Boosting organisations with Coordination Theory

And the million dollar question is… how to increase effectiveness and efficiency in an organisation? This article tries to summarise an analytical approach that breaks down this problem in order to address it incrementally using Coordination Theory.

(Disclosure: I’ve been asked at work to write on this topic)

A summary of Coordination Theory

This section touches the basics of Coordination Theory as posed by Thomas W. Malone in 1988.

Coordination Theory

Coordination Theory is a body of principles about how the activities of separate actors can be coordinated; with an strong emphasise on using computer and communication systems to coordinate activities in new ways.

Reasons for pursuing Coordination Theory

  1. Dominance of computer devices and collaboration software
  2. IT costs ↓ IT capabilities + Orgs want to be more Flexible and Adaptive ⇒ entirely new ways of organizing human activities. Adhocracies: rapidly changing org + decentralised network of shifting project teams. More market transactions (more “buying” than “making”) + Closer In-Org coordination (e.g. “just in time” inventory management)
  3. Knowledge about how large groups of people coordinate their work ⇒ Coordinate large groups of computer processors
  4. Re-use findings from one discipline in another + Coordinating “hybrid” groups, including both people and computers (sociotechnical systems)

Applications of Coordination Theory

  • Organisational Design
  • Coordination Technology
  • Parallel / Distributed Computing

Coordination

Coordination is the extra organising activities that should be carried out when one works in a group as opposed to working alone. More formally, the additional information processing performed when multiple, connected actors pursue goals that a single actor pursuing the same goals would not perform.

Components of coordination

  • Two or more actors
  • Perform tasks
  • To achieve goals

Coordination is “in the eye of the beholder”

An Observer defines what actor is for different purposes

  • One can go deeper in hierarchy, e.g. consider groups, individuals, different parts of brain as actors

Observer defines the goal of activities

Actors may not have the same goal or have any goal at all

  • e.g. in a market, goal might be defined as optimally allocating resources to maximize consumer utilities
  • Though no single individual has this goal

Two categories of goal-relevant tasks

  • Coordination tasks
  • Production tasks (All goal-oriented tasks except Coordination tasks)

Effectiveness and Efficiency in organisations

So back to the main question of this article, a number of steps should be taken to formulate the problem using the concepts from Coordination Theory:

Nominating and choosing from the candidate solutions

A simple brainstorming session will result in several candidate solutions. An interesting observation is that normally most of these solutions focus around processes in the organisation and ways to optimise them, whereas effectiveness usually arises from solutions focused on consumers.

After arriving at provisional solutions:

  1. Identify features so as to compare and contrast different solutions
  2. Filter candidate solutions based on the previous step
  3. Cross and combine aspects of remaining solutions, best use innovation here

Abstraction

We need to transform our solutions into actionable items. The first step is to represent them as an abstraction which models:

  • Entity
  • Change

Deciding on the entity is the easy part, the organisation. In order to benefit from Coordination Theory, one can model the org as a Sociotechnical System. That is, identifying people, technologies and their interactions.

To model change, we need to answer a more fundamental question: when do we say a system is changed, exactly?

State Change

We define change as a transformation to a state where the system and it’s environment are in better alignment. A state change is:

  • Non-accidental
  • Desired

So a state change in the context of a sociotech system is either:

  1. First order structure: changing the context of an interaction, e.g. substitute paper forms with collaboration software
  2. Second order structure: changing the parties involved

Exchange

Exchange is the content going back and forth between parties in a sociotech system.

Party_1 — ← →EXCHANGE ← → — Party_2

An exchange is defined by its:

  • Enabler — Online/Offline
  • Mechanism — Centralised/Decentralised — Distributed/Not-distributed

Any solution can be tweaked by the characteristics of its enabler and mechanism. One can change Sociotechnical systems in these categories. In this breakdown, Coordination becomes “Managing exchange between entities”.

Conclusion

Coordination Theory could be adopted for solving hard problems such as increasing effectiveness and efficiency in organisations. As a general framework, one can go through these stages:

Theory →Abstraction →Application

Though similar to the flow of this article, doing the above bottom-up might better suite practical applications.