Organizations need “context-managers”
by Erhard Friedberg

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On the upper levels of management as well as in management literature, one will frequently hear the almost ritual complaint about the growing sluggishness of organizations, their lack of agility. As proof, the argument will point to their difficulty to implement necessary radical transformations. Routinely, this will lead to a call for the “bull-dozing” of organizational layers and the radical streamlining of chains of command.

The bull-dozing rationale

The thrust of the underlying reasoning will run as follows: it is not the ever-increasing creativity of management theory and the multiplication of ever more abstract organizational models creating ever more injunctions and hierarchical layers that are to blame for the growing bureaucratization of modern corporations. No, the culprits are the structural complexities of modern corporations as well as the multiple organizational layers and the entrenched intermediaries they produce. Hence the necessity to do away with them and radically simplify organizational structures and chains of command.

This paper will not pretend that the structural complexity of present-day organizations is unproblematic per se or is not partly linked to the bureaucratization of modern corporations. Things have to be done about this trend. Neither will it argue that in many organizations some reduction of organizational layers would not be commendable, as all intermediaries are not equally important or indispensable. However, that is a matter to be dealt with on a case-to-case basis, not by general, decontextualized solutions.

The mental model of transparency

Instead, let us discuss the general, uncontextualized nature of the proposed solution for making “agile” organizations by drastically reducing structure and intermediaries and question the “mental model” this “solution” implicitly builds one: the myth or ideal of the “transparent organization” which itself is based on two premises.

The first says secrecy and non-communication are bad by nature, whereas communication and information sharing are good, as they provide the lifeblood of organizational togetherness.

The second holds that hierarchical layers and intermediaries in organizations are useless filters, only distorting or interrupting the information and communication flows through which the common purpose can be shared, explained, and made meaningful for members of the organization at all levels.

The transparency myth

The idea of the transparent organization builds on the idea that organizations are coherent and homogenous entities, where all participants share a core-purpose, pursue naturally aligning interests and have similar, if not identical understandings of what is going on. The mere spelling out of these implicit premises of the “transparent organization” underscore how unrealistic the whole idea is. It ignores the fundamental heterogeneity of organizations.

Networks of work-contexts

Organizations must be understood as loosely connected networks of work-contexts, in which the organization’s core-purpose takes on distinct colors and meanings. Within them, the diverging interests of the participants are arbitrated on a day-to-day basis in order to construct their difficult but indispensable cooperation. This produces a concrete context of meaning generating a distinct mode of functioning. In going about their tasks, the people in the different places where the actual work is accomplished (whether this be work-shops, project groups, a research department, administrative units of corporate headquarters, etc.) create separate contexts of cooperation the functioning of which does not emerge by itself. It has to be constructed or maintained from day to day. This cannot be done from the top. It is the indispensable job of these “intermediaries” or “middle-managers” who should better be valued as “context managers”. All top management can do is to prevent the various work-contexts to diverge too much in their trajectories, and that itself is a big, often superhuman job. For the rest, it has to leave it up to the context managers to create and maintain the conditions for effective cooperation within the various work-contexts.

Cooperative trade offs

Managing work-contexts is about creating the necessary cooperation between the different participants, which means creating the conditions for the emergence of the local trade-offs between their divergent, often contradictory “interests”. No enduring cooperation will be possible without such trade-offs. They produce the “rules of the game” being played among the participants and define their respective prerogatives, duties and also privileges. No effective functioning is possible without them.

Favoring the emergence and respect of such local “rules of the game” is the foremost job of any context manager: he or she has to construct and maintain a local, contextual governance. And this is the point where the job might put him or her at odds with managerial injunctions created for larger sectors his or her work-context Is part of. This can happen in many ways.

Understanding the rules of the game

Local “rules of the game” and their underlying trade-offs are subtle things. They are implicit and can only be accepted as long as they remain so. Everybody knows how things are but can pretend otherwise. When forced out in the open and put in writing, their implications become obvious, putting their legitimacy and very existence at risk. The implicit and ambiguous nature of “rules of the game” are necessary ingredients of the governance of work-contexts. Force clarity and transparence on them, and you might endanger their very existence and with it, the cooperation they help to achieve.

Also, the rules of the game are always local and contextual: at least some part of them will be specific to a given work-context and could not apply elsewhere. They are therefore always potentially at odds with the many legitimate efforts of the upper levels of management to rationalize and to keep things comparable in order to benchmark. The legitimate nature of these efforts cannot be contested on a general level, even though a good deal of them might be questioned as to their timing and to their overemphasis on standardization and comparability. Whatever, context managers will always observe these efforts with vigilance, if not distrust, lest their implications and impact destabilize his or her capacity to construct and manage the specific trade-offs on which the effective functioning of his or her context depends.

Criticisms of context managers

There are legitimate reasons for the often criticized “conservatism” of context managers. Even if they are in complete agreement with the projected transformations that present-day organizations are increasingly engaged in, they need time to implement the many brilliant schemes and initiatives implied by these transformations. This is a necessarily complex process whereby work contexts and their managers first gain a practical understanding of the medium-term impact of the prescriptions to be implemented, and collectively succeed in “digesting” them by inventing the new rules of the game enabling them to translate the projected change into enduring contextualized practice.

This is necessarily a difficult collective learning process. Both interactive and iterative by nature, it needs engaged leadership. Context managers can only exercise such leadership if they have the resources and leeway to, whenever necessary, bend the transformative prescriptions so as to adjust for the local trade-offs which will make them acceptable and practicable for all participants. Without such leadership, without such active engagement in the creation of the renewed trade-offs between the participants of a given work-context, there will be no effective implementation.

The need for context managers

No organization can thrive without engaged context managers. They are the only ones capable of breaking down and translating the core purpose of the organization as well as its overall transformative project into digestible, meaningful and implementable pieces of organizational practice. Whether this will happen, depends on their active engagement but also on the resources and leeway they are allowed to have.

Managerial hubris

The myth of the “transparent organization” is just one more example of the managerial hubris so characteristic of managerial thinking, both in consulting and in the upper echelons of corporations. It shows once more that management theory and practice has decided to ignore the basic uncertainty rooted in the freedom human beings enjoy when they decide whether to engage in collective action. The “transparent organization” is the attempt to respond to top management’s fear of the uncertainty of the behavior of those on whom it depends to keep them informed about what is going on operationally. The “transparent” “agile” organization with its drastically reduced hierarchical lines and organizational layers is about regaining control. It stands and falls on the pretense that top management has all the solutions, if only it is correctly informed. However, that can only be true in a fantasy world.

The fragility of organizations

Organizations are solutions for the problem of collective action. They are the best solutions we can think of, but they are fragile. Management has to live up to that fragility and to its implication, the political nature of the act of managing. Cooperation and control cannot be achieved through automatic devices, nor can they be taken for granted. Creating them is a political activity. Autonomy and effective leeway are the necessary ingredients for such an activity. That is true for all managers, at whatever level they practice their art. And above all this is true for the context managers, without whom no organization could function.

About the Author:

Erhard Friedberg is Professor Emeritus of sociology and former director of the Master of Public Affairs at Sciences Po, Paris

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