Can We Take ‘Work-Group’ Seriously?

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In a provocative article titled “Suppose we took groups seriously.” Leavitt (1975) raises the possibility that it might be better to design and manage organizations using groups rather than individuals as the basic building blocks. Among the advantages Leavitt sees as possible from such an approach are the following: — Groups seem to be good for people, in that they can provide members with important social satisfactions, support under stress, enriched opportunities for learning, and a wider range of activities than might be available to individuals.

— Groups can be good at finding problems, and at promoting innovation.

— Groups make better decisions than individuals on some kinds of tasks.

— Groups can be good tools for implementation in organizations, in that group decisions to which members are committed will be carried out willingly.

— Groups can control the behavior of individual members more effectively than often is possible using formal organizational controls.

— Groups can help fend off the negative consequences of large organizational size, by keeping communication lines short and hierarchies relatively flat.

Given possible benefits such as these, one could view work groups as a panacea for organizational problems which assuredly they are not. For one thing, groups can turn sour: they can enforce norms of low rather than high work effectiveness (Whyte, 1955); at times they make notoriously bad decisions'(Janis, 1972); they fall into patterns of destructive conflict with other groups (Alderfer, 1977); and sometimes they exploit and stress group members rather than aid in their growth and personal well-being (Hackman, 1976).

Moreover, despite the increasing number of organizations that are designing work to be done by interacting groups, these are still major gaps in our understanding of the reasons why some such groups function effectively–and why others turn out to be a source of continual difficulty and dismay for both group members and organizational management. These gaps currently place severe limits on our ability to develop and utilize groups as fully as possible in carrying out the work of organizations. First, the theory does not specify the attributes of group tasks that are required for creation of effective autonomous work groups. Simple prescriptions about providing groups with autonomy and creating “whole” tasks do not provide the kind of operational specificity that is needed to guide applications of the theory. Also, because key task attributes are not specified, it is not possible to devise measures of those attributes for use in theory guided diagnoses of work systems prior to change, in evaluations of the effects of changes on the work, or in tests of the conceptual adequacy of the theory itself.

Secondly, individual differences among people are not explicitly dealt with in the sociotechnical approach. While it is recognized –at individuals are social beings, and that social relationships must be carefully attended to in the design or change of any work system, the theory does not deal with the fact that social needs vary in strength among people. Such differences may affect whether individuals seek out or resist opportunities to participate in an autonomous work group. Moreover, the theory fails to deal with other human needs that may be salient for individuals in organizations, some of which (e.g., needs for personal growth) appear to affect how people react to their work

Finally, the theory does not address the internal dynamics that occur among members of work groups, or offer guidance about how such groups could be designed to increase the chances that they will achieve internal health and effectiveness. The assumption, apparently, is that members of autonomous work groups will develop on their own satisfactory ways of working together, and that they will be able to adjust their internal dynamics appropriately in changing task or organizational circumstances. Given the substantial evidences on the ways that groups can go “sour,” the validity of that assumption must be considered questionable.

The incompleteness of socio technical systems theory makes it difficult to translate from the general (and doubtless correct) tenets of the theory to either a set of testable propositions about the conditions under which autonomous work groups will and will not be effective, or to the specific action steps that should be taken to create and maintain such groups indifferent organizational settings. In particular, it appears necessary to flesh out the principles of sociotechnical systems design in the following three areas: (a) the characteristics of jobs and tasks that prompt effective work behaviour, (b) individual differences among people that affect reactions to work, and to work groups, and (c) internal social. Processes that occur among members of work groups.

Hackman, JR (1976) The design of self-managing work groups. DTIC Document.  http://www.dtic.mil/cgi-bin/GetTRDoc?AD=ADA036731 (accessed 25/03/13).

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