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Saturday, June 12, 2010

Wilensky on Organizational Intelligence 3

Post partly based on Chapter 8 of Organizational Intelligence by Harold Wilensky, published in 1967, in which he summarizes his conclusions on organizational intelligence.


Intelligence failures are built into complex organizations

"On the one hand, the most readily accomplished revamping of structure turns out to be mere organizational tinkering."

Wilensky points out that reorganization often merely gives official recognition to practices that had already evolved informally - for example, an interdepartmental committee that institutionalizes information sharing and collaboration, or a public affirmation of fixed departmental positions. But that doesn't mean organizational innovation can always be dismissed as tinkering, merely that there is often a time-lag between the development of an innovation in the real organization and its being captured in the formal organization.

"On the other hand, even when the reorganization of formal structure is pushed to its limit, the basic sources of distortion remain in some degree."

Wilensky expresses scepticism about any singleminded approach to administrative reforms that facilitate the flow of accurate information, for the following reasons.

  • the proper mastery of the task calls for specialization
  • the need to motivate and control personnel necessitates hierarchy
  • coordination demands centralization
  • the exigencies of decision seem to require direct answers, if not short-run predictions of the future
  • internal security and outside competition necessitate security - to the extent that other organizational interests must be protected

I agree with his conclusion that a singleminded approach is inappropriate, but I don't agree with all the reasons he cites. For example, although the book contains many criticisms of hierarchy and its constraints, he still expected organizations to be largely hierarchical in structure, and he could not have foreseen the radical alternatives to hierarchy that have emerged since this book was published.

"Many sources of intelligence failures are natural to the state of the organization's development and are therefore substantially beyond its control."

If we focus (as Wilensky does) on the formal organization, the fact that some individuals may bypass the regular machinery and construct informal intelligence mechanisms on their own initiative can be seen as an organizational intelligence failure. However, if we focus on the informal (de facto) organization, the ability of the organization to accommodate this kind of initiative is a positive indicator.

But reliance on heroes taking personal initiatives is not enough for real organizational intelligence. Wilensky's book contains many examples of organizations that have been led astray by false certainties, narrow thinking, and insufficiently rigorous and critical debate. His final paragraph (which it is not hard to project onto more recent events) is as follows.

"To read the history of modern intelligence failures is to get the nagging feeling that men at the top are often out of touch, that good intelligence is difficult to come by and enormously difficult to listen to; that big decisions are very delicate but not necessarily deliberative; that sustained good judgement is rare. Bemoaning the decline of meaningful action, T.S. Eliot once spoke of a world that ends 'not with a bang but a whimper'. What we have to fear is that the bang will come, preceded by the contemporary equivalent of the whimper - a faint rustle of paper as some self-convinced chief of state, reviewing a secret memo full of comfortable rationalizations just repeated at the final conference, fails to muster the necessary intelligence and wit and miscalculates the power and intent of his adversaries."

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