A Working Paper
A Communication and Learning link between Strategy Formulation and Project Cycle Management in Uncertain Environments?
April ’04 Crook version 5
All memory is recalled with variation according to the setting in which the person recalling is placed. It is contended science is not about control but seeking understanding of process thus being at ease with change and uncertainty. Place this into the altruism of life not being a static matter but a physical and mental flow and we have the setting for complex dynamism as change is acknowledged and recalling how matters unfurl is open to conjecture.
This is a working paper aimed to further formulate thinking and continue the focusing to a number of ideas and notions. As a working paper, there are questions and notes within the general text – it is an iterative process and further questions, suggestions, are welcomed. The paper begins to look at work, notably by, Stacey1 and Senge2 addressing systems thinking, complex responsive process with communication and organisational learning coming to the fore.
The operating environment being considered further overlays this person-organisation relationship by introducing the collaborative practises of “aid coordination” (akin to the industrial communities studied in Italy, Silicon Valley and other “centres of specialisation”) with the complications elements of the supply chain (donor, international practitioner, local instigator and beneficiary) bring. This set of intra- (whole issue of management and the articulation of data/information/knowledge [Stacey] or data/information/decision/action [ Knight] – how to access and use) and inter-organisational (apply Porter’s five forces, draw on issues from economic regions and inter firm collaboration plus the work of coordination to be developed here) relationships is then set within a complex, chaotic, external environment.
1 – Organisational Learning
A central tenet of Senge’s work is the move away from linear functioning of cause and effect toward seeing interrelationships. This is then allied with the viewing of processes of change rather than snapshots as to how change is at the moment, so to speak.
Senge goes on to write of how small changes can grow from the standpoint (in the original work the dialogue is focused on the classical business situation) with positive or negative feedback loops acting to build, or be detrimental to, markets for example. Within the context being researched, the theme of aid in chaotic situations does not allow the process to be seen in this light. But what of tracking the process within the Project Cycle Management framework pushed heavily by the European Commission?
“Failures of strategy are often failures to face reality”3. In the environment being investigated here, it is contended, the ability to face reality is considerably hampered, if not irrevocably destroyed, by the inability to communicate intra- and inter-organisationally – to manage and coordinate data and information.
The assertions set here are methods of operation within complex, chaotic, environments have ensured the gaps between strategy, plan and implementation are exacerbated by the removal of a great deal of the decision forming process from the understanding found in the theatre of operation. “Strategic planning” can become an end in itself with the process not being taken through to its business logic conclusions of producing a rate of return on an investment. The operational environment is perceived in very different ways by the various stakeholders, as would be expected. But the ability to acknowledge these variations of perception and understand the outcomes such differing views will bring are not acknowledged? Role of Knowledge, Attitude, Practise? See points in Complex Humanitarian Emergencies – Adelski, E. Hill, R. Mason, J. McCelland, O and Muscat, R – USAID Dec 2000 regarding the sheer surprise as to ability to monitor. Means of monitoring, learning, whilst using tools to plan? Ability to apply the lessons in a timely (?) manner?
Stacey (2001) has undertaken a critique of the various approaches toward organisational learning looking at matters from a social and psychoanalytical perspective in addition to the business management view. His work looks at the teleological views – how different disciplines have viewed the learning process, looking at the role of the organisation (the social) and the individual in fulfilling the end of growing toward the goal.
Major elements4 of research have looked into learning in terms of the individual and the social, often not in the business context of an organisation. The crucial element within the main strain of this academic circuit; do individuals learn from the social or the individual shapes the social. The context here is one where the underlying principles need not be delved into presently save to say the work being suggested here will take forward the nature individuals continue to learn (having brought knowledge from other social interactions) within the various circuits they inhabit once within the wider theatres of operation being viewed.
At this stage a point raised by Stacey (2001) serves to illustrate the questioning now to be taken forward:
“The world people act in is the world they have created by acting in it”
- The contention here: “people” is used in its broadest of senses and the “world” found within the aid environment is not the one the aid professionals wish to see – this environment is hugely impacted by man but, now, the aid industry seeks to change it – but how without a full understanding as to the process of perceiving this world from the differing viewpoints? The manner of learning about this environment and how this learning changes the perceptions, the organisations and the world itself?
- Work of Roos et al – Intellectual Capital: Navigating the New Business Landscape, What of Maturana and Varela’s work on autopoietic systems saying all knowledge is tacit. Explicit knowledge is in fact data allowing other (autopoietic) brains to create their own (tacit) knowledge. Thus – how to facilitate DataInformationDecisionAction at the various levels of operation. Look at the data gathering, then collation to allow decisions at this level and then what information is passed horizontally and vertically to become data for others to utilise, making their own information allowing the decision-making process to follow once more
Knowledge as power – the manner people have the tendency to hold onto knowledge as a means of exercising control. This act is not always a selfishly motivated act; it can be done in the name of representing a facet of an organisation. The upshot being any lack of openness must detract from the ability to operate effectively and the learning possibilities diminished.
- How to sponsor the free flow of information, knowledge – the virtuous circle of win-win – where a learning situation is engendered?
Mimicry is a key element for the transmission of knowledge – when rivalries are always there amongst peer groups, then mimicry is extremely unlikely. Rather, we witness the development of numerous parallel systems.
In marked contrast, if not contradiction, to the desire of setting fora for sharing of data and information, thinking amongst key organisational practitioners (Noted by Stacey, 2001) points to the importance of unconscious processes, emotions and informal ties assisting in the forming of perceptions and blocking the creation of new explicit knowledge. In the aid industry, as with business, such informal linkages are often sponsored as a means of fostering “sharing of information” whereas, it would seem, these linkages are short term expediency to the detriment of longer-term lesson learning
A number of key writers adopted a psychoanalytical view when looking at unconscious group processes in blocking learning and knowledge creation within an organisation. Perceptions become fact within a group as these views are repeated often enough by those influential enough to give them credence.
- When persons are faced with uncertainty, do they tend to twist facts, or at least their perceptions of them, to suit what knowledge they have available?
Organisational learning will continually appear in various guises throughout the remainder of this paper, reiterating, this is by way of tasting the subject pointing to where the major work will follow.
2 – The Context
What is an uncertain environment? It is oft stated the future is unknowable but yet recognizable – the “known unknown” as Stacey phrases it. Businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the need to look ever more critically at the manner of working in uncertain times. Velocity, speed and direction, of change become of ever greater import as a product lifespan is shorten with technological innovation increasing. Can the analogy be drawn to the environment where aid agencies function with their ability to make the greatest difference, to save lives, being shortened as other(?) pressures impose upon them?
Chronic, complex emergencies, as they have become known in the parlance of the aid world, are those areas of (seeming) instability and chaos negating the ability to undertake structured (classic) development work and having the constant requirement for response to “emergency situations”.
Information Libraries draw on work from UNOCHA regarding exit strategies – moving to development from relief, work of EC regarding the relief rehabilitation development, RRD, continuum plus work on voluntary organisations in emergencies.
2.1 – Spatial aspects of managing an operation – The Role of Distance
Under the conditions, perceived or otherwise, the question of security arises throughout the planning and implementation of any programme or project. With this to the fore, the ability to manage by proxy and over distance is often a necessary method of working.
When coordination requirements are added to the ability to manage over distance, the issues of network analysis become apparent. For example, work within the Santa Fe Institute5 brings fresh thinking regarding network linkages and dynamics. Such work sponsors further thinking as the need to look at various elements within the management and coordination structure (see section 2.2) and take a further review of organisation’s ability to overcome distance and its ability to overcome communication problems when faced with a paucity of contact (Information Libraries – Davenport, T. Eccles, R and Prusak, L. – source unknown reference Cranfield paper – Assessing utility of strategic management tools….. Also Robustness of a System from SFI paper6 Gunderson, LH, Holling, CS editors: Ranarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural systems)
In the absence of physical presence, have skills evolved to manage by proxy? This need not entail working with people but may include the use of management tools – the logframe? Gasper’s work or looking further at how information and communication technology can better be used to support practise guides, management practises and wider systems for control and coordination.
- In relation to this point, what is the competence of manager’s to supervise/work under such conditions? (An aside question impinging on the ability to learn/communicate information)
- Has thought, thence action, been placed into understanding the communication required to ensure projects do not follow the rote of PCM without imbuing the real learning and ensuring such knowledge becomes implicit in all work undertaken in the environment? Where and who is learning lessons? Use of Zeithamel et al
2.2 – Coordination misconstrued as Management and Vice Versa?
In developing a “system” for intervention into complex, chronic, situations, the value of coordination is always placed at the fore of work to be undertaken. Firstly, what is the understanding of coordination? Secondly, what is the added value of specific coordinators being put in place as opposed to investigating skills, abilities and systems enabling collaboration (Work on connectivity – Albert-Laslo Barabasi et al, Notre Dame University). Thirdly, are roles of the different stakeholders in the supply chain understood by the actors constituting these organisations?
A key issue coming to the fore is the understanding of proper(?) relationships: adding value (learning?) and control through data gathering and information exchange? To be able to, truly, add value to the data, explicit knowledge, then an atmosphere where tacit knowledge – expressed by way of professional skills (Weick, 1995) – can be brought to bear, allowed to work, producing actionable plans. But, what if there are no skills of merit beyond the technical? Thus, for example, the logistics operation is run by those with explicit knowledge, ie a logistics qualification, and their learning is shared, codified and preserved in the form of procedures, manuals and routines for future use. At the strategic level? We are operating in situations where the manner of differentiating oneself is through knowing (understanding or placing a “learned” perception) the situation; thus being able to add value through expressing opinion.
As noted in section 1, there are pieces of research and theories promulgating the thinking (sponsored by a psychoanalytical perspective as opposed to the cognitive view) that unconscious individual and group processes undermine the organisational (if “organisational” can be defined in a loose affiliation of agencies working within certain chronic environments – Operation Lifeline Sudan, OLS, and Somali Aid Coordination Body, SACB, being notable in this sense) learning, the establishment of explicit knowledge. In this context, the proposal is a constructivist perspective where individuals select pieces of knowledge to be released, place perceptions as knowledge for general consumption – perpetually creating, reinforcing, (their own) patterns of learning. Role of distance, the whole question of counter cultures within an organisation, see Schermerhorn et al – Propositional knowledge is usurped by narrative knowledge, systems of management are superseded by who you know to make things work
- People over systems (Narrative knowledge over propositional knowledge) and a downgrading in the ability to manage either. How the individuals come together and form social structures within and across organisational systems?
- Constructionist thinking where relationships between people more important than the people or the wider systems for implicit knowledge – this moves on into investigation of organisational structures and how these are overlain, undermined, by other relationships (demographic – language, race, other?)
- Management systems for collection, collation and use of data/information? How is evaluation undertaken? Against what criteria and within what climate?
- Where is the prognosis? The expression of tacit knowledge to grant an explicit record of how things are to be? Against which any plan is evaluated (As opposed to stating unforeseen eventualities derail plan)?
- What skills are apparent in sifting data? What skills apparent in terms of being able to create, manage and evaluate actionable plans? Who has what and how is it shared between individuals, individuals to social structures, individuals to institution and social structure relating to institutions (The growth of food security work will provide an interesting study to counter the contention inferred here)
- Requirements of organisation – bureaucratic recording and innovative action – feeding into learning? Are these the same as the demands set by the environment in terms of data gathered, information assimilated and lessons drawn?
2.3 – Relationship Complexity with Developmental Stakeholder Analysis as Participation
Within the aid community, the buzz terms of stakeholder analysis and participation ring loud. What may not be so apparent is a clear understanding as to just what these two terms entail to be of true value in the process beyond satisfying supply chain requirements and basic data gathering. Certainly, there are various, and varied, understandings of what these (and several other crucial terms – notably coordination – mean).
Time will always be of the essence – this manifests itself in two ways with key people being overloaded and requiring techniques to sift data, finding the information required for making critical decisions. On the other hand, project success can often hinge on inclusion of all stakeholders with all the time required to draw geographically diverse people together. But inclusion does not mean consensus and the ability to take decisions, with commensurate responsibility, means managers must look at ways to gain inclusion without (considerable) loss of time. Business trends are highlighting the moves toward greater team working, ability to work collaboratively across a number of tasks and being able to take/place responsibility for the completion of these tasks. This requires differing management skills with peer management, mentoring and tutoring alongside delegation to back participation and stakeholder involvement. The Company of the Future – Cairncross 2002 to stimulate further research.
The first point relates to the enactment of specific work. However, the trends are set and, unless the desire is to continually reinvent the (project) wheel, the project management must take into account the virtuous circle of plan, response, review, learn and feed into mitigation (and planning). How is this achieved and how well presently? What thought has gone into improving the lesson learning and from what basis (The returning question of communication and learning)?
The role of technology is a crucial element throughout the learning process. In this issue its role becomes ever more apparent in questioning whether some managers believe it is a substitute for quality management practises – surly, technology can only enhance the abilities apparent within the wider systems?
- Technology as a determinant of strategy? The organisation set-up justifying the way we respond to a situation? People’s skills? The technology available (at the various levels)? Ability, willingness, of organisations to adapt to new technology – how used and to what end? Information and Communication Technology, ICT issues.
- How to challenge deep rooted beliefs without undermining core principles (and pragmatic ability)? Change the manner people perceive the “world” they are working in and for. Drawing individual knowledge, building consensual structures allowing people to agree to disagree whilst establishing collaboration/competition perspective thus gaining insight into relationships – individual to individual, individual to organisation and organisation to organisation (Noting the social throughout).
- How to develop the interface between primary data collection where questions of literacy will be crucial and the internet age? How to develop the “wetware”7?
- How to marry the paradox of communication technology bringing greater ability to control from the centre with the same technology allowing greater delegation of decision making through access to information globally at the local level?
3 – Seeking Elements of Understanding Context and Capability Improving Our Ability to Work
What is the understanding of the ability to work in what the situation is and can be – this is to say chaotic to an outsider’s point of view? But are there patterns and trends and how can these be identified, learnt from and, thence, codified (Turned into explicit knowledge and kept current as matters evolve)?
- Theme to be developed through further work on chaotic theories/work of dynamic stability and its application to human systems.
- See last point in section 2.3 – how to challenge deep rooted beliefs without undermining core principles……
Contention being – the need for a system that is descriptive allowing individuals to interact and cause implicit knowledge to be brought into the open whilst ensuring due regard is there acknowledging information is nothing without the ability to act.
- This to be done through countenancing:
- Fora allowing individuals to share and establish bilateral and multilateral linkages?
- Quality HR systems within and across organisations?
- Use of practitioner guides?
- Other options/Alternatives? (Further work on industrial communities of excellence).
- Understanding and ability to follow project planning line in terms of deliverables (building on a strategy) – ie production management (Desirable, Feasible, Acceptable) placing this alongside the PCM and people’s ability to utilise.
- Whole structure of the aid industry in such settings – speciality against role models. Management and coordination – policy and practice. Responsibility for learning.
3.1 – Knowledge, Attitude and Practise
Returning to Organisation Learning found in section 1.
A key point throughout works on learning, knowledge creation and sharing of this knowledge is the separation of individual from social, a person from the organisation and the fact the social is seen as being a similar element to the organisation when viewed as an entity external to the individual. It is taken as given these are not one and the same, that individuals and organisations are on different levels and learn in different ways (If an organisation can actually be said to acquire knowledge separated from the individuals who constitute that entity – see points in regard to implicit and tacit knowledge, data and information). Research being undertaken by Stark, D Columbia University regarding organisational form as a response to fast changing environments. To reiterate: knowledge is nothing until it is translated into (some form) of action. This does not mean a physical activity and can mean the justifying of inactivity (But the activity is justifying this inactivity). Here, clarity of communication is paramount with decisions being enacted in the right fora, with the “correct” data/information flowing on to other fora – a return to Knight’s triangle/Chambers hierarchy and the ability to learn and communicate meaningfully (define).
- Efficiency and/or effectiveness?
- Translation of knowledge into deliverables (this being reports to donors as much as accountability to other stakeholders – recipient and beneficiaries) – Look at work by van der Heijden, K, Strathclyde Business School on “Accelerated Organisational Learning with Scenarios”
- Attitude of those taking decisions as to accountability of outcome – what is seen as the outcome of a project (Who is the customer)?
- How practise takes place, is monitored/evaluated and is justified.
Stacey returns to the concept of double loop learning – the ability to challenge setpiece(?) assumptions, the perceptions of fact ingrained within cultures of working. Double loop learning is described as “a process of bringing awareness, that is, explicit, mental models that are below the level of awareness, that is implicit or tacit and changing them by a conscious act of choice” (Stacey, 2001). However, the key questions within the aid industry surround:-
- Understanding of such concepts, their applicability (in terms of being able to ingrain such practises and have them mimicked) and the vehicles to be used in carrying such a process forward. This is what, in accordance to the work of Weick (1995), could be termed the process of sense making – how to translate amorphous techniques and academia into the realities of learning and practising on-the-ground?
- Question – Work of Stacey or Kuhn – Incremental gain or paradigm shift? Can this paradox be justified with the techniques required being seen within the internal analysis – learning and communication of this learning required to allow us to work better within an external environment we must continue to improve our ability to understand, hence work in, and then acknowledge the dynamic stability models whereby incremental gain is crucial (to avoid large shifts destabilising the system)
4 – Theoretical Approaches from the Sciences
This is a very cursory note alluding to areas where background work is an issue to fully comprehend the basis (and seek fresh perspective) on which a great deal of organisational work in the third millennium is structured. Rapidity of change is an oft toted phrase, an understanding of work being undertaken in the Earth sciences in terms of pattern recognition, understanding feedback systems and dynamic stability will provide fresh impetus when further investigating how to learn within a (seemingly) chaotic environment.
For example, Internet connectivity – when a node works well, it attracts extra connections thus effectiveness is rewarded with more contacts – is this efficient? Crucial learning point as to whether comparisons can be drawn between internet nodal points working more diligently than others and people as connectors Work on connectivity – Albert-Laslo Barabasi et al, Notre Dame University
But insights into the environment need to go further than this with investigation into the science of chaos, the whole question of zones of instability and decoherence (the choice of which way to go) with the searching for patterns within these fields. There are parallels, crossovers and lessons to be drawn from this work.
- To note in this context – Contingency theory must be an element to be developed – links through to McKinsey’s 7S’ and basic tools within the strategic process.
– Ansoff’s work took forward elements within systems dynamics and applied them to how a business can seek to optimise its performance by matching its organisational set-up to the turbulence of the operating environment.
– The work of the Santa Fe Institute requires further investigation to set context for much of the work on learning by business commentators.
Cairncross, D 2002: The Company of the Future
Gunderson, LH, Holling, CS editors 2001: Ranarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural systems
Inter-Agency Standing Committee (undated): Strategy for Humanitarian Actors in the context of Complex Emergencies – www.reliefweb.int/w/lib.nsf/
NGO VOICE, 2004: EU Crisis Management – A Humanitarian Perspective
Schermerhorn, Hunt and Osborn 1997: Organizational Behavior
Senge, P.M.1990: The Fifth Discipline
Stacey, R. D. 2001: Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations
Stark, D 2002: Research Focus Area,Economic and Social Interactions – Heterarchies: Distributed Intelligence and the Organization of Diversity
Watts, D. Strogatz, S. and Newman, M. 2002: Network Dynamics – Network Structure
Weick, K 1979: The Social Psychology of Organizing
1 Stacey, R. D. 2001 Complex Responsive Processes in Organizations
2 Senge, P.M.1990 The Fifth Discipline
3 Joan Magretta quoted in “The Economist” review of the book What Management is: How it Works and Why it’s Everyone’s Business: Magretta, J. in collaboration with Stone, N. 2002
4 This is a cursory view at present. Stacey’s work points to a number of deeper pieces (In this context, notably the work of Argyris and Schon, Weick, Gergen and Shotter) which may provide further elucidation on specific issues as the project unfurls.
5 Watts, D. Strogatz, S. and Newman, M. 2002 Network Dynamics – Network Structure
6 Gunderson, LH, Holling, CS editors 2001: Ranarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural systems
7 Wetware is a term Charles Grantham has put claim to coining to cover building the human resources making soft- and hardware work to potential