thinking out loud

Thinking out loud: Why self-directedness?

Today I read the paper A dissipative structure model of organization transformation (1985) by Gemmill and Smith, which inspired this post.

So far, the research I am doing for my PhD is about employee self-directedness or self-leadership. For my first study I have gathered interview data from managers about their perspective on employee's self-directedness - how to recognize it and why it is important (as it is often mentioned as a characteristic viable job candidates should possess). I can say that in some organizations, the true self-directedness of employees was more emphasized while in others the concept was more interpreted as moving quickly in a given direction without any need for manager action.

Taking a systemic view of organizations, however, I would argue that self-directed employees are of value to organizations whether their managers realize it or not.

In their 1985 paper, Gemmill & Smith present A Dissipative Structure Model of Organization Transformation where they emphasize that the model of dissipative structures is not just an analogy but expressive of an ordering of elements and processes that holds across several fields of research and levels of analysis - that it is indeed a bridge between the natural and the social sciences. Simply put there are principles of organizing valid for human organization as well.

The greater the misalignment with the environment, the less it can depend upon the environment for the energy it needs to renew itself. Consequently, it undergoes an entropy process, wherein its mechanisms deteriorate and the key elements of survival become inaccessible or randomly dispersed.

As environments change and fluctuate, organizations must adapt but by what mechanisms do they do that?

In DNA, it's through mutation. Because replication of DNA is not perfect, because there is some room for error, novelty is generated. And it is generation of novelty, or variation, that is the system's best tool for dealing with a highly variable and uncertain environment.

In social systems, organizations, variation is brought about through experimentation or as Weick (1977) put it: play!

The only possibility for effectiveness amidst extreme uncertainty, comes from the capacity to combine aspects of behavior that seemingly have no basis for juxtaposition in a traditional framework /…/ behavior which has no apparent value as long as the situation remains within the parameters where mechanistic processes are effective.

Relating this back to my empirical material, it is not by having employees following best practices to the letter, albeit "by their own accord", that you produce the kind of variability that will make your organization poised to embrace and adapt to the unexpected. At the same time, evolution does not happen through random mutations alone but through the combination of mutations and selection. One needs to simultaneously be willing to let go of "bad mutations" - one could thus be said to adopt best practice and shun the rest - and keep producing new variations. This is the crux of the matter.

Where to go from here? 

  • Explore -> double loop learning
  • Explore -> is everything "solved" already, if so then what is the actual problem?

Sources cited here:
Gemmill, G., & Smith, C. (1985). A Dissipative Structure Model of Organization Transformation. Human Relations, 38 (8), 751-766.
Weick, K. (1977). Organization design: Organizations as self-designing systems. Organizational Dynamics, 31-46.