Organizations (and organizing) are a technology that humans know very little about

Comment on Editorial Paper


The human-made technology that is used by organizations has played a crucial role in enabling humans to accomplish impressive endeavors. Despite the critical importance that organizations (or organizing) have played (and still play) in shaping the modern world, they are a technology that humans know very little about, and are still struggling to design and use adequately. The crux of the problem is that the study of organizations (including their design) does not fit neatly into the boxes that are modern academic disciplines. Another important series of issues concerns conducting multidisciplinary research across the silos of academic discipline. Crossing these silos is especially difficult when trying to cross-pollinate ideas as well as publish because of terminological, political, and social challenges. As such, the OD&EE journal is a necessary and important step in the right direction for addressing these issues by promoting research that is both multidisciplinary as well as oriented towards the proactive stance of design and engineering.


Enterprise engineering Organization design Systems design 

1 Introduction

Over the centuries, humans have achieved many amazing endeavours, such as transatlantic travel, constructing enormous structures (e.g., pyramids, skyscrapers, bridges, cities), and space travel. Moreover, through activities, such as building artificial islands (e.g., Flevopolder, Yas Island, Palm Jebel Ali), humans have even demonstrated an ability to transform their environment on a large scale. These endeavours were made possible by the human ability to sufficiently understand the laws of nature to put these laws to use to accommodate human will and ideas. Yet gaining insight into the laws of nature, despite being a necessary condition, is not sufficient to achieve the above-mentioned endeavours; humans also needed the help of another human-made technology: organizations. Without the capacity to organise a group of people and technologies so as to achieve a purposeful objective, humans never would have been able to survive the prehistoric age, let alone achieve complex modern endeavours.

Despite the critical importance that organizations (or organizing) have played (and still play) in shaping the modern world, they are a technology that humans know very little about, and are still struggling to design and use adequately. The crux of the problem is that the study of organisations (including their design) does not fit neatly into the boxes that are modern academic disciplines. Over the years, many academic disciplines (e.g., sociology, psychology, communication sciences, engineering, anthropology, philosophy) have made important contributions with regards to understanding the phenomenon that is an organisation; however, an integrated and complete picture still does not exist. Part of the problem of achieving an integrated and complete picture is the shear complexity of the phenomenon. Another important series of issues concerns conducting multidisciplinary research across the silos of academic discipline. Crossing these silos is especially difficult when trying to cross-pollinate ideas as well as publish because of terminological, political and social challenges. Put simply, disciplines differ in the language they use, the methodologies they value, and the ontological and epistemological assumptions they accept.

As stated by [14], the OD&EE journal addresses the development of an emerging field of knowledge defined as

the application of social science, organisation science, communication science and computer science research and practice to the study and implementation of new organisational designs, including the integrated structuring, modelling, development and deployment of IS/IT and social processes.

As such, the OD&EE journal is a necessary and important step in the right direction for achieving the advances humans desperately need to face, and ultimately survive, modern challenges, such as global warming, global economies, and the overexploitation of natural resources.

2 Organizational design and engineering: beyond positivism

For many in the fields of enterprise architecture and enterprise engineering, an organization is understood as an objective reality that exists independently of them as observers or participants (of the enterprise). From such a worldview, one cannot deny that it is reasonable to model, analyse, understand, and design organizations as if they were inanimate objects such as buildings, bridges, cars, etc. However, such a worldview offers few answers when pondering fundamental questions such as:
  1. 1.

    If an organization is understood as an objective independent entity, what determines its boundary and what are its parts?

  2. 2.

    Are people considered as “parts” of the organization and if so, how should their role be understood (e.g., as machine-like resources, as computer-like resources, as sentient entities with aspirations, etc.)?

  3. 3.

    Related to the previous question, does the nature of the organization change fundamentally if people are considered to have different roles? Do certain ways of considering people’s role bring into question the objective, independent worldview of organizations?

  4. 4.

    Is there a difference between the terms organisation and enterprise or between the terms organisation design and enterprise design?

  5. 5.

    Is communication a concern of organisation design and if so, what should be understood by the term communication and how does communication relate to the term organisation (or enterprise)?

As reported by [14], traditional writings on organisational design (e.g., Taylor, Fayol, Weber) were greatly inspired by a positivist epistemology, which is not surprising given the popularity of logical positivism and postpositivism at the turn of the 20th century. Consequently, this early heritage of organisational design implicitly promoted a mechanistic appreciation of organisations; in other words, organisation have been perceived as things that can be understood, built, and optimised like all other things that humans have created, such as machines [15].

In parallel, it could be argued that the modern notion of information systems took root in the fields of computation (software engineering) and communication. From a computation perspective, it could be said that collectively Charles Babbage and Alain Turing laid the foundations of modern software systems. Both men were concerned with solving computational challenges that could be considered mathematical in nature. Consequently, from a computational perspective, the history of information systems finds its roots in machines built to find solutions to objective problems. In the field of communication, the Shannon–Weaver model is considered by many as the “mother of all models” [22]. The model could be said to be “transmission-centric” in the sense that it is centered on the notions of information transmission as well as information distortions caused by imperfect transmission. Implicitly, the model considers the sender and the receiver of information as “machine-like” entities and the content of the transmitted messages as unambiguous, objective content [10]. In summary, it could be said that the heritage of information systems, similar to that of the field of organisational design, was grounded in a positivist epistemology, which is understandable given that both heritages date back to approximately the same period. Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the fields of enterprise architecture and engineering, which are concerned with the design of organisations and their information systems, have “streaks” of positivist beliefs. However, what is surprising is how dominant those streaks are today despite important discoveries that provide new insights about the phenomena that are organisations and their information systems.

Many academic fields have gained important insights into the nature of organisations by taking a constructivist epistemological stance (and other similar stances). In the field of communication studies, the concept of communicative constitution of organizations (CCO) has been gaining ground [19]. According to CCO, organizations are invoked and maintained in and through communicative practices [4]. In other words, communication does not happen within organisations but rather communicative interactions between actors define organisations. In the field of science and technology studies, according to his work on actor-network theory [12], has argued that there are no inherent differences between the social and the material. Based on the ideas of Latour, Orlikowski [16], proposed the concept of sociomaterially and stated that “the social and the material are considered to be inextricably related—there is no social that is not also material, and no material that is not also social” (p. 1437). In other words, the social and the material worlds are in a constant process of co-definition and co-creation, and hence cannot be studied and designed separately. In the field of information systems, the concept of sociomateriality helps researchers better understand the relationship between the social and technological dimensions of organizations [13].

In summary, if we want to design better organizations, it will be necessary to move beyond the traditional assumptions and concepts provided by positivism.

3 Technical and social complexity

Few would argue against the idea that the world is becoming an evermore complex place to live. The very manifestation of organizations is changing. With the advent of modern communication technologies, the boundaries of organizations are disappearing, resulting in boundaryless organisations [17], and organizations are no longer view as “isolated islands” but rather as integral actors within complex networks, that is as networked organizations [3]. Moreover, as proposed by [14], the concept of ActorWebs is currently emerging as the reality of tomorrow, a reality were social-cyber-physical systems are the norm and not the exception.

The constant evolution of technologies and the changing nature of organizations require an appreciation of much higher orders of complexity. Consequently, the management of complexity becomes a key concern [11]. Management, traditionally understood as “planning, organizing, commanding, coordinating, and controlling” (POCCC) and as bounded within organizations, must be replaced with the notion of “fostering mindfulness.” An example of such mindfulness is the concept of high reliability organisations (HRO) [20]. Moreover, it becomes necessary to design organizations that can co-evolve with their environment (i.e., learn and innovate) by participating in a healthy two-way mutually defining relation [5, 11]. To achieve mindfulness, properly engaging stakeholders and effectively fostering shared understanding are becoming paramount concerns.

In summary, with the nature and the level of complexity that looms at the horizon, it will be necessary to change how we conceptualize and appreciate the relativeness between things as well as change how we understand the meaning of managing with such a context.

4 Models as a means for sharing and understanding

Magalhães and Proper [14] stated that: “the added value of an engineering approach to organization design lies in the fact that it enables informed decision making ... and informed sensemaking .... Besides a number of important and remaining challenges, they also recognise that models can act as boundary objects” [1]. The concept of boundary objects is an important understanding that can help guide the design of conversations and coordination activities to achieve mindfulness by facilitating sensemaking processes. For a number of decades now, researchers have studied the processes underpinning how people communicate and coordinate. In complement to the concept of boundary objects, fields such of cognitive ergonomics, organizational semiotics, and communication sciences have proposed important concepts that could be used by people concerned with the design and engineering of organisations: situation awareness, enactment, and communication metaphors. These concepts have the potential to help resolve some of the remaining challenges associated with designing model-facilitated conversations.

Klein et al. [9] distinguished between situation awareness (SA) and sensemaking as follows:

Situation awareness is about the knowledge state that’s achieved—either knowledge of current data elements, or inferences drawn from these data, or predictions that can be made using these inferences [6]. In contrast, sensemaking is about the process of achieving these kinds of outcomes, the strategies, and the barriers encountered. (p. 71)

Moreover, certain authors make a distinction between the concepts of SA, team SA and shared SA ([7], p. 48; [6], p. 39). Team SA is concerned with the overlap between information needs amongst team members and shared SA is concerned with the quality (alignment) of SA between team members with regards to overlapping information needs. The concept of enactment as defined by [2] proposes a relationship between systems of signs, systems of technology action, and communication. According to Beynon-Davies’s concept of enactment, humans expect that “what [they] represent is always less than [they] communicate; what [they] communicate is always less than what [they] do” (p. 394). Krippendorff warned of the existence of multiple perspectives concerning the concept of communicating. He further suggested that some of these perspectives are complementary and others incompatible, and that they may be understood and compared through the use of metaphors as cited in [10].

In summary, multiple academic fields have already planted seeds that could lead to fruit-bearing trees for people concerned with the design of model-facilitated dialogues in the context of ODE. The concepts that these fields provide could help operationalize what [18] called essential sensemaking.

5 The process of designing and engineering organizations

In addition to the concerns associated with fostering sensemaking, as highlighted by [14], it is necessary to address concerns related to governance. In simple terms, the questions of who must participate in the design process and who has the authority to make which design decisions must be answered if a pragmatic approach to ODE is to be achieved.

A number of fields, such as organizational cybernetics and sociology, have insights that can provide answers for these questions in the context of complexity. Fred [5] open sociotechnical systems design approach, based on the concepts of sociotechnical systems design developed at the Tavistock Institute in the 1940s and 50s, offers scientifically tested principles for conducting organizational design and engineering based on participative democratic values. In addition, Stafford Beer’s viable systems model offers many insights into the governance processes of organisations [8].

In summary, there is much to learn about the process of designing and engineering organizations. To advance current knowledge about the process, it is paramount to capitalise on what has been discovered by other fields.

6 Research perspective

It is generally recognized that enterprises, especially network-based enterprises, are very complex human-made entities. Similarly, it is recognized that achieving a high-performance team is very hard and haphazard. From the experience of the author, teams and not lone individuals do enterprise engineering. An important challenge for such teams is “getting (and staying) on the same page” about the enterprise and how it should be improved (i.e., engineered and designed). Consequently, to advance the practice of enterprise engineering, it is important that researchers invest sufficient effort into investigating both the phenomena that are sensemaking [21] and shared situational awareness [6] in the context of teams that do enterprise engineering tasks. Understanding and decision-making are two key tasks related to enterprise engineering. As such, teams with poor sensemaking processes and poor shared situational awareness will necessarily have a poor understanding of their enterprise, which will lead to poor decisions being made.

Model-facilitated enterprise engineering seems to be the proper target to aim for to design effective conversations; but without proper understanding of what effective conversations “look like” and “feel like” and what they must achieve, facilitation will be at best blind.

As such, the author, for the last couple of years, has steadily increased his research efforts on the previously discussion topics and hopes that others follow.

7 Conclusion

Designing and engineering the organisations of today, let alone those of tomorrow, is a complex endeavour. As a scientific community, if we are to make any significant advances, it is necessary that we adequately design and engineer the organization that is the community working on organizational design and engineering. A first, important design decision that we must make is to foster interdisciplinary research and the publication of such research. As presented in [14] and this article, a wealth of knowledge about ODE exists in many fields. What is important now is to facilitate cross-disciplinary pollination by offering researchers a venue that appreciates a multidisciplinary approach. Consequently, establishing a journal with a scope as proposed by [14] is necessary.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.École de Technologie SupérieureMontrealCanada

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