Plate 6 © Mark Dorf

Laboring While Human

The Problem with Organization Design Series: Part 3

By Dara Blumenthal, PhD and Nathan Snyder

“The absence of an interest in adult cognitive development in the business world is due to the fact that people in this realm do not understand how, and how much, human development affects actual work performance.” — Our dear friend Otto Laske

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series we focus on two discrepancies of organization systems. Those discrepancies stem from the technological and cultural crosswinds facing organizations today, and the impact those conditions have on the individuals living among and operating (with/in) them.

We have traced those discrepancies and dysfunctions through the two overarching, countervailing trends alive in organization design today. (In short: As corporations begin to operate through a ‘new’ rapid Contingency approach, they are in fact, over time, being inculcated into the much larger Institution of the startup tech firm. Thus continuing the back and forth trend alive at many scales of industry, organization, and work.) Now, we need to break this binary orbit of structuring and restructuring. In order to get there, while this macro trend continues to play itself out across corporations and organization designers, we turn our attention to the micro.

In this part of our series, we focus on understanding the connection between an individual and their work. In the developed and developing world, the majority of people need to work in order to survive. Labor is also a critical factor for attaining fulfillment as we live. Yet, the humans who labor are too often reduced to a simplistic rental commodity — one-dimensional aspects of the systems and approaches that attempt to (re)design, develop, and structure organizations. (For more on that point see Part 1.)

This, in part, is why our organization systems continue to weaken, fail, and reproduce the status quo. In order to evolve the binary paradigm we’re in — of structuring for optimizing effectiveness and/or legitimacy — we need to understand human labor in a new light.

Let’s talk about labor

We spend a vast majority of our most vital waking hours at work, for the better part of 30–40 years of our lives. It is our view that a core dimension of human fulfillment is derived through and as a byproduct of, work. Fulfillment in this sense may include financial dimensions, social dimensions, the routine and stability, as well as, professional and personal growth and achievement.

Work is arguably the largest, most accessible social institution we participate in, yet it is held out as that which is oppositional to our lives. It is core to our existence and even if you don’t personally derive your deepest fulfillment from your work, you probably do so in contrast to it. Furthermore, work can enable or disable your ability to seek and experience fulfillment in your life. And it is, very simply, an expression of human beings; a part of human activity present through the evolving spectrum of our species.

It is the case that most people also do work with other people. In order to get work done, we need other people to complete their tasks. In this way we are dependent on others to work. We all know how frustrating and disempowering it is when we are blocked by someone else’s lack of action or lack of communication; we want to proceed, but we can’t. We also need those whom we care for and are cared by to at least implicitly, condone the nature of the work we spend our lives on, in order to maintain a healthy relationship to them. While all of this may seem very matter of fact, it is vital that we lay this out as a foundation of the nature of work (i.e. both as our approach as organization designers and developers, and as the fundamental reality of how we conceive of work). Afterall, it is the most taken for granted social institutions that are the most ripe for change.

There are also a few things that we need to make explicit about human performance and capability. Firstly, it is the case that humans have different performance abilities, some of those are biological and others are based upon conditioning (it isn’t nature or nurture, it is both and more). Secondly, those abilities influence the value an individual provides to an organization in exchange for fulfilment and financial compensation. Thus, we must ask: How can we come to understand capability as meeting both the demands of the organization and personal fulfillment simultaneously? How can we enliven that more readily? How can we make that the center of our work? And should we?

To reiterate a point from Part 1, organization design traditionally views people at work as behavioral resources because of a nascent understanding of the mind, a static and disembodied understanding of the self, and a simplistic view of human capability.

This point of view however, is breaking down in the face of the technical and cultural shifts we are increasingly embedded within and materializing everyday. By and large we don’t know how to support and develop employees because the foundational approach of measuring minds, which grounds normative approaches to developing adults, is broken for 21st century conditions. This fissure will necessarily hold us back as employers, workers, and as a species. We need to do better.

Emergent 16 © Mark Dorf

Focusing on Development

We follow an approach to understanding human capability as a function of an individual’s cognitive development, motivation, skills and knowledge, less their resistances to work (thank you Otto). This is not to say an individual is only these things or that they are somehow an equation. Rather, for the purposes of this text, this definition of human capability is practical and accessible enough for beginning to elucidate our definition of human labor. Furthermore, human capability is just one dimension of many that we are working with including embodiment, identity, socio-emotionality, and self-awareness.

In order to begin apprehending human labor from and through this view of capability, it is important to sketch how we get at cognitive development.

We take a Dynamic Skill Theory approach to understanding cognitive development. This views an individual’s behaviors, abstract thinking and reasoning abilities, as well as, environmental task demands, as an entangled relationship between the individual and their work. “Through its analysis of the natural variation in human behavior, skill theory provides powerful tools for relating cognitive and emotional development to brain development.” This approach to understanding capability and human development grows out of the Harvard School of Human Development and Psychology, specifically, the Dynamic Skill Lab run by Kurt Fischer. This is important because, in order to create real change, and to actually develop people and organizations, cognitive, emotional, and brain development need to be taken seriously.

Let us pause here to state very directly that we believe it is the responsibility of organizations and labor arrangements to actively participate in our adult developmental processes. If organizations are not doing so explicitly, they are doing it (or limiting it, in most cases) implicitly because of the sheer amount of time adults spend at work. Without our workplaces becoming centers of this development, we will never evolve as a species let alone actually tackle any of the challenges we currently and will continually face as world citizens. To reiterate a point from earlier in this series, more technology and more automation means the reduction of simple tasks but also the expansion of more emergent and complex ones. Technology is the platform for a greater embrace of complexity, not just distillation of it. Work is not becoming more mechanized, routine or simplified, it is becoming more human through automation. Technology can help us enliven humanity. These things are not in opposition. It is time to grow up.

Following Kurt and more broadly, the group of neo-Piagetian methodologies present in adult development, we anchor our understanding of human labor within organization environments from the cognitive developmental sciences. That is to say, it is the intimate entanglement of individuals and our environments that impact development.

This allows us to understand the social landscape as both the cause and the condition of cognitive functioning. In other words, the workplace is both the context and the byproduct of human capability.This vantage point extends beyond a pure behavioral analysis of the individual, which often describes for example, the best way to collaborate, or the traits of a great leader, most of which are rife with value laden and unconscious biases. While all of those things are totally relevant to understanding labor, we often give them emphasis without an empirically sound backing in cognitive and developmental sciences. It is important to note that there is a difference between studying pure behavior, and behavior and development. Few writing about management broadly, (and even fewer practicing management consulting), have productively brought the two into consideration.

What’s more, when we hear about Learning and Development, rarely is actual cognitive development taking place. Rather, it is coaching and consultation which utilizes developmental work, as a descriptive framework in the best cases, and in the worst, development is merely a buzzword lacking any scientific underpinning. As adults grow cognitively they require the restructuring of their behaviors. Without understanding development, how would one know which behaviors are suitable to someone’s life, specifically?

For example, normally, describing leadership frameworks for development is just a re-categorizing or reframing of knowledge that most leaders already have about leadership development. While categorizing sets knowledge about work more effectively can be “developmental” for some people, most of the decision makers in organizations are already developed in the cognitive task of categorization, or they wouldn’t be working. For these leaders just making new boxes to put the “latest 10 characteristics of …” into won’t produce transformation at the structural centers, or epistemological roots of their mental cognition.

Development looks at the order and reordering processes within the mind and brain associated with the environmental task demands placed on individuals, through the spectrum of their growth. Whereas, behavioral approaches to understanding capability only look at the manifest behaviors and possible motivations behind those actions, it does not get at the structural scaffolding of conceptual networks of know-how. We need to actively utilize and explore both approaches, together.

Moving On

It is now widely accepted that the primary challenges organizations face today can be lumped into two categories:

  1. Speed: The world is moving quickly and how do we keep up?
  2. Complexity: Our structural complexity is working against us, how do we change?

While Contingency and Institutional theory-backed approaches to organization design, may get closer at addressing the speed and legitimacy issues, they will never truly address the complexity issue we face. What is happening now, for example, with the use of contingency frameworks is a faster way to process change, and only a simplistic descriptive framework that attempts to order the complexity that persists in the organization, industry, and world. This is because all of these approaches are only behavioral, at best.

Neither Contingency nor Institutional approaches will help organizations to truly deal with the complex-work-dynamics alive in the economy today. Neither approach can analyze or adequately dissect the complexity of work tasks at the various management tiers of the organization. Furthermore, neither approach understands those complexity bands as a factor of capability, labor, or motivation. Without an appropriate understanding of organization complexity and how that plays out through the management structure via human labor, it is impossible to design and implement an organization structure that can withstand the 21st century economy. That is what we will elucidate next.

Read More! Part 1: The Root of the Problem and Part 2: Getting before and beyond the Firm

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