SAID IT COULDN'T BE DONE: OD SUCCESS WITH KNOWLEDGE WORKERS
Randi S. Brenowitz, MBA, and Tracy C. Gibbons, Ph.D.
article appeared in the Conference Proceedings of the Organization
Development Network Annual Conference, October 1997.
Although much team development work has been done in the U.S.
in the past decade, very little of it has been successful with
engineering organizations. We discovered and had to cope with
some striking paradoxes that affect the probability of success
when working with this population. The first is the difference
between process work and workers, on the one hand, and knowledge
work and workers on the other. By definition, manufacturing and
process workers have respect for the concept of process. Because
of the obvious interdependencies of the components of a process,
and the relative ease of cross-training and work-sharing, process
workers have been using teams for a number of years. To them,
the team concept is simply part of their regular work environment.
Therefore, most of the technology and literature about teams,
team-development, and building collaborative work environments
refer to manufacturing and/or process-driven work.
In engineering and other knowledge work organizations, however,
the concept of team is frequently associated with a loss of creative
freedom and individuality. In an organization where the charter
is to imagine and invent, the very possibility of losing the freedom
to innovate is traumatic. Engineering work is not a matter of
continuous improvement, but rather of creation and innovation,
leading to technological and conceptual paradigm shifts; in addition,
this type of work is not conducive to cross-training or pay-for-knowledge
reward systems that are typical within team-based process organizations.
Therefore, the technology of teams does not translate will into
engineering organizations and is considered suspect by both the
engineers and their management.
The length of feedback loops in knowledge worker organizations
is much longer than those in manufacturing organizations. On an
engineering project, it may take years before one knows if the
customer or marketplace thinks positively about the product. This
is in contrast to "quality control" or "internal
inspection" in manufacturing organizations, where feedback
may be received in a matter of hours or days. Engineers are trained
to be independent workers. They are often frustrated that the
demands of today's technology and market-place impose structural
constraints on their work environments. They prefer being measured
on individual uniqueness and heroics, not on collaboration and
The complexities and demands for speed of today's market-place
are among the factors that OD professionals assume will drive
people toward increased collaboration and shared accountability.
Paradoxically, they have the exact opposite effect on many knowledge
workers. Engineers frequently engage in win-lose thinking, see
communication as expressing weakness, value isolation and individual
achievement, avoid conflict, and devalue social norms without
understanding (or even identifying) the consequences of that behavior.
The more complex a project becomes, the more an engineer wants
to work in his or her own cubicle on a portion of the project,
limiting any dependence on others. The very ways in which we would
intuitively like to support them are often what they want least.
In fact, the team-based tools and interventions OD professionals
believe would be most helpful to them can make us look like (and
sometimes actually be) part of the problem.
Three concepts have been useful to us in designing and implementing
team-based interventions with knowledge-workers.
Morton Salt Box Theory. On the familiar blue cylindrical box,
there is a picture of a little girl in a yellow dress, carrying
an umbrella and a box of salt. The box under her arm has the same
picture on it, which features the same picture, and so forth.
In this infinite regression, the picture stays the same, while
its size changes predictably. This model provides a metaphor for
understanding patterns of organizational behavior: if you verify
a pattern at one level, you can depend on seeing it at other levels.
As a diagnostic tool, it reduces the need to see a particular
pattern everywhere before drawing conclusions and moving forward.
The opposite principle also holds true: once you create and diffuse
a new pattern, it will generally recreate itself on levels other
than the initial one.
Iceberg Model of Emergence. Only a small part of any iceberg
is visible above the ocean's surface. If the water level drops,
more of the iceberg's topography will be revealed, improving the
likelihood of successful navigation. While sailors may know that
they are near an iceberg (and therefore which chart to use), they
cannot know the exact navigational course until they are closer
and can collect and process more information. Doing work that,
in effect, reduces the "water level" makes it easier
to determine subsequent interventions.
Model of Change Adoption. Everett Rogers (1978; 1995) predicts
that the likelihood of a change effort being sustained is based
on the percentage of the target population that has embraced the
change over time. When 5% has adopted a change, he calls it "embedded"--it
will not go away even though it may never be completed. When 20%
of a group has changed, Rogers postulates that completion is now
"inevitable"--the effort cannot be stopped. This model
leads us to conclude that there are advantages to introducing
an intervention systematically to carefully selected sub-groups,
building acceptance as quickly as possible to 5% and then 20%
of the client organization.
Integrating the above three models in the context of our own experience
leads to the following Formula for Success:
Client + Theoretical Model + Clear Vision and Operating
Principles + Working Plan + Foundation Work +
Ability to Recognize and Leverage Real-Time Opportunities
Large-Scale Organization Change
formula has kept us stabilized and focused as we proceed with
this work in rapidly-changing environments that demand flexibility.
We go back to the formula frequently when determining next steps
and direction. It has aided our ability to modify our work plans
or particular tasks without sacrificing the integrity of any project
or intervention or of the model itself.
Our success in working with knowledge worker organizations has
been documented by Dr. Lawrence Browning, Professor of Communications
at the University of Texas - Austin in a study entitled, "An
Analysis of the Program to Develop a Team-Based Organization in
IND." This study, based on grounded theory, analyzed the
effects of a large systems change effort in a division of a Silicon
Valley semiconductor corporation. This culturally diverse organization
was comprised primarily of engineers engaged in product design,
development and marketing. We helped transform the client's steep
hierarchical organization into a team-based one that is characterized
by integrity, open communication, initiative seeking, expansive-thinking,
Browning's study acknowledges that "the methods for implementing
teamwork practices are like commodities. Besides being widely
available, they are generally agreed-upon work-production techniques--i.e.,
there is consensus on what one can expect from them. What's special
in this instance is that these same practices are being applied
to knowledge-workers in a setting that has had little experience
with, and a fair amount of resistance to, teamwork philosophies.
This is not a story of some exotic concepts arranged in an unheard-of
way; it is a story of implementation, of taking a fairly well-known
set of practices and making them the work methods of people who
had no experience with, or larger cultural support for, them."
documented success in doing this work in engineering organizations
is in part based on what we now call the "Peace Corps Model
of OD." The Peace Corps was innovative in many ways. Peace
Corps workers live with the indigenous population. They are required
to learn the language of that population, and they use only those
tools that the population can learn to use. They respect the accomplishments
of the natives. They are not chartered with changing the religious
truths of the population.
And so it is with OD work in engineering organizations. While
keeping in mind the fundamental differences between process work
and knowledge work, we have had to become experts in the language
and culture of intuitive, analytical personality types. To the
extent possible, we work with intact, cross-functional, and cross-organizational
teams, acknowledging the difficulty of engineering work. We modify
our processes when necessary without sacrificing our core values.
Remembering that engineers pride themselves on their ability to
find "bugs" and flaws, it is essential that we "walk
our talk" at all times. We provide continuous support, coaching,
and reinforcement to our client organizations and are always respectful
of tight deadlines and the stress of "scheduling invention."
We contrast the Peace Corps model with that of Missionaries and
Crusaders, who scorn local beliefs, abrasively replace local customs,
and feel superior to the natives. The subtle but important distinction
is easily noticed by engineers. Albeit skeptically, they are typically
willing to work with and respect the ideas of Peace Corps professionals--but
they are ever vigilant against Missionaries and Crusaders.
Although OD practitioners devote much time and energy to building
team-based collaborative work environments with our clients, most
of us, paradoxically, work alone. While many of us are well versed
in the literature of teams, we have little experience actually
participating on a team. In order for our model to work, the HR/OD/Training
professionals must create a "virtual team" themselves.
This requires that we engage in much the same process through
which we take our clients. We must create a vision and sense of
purpose for the intervention, engaging in a consensus process
with others who have different perspectives from our own. We must
work collaboratively without regard to status or turf. It is the
ultimate in professional congruence. Difficult as it may be, the
rewards for doing so are great--increased productivity, creativity,
and personal growth and satisfaction. The very ones we promise
our clients when helping them become high-performing work teams.
E.M. (1995). Diffusion of innovations (4th ed.). New York:
The Free Press.
L. (1995). An analysis of the program to develop a team-based
organization in IND. Unpublished manuscript, Partnerwerks,
Inc., Austin, TX.