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Book Summary:

An Action Perspective:
The Crux of the New Management

By Nitin Nohira and James D. Berkley 1994

California Management Review, Vol. 36 #4 Summer 1994 pp. 70-92.

ABSTRACT: The search for rational, linear designs are not the point in a non-linear world. The identification and reliance on pragmatic action will suggest the direction of future actions. Designs are a part of action but are not given special privilege. This article compares and contrasts the design and action perspectives.

Key Points:

                Design Perspective                                                 Action Perspective

Privileges rational design Privileges pragmatic action
Focus on states Focus on processes
Reduces uncertainty Exploits uncertainty
The mean is the rule The exception in the rule
Universalistic Particularistic
Equilibrium-seeking Disequilibrium-seeking
Designs as ends Designs as means to ends
One-best-way or fit Multiple solutions
Structure is defined in advance Structure is emergent from action
Systems are control-oriented Systems are responsiveness-oriented
Strategy is top-down, planned Strategy is bottom-up, evolutionary
Human resources are organization-oriented Human resources are individual-oriented

Organizational Structures
Key Point: New structures are not as relevant as new perspectives.

Searching for the "new" organizational structure will prove to be both elusive and counterproductive. It would be better to think of the recent ongoing changes in management as entailing a new perspective. The experiments taking place in organizations are not leading to some fixed, new architecture, they are expressions of the flight from any architecture. The temptation for a new structure is the biggest danger in organizational change.

Design and Action
Key Point: Reasons for and identification of the action perspective.

This de-emphasis is a rethinking of two fundamental concepts: design and action. The informal structure in organizations has always been secondary to the division of labor, resource allocation, and HR practices. All management activities have been directed at these formal designs for how the organization should work. Design is the overarching perspective in each area of management.

The rise of information technologies have changed all of this. Many traditional roles of organizations now happen instantly. This makes the world seem very chaotic, more complex, less responsive to authority. Experiments have flourished in this environment . Underlying these experiments is the hope for a new organizational model.

But it is not merely a transition to a new model. The shift is away from mechanistic models altogether. The concepts that arise instead incorporate change, flux and real-time action. The trend to an action perspective is a trend away from the selection of unity and stability as goals and moves toward an ethic of multiplicity and flux. The action perspective sees organizations as complex systems where everything happens at once. It is an emergent whole. Action does not rule out design, it simply does not give design any privilege over any other tool available. Action is more embodying of possibilities.

It is not enough for an organization to announce a "re-design" or new non-hierarchical structure. An action perspective centers on pragmatic activity and focuses on people collaborating not fitting them into a new chart. Action puts responsiveness ahead of controls. As circumstances are constantly evolving, it makes more sense to reward revisions in strategic and budget targets when the changes are made in the organizations interest. It is no longer "strategic planning" but "strategic intent". These are responsive, flexible activities centered around the "core competencies" of the organization. This sort of process demands more participation and bottom -up communication. The information must come from people who are encountering it. People throughout the organization assume more responsibility in an action perspective. Capital allocation changes as flexibility in that process increases.

Choices for Managers
Key Point: Moving to action from design takes work and ideas

HR attempts like "empowerment" are really just more structures. HR departments are usually the last of the great defenders of the design mode in an organization. Individuals do more "knowledge work " now, and are less likely to fit into an abstract structure predetermined by personnel. Policies should support individual initiatives and recognize individual differences. HR departments are in the unfortunate position of being the ones charged with carrying out organizational change but are usually the least equipped to do so.

It is a lot of work for a manager to keep pragmatic action in the foreground. It is important not to get suckered into a design mode. Action has to do with changing the way we think and any tool might be appropriate. The overall focus is the change from design to action. The tools are not the focus. There is no shortage of good ideas, but it takes an enormous amount of persistence and work to put them into action.

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