20 January 2021 – The following text is a lightly edited version of a posting I made on 13 January 2021 to the discussion forum for a class in my Doctor of Business Administration program at Keiser University.
Systems Theory as Emergent Organizational Design
At the turn of the 20th century, management theorists, Frederick Taylor in particular, proposed a horrid theory known as “scientific management,” which was based on the then nearly universal assumption of hierarchical business organization (Kiechel, 2012). Whenever someone promotes some idea as “scientific,” it sends up a red flag that the promoter has no understanding of either science or whatever reality the promoted idea is intended to explain. So-called “scientific” management was the poster child for sending up such a red flag.
Taylor’s assumption of hierarchical organization, however, was not surprising. Human beings, after all, evolved as pack hunters, and the hunting-pack model has clear evolutionary advantages for pack-hunting animals (Bailey, et al, 2013). Ethologists understand the impulse to form hierarchical organizations as a step up from the dominance system of pack hunters, which has one dominant individual leading an otherwise egalitarian team to accomplish some common goal (Wilson, 1975). One can visualize the hierarchical organization as consisting of packs within packs. Thus, natural selection has imprinted the tendency to favor this kind of dominance system into our DNA.
By the mid-20th century, management theorists, such as Peter Drucker, began to question the hierarchical organization model (Kiechel, 2012). James Miller (1955) provided a new model by applying systems theory to topics in the life sciences. Eventually, Henry Mintzberg introduced the idea that systems organizations – teams of teams, or adhocracy – arise naturally within modern complex organizations (Mintzberg & McHugh, 1985). Following this line of reasoning, and observing how large organizations have actually operated as far back as when ancient Egyptians were building pyramids, indicates that the hierarchical model was never valid (Procter & Kozak-Holland, 2019). Large organizations have always had a de facto systems, or adhocracy, organization, just as Mintzberg discovered arising naturally within modern organizations (Mintzberg & McHugh, 1985).
Mintzberg’s systems model is the natural way that pack animals collaborate to reach a common goal (Bailey, et al, 2013). Moving another step up the organization-model ladder, moves from the pack to the team. The difference between a pack and a team is that in a hunting pack subordinate individuals work together by playing similar roles in the hunting activity. More evolved groups go further by collaborating. Individuals in collaborating teams play different roles in the process, each according to their particular skills and talents.
As Adam Smith (1776) famously pointed out, it is more efficient for individual team members to specialize in performing different tasks than for them to all divelop and use similar skill sets. In the context of productivity of collections of nation states, David Ricardo showed how doing what one does best, and leaving it to others to do the rest, maximizes group productivity (Costinot & Donaldson, 2012; Felipe & Vernengo, 2002). Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory, when translated to team collaboration, indicates that the most effective teams are those made up of members with the appropriate complementary set of diverse skills needed to complete the task (Bailey, et al, 2013).
In the end, humans seem to have finally found the most effective organizational model for reaching any common goal (Project Management Institute, 2004). It consists of ad hoc collaborating teams working together toward a common goal. Each team has their own task to help reach the goal. Each individual team member has the skills needed to complete their particular part of the team’s task.
The following text is a lightly edited version of a comment I made on 15 January 2021 to another student’s posting to the same forum. It illustrates how the systems theory organizational model is supposed to work. The included figure projects the planned structure of the organization.
Response to BE post
Yes, BE, the system model for business organization lends itself to strategic development, human resources development, and most other activities organizations engage in (Aubry & Lavoie-Tremblay, 2018). I’d like to use a film project I’m executive producer on to illustrate how systems concepts lead to superior organization performance. The project goal is to develop, produce, and distribute a motion picture (provisionally entitled False Gods) from concept to screening.
Figure 1 shows the enterprise’s corporate structure (Hoover, 2013). It forms a star network centered on the False Gods LLC holding company, which retains the intellectual property and other assets (e.g., investor funds). There are four subsystems within the network: business, production, marketing, and legal. Each subsystem consists of at least two components, each of which has its own corporate identity. For example, the business subsystem includes C.G. Masi LLC, which provides project management services, and Mercury Bank, which provides financial services (e.g., checking and savings). One of the subunits of the Production subsystem is Sound (Hoover, 2013). This subunit includes a number of subcontractors, such as a recording studio, a number of voice actors, and a Foley artist (to provide sound effects). The Music subunit is located in Spain, and is contracted to provide an original musical score, musicians to play the score, and recording facilities. These form another layer of subsystems within the Music subsystem.
The systems model views each of these components as a separate system with its own inputs, process, and outputs (Miller, 1955). For example, the Animation subunit is a complete studio, with its own artists, equipment, and management. It has as inputs the existing script and instructions from the Director. The process consists of breaking the script down into individual shots and creating video clips for each shot. The output is a large number of digital-video files (estimated to number approximately 1,500 for False Gods), one for each clip, which the animation studio transmits electronically to the Film Editor.
Finally, the film editor combines those digital files with digital files from the Music, Foley and Sound subunits to fashion the complete film as one large digital-video file (Hoover, 2013). Each of these systems and subsystems has its own expertise, which it lends to the overall project. A voice actor, for example, in the Sound subunit has expertise in expressing emotion in spoken utterances that fit the requirements of the script and the timing of the animated images. All of these components combine like a giant multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle to tell the story of the motion picture.
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Bailey, I., Myatt, J. P., & Wilson, A. M. (2013). Group hunting within the carnivora: Physiological, cognitive and environmental influences on strategy and cooperation. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 67(1), 1-17.
Costinot, A., & Donaldson, D. (2012). Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage: Old idea, new evidence. American Economic Review, 102(3), 453–458.
Felipe, J., & Vernengo, M. (2002). Demystifying the principles of comparative advantage. International Journal of Political Economy, 32(4), 49–75.
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Procter, C., & Kozak-Holland, M. (2019). The Giza pyramid: Learning from this megaproject. Journal of Management History, 25(3), 364-383.
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