Illustration by Kas Moreno Madrigal

Our identity changes our organisations

Bitesize Dissertation | Part 3

Change is an organic state for companies, Judith Wainwright, director of management consultancy Bluestone with 30 years experience in management says ‘Just being an organisation is a constant process of change.’ (Wainwright, 2020, Zoom interview) This takes us to the next step of this concept analysis, companies are simply one more example of organisations. Which begs the question — what is an organisation?. ‘Organisation’ comes from the Latin organum “instrument”, indicating its usefulness. What’s more, it also means ‘organ’, understood both as a musical instrument and a part of the body (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020, etymonline.com). It is fair to assume that this secondary meaning of ‘organisation’ relates to a piece part of a whole. The question being — what whole? The Cambridge dictionary definition of organisation is ‘a group of people whose members work together for a shared purpose in a continuing way’ ; an ‘arrangement according to a particular system’ (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020, cambridge.org). The reason for these different definitions is the difference between organization as an abstract entity and as a specific activity. The definitions are not clear cut, but they lie within a spectrum depending on how much abstraction or activity they hold. The following image explains it best, with examples of how these words are used.

Illustration by Kas Moreno Madrigal

Due to the nature of this dissertation, the focus will lie on organisation as an entity and it’s specific cases, companies — Area 1 and 3.

In the process of analysing what is an organisation as an entity and it’s specific cases, we must bring a new lawyer of thought, correlating with the secondary meaning of organisation as a part of a whole. The entity ‘organisation’ was not the same 1000 years ago as it is today, not even it’s specific cases (companies) can be compared. Hence, in order to answer the question ‘what is an organisation as an entity?’ one must ask back — ‘who is asking?’. Defining the nature of an organisation will depend on the culture that is defining it, the historical moment, the sociological development that the people living this definition are experiencing- the ‘whole’ that this organ is part of. For example, organisations are, and have been historically influenced by scientific thought such as physics (Handy 1976; Hatch,2011 Bently, 2018), indicating that organisations are part of a larger cultural and historical puzzle full of nuance and complexity. Gareth Morgan in his book ‘Images of Organisations’ supports this argument — ‘organisation is itself a cultural phenomenon that varies according to a society’s stage of development’ (Morgan, 1997 p.122). Frederic Laloux agrees, and proposes a development of organisations directly correlated to historical identity development — ‘Organizations as we know them today are simply the expression of our current world-view, our current stage of development.’ It is imperative then, to look at the progression and history of organisations in order to understand where they originate, how they work (their models) and how they have come to be what they are today.

It is relevant to note that changes in organisations have not had smooth transitions, simple opening and closings of paradigms with a clear beginning and end. Within the Western, European world we can find many of these paradigms living side by side regardless of their age. Nevertheless, I have found there to be a series of patterns in the discourse of academia in the way organisations have developed alongside concepts of the self. These patterns are largely based on the work of Charles Handy, Frederic Laloux, Gareth Morgan and Anthony Elliot. I have divided them into four stages.

Illustration by Kas Moreno Madrigal

STAGE 1 — ‘I AM NOT YOU’

For Laloux, organisations only begin when the ‘self’ begins, that is — a human being can discern that there is a difference between their own existence and that of its environment. When this happens, so do basic social relations based on hierarchy and division of labour. There is a chief, a scout, a forager and so on, although the structure is not formal and there are still no titles as such — simulating tribes. Philip Sezlnik would discuss this understanding of the self in his work ‘Foundations of the Theory of Organisation’ 1948, where he presented the discussion of the wants and needs of the individual clashing with those of the organisation. Selznik’s work was set in the 1950s and the consequences of this clash was much more related to the then effect that this had on the organisation’s structures. It would lead to what Handy calls the school of thought of ‘power, conflict and decisions’ in organisational management (Handy, 1976, p.22). In Laloux, the structures completely adapt to the needs of the individual — chiefs are challenged and killed, substituted by others with different needs. Yet the concept is the same. Understanding the ‘I’ as a lone entity which will fight for it’s interests in a ‘me’ versus ‘you’ manner, which leads to highly combative ways of self-organising and a constant shift of structures based on power.

STAGE 2 — ‘I AM WHAT THE GROUP SAYS I AM’

Stage 2 is characterised by the extension of the self onto a wider community. Laloux presents these organisations as armies or, for example, the Catholic Church. It is an extension of Stage 1 yet with a wider grasp — no longer ‘me’ versus ‘you’ but ‘us’ versus ‘them’ (Laloux, 2014). Society becomes a key driver for decision-making and personal development. Division of labour and hierarchy is still prevalent, but now much more formalised. Casts are created, as is a sense of social class. In these organisations there is a wider sense of stability and processes are created with the mentality of ‘what has worked in the past will work in the future’ (Laloux, 2014, p.21; Martin, 2009). There is therefore one right way of being, of doing, of organising and a lifetime what commitment to this way of life. Japanese organisations, for example, require this lifelong commitment and dedication to the organisation. The role that the individual enacts is based on a rank and structures are deeply respected.

Max Weber will speak of this in the 1970s, dubbing it ‘traditional domination’ and bringing ‘bureaucracy’ into the conversation — ‘it is by a higher law (usually patriarchal or feudal) that the ruler maintains power over the ruled’ (Morgan, 1997, p.395; Weber, 1992 p.214). It is Weber who created a school of thought in organisational management that introduced bureaucracy to our organisations.

Stage 2 organisations see human beings made up of communities, with higher levels of coordination, yet still a ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality. This leads to more complex relationships of bureaucracy, yet strictly following the rules of the group, regardless of personal development.

STAGE 3 — ‘I AM MORE, IF ONLY’

In S3, an organisation is a complex machine, and we all have a role to play. Process is taken to an extreme, and hierarchy becomes more relevant than ever. Meritocracy seems to arise, but there are no limits to its cost — environmental, human, economic. It doesn’t matter what the process is, as long as the job gets done. According to Handy, multiple schools of organisations developed from this stage — scientific management, developed by F.W. Taylor and the assembly line, developed by Henry Ford.

Fascinated by efficiencies and inefficiencies, these two figures revolutionized Western societies and launched countries towards an economic boom — words such as ‘outputs, efficiency, scoping problems, bottlenecks’, come from these structures (Laloux, 2014, p.28). Nevertheless, it came with a devaluation of identity. F.W. Taylor writes ‘In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first. This in no sense, however, implies that great men are not needed. On the contrary, the first object of any good system must be that of developing first-class men’ (Taylor, 1947, p.2). The nature of men in the eyes of Taylor was lazy and inefficient, and only through management would it become of use to the system, the main beneficiary. It is interesting to note at this stage the development of departments that we now call ‘Human Resources’. In the late 19th century called ‘Social Welfare’, then ‘personnel officer’ and finally ‘Human Resources’ hence living up to Taylor’s full expectation of the worker — a resource to be managed for the sake of efficiency (VinayKumar, 2015, linkedin.com).

The only true development I have found in terms of identity in comparison to S2 is that of hope. The individual still holds society as a strict form of self-differentiation in a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ structure. Yet this time, it’s given the hope for flexibility of structures. In my opinion, this is the hardest stage for self-development, as there seems to be a possibility for exploration and flexibility, yet the responsibility is placed purely on the individual. If the individual does not achieve it, it’s their fault. The effects of other structures seem to be ignored, for example, economic status or mental health. Unions developed as a new form of organisation as a direct response from these structures, bargaining for new ways of identity, better pay and living conditions (London Metropolitan University, 2020, unionhistory.info). Nevertheless still under hierarchical structures.

STAGE 4 — ‘WE ARE MORE’

This is the first real identity shift since S2, where the plurality of players in organisations are taken into consideration. We no longer simply look at our identities as part society, but it’s wider system — our environments. For Laloux these organisations are characterised by a conception of ‘family’ and Peter Senge agrees, suggesting that the organisation-individual relationship must one of parenting (Senge, 1990, p.286).

Words like ‘system’ had been brought to discussion in discourses such as the ones presented by Taylorism, however because they still needed a top down approach they only truly developed later on.

Organisations are seen as brains (Morgan, 1997, p.73), and concepts such as ‘needs’ arise as well as relevant terms such as ‘stakeholders’ or ‘networked intelligence’(Morgan, 1997, p.81). All players in the organisation game are relevant in S4, not simply business owners and their own needs for profit. Peter Senge aimed to create it into palpable, working techniques for organisations in the 1950s. ‘The organizations that will truly excel in the future will be the organizations that discover how to tap people’s commitment and capacity to learn at all levels in an organization’ (Senge, 1990, p.10) this way surfacing even further the hope that began in S2 and S3 regarding a more spread out approach to power. Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch added this terminology to their analysis of organisations to begin conversations around how well integrated or differentiated an organisation was to its environment. It is relevant to say at this point that Lawrence and Lorsch still worked within a constrained Fordist and Taylorist model, and the use of ‘environment’ was still with the aim of limitless growth (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967).

S4 organisations are seen as wider networks, the classic examples being brains for Morgan and living systems for Senge. The organisation tries to adapt to a wider multiplicity of identities and create a flatter structure, trying to unite and enhance human potential, hence creating a ‘family’.

It is in S4 where business models come into place.

Organisations at this point are felt as complex entities with a wide range of variables that need to be structured and analysed. Business models become a useful way to make sense of these variables. The concept is understood to have surfaced into organisational conversation by Alfred Chandler’s book ‘Strategy and structure’ in 1962 (Perkman, Spicer, 2010; Chestbrough and Rosenbloom, 2002), although other academics point to older texts such as Bellman and Clark in 1957 (Osterwalder et al. 2005; Bellman and Clarke 1957; Wirtz, 2001). It underwent a true revolution as the internet settled into society and wider business in the late 1990s and it is now a part of everyday use and discussion. One must only search ‘business model’ in the Financial Times digital website to receive up to 16850 results for the year 2015 to 2020 in the UK (The Financial Times, 2020, www.ft.com).

One must ask — what is a business model? The definition of a business model Michael E. Porter says is ‘murky at best’ (Porter, 2001), which is why academics such as Markus Perkmann and André Spicer, have raised the performative nature of this concept. In Appendix E you will see a word map from 10 different definitions from academics and organisations of what a business model is, revealing the diversity that the concept brings. ‘A business model is a representation in that it is a text that re-describes and re-constructs reality — whether actual or imagined — in a way that is always partial, interested and intent on persuading.’ (Spicer and Perkman, 2010, p.13). To clarify, business models have to create a narrative and a representation of how a business might work in its environment. It creates an identity, placing the organisation in a specific point in the market (with its competitors and collaborators). It is understood as a ‘mental model’ or a ‘cognitive map’ to how the organisation works (Spicer and Perkman, 2010, p.13) . For that reason they are so varied and as Porter put it, ‘murky’ — they depend on all specificities of an organisation and are unique from each other because of it.

Due to this performativity of business models it is that they can be designed and redesigned. With this viewpoint, in order to redesign business models one must first analyse and acknowledge the state in which the people in the organisation hold their identity. The question for business modelling in this dissertation then becomes — how can this identity be surfaced to substantiate a purposeful way of working? The business model has then been defined for the purpose of this dissertation as — the identity that the people in the organisation hold, turned into a palpable and practical cognitive structure that creates purpose and explains the objective of the organisation.

If this is the case, one must ask then — what does that say about our sense of identity today?

If we take a step back to analyse the described picture in this section — we live in a world where our companies’ structures create toxic relationships where we are overworked to extremes, much like in the 19th century. We serve businesses, instead of business serving us. This can be said is due to our understanding of organisations as entities for and by themselves, instead of their actual nature, in which they are part of a whole — society, culture, people. Their development has been intensely coupled with our own sense of identity and carries on developing with it. By delving deeper into our own identities we can bring to light what these next steps look like, and how we can create business models that truly reflect who we are.

As philosopher Eric Hoffer observes, “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Through this way of looking at organisations, only by learning more about ourselves and our identity, will we be able to learn and adapt to this new world. For how we see ourselves affects the way we look at our reality.

Illustration by Kas Moreno Madrigal

The writings dubbed Bitesize Dissertation are the results of the dissertation created for the Masters in Service Design in Ravensbourne University. They will be published in small excepts. The research question was — ‘In what ways can the redesign of business models gain insights from the transgender community and how can Service Design facilitate this?’ To vie the full dissertation click here.

Service Design, Business Design, Organisational Design. They/them