Roosevelt and Churchill at Chatsworth House

Improving work with better relationships

There is a growing body of people bringing new perspectives on the way organisations are structures and how work gets done. Amongst these, I have recently found a podcast, Reimagining Work, presented by John Wenger and Rogier Noort. It has now been running for 14 episodes, and I listened to a few of these on my walk this morning.

Roosevelt and Churchill at Chatsworth HouseThe presenters have very different backgrounds, which makes their conversations more interesting than if they came from the same direction. Rogier’s experiences are more rooted in technology, whilst John’s come from helping businesses with people issues. In the first episode they talked a little about their previous work, and I was struck by John’s description of something he offers as part of his consulting work — sociometry. John described this in the podcast as follows:

Sociometry is a word that literally means ‘measure of social relationships’ — connections between people. One of the themes of sociometry — teachings of sociometry — is that the quality of an outcome is directly related to the quality of relationships between the people who are trying to generate that outcome. Therefore, if you have better relationships, what you try and do together will be more productive, more satisfying, more life-giving.

There is also a later podcast dedicated to the topic (which I have yet to listen to), and John has a blog post on the topic. But John’s description made me think about teams and crews.

I have mentioned crews before. For now, the important point is that unlike a team, which has an existence of its own, a crew is a temporary group of people brought together for a particular job or task and then disbanded. In sociometric terms, the members of a crew may not have a relationship of any sort prior to coming together. There is value in both approaches to work, but does the lack of a pre-existing relationship mean that a crew-based approach is at a disadvantage against a team focus?

I am not sure that it does, as long as the organisation is not bound to traditional models of work and management. The classic crew might be a group of fire-fighters, police officers, paramedics and road managers brought together to deal with a serious motor collision. Each member of the crew brings their own professional expertise, which is respected by the others and which the others have no interest in challenging. As a result, they all do their work as a group and achieve most effectively what needs to be done — often without a lot of command and instruction. Discipline and practice takes the place of strong relationships.

By contrast, an organisation that depends heavily on hierarchy and command-and-control management probably could not use crews to get work done. Instead, teams arise and are managed more or less well (depending largely on the quality of the relationships within and between them. They therefore miss out on the possibility that a crew might bring a better outcome by introducing new expertise and experience. By contrast, I think that an organisation which uses social technology to build relationships where there isn’t necessarily an existing working connection (along the lines of Mark S. Granovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties”) can use those relationships as the basis for task- or activity-based crews. The outcome would be a much lower dependence on managed structures, more autonomy for people working in groups, and improved value for the business.

Building on the relationships theme, John and Rogier spend some time in a later podcast discussing empathy and its power to improve the way people work together. This leads to a conversation about the way organisations tend to dehumanise people when they think of them as assets or resources. Coincidentally, I have been reading a paper summarising critiques of the resource-based view of the firm. I was led to that research by my concern that organisations were treating knowledge as an asset and that this didn’t reflect the reality of how knowledge flows and how it is valued.

In the paper, the resource-based view of the firm is described thus (I have removed the references for ease of reading):

The resource-based view (RBV) has become one of the most influential and cited theories in the history of management theorizing. It aspires to explain the internal sources of a firm’s sustained competitive advantage (SCA). Its central proposition is that if a firm is to achieve a state of SCA, it must acquire and control valuable, rare, inimitable, and nonsubstitutable resources and capabilities, plus have the organization in place that can absorb and apply them. This proposition is shared by several related analyses: core competences, dynamic capabilities, and the knowledge-based view.

The paper summarises eight ways in which this view has been challenged, but doesn’t offer an alternative approach (reasonably, as it is a literature review). In listening to John and Rogier, I wondered whether a better way of understanding the strength of a business might be an evaluation of the strength of its relationships (internally — within teams and more generally across the organisation — and externally — with clients/customers, suppliers, competitors, and the wider market) and the merit of the work it does (in terms of social value outside the organisation and personal value within it). A business that was well-connected and whose people enjoyed their work and knew that it added value to the world would be in a stronger position than one which demotivated its employees by keeping them in unjustifiable silos producing things of no particular worth.

This combined relationship/activity-based value probably wouldn’t appeal to traditional economists, because it has the benefit of being additive — a business that is successful by this measure does not succeed at the expense of another. Good relationships and social value are like knowledge in this respect — if they are shared they grow rather than being diminished. As the authors of the RBV review put it:

Another characteristic of knowledge, hardly taken into account in the RBV, is its nonrivalrousness—meaning that its deployment by one firm, or for one purpose, does not prevent its redeployment by the same or another firm, or for another purpose. On the contrary, deploying knowledge may increase it.

That sounds like a powerful reason for organisations and individuals using knowledge well, in addition to building relationships and generating real value for society. In short — doing great work.

3 thoughts on “Improving work with better relationships”

  1. […] There is a growing body of people bringing new perspectives on the way organisations are structures and how work gets done. Amongst these, I have recently found a podcast, Reimagining Work, presented by John Wenger and Rogier Noort. It has now been running for 14 episodes, and I listened to a few of these on my walk this morning.  […]

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