Design implications for OD&EE

  • Sabine Junginger
Comment on Editorial Paper


The explicit effort of the Organisation Design and Enterprise Engineering (OD&EE) journal to treat organisation design and organisation engineering as complementary rather than competing approaches to organisational development, calls for a more nuanced take on the design theories, design practices, design methods and design concepts that are at the heart of a given discipline. This commentary on the editorial introduction by Rodrigo Magalhães and Henderik A. Proper focuses on the current design understanding in OD&EE, and judges it as too narrow in this context. The commentary shows how design as a concept needs to be broadened to contribute to this new emerging area of research and pactice in OD&EE.


Human-centered design Design theories Organizational development Role and use of models 

Professional and academic fields typically establish themselves by drawing lines around a given subject matter and by outlining specific methods appropriate for its study. This has led, as Magalhães and Proper point out for organisational studies, to a situation where important research insights remain often disconnected or vie for domination of the truth. Both ignorance and the insistence on absolute truths have the potential to distract us from the actual object of study. Both prevent us from advancing our understanding of a rapidly changing world in which organisations and the issues involved in organising are essential for human action. The new Journal Organisation Design and Enterprise Engineering (OD&EE) has the potential to provide a much-needed outlet for ground-breaking academic work that might otherwise not see the light of day because it does not neatly line up with existing boundaries and disciplines. As a design researcher with a PhD in Design who studies organisations and the many ways in which designing relates to organising and managing, I welcome the open mind with which the OD&EE has been conceived and how it invites scholars from many different disciplines to take a fresh look at organisational development.

The explicit effort of the OD&EE to treat organisation design and organisation engineering as complementary rather than competing approaches to organisational development calls for a more nuanced take on the design theories, design practices, design methods and design concepts that are at the heart of a given discipline. Magalhães and Proper take initial steps in this direction by reflecting on how organisation design originated from the organisational sciences while organisation engineering emerged from the context of (information systems) engineering sciences. Their explorations echo efforts in other fields and disciplines interested in resolving the historic clashes of engineering and design.

The discipline and profession of service engineering, for example, is in the process of reassessing its relationship with the discipline and profession of service design.1 Service engineering, just like organisation engineering, formed mainly around the theories of systems engineering and early systems theory. As such, systems engineering focused primarily on matters of system optimization and looked into the optimization of service operations [10]. Design professionals have long claimed service design. Yet, the first Service Blueprint introduced by Shostack [11, 12] in the mid-80s talked mostly about backstage operations of services and adhered more closely to engineering principles, i.e. the engineering of the (organisational) system than to human-centred principles that drive design today.2 In fact, early service design theories by design academics reflect a transactional understanding of service that pays little attention to human experiences and human interactions. Only about a decade ago did service design embrace a more human-centred design perspective where human experience and human interactions guide service development from beginning through fulfilment [7].

1 Overcoming the current limitations of the Actorweb

By assigning ActorWebs the status of ‘the latest wave of disruptive technologies, where people, information, artefacts and knowledge are converging, collaborating and innovating at an unimagined intensity’, Magalhães and Proper, too, implicitly foresee a greater role for human-centred design approaches within the organisation. Their call to integrate ‘social and technological architectures of socio-technical systems’ as a way to overcome

‘the on-going divorce between people who develop and maintain the technological architectures, those who develop and maintain the social architectures, those who make the associated investment decisions, and the social actors that are to play a role in the resulting ActorWebs (p. 3)’

can be read as a call for re-orienting the organisation around people: Integration ultimately depends on embracing human experiences and human interactions as the key determinants for successfully aligning the socio-cyber-physical elements with the purpose and vision of an organisation. Simultaneously, their statement offers a critique of current organisational design thinking that promotes fragmented design processes and is void of participatory and collaborative design methods suitable to co-design and co-create meaningful and workable solutions.

Magalhães and Proper thus agree with Norman and Stapper’s [9] observation, that an explicit focus on technological requirements fails people:

‘There is a tendency to design complex sociotechnical systems around technological requirements, with the technology doing whatever it is capable of, leaving people to do the rest. The real problem is not that people err; it is that they err because the system design asks them to do tasks they are ill suited for. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to blame people for the error rather than to find the root cause and eliminate it. On the whole, complex sociotechnical systems are poorly designed to fit the capabilities and powers of the people who must operate them.’3

Unlike Magalhães and Proper, however, Norman and Stapper do not limit their observation to people within the organisation. This to me remains one of the weaknesses of the ActorWeb presented in the editorial. It seems to be exclusively tailored to address the socio-cyber-physical relationships within the organisation. But what about people who want to or have to engage with an organisational system and who find themselves being asked to do tasks they are ill suited for? While I understand that the focus of OD&EE will continue to be on the internal workings of organisations, no organisation can separate itself from the people it serves voluntarily or by mandate. Buchanan ([1], p. 8) notes ‘widespread dissatisfaction with organizations and what they do to affect the thought and behaviour of human beings, as if the designs are flawed in one way or another’. Flawed organisational designs are what troubles both designers and engineers. Despite their different approaches, in the end, they strive for the same outcome: An organisation that is efficient, effective and productive. Organisational designs are bound to be flawed when the concern for human interaction and human experiences does not expand beyond the organisational boundary, in other words, when they are designed past people who want to or must engage with them.
In today’s organisations, software programs and computer technologies are identified and acquired by high-level managers who then instruct their staff to use them. They entrust the development of digital solutions to technical experts who lack insights into the daily work challenges employees face and who for that reason, rarely empathize with staff that is often already working at capacity. A recent study of German government agencies revealed that public employees and public managers—to the dismay of those in charge—still shun Cloud Computing, Big Data and other E-Government tools.4 While a lack of resources always figures in somehow, the study revealed that many German public servants simply still do not see any or sufficient value in employing digital tools. When a product fails to speak to human experience and human interaction, in this case, the ways in which an employee experiences new ways of conducting business, no top-down implementation strategy will be able to remedy that. Staff will merely engage in creative workarounds, which in turn will reduce if not prevent any potential improvements in terms of efficiency and productivity. Yet the top-down approach was what the representative for the Federal Ministry of the Interior called for, convinced that the push had to come from the top. But a City Director from the city of Cologne shared how he and his team succeeded in their efforts to digitalize public services by actively involving the city’s employees. He gave a testimonial for how new digital services and e-government tools that are co-developed with public servants throughout the development and implementation phases reduce fear and anxiety among staff while discovering and the value of these tools for their own work through experimentation. Moreover, he testified that the very employees that were the most ardent opponents of the digital technologies at the beginning of this collaborative project have now become the strongest supporters and promoters for embracing new technologies.

‘We worked together with our employees, we helped them overcome their fears and they saw and recognized the advantages for themselves. Their own work is being made easier’.5

What is of great relevance for the discussion of the editorial and the direction of Organisation Design and Enterprise Engineering (OD&EE): In this example, it was not only staff that took part in the development; everyday citizens were also included and actively participated. This approach ensured that the outcome worked for everyone within the organisation’s internal or inherent ActorWeb to ensure the vision and purpose of the organisation was served with these digital tools. But it drew the circle wider by treating staff as human beings whose experiences and interactions are inseparable from the organisational system just as much as they are inseparable from the people external to the organisation.

Granted, this is only an anecdote but one that demonstrates the need for integrative approaches to organisational problems especially when technologies are involved. Combining the strengths of organisation design with the strengths of organisation engineering counts as a step towards such an integration by addressing key design flaws that inevitably result by having these two fields work in isolation from each other within organisations.

2 Advancing design theories relevant to organisational development

Many organisational problems are problems of design yet the people in charge of addressing these problems are not always trained to design outcomes that work for people. A combination of inappropriate design methods, flawed design processes and poor design practices lead to the inevitable breakdowns we are experiencing across organisations. And yet, every organisation strives to make efficient and effective use of its resources to conceive, plan, develop and deliver the kinds of services and products that present value to those people the organisation engages with voluntarily or by mandate. The aim to make organisations efficient, effective and productive with regard to the people affected by an organisation in one way or another is a uniting theme of management theories, according to Buchanan [1]:

‘It is worth noting again that each of the major theories of management in the twentieth century can be regarded as a theory of design, explaining the actions that may be taken by managers in their work and the various states and kinds of organizations that have been created by the action (or inaction) of managers. The product to be designed is not an artifact or a customer service but the organization, itself’. Each theory sought to make organizations that are efficient, effective and productive, with benefits for employees, shareholders, and stakeholders as well as individuals in society at large. The theories have been employed with varying degrees of practical success in creating and developing the for-profit, not-for-profit, and governmental organizations that surround us today, and we recognize many of the benefits of organizations that have yielded our social and cultural world’ (Buchanan [1], p. 8).

The design definition offered by Gregor and Jones ([6], p. 313) and employed by Magalhães and Proper allows for a theory of management to be understood as a theory of design. As such, a management theory “gives explicit prescriptions how to design and to develop an artefact, whether it is a technological product or a managerial intervention”’.
However, equating—or confusing?—design theories with prescriptions are signs of a limited and partial design understanding. The portrayal of design theories as ‘explicit prescriptions’ insinuates and demands that design theories are complete, proven and tested; that they provide explicit instructions for construction just like a recipe in a cookbook provides explicit instructions to arrive at a Sunday roast. In a previous article on how product development can become a vehicle for organisational change, I have directly talked about the problem deterministic and prescriptive design approaches pose for organisations:

‘The activities of creating a new product come to resemble the way a pharmacist fills a prescription. A pharmacist does not need to know how to invent, but how to fill a medication “to order”. This frees the pharmacist to devise ways of refilling medications faster than his competitors at a lower cost to customers. A pharmacist typically is not interested in changing the way the doctor’s office is run. And that is fine for both the doctor and the pharmacist. But for organizations, the situation is strikingly different. They depend on innovation and change. Organizations that deny product development an active role should not be surprised to receive refills of the same medication at an ever-higher dosage’ (Junginger [8], p. 29).

For OD&EE to restrict design theories to prescriptions is to prevent organisational development. When we accept management theories to be theories of design as Buchanan suggests, ‘the product under construction is the organisation itself’. This assigns design not merely a function within the organisation but puts design at the heart of organisational thinking and doing. This means that rather than being cut in stone, design theories evolve and advance as knowledge and information derived from the act of constructing is being reflected upon and translated into new organisational design practices. Design approaches are marked by trials and errors, doing and reflection, learning and applying. For this reason, a design theory can hardly function as an ‘explicit prescription.’ I suspect Magalhães and Proper are actually aware of this contradiction since they are citing Garud, Jain and Tuertscher [5], whose paper beautifully demonstrates the value of open-ended design.
There is a rich and varied body of work OD&EE can draw on to advance its own design understanding and simultaneously contribute to the development of design theories in other fields. Some, like Participatory Design, have been looking into very similar issues. Participatory Design originally was a response to the introduction of computer and IT systems in the Scandinavian workplace. Out of concern that machines and technologies were controlling workers and putting them at a disadvantage, efforts were made to include workers in the design of these technologies and their workplaces, so as to empower workers in this construct. Participation initially referred to worker inclusion in decision-making. These efforts focused on the interaction and on the relationship between a worker and his or her working tools and working environment. Elle Pehn has been a leading scholar in this area and more recently highlighted the aesthetic dimension of socio-technical interaction:6

‘What is needed is not the modern praise of new technology, but a critical and creative aesthetic-technical production orientation that unites modern information and communication technology with design, art, culture and society, and at the same time places the development of the new mediating technologies in their real every day context of changes in lifestyle, work and leisure.’ (Ehn [3], p. 210).

3 Employing models to enable organisation and engineering of organisations

The simple definition for the term model offered by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online refers to model as ‘a usually small copy of something’; ‘a particular type or version of a product (such as a car or computer) and as ‘a set of ideas and numbers that describe the past, present, or future state of something (such as an economy or a business).7 For architects, a model is a scaled-down copy of an actual building. But it may also be referred to as a three-dimensional visualisation or as a prototype. In the latter case, Merriam-Webster explains, we are talking about a specific model, ‘an original or first model of something from which other forms are copied or developed’.8 Generally speaking, models enable people to articulate, look at, touch and test ideas. When they accomplish this, models can inform inquiry, provide guidance and challenge our thinking. Many times, however, models are presented as an idea already tested, as a thought already completed. In these cases, a model no longer supports inquiry but positions itself as the answer. Instead of accompanying a journey, it turns into the destination. The questions then no longer centre on where are we going, where do we want to go and why but zoom in on how to get there.

Magalhães and Proper are therefore right to be aware of the many pitfalls involved in treating models as boundary objects and expecting them to act as such. As a designer, I have had many opportunities to witness how my fellow engineering colleagues got so absorbed in developing a specific model that they all but forgot about the reason they engaged in developing a particular model. The technical challenges and the details ended up fascinating them so much that the model became more and more removed from the realities it was to help depict and understand. To be fair, the temptation to create a game or other visual demonstration is just as great among design researchers. Too often, the driver of their research seems to be motivated by a quest to make something pretty.

But perhaps a model-enabled approach will provide the desired connection between organisation design and organisation engineering. Most likely, there is a role for models to enable decision-making. The question remains though, what kinds of decision? And what kind of information will these models present, for what reason? If we want to move forward and overcome the ‘’either-or’ mindset’ Magalhães and Proper have identified as ‘a major obstacle to the development of organisational thinking’, will model-enabled design and engineering of organisations simply introduce new abstractions? I cannot answer this question but I would hope that in the least, these models will be informed by user research and accompanied by collaborative and participatory design practices.

4 Conclusion

Of the many angles one may chose to comment on the foundational editorial by Magalhães and Proper for the new journal Organisation Design and Enterprise Engineering, I have chosen to focus on the design implications for OD&EE. No review is ever complete. Many aspects remain untouched and in further need of discussion. Many more areas of design research and design practice can be identified and will make their way into future OD&EE literature than I have touched on here. What I hope to have accomplished is to position the issue of design as one central to organisational development and with that to OD&EE itself. When we accept that the product to be designed is not an artefact or a customer service but the organisation itself and when we acknowledge the fundamental role organisations have in our everyday lives, we grasp that ActorWebs are not limited to smart airports, smart cities, remote factories or logistic chains. Rather, it is a challenge for most if not every organisation to reduce or avoid the frictions that can result when people, digital technologies and physical realities meet. Design can contribute a great deal to achieve innovative outcomes that provide satisfaction for people both inside and outside the organisation because it supports the generation of solutions built around human experiences and human interactions.


  1. 1.

    See papers for the Special Session: Human-Centered Design Approaches for Services, organised by Tuuli Mättelmaaki, Aalto University (FL) & Stefan Holmlid, Linkøping University (SE). Proceedings of the 5th International Conference of Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics, (AHFE) 2014, Kraków, Poland 19–23 July 2014, Edited by T. Ahram, W. Karwowski and T. Marek.

  2. 2.

    See Shostack [11, 12].

  3. 3.

    Norman and Stappers [9].

  4. 4.

    See: Jahrbuch Innovativer Staat 2016,

  5. 5.

    Citing Guido Kahlen, City Director for Köln who made the comments during the press conference to introduce the 2016 study results by the Future Panel State and Public Management 2016 (Studie Zukunftspanel Staat und Verwaltung 2016) at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, June 7, 2016.

  6. 6.

    See for example: Ehn [2, 4].

  7. 7.
  8. 8.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Applied Sciences and ArtsLucerneSwitzerland

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