Friday, December 18, 2020

You Want to Control Us? But We Are Your Employees!

Organizations control people and processes – that is how organizations organize. It is unpleasant to some employees and surprising to others, but it is true. A serious concern employees have is that often the forms of control are designed by people who do not understand their work because they are too high up in the organization, as managers often are. If new instructions that control employees do not fit their work, what happens?

This very important question is addressed in research by Jillian Chown published in Administrative Science Quarterly. She looked at an interesting and typical case of control. A new process that improves work has been discovered elsewhere in the organization, executives love the process and its results, and now they are instructing new departments to follow the process. Except that those departments work differently from the ones that initially benefited from it. Everyone knows that people are stuck in their habits and often resist change that is good for them, but they also resist change that is bad for them and the organization. It is important to tell these apart. Chown focused on a work practice used successfully in the inpatient wards of a hospital and then transferred to outpatient clinics. 

Guess what? Outpatient clinics have patients who come and go every day, which makes them very different from inpatient wards. The new process did not work in any of the six clinics, and in response, the staff of the clinics started modifying it to make improvements. This is where things got interesting. Usually, we think of modification as a form of customization. If a meeting in the morning does not help a team schedule processes and assign work and equipment well enough, they may change who attends, what information is brought up, and what kind of decisions are made in the meeting. A team can customize, learn from the customization, customize again, and repeat this until they have a process that works well. Top-level executives and managers further below can see that a customized process is a great way to implement something similar to what they intended, but better. In Chown’s research, customization was an easy and good outcome for half of the clinics. But the other half did not customize. What about them?

In these clinics, the staff saw the new process as completely unfit to the problems they faced and did not see a path toward fixing it through customization. The result was conflicts with the program managers trying to start the process adoption, and these conflicts had interesting outcomes. The clinics were able to halt the process adoption in the original intended form and even the customization of it. But also, the clinics knew that change was needed to improve their workflow, and executives demanded it happen urgently. In response, they started innovating processes. These had some minor resemblance to the original process but were different in form and content, so they were transmutations of it.

Transmutations were not easy to develop because the learning process was harder than with customization and also had less support from the program managers, but all the clinics in question managed to find new processes that improved their work. This is a great testament to how well teams can find new forms of control of their own work. It also brings up a small puzzle: If these improvements were always possible and were so different from what the executives tried to introduce, why had they not happened already? People do resist change, but when they are pushed, they can identify change that works. The specifics of a new form of control may matter less than the effort to enact it.

Chown, Jillian. 2020. "The Unfolding of Control Mechanisms inside Organizations: Pathways of Customization and Transmutation." Administrative Science Quarterly, forthcoming.