I have been working for a while on comparing the results from some very complex research studies of collaborative design in groups that span disciplines or knowledge domains. I was stunned to realize that I had different types of group activity depending on the sort of organization.

By “organization,” I mean the way in which work is organized, not the sort of business they are in. I noted three types or organization, that seem to respond to collaboration in different ways:

  • Tightly-coupled work organizations rely on well-defined work roles and responsibilities to coordinate tasks across group members. When people in this sort of group have to make decisions, they partition these decisions, based on expertise. Because they all know each others’ capabilities and roles, they don’t have to think about who-knows-what: this is just obvious. This type of organization falls down when people don’t perform their role reliably. For example, if the whole system relies on accurate information coming into the group, someone who misinterprets what they observed can undermine the whole group system.
  • Event-driven organizations rely on external crises and pressures to coordinate group action. People in this sort of group have strongly-defined roles in the wider organization that take precedence over their role in the group — for example in management taskforce groups, business managers tend to prioritize their other work over problems that the group needs to fix. When people in this sort of group make decisions, they partition these decisions according to who-claims-to-know-what, who has time to do the work, and who knows people connected to the problem. They get to know each others’ capabilities over time, but this is a slow process as priorities and decisions are driven by external events, rather than a shared perception of what needs to be done. This type of organization falls down when decisions or actions that were put on a back burner because of another crisis inevitably become a crisis themselves because they were not followed through.
  • Loosely-coupled organizations rely on ad hoc work roles and cooperation among group members. This type of group is commonest in business process change groups, professional work-groups, and community groups, where people are there because they share an interest in the outcome.  When people in this sort of group make decisions, they partition these decisions according to who can leverage external connections to find things out and who has an interest in exploring what is involved. People often share responsibilities in these groups, comparing notes to learn about the situation. This type of organization falls down because it is hard to coordinate. So shared tasks are performed badly because someone knew something vital that they failed to communicate back to the group.
Wild Horses
Managing group collaboration can be like taming wild horses

Why would we care about these different types of organization? Well these structures affect how we approach problem-solving and design. If we (process and IS analysts) need to work with one of the tightly-coupled work-groups, we need to identify who has the decision-making capability for what. It would not occur to a tightly-coupled group member that anyone would not realize who to go to for what. If we need to work with an event-driven group, we have to realize that our work will not be a priority for them — it must be made a priority by gaining an influential sponsor who can kick a$$ within the group(!).  If we work with a loosely-coupled group, we need to engage the interest of the group as a whole. Working with individuals can lead to failure, as this type of group makes decisions collaboratively, not on the basis of knowledge or expertise.

I have a fair amount of evidence for this line of thought and I am pursuing other factors that make these groups different. More to follow …

Organizational Forms Of Coordination

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