Saturday, August 11, 2012

Reframing Organizations (reviews)

This may be one of the best known books on leadership, as far as I can tell; it's in its fourth edition now and often used as a text in management and leadership classes. There are various ways to look at organizations - the main point of the book is to explore some of them and show that it's often useful to shift frames to get a new perspective.   A scenario near the end in which a public insult is made to an incoming manager shows how the various frames suggest very different ways to reply.  It also shows how each one of them can be overdone.

Of the four frames taken up in this book - structural, human resources, political, and symbolic - three are excellent. The Structural approach uses a factory or machine as a metaphor - it's concerned with- goals, order, precision, planning, consistency, reliability, specialization, and assessment. Human Resources views the organization more like a family; it's sensitive to personalities, communication, strengths and weaknesses, motivations and employee well being. The Political approach deals with coalitions, partnerships, team building, domains, and group conflict; its metaphor is a jungle.

I've read elsewhere of a couple of others: the Natural Systems Model apparently views the organization as a an organic whole -- a sort of Gaia hypothesis of organizations, which I don't put much stock in. The Sociotechnical Model focuses on the humans and their tools, but most intriguing, to me, is the Cognitive Model which recognizes that personal goals can be aligned with the organizational objectives. It focuses on specialization and the flow of information.

Back to the book at hand. the Symbolic Frame is the fourth in the Boleman/Deal presentation, but it probably doesn't deserve the position. Its metaphor is theater, carnival, or temple but symbols actually more of a tool for the other perspectives rather than they are a viable frame of their own. For example, symbolism and symbolic gestures can be very influential in a family -- say, with a birthday cake, in a jungle -- a bright color might signal "poison", or even in a factory where a large red X by the chopping pit might save a few lives. But when symbols happen in a theater -- while it may seem real, it's really make-believe.

Regardless, the authors spend a chapter proposing symbols as a viable organizational framework. Symbols "project legitimacy" they "engender support, faith, and hope." The purpose of meetings, from this view, is to provide an "expressive occasion to clear the air and promote collective bonding," A plan is just a badge of honor, a game, or an advertisement. A strategic plan is an especially  high honor, no matter that it's often nothing more than "fanciful," they say. An organization "needs to foster faith and confidence" and therefore it undertakes evaluation (e.g. of employees) to "assure spectators that [it is] responsible, serious, and well managed." To top it off, get this: "Successful leadership is having followers who believe in the power of the leader."

This chapter made me ill.

Fortunately, the authors are probably wrong about symbolism. Sure it can be powerful, emotive, motivating, it can signal of commemorate important things and a shorthand way to evoke complex concepts. Words are symbols. Facial expressions are symbols. So is the American Flag, the facebook logo, a song, birds chirping. We're swimming in symbols and this is important because they mean something.   But when they don't mean what they pretend to they can be very dangerous, so the ability to detect fakes has been rewarded by natural selection.  Yet and still, we are still victims to illusion.  We can be manipulated. But if an organization were to actually use symbols as if they were meaningful in themselves you'd have ... North Korea? It's hard to even think of a company that has tried this because it would fail. Enron? 

No, smoke and mirrors is not a legitimate organizational frame. Symbols for real things are useful, that's as far as it goes.

But honestly, this shortcoming doesn't detract from this insightful summary of three other approaches, or from much of the discussion of symbols as tools, in other chapters. It's content-rich, well organized, and well written, though sometimes with a few more vignettes than I would prefer.  For someone new to organizational thought, this will be a great primer..

Then a friend recommended a more recent book, also by Boleman but with a different co-author (Joan Gallos, a professor of leadership at the University of Missouri,); it’s called Reframing Academic Leadership and it takes the same four-frame schema but specifically in the context of higher education.  The first few chapters do seemed like a rehash of the first book: structural, political, and so on … but then the examples became infused with something that is very unique to academia: the rift that often develops between faculty and administration.  “Faculty can see staff as unduly constrained and bureaucratic,” they explain. “Staff often wonder why they have to track their hours and vacation days when faculty seem to come and go as they please.” 
Being an expert within a discipline or – more often – sub-discipline is not very amenable to hierarchical control.  Disciplines themselves may become "silos," with little communication horizontally with other departments. But more important, it’s not always easy for faculty members to see or appreciate the complex institutional machinery required to assemble groups of inquisitive youth in rooms at the appointed hour, year after year, in a fluid and unstable external environment.  Meanwhile, academic administrators (unlike those running a factory or grocery store), cannot hope to understand what actually happens at the other end of the hierarchy.  They do not have the disciplinary expertise.  There’s a built-in volatility which is difficult to control. 

The previous book only went so far as to compare universities to hospitals.  That’s an interesting thought – doctors and patients there may be counterparts to faculty and students here.   

But they go much farther in this book.  The reference group for an individual faculty member, for example, often does not include the administration or staff, colleagues in other divisions, or even colleagues in their own department. They may, instead, be aligned intellectually with likeminded specialists in other institutions, institutions which, from the business model, may even be institudional competitors.  The culture, goals, outlook, perspective, motivation, associations, and knowledge base of Professor Jones may be worlds apart from that of Dean Johnson or Provost Peters.  And although they may distrust one another, and may even fight, they must also pull in the same direction if the institution is to survive. Such is life in academia.

The audience for this book is probably small not only because it is specific to academia, but because it will probably be of more value to administrators than to faculty.  Faculty can often all but ignore the broad institutional view of the administration although they shouldn’t, of course.  However, faculty will find the book interesting, and will recognize their own importance in the larger schema. The first law of higher education leadership, the authors write, is “If you lose the faculty, you lose.” And they also discuss the “pervasive faculty scorn for bureaucracy, administrators, and hierarchy.”

The same three "frameworks" as in the previous book are wound again through academia: political, structural, human resources … to great effect.  It's all different in this unique environment.  As before, an effort is made on account of symbolism too, which fell short, I thought, for the same reasons I expressed above.  There is no denying the symbolic power of Arizona State University President Michael Crow’s 2002 inaugural address (reprinted in part), in which he describes “A new gold standard” of higher education.  The speech was moving, inspirational, and effective because it presented a vision; but it was a vision which involved people, politics, and structure.  It wasn’t that the symbols were so valuable in themselves, it was that they were effective form of communication.  If symbology is an entire frame of academic leadership, so is shouting.  If there was anything symbolic that needs a little explaining, I thought, it may be the stark difference in dress code that often divides faculty and administration.  If communication, interaction, and cooperation is so important between these groups -- if they are all on the same team, why the broad-brushed underscoring of differences, with apparel?  I understand the jeans and and sneakers on faculty -- they're comfortable and that's also what students wear.  What's with the suits and ties?  Probably, administrators must communicate with politicians, businessmen, legislators, donors, and others who may appreciate the formality.  But it does affect the faculty-administration dynamic and it's an issue that may be worth taking up in the next edition.

Despite that shortcoming, and a couple of chapters at the end that refer vaguely to “feeding the soul” and the “sacred nature of academic leadership,” the insights keep coming, chapter by chapter:  Transparency and secrecy, reward structures, recruiting and hiring, managing budgets and personnel, review, accountability, motivation, cross-disciplinary cooperation, communication, self-control, autonomy, accountability, conflict resolution, assessment, regulations and guidelines – these are all addressed.  Anyone involved in higher education will be thankful for this illuminating book.