Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
This is a book about the application of systems methodologies to organizational issues. According to the author, it “is targeted to those who want access to powerful models of systemic management in order to improve their skills in coping with complexity”.
The systemic approaches available to managers have grown considerably over the last decades. Among these diverse approaches one can identify three main waves, according to Midgley (2000). To the first wave belong systems engineering, systems analysis and early versions of system dynamics. The critical responses to these models, which took up their treatment of problematic situations as representations of reality, and critiqued them for insufficient consideration of the individual's perception of reality, gave rise to the second wave of approaches, which were characterized by a particular emphasis on dialogue and the intersubjective construction of realities. Among the second wave are soft systems methodology (SSM), strategic assumption and testing (SAST), advanced versions of system dynamics and interactive planning. The responses by critics this time highlighted what they saw as an inadequate treatment of power relations by these second‐wave models. Consequently, this issue was dealt with by third‐wave approaches at the end of the 1980 s, with critical systems heuristics (CSH) best representing them. The present situation in the field at the beginning of the new century is typified by a growing interest in the use of multiple methodologies in the same study, which has occurred mostly in the late 1990s in work by Jackson and Keys (1984), Mingers and Gill (1997), Schwaninger (1997) and Jackson (2000) among others.
In this new book by Schwaninger several of the approaches mentioned above are integrated in a coherent outlook which he names Framework for the Design and Development of Intelligent Organizations (FDDIO). Within its compass he is able to combine chiefly the main features of organizational cybernetics, team syntegrity, the author's model of systemic control (MSC) and Forrester's system dynamics.
Among the great diversity of approaches within the several waves described above, some have been widely diffused and are currently applied all over the world (i.e. system dynamics). Others, however, have yet to be broadly applied, for example, organizational cybernetics, which supposedly resists ready application because of its theoretical and methodological complexity.
Schwaninger's book will help solve this problem. One of its relevant aspects is precisely that it makes organizational cybernetics more accessible to researchers and practitioners by clarifying what its main components are and how they relate to managerial activity. The wealth of examples included in the book clearly show how organizational cybernetics can be used in management practice.
The book's 11 chapters follow a systematic progression, beginning with the introductory chapter's sketch of the systemic approach and its ability to cope with complexity. Chapters 2 and 3 lay out the concepts of complexity, variety, and Ashby's law of requisite variety, with the Conant‐Ashby theorem derived from this law, which Schwaninger argues is needed by management models to achieve requisite variety in dealing with complex management issues. The third chapter focuses on distributed management and distributed intelligence within the organization as the most convenient ways of coping with such complexity.
Chapter 4 is the core of the book, designating the methodology's framework of five primary dimensions, which together facilitate the design and development of intelligent organizations: activities, structure, behaviour, basic parameters (ethos, identity and vision) and time. The theoretical foundations and models incorporated in the first three dimensions are based on three theories from organizational cybernetics: the MSC which enables a comprehensive (self‐) control of the activities of an organization; the viable system model (VSM) which helps to design and diagnose the structures of an organization for its viability and development; and the team syntegrity model (TSM) which provides a framework for developing interactive behaviour in an organization so as to foster synergy, cohesion and knowledge‐creation. Each of these models preferably deals with one of the first three dimensions, namely activities, structure and behaviour. However, the combined use of them, together with the inclusion of the other two dimensions (basic parameters and time) constitutes Schwaninger's powerful new approach to systemic management.
In Chapters 5‐9 each of these dimensions of the FDDIO methodology is explained in detail.
Chapter 5 describes Schwaninger's own MSC. The logical levels of management (normative, strategic and operative), the dimensions of organizational fitness (legitimacy, effectiveness and efficiency) and the corresponding goals for each of these logical levels (viability/development, value potential and value) are laid out, with special emphasis being placed on the concept of pre‐control, as the creation of preconditions at earlier stages and at higher logical levels, which affect the control and performance achievable at later stages and lower logical levels of management.
Chapter 6 sets forth the fundamentals of Beer's VSM, which proposes the necessary and sufficient conditions which an organizational has to meet in order to be viable, and ties it to both the MSC and the VSM. Notably, the chapter presents the first attempt at conceptually synthesising VSM with the concepts of circularity, recursion, network, heterarchy, virtual organization and project management.
Chapter 7 describes the framework's third dimension, behaviour, by explaining the function and likely results of the TSM. Many applications show that TSM is quite powerful in fostering self‐organized behaviour among organizational members and teams, and increasing the possibility of reaching shared mental models and joint action. Detailed empirical evidence comes from a pioneering case study in which the author has been co‐director, a global research and publishing project in which the first electronic syntegration has been carried out.
The framework's fourth dimension, basic parameters, is dealt with in Chapter 8. Under this heading fall the concepts of organizational ethos and identity, and the related concepts of vision, purpose and mission. The importance from a cybernetic point of view of organizational identity and ethical virtues and norms, as attenuators of complexity, comes into focus. Another important aspect treated is the recursive character of ethos and of organizational intelligence, which accords with the recursive nature of organizational viability developed in Chapter 6.
In Chapter 9 comes time, the fifth dimension of the framework. The crucial importance of time in the behaviour of complex systems is well known within the field of system dynamics. That is, delays in conjunction with feedback can make apparently good decisions produce very bad results in the system's behaviour. Schwaninger's proposal, to take into account different time constants for managing a sound organizational transformation, is extremely pertinent. He presents the results of a computer simulation where the relation between time and the interventions in the behavioral, structural and strategic dimensions are studied, providing eight conclusions about how to handle the time dimension. The last of these, which advocates starting earlier rather than acting faster, in order to manage time effectively, links the MSC (activities dimension) with the time dimension.
Chapter 10 ties together all the components of the FDDIO. The MSC, VSM and TSM models are shown linked to the dimensions of the framework by way of a detailed integrative view of these models. A final consideration of the relation between change and the fundamental parameters (ethos, identity and vision) is formulated, and the chapter concludes with four examples of the framework's concrete application.
In the final chapter, Schwaninger offers a closing reflection on the aptitude of a systems approach for dealing more effectively with situations of high variety or complexity. He synthesises the ways in which his approach might achieve a virtuous transformation of organizations in a balanced co‐evolution with the environment. He ends by underlining the need for new kinds of organizations which can bring about a sustainable future.
In a thoroughly balanced way this book provides theoretical rigor, empirical support and detailed implications for practitioners, especially those managers who wish to stay on top of events and improve their orientation toward the complexity of their own organizations.
Jackson, M.C. (2000), Systems Approaches to Management, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht.
Jackson, M.C. and Keys, P. (1984), “Towards a system of systems methodologies”, Journal of the Operational Research Society, Vol. 35.
Midgley, G. (2000), Systemic Intervention: Philosophy, Methodology, and Practice, Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht.
Mingers, J. and Gill, A. (Eds) (1997), Multimethodology. The Theory and Practice of Combining Management Science Methodologies, Wiley, New York, NY.
Schwaninger, M. (1997), “Integrative systems methodology: heuristic for requisite variety”, Int. Trans. Opl Res., Vol. 4 No. 4.