This post is the first in a two-part reflection on two enduring management obsessions: control and employee engagement.
Shifting to the right
Following my post describing the Smart Work Framework, Harold Jarche (@hjarche) correctly commented that letting go of control would be an issue for businesses shifting to the right of the framework, from traditional structures characterised by place-dependent hierarchical structures to physically-distributed, networked structures.
Legacy of insight
As I have said repeatedly, in blog posts too numerous to identify, we have been here before. My contention is that social business developments are only the next phase in a trajectory of reform of ways of working, which began decades ago with the shift from traditional manufacturing to lean, agile and quality.
Lean, agile and quality philosophies are based on participative problem-solving, empowerment and continuous improvement. There is a legacy of overlooked insight from which we can learn. That is if we are all not too busy declaring new paradigms and talking up the the social business hype.
Taking time to step back and look at patterns that emerge over time can be very revealing. That is what I did and here are just a few observations from what I found.
What people need
Professor Sir Michael Marmot writes that he has been researching the link between the risk of early death and position in social hierarchy for almost thirty years. In his view, the accumulation of this research supports the relationship between control, social engagement, ill-health and early death, in the context of the workplace and wider societies. He says:
"As evolved beings, we are social animals ... the other important human need, after autonomy or control, is to be socially engaged."
Marmot suggests that self-esteem is part of social engagement, as is participation in social networks for social support and affirmation of social standing.
There is a link between the two enduring management obsessions with control, which alienates people, and the desire to increase employee engagement. Close surveillance and social control are the precise opposites of the self-determined, disciplined autonomy that is needed for high performance.
Ashby (1956) saw cybernetics as offering “the hope of providing effective methods for the study and control of systems that are intrinsically extremely complex”. Cybernetic control can justifiably be seen as mechanistic:
"Cybernetics deals with all forms of behaviour in so far as they are regular, or determinate, or reproducible."
There is nothing regular, determinate or reproducible about human behaviour within social systems. This has not stopped behaviour control from being a dominant business concern over the decades, as this quote from Tannenbaum (1968) illustrates:
"The theoretical analysis of control in social systems has a long and venerable history ... control helps circumscribe idiosyncratic behaviours and keep them conformant to the rational plan of the organisation."
Except that it obviously does not. Management attempts to exert zealous control can be not only ineffective but counter-productive. Subversive rebellion on manufacturing shop floors is commonplace (Delbridge 1995, 1998).
According to Hitchins (1997):
"Engineering managers seem so obsessed with exerting and maintaining control that they disregard the havoc that excessive control wreaks on the business."
Behaviour or output control?
The alternative to managing behaviour is managing outputs. Ouchi (1977) was on to this thirty five years ago. He said that output control was particularly appropriate for complex work, which is increasingly the case in the knowledge economy. Output control and outcome management become more appropriate under these circumstances.
Output control as default
Output control is becoming more significant as work has become more mobile, flexible and distributed across time and geographical location. A key responsibility of managing and leading in mobile and distributed work environments is to ensure that people have all that they need to get on with work when they are out of sight.
One of the objections to output control is the difficulty of identifying and measuring outputs in service and knowledge-based work where intangible outputs related to productive relationships, like conversation and feedback, are important and tangible outputs are often difficult to assess accurately. Acquiring the ability to do so is becoming a core capability.
Behaviour control an illusion?
The volume of writing on control and the fact that it can be traced back decades is an indication that it is an eduring management obsession, that attempting to impose behaviour control is problematic and is an illusion.
Management fears about losing control (Fenton-O’Creevy 1996) are misplaced since they never had control in the first place. People will take control for themselves if they are officially denied self-determination.
In fact, behaviour control is not entirely an illusion. Barker (1993) describes how a self-managed team imposed levels of control on each other more oppressive than anything that management would have been able to impose.
Autonomy and control
This article from 2009 in HR Review references a Work Foundation report urging businesses “to give employees more autonomy and less intensive management”. Like that was something new.
Argyris (1998) said that despite empowerment’s “much touted potential”, there had been no sweeping metamorphoses within the majority of workforces, for reasons which are complex. He concluded that:
“the battle between autonomy and control rages on while the potential for real empowerment is squandered”
Control a management prerogative?
A ‘considerable literature’ has emerged on management controls and their fit with structure and context (Selto et al. 1995) and this continues right up until the present. White et al. (2004) concluded from the Future of Work research, which was conducted over a period of six years and involved twenty two universities in the UK, that:
"One area where ICT is rapidly expanding management choices is in monitoring and control systems ... if ICT-based control continues to be seen as a management prerogative, and the monitoring information is not shared with employees, then this is likely to become a divisive and damaging issue."
Evidence of continuing interest in control comes from a 2007 McKinsey article on informal networks in organisations, which “typically fly under management’s radar, they elude control” and “the greatest limitation of these ad hoc arrangements (informal networks) is that they can’t be managed” (Lowell et al. 2007).
Feedback “pushes a fluid, changeable system towards a goal” and “is a way of transforming a complex system into a complex adaptive system” (Johnson 2001). People don’t always follow rules though and they can choose, intentionally and unintentionally, to disregard feedback (Nadler 1977).
This is important. The distinction between feedback in mechanical and social systems is that it does not automatically create change in social systems. A distributed approach to control, one that reflects human needs for self-determination and meaningful work, is needed.
I am also proposing strategic and operational design principles based on the Viable Systems Model and Social-Technical Systems. Distributed control is the basis for both of these theoretical approaches. They suggest local, self-determined action while at the same time enabling centralised co-ordination. But that is definitely for another blog post.
Control not a zero-sum game
The last word goes to Tannenbaum who, in 1968, was prescient in saying that control is not a zero-sum game. He said that distributing control does not result in a loss of control at higher management levels, in fact it is deemed to be a control-enhancing action (Tannenbaum, 1968: 20).
Management needs to let go, paradoxically, if they want to gain control. People will do the monitoring and co-ordinating for them.
This sounds to me very much like Jon Husbands’s wirerachy design principle, which is:
"a dynamic two-way flow of power and authority based on information, knowledge, trust and credibility, enabled by interconnected people and technology."
Argyris, C. 1998. Empowerment: the emperor’s new clothes. Harvard Business Review, 76 (3), 98-105.
Ashby, W.R. 1956. An Introduction to Cybernetics. London: Chapman & Hall.
Barker, J.R. 1993. Tightening the iron cage: concertive control in self-managing teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 408-437.
Delbridge, R. 1995. Surviving JIT: control and resistance in a Japanese transplant. Journal of Management Studies, 32(6), 803-817.
Delbridge, R. 1998. Life on the Line in Contemporary Manufacturing. New York: Oxford University Press.
Fenton O’Creevy, M. 1996. Middle manager: friend or foe of employee involvement. Journal of Applied Management Studies, 5(I), 47-62.
Hitchins, D. (1997). Carry on thinking! Engineering Management, 7(3), 114-116.
Johnson, S. 2001. Emergence. London: Penguin Publishers.
Lowell, L., Matson, E. And Weiss, L.M. 2007. Harnessing the power of informal employee networks. McKinsey Quarterly [Online: November]. Available at:
http://www.mckinseyquarterly.com/Harnessing_the_power_of_informal_employee_networks_2051 [accessed: 8 March 2012].
Nadler, D. 1977. Feedback and Organisation Development: Using Data-Based Methods. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley.
Ouchi, W.G. 1977. The relationship between organisational structure and organisational control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 22, 95-113.
Selto, F.H., Renner, C.J. and Young, S.M. 1995. Assessing the organisational fit of a Just-In-Time manufacturing system: testing, selection, interaction and systems models of contingency theory. Accounting, Organisation and Society, 20(7 & 8), 665-684.
Tannenbaum, A.S. 1968. Control in Organizations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
White, M, Hill, S. Mills, C. and Smeaton, D. 2004. Managing to Change? British Workplaces and the Future of Work. Basingstoke UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.