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Autonomous work group an essential ingredient for effective organising? Essay

Following the needs of many businesses to adopt alternative forms of work design this paper tries to explain and make some sense about the effectiveness of autonomous work groups in organising. It will be argue the thesis that such groups have been, are and will be effective in some definite organisational setting. The assumptions underpinning this idea will be explored along the dialectic forming three sections.

To understand this concept it seems important introduce notions of individual, group and explain why they are so central from an organisational point of view. Thus, the first part of this paper will present some psychological effects resulting through their interaction of these actors

Moreover, being the idea of autonomous work group part of a complex system, it will be restrictive analyse its characteristics without locate it among others concepts produced by sociotechnical researchers. Thus, a broader analysis of sociotechnical system (STS) will be part of the second section.

Difference between what STS aimed to achieve, what they really achieved, and/or what they are achieving today is still discussed. This lack of unanimous consensus lets the debate open to several interpretations, and offer the opportunity to explore and address few issues related to the self-managing groups. Hence, the last side of this paper will address a discuss about the role of management, the subordination of human criteria to the dictates of efficiency, the application to both linear and non-linear systems, and a movement toward a self-leading team type.

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The magnitude of such topic and the number of interesting studies surrounding this area offer to the author a dilemma regarding what should be treated and what should not. Obviously, having this script humanistic approach major evidence is given to people in organisation, and respectively team members, and management. Moreover, analysing the way in which the system adapted itself during the second half of the last century, it will be argued that organisations designed or redesigned in respect of human criteria in certain industries and environments, can reach a competitive advantage respect those that will not do it. In short, STS is an effective tool by which it is possible match both individual and organisational needs.

Pursuing the paper this line of argument, issues related to politics, unions, and power, and other effects of identifications, ideology and control are not dealt in this paper neither because not relevant, nor because of secondary importance, rather, due to the limitation of the length.

Individuals, Groups and Organisation

To some extent groups always existed, even in USA -where in time of cold war ambitions were led to unbridled individualism, organisation used to split task into subtask, assigned it to various subunits, than these subunits divided subtask into sub-subunits and so on. Even if an organisation is formally organised according individual performance, the division of labour break down the organisation into groups. What does group means, and what needs a group fulfil for both organisation and individual? ‘A psychological group is any number of people who interact with one other, are psychologically aware of one other, and perceive themselves as group’ (Schein 1994), and are seen as group by the others from outside (Hackman 1987, in Brown 2003).

If in everyday life, groups can be formed through a spontaneous or random meeting -such as four friends meets for chance in library, in organisational setting they have diverse origin. Basically, it is possible recognise two types of groups in organisation, those which are deliberately created by managers in order to fulfil the tasks required from the organisational mission, an those fulfilling psychological needs of individual beyond the minimum ones of doing their jobs; respectively formal and informal groups (Schein 1994).

According to its duration the former can be of two types: permanent -such as the group of lecturer or/and professors forming the BOR depth at Lancaster University; or temporary -such as a matrix group of lecturers or/and professors committed in a project for a definite time or mission. Nevertheless, organisation takes an informal structure within which individuals interacting with others generates a group that fulfil their social needs. But contrary to the everyday life the interaction depend on defined physical location, being in fact their activity within the organisation limited by their tasks and mission to perform -such as the possibility to interact with people both meeting and working in the same office, depth, building and so on.

Bearing in mind that groups can simultaneously fulfil diverse organisational functions and needs of their members, it useful here to distinguish these kinds of functions in ‘organisational and individual’ (Schein 1994). According to this partition, it is possible group organisational functions as those features coinciding with the mission of the organisation -i.e. working on a complex or interdependent task, generating new ideas or creative solutions, liaison or coordinating functions, facilitate the implementation of complex decision, or be a vehicle of socialisation or training.

On the other hand, among needs group members can bring with them and groups can fulfil there are needs such as those of affiliation, sense of identification and maintain self esteem, establish and tests social reality, moreover, it reduce insecurity and anxiety. Appear now clear why groups are so important, from an organisational point of view it speed, facilitate, and improve the task-related functions. On the other hand, spending two third of our life within the workplace, meeting our psychological needs inn a group, and spending two third of our adult life in a work setting of various kinds, groups become a integral part of such work settings (Schein 1994:152).

Thus, an enormous potential can be offered mixing up informal and formal functions, to comprehend it means to imagine how they can serve at the same both organisational and individual. Reed supported this thesis stating understand organisations means grasp the diverse political forces acting in it, nevertheless, decisions are not taken during a board of director, rather main actors discuss and reach agreement during a dinner on a golf course (2002). In other words, linking together individual’s needs and organisational functions to fulfil, by means of formal and informal organisation could be achieved, through effectiveness and the right balance with the social needs of employees, an organisational competitive advantage.

The Socio Technical System (STS)

Understand the dynamic process made up of individual’s needs interacting in organisational setting it is not as easy as at a first sight. After two decades in which the human relation (HR) approach allocate ‘attention to the employees, not work condition per se, that has the dominant impact on productivity (Peters & Waterman, cited in Moldaschl & Weber 1998:350), the sociotechnical group took another direction. Researches, associated with the work done by the Tavistock Institute in London, instead of concentrating on the enterprise as social system -where technology was not considered and workers were treated better whilst their job remained the same (Trist, in Moldaschl & Weber 1998), attempted to overcome both Tayloristic and HR approach of work design.

Whereas the HR movement achieved the so-called ‘Hawthorne public relation effect’ -enforcing psychotechnics to deal with employees’ psychological ‘wealth’, STS underlined the importance of a real design of tasks (Emery 1978). The idea of STS implies that any productive organisation or part thereof is a combination of technology and social system in mutual interaction to each other. Each determines each other and the nature of work determines the type of organisation that develops among workers, whilst the sociopsychological characteristics of the worker determine the manner in which a given job will be performed (Schein 1994).

This idea led to the development of an open system theory in which organisations imports and converts various things from its environment -such as people, money equipment, raw material, and so on, and exports products, services and waste materials which result from the conversion’s process (Schein 1994). Importing people the organisation have to deal with individual’s needs, values, norms, and expectations, as a consequence, to be effective the organisation have to take in account both the nature of job and those of people.

Through the Norwegian “Industrial Democracy Programmes” sponsored by the government, the employer association, and unions, STS achieved a value-free research far from the political justification for self-governance and from the economic justification of self-regulation (Susman in Moldaschl & Weber 1998:350). It led their researchers to claim a third realization through the so called principle of industrial democracy -whilst for others concentrating their efforts on the micro level of participation, and neglecting representative forms of industrial democracy they realized just direct workplace democracy (Blackler 1982 in Moldaschl & Weber 1998).

Another important concept is based on the joint optimisation through which it is possible developing design solutions that consider human criteria and efficiency criteria equally (Brown 2003). Thus, it “enables a best match in this way…such as Emery’s ‘nine-step model’ that aims to reduce “key variances” in, and between work systems, and to control them by “self-regulation” of the workers’ (Moldaschl & Weber 1998:360).

This self-regulation, interdependence and self-governance, draw attention to decisions that ca be delegated to work groups that, in function of these, are defined as autonomous work group. In some industries has been discovered that higher levels of productivity and quality can be achieved giving clusters of tasks to a work group (Findlay et al, 2000; Barker 1999; Knights and McCabe 2000; Muller 1992; Sewell 1998); such ‘autonomous work groups are then made responsible for producing entire product such a radio, an engine’ (Schein 1994).

The idea was to group several workers -organised in multifunctional structure with flexible job rotation, in a spatially and organisationally limited production unit, share a common task that is divided into interdependent sub task, and assume share responsibility over the long term. Among its criteria can be notice boundary maintenance (Moldaschl & Weber 1998:360). What sociotechnology group tried to achieve through the implement of autonomous work group is a way of simultaneously satisfying psychological and task needs (Buchanan 2000:29). In other words, a whole group is provided the opportunity to design and manage a total integrated task, thus permitting workers to fulfil their social and self actualising needs within the context of the work situation’ (Herbst 1962 in Schein 1994:195). Nevertheless being the role of management present to some extents, it is more correct to speak about semi autonomous work groups.

Among the variety of semi-autonomous work group, it is useful to adopt the three forms identified by Brown (2003). The composite fully multi skilled -as in the Tavistock Institute Coal Mining studies where miners learnt and performed diverse task; the matrix form -as in Fiorelli’s idea of quality circle where a group of people, having different specialised functions, overlapped competences (1998); and the network where individuals are far but frequently in contact to each other through information technologies such as teleconferencing to exchange knowledge – from which the ongoing ‘knowledge management team’ (Bell, Blackler and Crump in Fulop & Linstead 1999:228).

This tri-partition can be associated with changes in the second half of twentieth century in western society where ‘technological and organisational improvement led radical changes in economical sector’ (Ackroyd and Lawernson 1995, Piore & Sabel 1984, Zuboff 1998). Especially during the last three decades of the twenties century, after a climate of tension, a new international distension opened up new opportunities for businesses and ventures, new markets were found available to be explored and offered new competitive advantages to companies, (Hutton 2002). The re-design of the organisational structure bring in fact some effects within the socio-economical system where it is embedded. International markets got crowded; pressure and competition increased forcing companies to redesign their organisation. To face this turbulent environment Trist et al propose:

‘an alternative design based on the redundancies of functions: for individual they create role rather mere jobs; for the organisation they bring into being a variety-increasing system rather than the traditional control by variety reduction…(through) continuing development of appropriate new values concerned with improving the quality of working life by keeping the technological determinants of worker behaviour to a minimum in order to satisfy social and psychological needs by the involvement of all. Autonomous working groups, collaboration instead competitions, and reduction of hierarchical emphasis, are some of the requirements for operating effectively in modern turbulence (in Pugh & Hickson 1996:182 -emphasis added)

As stated by Trist within this theoretical pattern, autonomous work group is an essential ingredient for the effective organising.

Discussion and conclusion

The role of management seems to be an essential component to the achievement of the best match within the system for both Blackler and Brown (1978), and Fox (1995), whilst strangely, STS approach does not seems to explicitly address neither the problem of management, nor those of managerial control. Differently, Knights & McCabe (2000) exploring what team working means for employees’ lives within an automobile manufacture company, affirm that employees as well as managers are capable of exercise power interpreting and reinterpreting management strategies. Stressing the accent on autonomy, managerial role need to be redefined to support and favourite tasks of group members.

Accordingly, to meet autonomous work group needs a manager should be a good diagnostician, trying to be flexible enough to understand and to vary their own behaviour in relation to the needs of their subordinates (Schein 1994). Nevertheless, it is useful remember that individuals’ needs are not just meet through groups, they have another set of necessity that are fulfilled outside the group, alone, as well as with a friend. What I am addressing here is what Costea and Crump called the standardisation of individual -or better how to make an individual as unique as its mate (2003). In other words to be effective in self managing groups members have to maintain their equilibrium that permits them to keep and evolve its personality: members are not asked to follows rules, rather to make decisions. For this reason

Often, the practical one does not confirm what in academic setting appear feasible from a conceptual level. Even for the best social scientist it is quite hard, if not impossible, individuate a priori the huge amount of forces arising from the combination of interests and pressure groups in which his theory will become part. In practical conditions, sociotechnical projects sometimes failed because they subordinate human criteria to the dictates of efficiency or because they become victim of a political conflicts (Blackler, 1982; Kelly, 1978; Sydow, 1985; Pasmore, 1995 in Moldaschl & Weber 1998), making it often impossible to translate joint optimisation of human goals and efficiency into reality. ‘Although mainly consisting of psychologist of work and organisation, the “classical” Tavistock representatives of the STS approach does not regard its primary goal to be the far reaching consideration of human criteria in the design process of a work system. Rather they strive for an optimal compromise between technical, economic, and human work design objectives’ (Moldaschl & Weber 1998:362).

Changing our analysis from a classical to more contemporaneous perspective, a diverse slant come from the observation that self managing groups are still effective, but they loose their grip on organisation when have to deal with the no-routine office work of management and professional -being these set of practices developed for linear work systems (Fox 1995).

Diverse from Pugh and Hickson (1986), Fox notes that not always the use of autonomous work group seems to be appropriate, in fact ‘the creation of recticular organisation (characterised by a fluid distribution of information and authority that changes are required) may be appropriate…in some non linear work systems (1995:103). STS’ concepts have contributed to improve design and redesign of many work systems, however most of the successful experiences occurred in well-defined linear systems-characterised by a sequential process of input-output, rather in unclear defined non-linear system -where the absence of the in-out property makes it difficult to separate different conversion flows into well-bounded entities (Pava, 1986). Nevertheless, a major revolution is not required to broaden the applicability of STS principles:

Modifying the practices employed in STS design to include non-linear work systems is consistent with the essential precepts of STS design: open system analysis, a best match of social and technical subsystems, redundant functions over redundant parts, systemic interrelationships between design factors, self-design, and critical specification (Pava 211).

In this capacity to adapt itself in both changing organisational requirements and environment, I think should be recognised the bigger strength of STS. Becoming this adaptability without distort any principle, the approach seems to be relevant especially nowadays, seeking organisations new means of empowerment to boost the productivity in increasingly turbulent environment.

A final consideration is due to the work Manz who argue, the future of self-managing groups seems be oriented to lead workers to lead themselves (1992). During this movement toward a self-leading team type of work design, the latter identify some contingency factors relevant to this transition such as: nature of workers; work context; new manufacturing techniques; environment; and organisational system. However, this model seems more likely applicable in such culture where both high trust to workers and decentralisation of power is given -i.e. UK as opposite to Japan and Germany.

In fact, ‘Movement toward self-leading team work likely to require significant involvement of the work force in determining the direction of the organisation as well as carrying out that direction, and the opportunity for the work teams to influence that direction, especially as it relates to their specific work performance’ (Manz 1992). Within this framework, it possible imagine shift from traditional & participative leadership to a self management role of leader, in doing it, the new role will be to lead members’ group to lead themselves (Manz & Sims 1987). Being both the power shifting from managers to team members, and the latter able to distinguish true managerial aptitudes from artificial (Knights & McCabe 2000), a certain amount of resistance from the former could be assumed. It leads to pay attention on the way in which managers implement these set of practices.

In conclusion, due to its adaptability to technological innovations, and its flexibility in linear and non linear systems autonomous work group could seems even more actual today than during the second half of the second century. Its democratic principles and the democratic way in which tasks are thought and accomplished, seems to make this system the most appropriate within those political environment in which principles of democracy are used. This thesis seems reinforced from the growth of lean systems and consequently from practices as Just in Time, Business Process Re-engineering, or Total Quality Management in those organisational setting where work design diverse from human centred.

On the base of both the literature proposed, and the assumption resting on this paper, an important feature seems emerge. For those organisations pursuing human relations and democratic policies, autonomous work group permits both individual and organisations to pursue their own interests. Not just offering the opportunity to decrease alienation filling their social needs to the former, and to reduce practice such as of absenteeism, sabotage, and achieve that commitment and loyalty, to the latter.

Rather it seems the best compromise between capitalism and working class since the first industrial revolution to nowadays. An effective tool capable to improves and re-defines the boundaries of the psychological contract and consecutively boosts productivity and reduces costs. To create effective self-managing groups become central the role of top management in planning and develop a long-term program made of continuous investment in work design research, and in staff and management programs (Pearson 1992). It will allow a deep understanding about the dynamics of members’ needs, a constant design, a re-negation of the task requirements, and to avoid both mismanagement, and the establishment of repetitive alienating tasks.

Finally, to figure out this sophisticated topic, a broader research should analyse the interrelation and influences of related issue such as: identifications; role of control; ideology of team, politico-economic and socio-cultural peculiarity of the society; in which the organisation will decide to implement self management group working.

Within this system, autonomous work group seems to be not a problem to be solved, rather a solution to deal today with the confluence of tensions resulting from yesterday’s decisions.

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