Organizational sensing: why indicators are not enough

The world around us is changing quickly. Organizations need to rapidly respond to a changing world. In a knowledge intensive world, pressured by hypercompetition, new forms of organization are required to keep up. Especially around the topic of enabling value delivery, organisations need to balance the paradox of steering. Either steering via management (coordination) or empower teams to organise themselves. John Child in his book Organizations describes the concepts of integration and coordination, mechanisms to enable delivery of value.

According to Child, integration is the cohesion and synergy between roles and departments that need each other to create value. Coordination is the process of aligning and instilling processes to achieve a state of integration in the organization. In simpler terms. It typically means that management assign tasks and defines processes to ensure value is commonly defined. As organizations need to deliver value quicker and keep innovating, newer forms of establishing this is required. This can be achieved via virtual teams or higher autonomy of teams.

What we typically see in our engagements are leadership teams that are unable to bring cohesion to all the symptoms they are observing. There is a focus on coordination. But, coordination does not mean a cohesive picture of the problems causing the symptoms. Partly, this has to do with a culture of firefighting. A culture where we reward and praise the people who solve problems, not the people who prevent problems from happening. There’s this great paper that describes the problem that keeps this culture alive

Sustainable improvements require leadership to look holistically to the symptoms that they are seeing, and to think about their coordinating role in their job. As a leader, do you need to be involved in knowledge sharing and decision-making? What can be achieved via teams directly? What responsibilities and autonomy can you give to the team? Freeing yourself from operational issues and giving time, energy and attention for looking at the bigger picture. Designing and organising for integration allows for sustainable improvements of the processes and delivery.

Nevertheless, in these newer forms, management still needs to have a clue what’s going on in the organization. Metrics and indicators are a good means for this. Sensors like customer satisfaction, velocity and OKRs are a display of the organization performance. These forms of – what is called – organizational data mining are quite familiar. Many organizations realise this and as such are investing in their data capabilities. KPIs, OKRs, SLA, SLI, acronyms which are becoming more familiar each day in various organizations.

Combining metrics with human sensing

These views can -and should be – combined with human sensing. Elements that are hard to grasp in numbers like morale, employee engagement, psychological safety in the team, the perceived drive and freedom to innovate.

Combining organizational data mining and human sensing is called organizational sensing. The practice is heavily influenced by the world of cybernetics. Coming from the Greek work to steer. It supports and thrives self-correction. Am I on the right path to my goal or do I need to adjust course? Much like if you are the captain of a ship.

As said, newer forms of organizations require management teams to achieve integration differently. A way that asks for a new form of coordination. Organizational sensing aids in this new form of coordination. How often are you combining the technical and human perspective and having healthy conversations about what is being observed? Are you aware if you need to steer the ship or not?

Often organizations can use a fresh perspective to free themselves from the culture of firefighting. Someone that can tie the various symptoms together to the root causes. Our scans and assessments are a way to offer that fresh perspective. It’s a first step to introduce organizational sensing to an organization. Bringing insights, ideas and new energy to evolve to an agile and effective organisation by the introduction of sustainable improvements.