming pattern. Organization development is a total system approach to change.

Most practitioners agree that OD is an approach to a total system and that an organization is a sociotechnical system (Trist, 1960). Every organization has a technology, whether it is producing something tangible or rendering a service; a subsystem of the total organization, technology represents an integral part of the culture. Every organization is also composed of people who interact to accomplish tasks; the human dimension constitutes the social subsystem. The emphasis of this book is on the social subsystem, but both subsystems and their interaction must be considered in any effort toward organizational change.

The case at the beginning of this chapter illustrates the sociotechnical qualities or dimensions of an organization. The problem between the engineering and manufacturing groups was both technical (out-of-date machinery) and social (lack of cooperation). The case also illustrates another important point. A cardinal rule of OD is to begin any consultation with what the client considers to be the problem or deems critical, not necessarily what the consultant considers important. Later, the consultant can recommend or advocate specific changes, but the consultant begins as a facilitator.

Whether the consultant’s role should encompass advocacy as well as facilitation is in dispute within the field of OD. Practitioners and academicians are divided according to their views of OD as contingent or as normative. The contingent camp argues that OD practitioners should only facilitate change; according to their view, the client determines the direction of change, and the OD practitioner helps the client get there. The normative camp, significantly smaller, argues that, although the approach to OD should be facilitative at the beginning, before long the practitioner should begin to recommend, if not argue for, specific directions for change. We place ourselves in the normative camp, the minority. Although we are taking a position, we shall make every attempt to be comprehensive and as objective as possible in our coverage of OD.

In the consultative case introduced previously, I (Burke) dealt almost exclusively for more than nine months with what the client considered to be the central problems and issues. As I became more confident about what I considered to be not just symptoms but causes, I began to argue for broader and more directed change. Until then we had been putting out fires, not stopping arson. Although the organization was correcting problems, it was not learning a different way of solving problems—that is, learning how to change, the essence of OD. This essence has been elaborated on by Argyris and Schön (1978), who call it organizational learning, and by Senge (1990). According to Senge, for organizational learning to occur, members and especially managers and executives must develop systems thinking. To understand complex managerial problems, one has to visualize the organization as a whole, how one aspect of the system affects another within an overall pattern. These ideas are highly compatible and consistent with what we mean by OD.

When a consultant takes a position, regardless of how well founded, he or she risks encountering resistance. This obviously happened in the case I described earlier. I didn’t consult much longer than the first nine months. As it turned out, I did help; the division did turn around in time to keep the corporate vice president from acting on his threat to close the plant unless quality and delivery time were improved. As a consultant, I take satisfaction in this outcome. From an OD perspective, however, I consider that my work was a failure. That assessment stems from two perspectives, one concerning research and the other concerning values.

Research evidence regarding organizational change is now very clear. Change rarely if ever can be effected by treating symptoms, and organizational change will not occur if effort is directed at trying to change individual members. The direction of change should be toward the personality of the organization, not the personality of the individual. My knowledge of the research evidence, my realization in the consultation case that a modification in the organization’s reward system was not likely, and my acceptance that OD, by definition, means change led me to conclude that, in the final analysis, I had not accomplished organization development.

The values that underlie organization development include humanistic and collaborative approaches to changing organizational life. Although not all OD practitioners would agree, decentralizing power is part of OD for most organizations. In the consultation case, it seemed that providing first-line supervisors with more alternatives for rewarding their workers positively not only was more humanistic but would allow them more discretionary and appropriate power and authority for accomplishing their supervisory responsibilities. Changing the reward system was the appropriate avenue as far as I was concerned, but this change was not to be and, for my part, neither was OD.

By way of summary, let us continue to define what OD is by considering some of the field’s primary characteristics. The following five characteristics serve as a listing so far; thus we have just begun:

  1. Our primary theoretical father is Kurt Lewin. We begin summarizing his work in Chapter 3, “Where Did Organization Development Come From?,” and continue in Chapter 4, “Organization Development as a Process of Change.” His “field theory” is derived from physics and states that human behavior can be understood as reactions to forces in our environment that influence us one way or the other. But it is not just environmental forces. Each of us as individuals have a personality the sum total of who we are as human beings. Lewin puts these two elements, personality and environment, together in a simple formula—Bf P/E: Behavior is a function of the interaction between personality and how one perceives his or her environment. Thus, we cannot understand human behavior unless we take into account both personality and context. The organization serves as context and the organizational member has a personality. As OD practitioners, we must attempt to understand individual behavior through the eyes of that individual, how she or he interprets the context and how the person’s personality helps to explain her or his behavior accordingly. There is much more to Lewin but his formula explaining behavior is fundamental. As authors of this book, we are in part Lewinians.
  2. Besides field theory, there is system theory to which we subscribe. Organizations are open systems with input, throughput, and output with a feedback loop. This means that we consider the roots of organizational issues and problems to be primarily systemic in nature, thus the problems we seek to solve do not reside with individuals who are idiots but with systems that are idiotic.
  3. Our work in OD must be data-based; otherwise, we come across as opinionated with no real basis for our opinions. Our data may be either qualitative or quantitative, preferably both, and grounded in what we learn from clients.
  4. Our clients have the solutions to their problems. They may not know it at the outset; therefore, our job is to help our clients find the solution—not hand a solution to them.
  5. And perhaps most important of all, we are values-based regarding OD practice, but there are many values to which we subscribe, and it is therefore important for us to know what our priorities are. Is treating people respectfully more important than resolving conflict? And when does the bottom line and/or meeting our budget demands take precedence?
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