After the last blog, I started a very interesting discussion with one of the people who read it. On definitions of change, innovation and improvement and the distinction between assumptions and facts. Just a very short recap. How I see change, is a difference of the status quo, in general it is changing from one status-quo to the next by changing one or more aspects. The point here is not the change, because in the previous case, but also in the following part, we assume that the change is a given fact. Often the change is implemented, which can be technical, social or whatever kind of change and sometimes that is done by an innovation in either of these areas. The easiest example I can think of is in a factory to change the manual labour of people to a machine. However the part of the process of which I was talking in the previous blog, was the final part and refers to the actual outcomes. Because in a business or in society or in any organization (I’ll come back to what that is later) change is made with a purpose and that purpose is always to improve the situation. However, it might very well be that by changing one thing, another thing changes as well which might influence the outcomes. And then we get to the previous arguing that in order to make change happen, we need to take into account a broader range of aspects and consequences than the ones anticipated of and intended by the initial change.
Talking with John about this topic, at a certain point he responded that he had the feeling that I thought change and the intended improvement (let’s assume improvement) are possible without including the human aspects. So what I would like to do in the following is explain how in processes of change people actually make the difference. And why for that matter the concept of communication, which is something that everyone assumes is the exchange of information and therefore has to be between humans, is crucial in the process of change.
Let’s start with communication. Probably everyone of you knows the concept of how one person sends a message and another person receives it. Dependent on the interferences in the time the message travels from the sender to the receiver, the message is received differently than the intention. However, here again, as Pepper (1995) points out, the wrong assumption is being made that this way of communication happens in a vacuum without any particular context. Secondly the simple model assumes that communication is a linear event. A goes to B and there it ends. I think that this model has already been challenged a lot ant that the second comment Pepper gives of the interaction and therefore feedback that is given from the receiver to the sender about the same message is often already included in a slightly more complex model. But there remains the problem of context. And in this case it is not only the context of the surroundings, so the meaning of a message when you’re standing on a busy market square or if you’re standing in your living room. It is also the difference in persons, the individual differences that make you might interpret messages in a different way because your reference is different. Including this in the model Pepper suggest we talk about transaction rather than interaction or exchange. Transaction would refer to the meaning of a message taking into account the combination of different communicative participants, each with a different context.
Second question to ask then, why is communication important. Pepper for this argues that communication creates organization. Without going too deep into it, organization here is not the complete form of for example a business. You should think about organization as the structure in practices that we make. The example in the article I found really helpful in understanding:
Imagine walking down a sidewalk in your town. About a tenth of a mile away you notice another person walking toward you on the same sidewalk. That person also notices you. You continue to walk toward each other, each aware of the other’s location, until you are virtually upon the same spot. For some reason, all of a sudden, instead of totally missing one another you find yourself in the terribly awkward position of almost crashing into each other. It takes an embarrassing second or two of jostling one direction, then the other, before the two of you coordinate your positions and walk around each other. (Pepper, 1995)
If I am in such a situation, at a certain point one of the persons normally steps aside very clearly making the other go one way and then you. This is a form of communication that creates structure (who is going where) when there is chaos (both go the same way). So we need communication in order to create a structure and therefore also to cooperate and exchange. Because in this example we can only share the sidewalk and make the system work if we do communicate and give each other the space. Note that structure in this does not necessarily need to be the structure that the sidewalk was designed for. It might for example very well be that you step on the road to make sure the other passes. The sidewalk wasn’t designed for that, it wasn’t the structure it intended to create, but it served the structure we created through communication. Anticipating on these changes in communication is therefore very important when starting a process of change. Because through these different communications, the way in which an innovation is used can differ and by that the differences in expected and unexpected outcomes can make that a system is not working at all. Coming back to the definition of organizations, these can be seen as “relationships that constitute the structure which is understood as an organization” (Pepper, 1995). And these communicative actions result in coordinated activities.
The way in which communication takes place therefore also defines what kind of organizations are created. Pepper defines five levels of human interaction.
Individual: this kind of interaction is one in which the individual holds internal dialogues and adapts to the environment. With the adaptation one makes sense of the environment. Mind that this level does not really create a structure because it if an organization is created through the combination of communicative participants (transaction), it cannot be made by just thinking about something without feedback or another perspective or context included.
Dyadic: the dyadic level is therefore seen as the basic level of organization where to respond to both the environment but also shape and respond to the influence of others within that environment. So this is the very basic process of making sense of someone else’s sense, or the extended communication model with feedback on the message that has been sent.
Small-group: if organization and communication take place within a small group, we’re actually looking at a kind of mini-organization. Research has shown that this is the best way of making a decision, but I’ll come back on the decision making within groups later.
Intergroup: here it is not the group that is working within his own context, but rather it is working in contrast to another group. The goal is to find a common understanding within the group, but since there are two ‘sides’ the approach is a we-versus-them understanding rather than the functioning within each of the groups. I’ll come back to this later as well when I will refer to the article of Hallam.
Technological: the last level is the one very known in agriculture and often very central to processes of change: machines. Mind here that it is not only the use of machines but also afterwards the dependence on machines that we have to deal with. The way in which we work in this human-machine interface stretches the boundaries of organizations. Because the machines are part of the structure that is created and we communicate to the machines what to do and they offer a certain help. So in that way it is more or less an organization that we create with machines rather than the earlier defined communicative participants.
Two final comments on this article. While I think that communication indeed creates structure, I’n not sure if it solely in creating organizations or organized activities. Although Pepper does not refer to this, neither is referred to it not being a sole actor in creating organizations. I think that maybe through the analysis Pepper falls into the same problems that many people tend to turn to, the one-sidedness and lack of narrowing down the individual impact by the context, actually the point the argumentation started on. This comes back specifically in the final definition of organization and the assumed implications:
An organization consists of the organizing activities of its members.
membership of an organization consists of members of the social collectivity who identify themselves or are identified as participants of the organization
the form or structure of the organization consists of the communicative relationships established by the membership and for this is constantly changing
organizations are a communicative event since they are build on the behavior of the membership and only exist as long as the communication exists
communication=transaction and the meaning of an organization is the product of transactions between members and the organizing environment
While I can follow and agree the reasoning of the article till the definition of organization, from there on I start doubting the rightness of the argumentation before. Or maybe rather how these definition can follow from the reasoning before.
So now we can assume that if we want to change organizations we need people to both do it and change with it. The second question is how that turns out. Pepper in his paper argues that from the five levels on which communication can take place, three take place between different people and two within a group. In general we see the trend, not only in business but also in education about the increased importance put on decisions made by a group. For me that almost never works out the way I want it, but that might be ore because of personal reasons. However Haslam (2001) provides us with an argumentation of why group decisions would or would nog work, besides personal reasons.
My problem with a group is, and always has been, that I have difficulties conforming to the general idea of a group and often I feel that there is too little representation of myself in there. Haslam (2001) points out that groups tend to be blinded exactly because they are a group. But before going into that, shortly why we would consider groups to be a good means of decision making in the first place. Haslam explains that if a decision is made within a group, it is easier for a person to conform with the decision. Simply because the basis on which the decision is made, is much more clear because it has been discussed. My problem with this reasoning is that it again assumes almost a dichotomy that people either can take vague decisions based on for example ‘gut feeling’ which they make on their own, or that people can discuss the options and take a decision accordingly. Even though the writer refers to the possibility of being a person with knowledge and capability to make a reasoned decision compared to a group, this option doesn’t show when discussing the value of group discussions. I do not say that group discussion does not add to the understanding of the argumentation for a certain decision, but there are more ways that can realize these argumentations if needed.
So where groups might be good for the argumentation on individual decision the question then comes why we would have groups make decisions. The general assumption is that group decisions are good because of the same reasons as for individual decision, namely the testing of different options and the weighing of different arguments. However in addressing to this the additional value of group decision, the big assumption is that all arguments are explained, used and discussed equally. This, argues Haslam is not necessarily the case. There are two situations that we have to take into account, both have to do with the way in which we behave in different contexts. The first is in relation to the members of the group, so rather within the group. The sharing of ideas within a group is greatly influenced by the way in which people connect to each other. The group might cause them to think in very extreme ways, either because of the way in which arguments are shared or because of the common important values and beliefs in society. The point here is that one want to belong to the group and be part of that and thereby is inclined to for example ignore other options or to be more extreme in the own options. The second problem lies in the relation between the group and its context. In this it is often seen that people in a group pursue to make the differences in relation to the group members smaller than the differences they have to the ‘others’. Hereby they create a common social category and a shared social identity.
The danger of this in decision making is that they limit possibilities, lack reflection and come to agreements rather based on the relations within the group and of the group with the others than the real argumentation of a group. If we then go back to the use of group decisions and group work as part of the education and preparation for later, it can be noted that the social experiences of the relations within a group could have a bigger impact than the actual content. One could therefore say that the way in which group work affects its participants is not necessarily by the possibility of sharing and testing ideas and through that gain more knowledge, but rather the possibility of conforming and finding the position in a group.
Finally in processes of change this could count for exactly the same. If we put a group of very intelligent people in a room to collectively solve a problem, this might not lead to the best possible solution in relation to the knowledge present in the room. This discrepancy between the individual input and group output is something that we have to take into account when acting in processes of change. There is a very human factor in it, and change is not just like mathematics. Sorry.
Pepper, G.L. (1995). Organizations as Communication Events. In Communicating in Organizations; a cultural approach. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 3-25.
Haslam, S.A. (2001). Group Decision-making. In Psychology in Organizations; the Social Identity Approach. London, Sage Publications, 147-179.