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The Organization Man, Pt. 1: The Ideology Of

I'm on a looong flight tonight, from Columbus to San Francisco, via Charlotte. (Yes, I flew an hour East to grab a West-bound plane.) Usually on a flight, I like to keep my reading material light. Super-light... like, Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills, or Tom Clancy, or anything I think I'll reasonably be able to finish in 10-12 hours of reading (two trips' worth.) For some reason it depresses me to arrive home with a half-finished book, knowing that I'll probably set it aside just long enough for my interest in it to wane.

But tonight I brought along an old nugget that's been gathering dust on my bookshelf since college: The Organization Man, by William H. Whyte, Jr. It was published in 1956, and hailed at the time (and really ever since) as an important sociological treatise. This is not light reading.

Whyte's central thesis is that it's in the 20th-century Organization Man (sorry ladies, remember, this was the 50s) that we reached the apotheosis of a tension that's been building in our national psyche since the days of our Puratanical roots: the tension between Society and the Individual. Whyte posits that society has 'won out' for the most part, and that we seek out organizations for a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, and a deeply-held desire for security that is as old as our learned evolutionary cooperation.

But, of course, we (Americans) are also fabled for our strong sense of Rugged Individualism and our (possibly now dead, but still much-fabled) Protestant Work Ethic. And herein lies the tension: how to exist in a series of systems where cooperation, collaboration, humility and a commonly-held set of beliefs are valued, but at the same time excel as an individual? And hold thoughts, and present opinions that are oftentimes counter to our organization's established norms?

And—it should be clarified—Whyte is using 'organization' in its broadest sense. Most of the examples he cites are classic, professional organizations—businesses, labor unions, and the like—but many of the ideas are generalizable to organizations of all stripes: professional associations, communities, the church, etc.

This tension between the Group and the Individual is more than just an interesting set of observations. Whyte blames this tension for a whole host of pathologies that afflict the Organization Man (and, by extension, the society that he's built.)

What fascinates (and depresses) me is how relevant and thoroughly contemporary Whyte's observations seem today, 50 years after their publication. I'm only ~6 chapters in (they're short chapters) and nary a page has passed that doesn't fire some synapse, or cause me to make some connection to debates that continue to rage in our new Internet-driven age.

Really this shouldn't surprise me—Whyte is attempting to synthesize some large movements here, beginning as early as the Middle Ages (and our romanticized notions that people felt a deep and abiding 'belonging' living in a carefully-scripted social system that we will never achieve again.) And moving up through the Industrial Revolution.

These are not rapidly-fleeting moments in time. They are cultural and intellectual movements that can takes decades, and centuries, to transpire. Whyte writes about the problems facing the Organization Man from a time and place when it was all still new and worthy-of-note enough to comment on but—make no mistake—he describes the very situation that we find ourselves embroiled in today.

An early chapter deals with 'Scientism', which Whyte defines as “the promise that with the same techniques that have worked in the physical sciences we can eventually create an exact science of man.” This rings especially relevant to me, as a participant in, and an observer of the field of Human-Computer Interactions. I worry sometimes at the degree to which I see HCI practitioners attempt to cast the field as 'science'... a world of discoveries to be made, observations to be logged, patterns to emerge, and answers that will present themselves if we only formulate the right methodologies. Ask the right questions.

Don't we, as a profession, constantly seem to be grasping for some ideal, fixed 'science of man' that will guide our decisions and tell us what an objectively right design decision is? (Oooh, a good, perfect, pure and defensible platform from which to assert our 'best practices'. Management will have to listen! It's Science!)

Whyte, of course, disabuses this notion, and points out one of the ultimate failings of scientism: in the attempt to scientifically describe ethics (literally, looking for a formula to tell us how we should behave), the best we've been able to come up with, as an absolute good, is equilibrium.

In borrowing the equilibrium notion from physics most social scientists have thought of only one kind of equilibrium, the stable equilibrium. This generally can lead to an acceptance of social harmony—either that of the status quo or some future one—and the companion terms such as disharmony, disequilibrium, maladjustment, disorganization, are by implication “bad” things.
On the surface, that doesn't sound all that objectionable (harmony is good, and disharmony is bad—haven't we learned that since playtime in kindergarten?) but Whyte points out that 'disharmony' in a group setting is often synonymous with creativity and ingenuity.

Attempting to dictate ethics or behavior (or interaction design?) by a 'science of man' ultimately has a deeply stifling effect. (And, remember, aggravates a deep pathology within the creative individual. Whyte says “it is making an organization life increasingly hostile to the nonbeliever who hangs on to his defenses.”)

One of my favorite sections so far (called 'Togetherness') contains these nuggets:

The central fallacy, I believe, lies in what can be called false collectivization. When are people in a group? Too often, we insist on treating a person—or ourselves—as a unit of a group when association with the particular group is not vital to the task in question, or may even be oppressive. [...]

The most misguided attempt at false collectivization is the current attempt to see the group as a creative vehicle. Can it be? People very rarely think in groups; they talk together, they exchange information, they adjudicate; they make compromises. But they do not think; they do not create.[...] Among many there is a real belief that we can teach the individual to create in concert rather than as an individual and that his acceptance of the organization way will produce a combustion of ideas otherwise impossible.

Here would be the ultimate victory of the administrator. The creative individual he does not understand, nor does he understand the conditions of creativity. The messiness of intuition, the aimless thoughts, the unpractical questions—all these things that are so often the companion to discovery are anathema to the world of the administrator. Order, objective goals, agreement—these are his desiderata.

Vital they are to executing ideas, but not to creating them.

This reminds me a bit of the late hubbub over 'design thinking' and the seeming belief among corporate America that perhaps we can appropriate the trappings and 'feel' of creativity and somehow imbue an entire organization with it.

I want to point out—although I keep reading Whyte's words, and drawing associations to design and designers, he's writing of creative individuals of all stripes. And while his use of the word 'administrator' seems a little.. pejorative, I think its more interesting to think of the dichotomy he draws as Groupthink vs. Creativity. So please don't think that I've excerpted this passage in an attempt to say 'Project Managers bad, designers good.' Far from it! Hey, I like my deadlines and deliverables as much as the next guy. Or gal.

I'm running low on battery and really want to wrap this up (although there's so much more - it really is a good book.) But there's one more thing that resonated...

Whyte recounts the tale of Elton Mayo (the 'founding father of human relations'.. yes “HR”) and some research that he and his team from the Harvard Business School did in 1929. They visited the Western Electric plant in Hawthorne, Illinois. Western Electric had a thesis that they wanted to test: they posited that worker productivity would increase as lighting was increased in their workspaces. (An odd but understandable position for an electric company to champion.)

The researchers chose three rooms and progressively increased the illumination in each, at the same time keeping a careful record of work output. To their surprise, there seemed no clear relation between production and better illumination. They tried a more careful experiment: this time they would only use two rooms, one a “control” group where conditions would be left the same and the experimental room where the conditions would be introduced. Again, mixed results: output went up in the experimental room—but so did it go up in the control room.
When Mayo and his researchers arrived on the scene, they initiated a much more robust set of experiments, varying stimuli (changes in lighting, rest periods, economic incentives.) All with a control group and an experimentation group.

Contrary to their expectations—based on prevailing social science of the day—these inputs had no effect on worker productivity. In fact, throughout the research (which continued for 3 years) worker productivity for both groups continued to rise steadily, regardless of the stimulus that was applied.

How come? The researchers came to the conclusion that output shot up in both groups because in both groups the workers participation had been solicited and this involvement, clearly, was more important than physical perquisites. The workers were a social system; the system was informal but it was what really determined the worker's attitude toward his job. This social system could work against management, but if the managers troubled themselves to understand the system and its functions for the worker, the system could work for management.
This seems elementary to us now—the workers feelings of belonging trumped everything else, and the fact that management was really trying to understand and improve their conditions (albeit for the company's own benefit—productivity) incented positive behavior.

It seems elementary to us today, but we forget it all the time. Witness the piling-on last week of public response to the new Yahoo! TV design. Amongst a mountain of complaints large and small (and all perfectly valid, in their own ways) I think the predominant opinion seemed to be one of betrayal from the community. Why didn't you involve us? seems to be the most common refrain. This would probably not surprise Mayo, nor Whyte.

Ironically, in a redesign intended to promote more community interaction, that very goal seems to have been achieved—a group of previously-solitary TV 'visitors'—just there to grab the latest listings—have now become an angry and vociferous mob. Okay, 'mob' isn't being very generous—I'm just trying to say.. Yahoo TV asked for a community, and boy did they get one quick! Just, perhaps, not the one that they were expecting.

I probably won't be writing anymore about The Organization Man, but I strongly suggest you read it for yourself. It's a thought-provoking look at organization life.



This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 7, 2006 4:48 AM.

The previous post in this blog was The Organization Man.

The next post in this blog is Returning in Style.

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