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Affinity groups: the missing link in employee involvement.

Traditionally, the word employee in the term employee involvement has referred to everyone other than managers or white collar support personnel. Most involvement approaches--from quality circles to empowerment initiatives--are "sold" to top executives and "done" to line workers, leaving a large and critically important group of employees untouched and uninvolved.

This makes very little sense. How can a company encourage its line employees to participate in continuous improvement at the same time that it effectively "excuses" staff personnel from practicing what is being preached? At the same time, recent improvement initiatives, such as business process re-engineering, stress the importance of involving all employees.

How does an organization accomplish this? Our work with employee-involvement initiatives in nontraditional settings over the past 15 years suggests that the quality circle methodology does not work with leaders, managers, or technical and administrative workers. But what has proven promising with these groups is an employee-involvement method we call affinity groups.

The following pages report on what we learned during our multi-year field test of white collar and knowledge worker affinity groups. To present the clearest possible explication of how such groups operate, we present three case studies: the first from a large government program office in the Department of Energy, the second from a wholesale food distributor in Ontario, Canada, and the third from the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In sum, these case studies include experience and knowledge gained with secretaries, executive assistants, department heads, top managers, middle managers, and technical directors--employees typically left out of systematic continuous improvement efforts.


The many forms of employee involvement can be grouped into two basic categories. The first (more common) approach consists of suggestion systems, quality circles, ad-hoc participation groups, and cross-functional task forces. These programs are part of the parallel organization structure and thus can be called supplemental initiatives. The parallel organization co-exists with the formal organization structure and is intended to facilitate communication, coordination, and opportunities for change.

The second employee-involvement approach includes replacement initiatives, which modify or replace the formal organization structure. Essentially, these initiatives become institutionalized; they involve employees in decision making regarding how work is performed and how jobs can be made more effective. An example of a replacement initiative is self-managing work teams, which are different from quality circles and other problem-solving groups in that they make problem solving, decision making, and managing the work process part of the day-to-day job.

Of course, some supplemental initiatives, such as a quality council or quality-management board, may become permanent. Others, such as task forces, may be formed for a specific purpose and then dissolved, with group members going on to different improvement projects. Still other supplemental initiatives may evolve into more sophisticated and complex forms of participation--for example, a quality circle may eventually become a self-managing work team.


While it is true that white collar and knowledge workers already have considerable autonomy in how they carry out their jobs, very few organizations systematically bring them together to determine how to make their jobs more effective and how to improve the organization overall. Why is this so? Is it because of the way employee involvement, or empowerment, has been defined? Is it a consequence of how employee involvement has been operationalized in organizations? Or is there something inherently more difficult about involving these employees? Perhaps it is a little of each.

Let's first take a look at how employee involvement has been defined. One well-known definition is Edwin Locke and David Schweiger's explanation of participative decision making as "joint decision making." Another definition of employee involvement describes it as a systematic approach to redistributing the responsibility and accountability for problem solving and decision making to the lowest appropriate level. One could also look at the dimensions of participation that have been identified in the literature: the degree to which it is formal, versus informal; the degree to which it is direct, versus indirect; the level of influence that employees have; and the nature of the decisions they make. Clearly, the definitions of participation do not inherently exclude white collar and knowledge workers, although many definitions tend to emphasize involving lower level employees.

Could it be that the manner in which employee involvement has been operationalized--that is, the specific initiatives that have been put into place--is more at the heart of the issue? According to a recent survey by Edward E. Lawler III, the most common supplemental initiative is quality circles, followed by other types of participation groups, union-management committees, and survey feedback. The most common replacement initiatives are job redesign, self-managing work teams, and mini-enterprise units. With the exception of mini-enterprise units, which organize all employees into autonomous business units, each of these initiatives is targeted toward production/service employees. Traditionally, these employees have had no input regarding how to perform their jobs on a daily basis or how to make their jobs more effective or improve the entire organization. In addition, production/service employees have traditionally been closely supervised, while white collar and knowledge workers have had much more autonomy. Perhaps organizations have sought to redistribute decision-making power more equitably by focusing their involvement efforts on production/service workers.

Could the problem also be that it is simply more difficult to involve this segment of workers in an improvement effort? Possibly, since managers do seem to perceive a link between certain performance improvements and a team-based organizational design that includes knowledge workers. For example, most managers would say that their organization needs to improve in key performance areas to become globally competitive. Cycle time reduction is one common performance goal. To reduce the time it takes to get products to market, managers often find it necessary to move toward a product-oriented management approach, developing teams that are responsible for a particular product or service. This type of team is cross-functional, often including people from marketing, design, and production.

Our experience suggests that many continuous improvement efforts fail, or are not as effective as they could be, due to a lack of communication and coordination across functions. Complex problems do not fall neatly under the domain of engineering or operations or finance. They are "meta-problems"--with sociological, economic, cultural, political, and technological impact. For this reason, problem-solving efforts must be coordinated across functions. Without a comprehensive strategy involving all employees, an organization is realizing only a fraction of the benefits possible.


To examine the affinity group process, it's important to begin with a definition. Specifically, an affinity group is a collegial association of peers that meets on a regular basis to share information, capture opportunities, and solve problems that affect the group and the overall organization. Affinity groups are a horizontal, cross-cutting mechanism. Among their key characteristics:

1. Group members have the same job position or title.

2. Group-member roles are formalized.

3. Group meetings are regular and frequent.

4. The group has a charter stating its mission and domain.

5. The group is self-managing, in that it is responsible for managing its processes and output.

The affinity group concept has evolved over a number of decades. Early forerunners were based on McCormick & Company's Junior Board of Directors, instituted by Charles P. McCormick in the 1930s and described in his books The Power of People and Multiple Management. The purpose of the Junior Board of Directors was to provide junior executives in all parts of the organization with a mechanism for identifying improvement opportunities, such as ways to improve processes, improve new product development, and increase sales. Its objective was not to supersede the judgment of top managers, but to supplement that judgment with the "energizing power of new ideas." McCormick believed the greatest benefit of this board was that it trained and developed junior executives so they would be prepared to lead the company in the future. Our affinity group model is based on McCormick's original concept but has been modified and extended to include not only lower- and middle-level managers, but technical and administrative employees as well.

Within an organization's infrastructure, affinity groups are a supplemental initiative, since they are not part of daily production/service responsibilities. The parallel organization structure provides unique problem-solving and improvement opportunities for these groups, whose members would not routinely interact as part of their daily job responsibilities. Affinity groups also have a link to the formal organization, however, because they are composed of cross-sections of employees having similar job positions in the organization. An organization may implement other initiatives in the parallel structure in addition to affinity groups. Below, we discuss the characteristics of affinity groups in more depth.

Key Characteristic No. 1: The Same Job Position

An affinity group's members have the same general position or job title. Thus, members do not typically feel inhibited at meetings, since they need not fear repercussions from those with more formal power. The power that is exerted during group meetings tends to be personal or expert power, rather than formal hierarchical power. In addition, if a member cannot attend a meeting, he or she is not permitted to send a substitute. As a result, group meetings are always composed of attendees who are true members of the group, are abreast of group activities, and are willing participants.

Key Characteristic No. 2: Formal Group-Member Roles

Group-member roles are formal, in that the group elects a convener, a recorder, and a reporter, and it specifies a term of office, usually six months. An external facilitator, who is not a member of the group or organization, is also named. The use of formal roles helps affinity groups achieve several benefits. First, these roles introduce members to group process and behavior, which improves the quality and effectiveness of meetings. Members develop an awareness of the need for roles and become skilled at performing them over time. In addition, the convener, recorder, and reporter roles are rotated among group members, which fosters maximum participation and spreads the workload among the entire group. The responsibilities of these three roles and that of the external facilitator are described in Exhibit 2.

Key Characteristic No. 3: Regular, Frequent Meetings

Affinity groups generally meet weekly or bi-weekly on the same day of the week and at the same time, unlike standing committees, which meet only to address a specific need or problem, or task forces, which are dissolved once the task is accomplished. As a result, they can progress quickly through the stages of group development identified by Bruce Tuckman: forming, storming, norming, and performing. The overall process of an affinity group meeting includes three key sub-processes:

* Building the agenda. The convener develops the agenda and distributes it to group members before meetings, with help from the facilitator as needed. The agenda-building process can vary in formality: In some groups, the convener may collect input from group members before the meeting (often through electronic mail), then develop and distribute the agenda; in others, the entire group may hold an agenda-building session to prepare for the next "official" meeting.

* Conducting group meetings. At the beginning of each meeting, the convener ensures that everyone in attendance is a true participant and that the required minimum number of members is present. (The minimum-number rule helps ensure that all decisions truly represent the group's consensus.) The formality of group meetings varies: Smaller groups tend to have more informal meetings, while larger ones have more formal rules to prevent confusion or chaos. It is important that the facilitator be present, particularly in the early stages of a group's development, to help out should the group become "stuck."

* Implementing follow-up activities. The recorder captures the group's output--action items, decisions, and key issues covered--in a document that is distributed to the reporters of other affinity groups and possibly to other groups, such as a steering committee of top managers. The convener's responsibility for ensuring that action items are accomplished is critical, since some members will need to be pushed to devote the necessary time outside of meetings.

In addition, affinity groups need a clearly defined problem-solving process, so they will understand how to accomplish a particular action item. For example, an action item delegated to a particular member may require issue analysis to clarify the issue, problem analysis to define the problem, decision analysis to identify alternative solutions, a decision-making approach to settle on alternatives, an implementation plan to operationalize the chosen solution, and/or an evaluation approach to assess the impact of a particular solution. The typical manager is not a very disciplined or effective problem solver, which is why a clearly defined process is a must.

Key Characteristic No. 4: A Group Charter and Mission

Affinity groups have a mission, or purpose for being, reflected in the charter that group members develop. The charter should include at least the following: the group's mission, its domain of responsibility, the meeting day and time, the schedule for rotating group-member roles, and the responsibilities of each role. (The group may decide to include additional information about the way it functions or specific areas of focus.) The charter not only helps group members understand and agree on their mission and the way the group will function; it also helps them communicate this information to outsiders.

Defining the group's mission and domain of responsibility relative to other affinity groups and other groups in the infrastructure will prevent overlaps or gaps in responsibilities. Although continuous improvement is the domain of all affinity groups, each group is unique and should carve its own niche. A group should develop its charter sometime during the first few meetings, to prevent problems of misdirection and misunderstanding.

Key Characteristic No. 5: Self-Management

An affinity group has no permanent leader; instead, leadership is divided among the members holding group roles, which are rotated over time. Essentially, the group is self-managing as defined by Richard Hackman: It not only performs its group task (information sharing, decision making, and problem solving), it also monitors and manages its own performance and the quality of its output. With the help of its facilitator, each group is expected to obtain all necessary resources (e.g., time, money, training, and education). To heighten their effectiveness in the area of self-management, affinity groups are kept relatively small, with generally not more than 15 to 20 members.

Key Characteristic No. 6: Off-site Meetings

Off-site meetings are held for one or more days generally several times a year, and may include one affinity group or more, depending on the issues needing attention. A retreat away from the office provides an environment without workplace interruptions and distractions. Off-site meetings are effective for addressing long-term issues, while meetings at the office can primarily cover short-term and/or urgent issues.

Off-sites are also used to share information among affinity groups, or to encourage members of different groups to get to know each other and learn how to work well together. The team-building, trust, and cooperation that develop can be especially beneficial when the groups at the off-site meeting represent different organizational levels.

Key Characteristic No. 7: The Facilitators' Conclave

The purpose of a facilitators' conclave is to allow facilitators to meet and exchange information on both the progress of their group and the way they operate within the group. This exchange results in a more consistent facilitating process throughout the organization. When an off-site retreat for more than one affinity group is planned, the conclave may convene earlier to develop and review the agenda. Conclaves also discuss general topics, such as whether the reporter of one group needs to provide information to another group.


Affinity groups are designed to achieve a number of specific objectives, including (1) to share information, (2) to solve problems and capture improvement opportunities, (3) to identify and address education, training, and development needs, and (4) to promote trust, cohesiveness, and group identity. We'll elaborate on each.

1. TO SHARE INFORMATION. Information sharing is an integral part of a continuous-improvement effort, since it ensures that all group members are operating with the same knowledge base, and helps build trust and commitment. Affinity group members share information horizontally, or with one other; and check on the information they have received vertically, from superiors and subordinates. Group members can also "vent" their concerns, or use meetings to dispel rumors and validate truths, a legitimate and useful form of organizational communication.

2. TO SOLVE PROBLEMS AND CAPTURE IMPROVEMENT OPPORTUNITIES. Affinity groups identify and address specific issues, problems, and opportunities that affect them or the entire organization. When they concentrate on system-level improvements, they help the organization avoid the common problem of optimizing sub-systems, which can cause sub-optimization of the larger organization.

3. TO IDENTIFY AND ADDRESS EDUCATION AND TRAINING NEEDS. When affinity group members find they need additional knowledge (such as training in quality management) or skills (such as how to perform a particular process), they are empowered to acquire the necessary resources. Education and training is particularly important for groups composed of members who have had no previous experience in continuous improvement (which is often the case with groups of administrative employees).

4. TO BUILD TRUST AND COHESIVENESS. By spending time together, members get to know one another, learn how to work together as a team, and gain a better understanding of the overall organization. Affinity groups build group identity and cohesiveness, foster a cooperative group environment, and build trust among group members quickly and effectively. The facilitator is instrumental in helping the group overcome false starts and progress through periods of frustration and tension.


To determine how affinity groups impact group performance, it is instructive to examine design factors typically identified in models of group performance. For example, one design factor over which affinity groups have an effect is the informal organization. Our experience suggests that in most organizations, the informal organization develops around such activities as car pools and coffee breaks, and often takes three to seven years to evolve. However, by bringing together employees who have a common job function, affinity groups structure the informal organization and quicken its pace of development. This impact is particularly important in start-up organizations, but is also significant in established firms. Characteristics of the informal organization, as defined by Peter Scholtes, that affinity groups are designed to influence include:

* confidence, collaboration, conflict management, and trust and candor, as opposed to fear, distrust and game playing;

* informal communications channels--the "grapevine";

* unofficial decision-making systems that subvert or support the official systems (affinity groups make the unofficial decision-making process consistent and visible);

* interpersonal and inter-group relationships (affinity groups produce better interpersonal relations among group members and across groups);

* networks of internal loyalties (affinity groups build trust and loyalty within the group and toward the organization overall); and

* the unofficial rules for membership in various key groups inside and on the perimeter of the organization.

A recent research study by the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California confirms the positive effect affinity groups can have on group performance. This study identifies several key design features that lead to effective knowledge-worker teams. Two features that affinity groups directly exhibit are (1) clear goals and a clear strategy, and (2) learning and decision-making processes.

Having presented the affinity group model and discussed how affinity groups impact continuous improvement and group performance, we now examine applications of affinity groups in the federal government, the private sector, and higher education.


The Office of New Production Reactors (NP) was established in the U.S. Department of Energy in 1988 to build safe and environmentally sound nuclear reactor capacity for the production of tritium. NP had to deal with the stresses and strains of being a large, rapidly growing start-up organization responsible for a technologically complex project that required the highest-quality performance. In 1992, because of changes in the world and the end of the Cold War, the government decided to shut the organization down. While it was operational, however, NP set up five affinity groups representing technical, managerial, and administrative functions: the Senior Management Group (SMG), the Technical Directors Workshop (TD Workshop), the Division Directors Roundtable (DDRT), the Executive Assistants Council (EA Council), and the Senior Secretaries Panel (SS Panel). The program's director selected these names carefully, avoiding the terms board and committee because of their negative connotations for many of the organization's employees.

The NP effort is considered an affinity-group initiative for two specific reasons: First, it called for an administrative component made up of secretaries and executive assistants, reflecting the underlying principle of the affinity group model that the administrative function is just as important as the technical and managerial functions; and second, it called for the establishment of permanent groups, not short-term action teams or task forces.

Each NP affinity group met regularly for a period of two to three years. The organizational relationship between the positions included in the five affinity groups is shown in Exhibit 3. The SMG consisted of the NP program director, the director's staff, and the NP office directors; the TD Workshop included the technical directors from both headquarters and the field sites; each office director's executive assistant and senior secretary were part of the EA Council and the SS Panel, respectively; and the DDRT consisted of the several division directors at headquarters and the field sites. Exhibit 4 contains excerpts from the charters developed by each affinity group.

As the top manager for NP, the program director had two roles in the affinity group structure. First, he was a member of the SMG; and second, he served as sponsor of the entire affinity group concept, as well as mentor to the groups. In this second capacity, he periodically attended other groups' meetings in order to (1) demonstrate top management's commitment, (2) share information about the organization to reinforce systems thinking, (3) further clarify the affinity group model and the role of affinity groups in the organization's infrastructure, and (4) help the groups acquire any needed resources, such as training, expertise, or information. This sponsor/mentor role proved critical in maintaining the groups' commitment and momentum over time. We discuss the results of the NP affinity groups after we describe the remaining two case examples.


National Grocers, Inc. recently embarked on a large-scale organizational improvement project that included the strategic goal of improving one of its distribution systems by 30 percent or more in 18 months. To accomplish this, it needed to redesign many organizational systems, including education and training, measurement, technology, communications, planning, motivation, culture, and infrastructure. To support this ambitious effort, it formed an affinity group of performance-improvement project leaders. The group's sponsor and mentor is the senior vice president of development/chief information officer. This executive handpicked group members from among those already involved in improvement projects in the engineering, logistics, information systems, finance, human resources, and retail areas. This group composition strays somewhat from the model we've presented, in that group members do not all have the same job position or title; however, the group is homogeneous in that members have a similar job function--namely, leading change--and they are all at roughly the same organizational level.

The objective of this affinity group, described in the purpose statement the members wrote, is to encourage communication among departments and divisions, develop people's leadership skills with respect to organizational change, create a learning organization, and develop a company-wide perspective. Above all, the group and its sponsor are concentrating on educating and developing people to prepare them to assume leadership roles in the organization's improvement initiatives. The group is addressing a number of questions, including (1) How is a "learning organization," as described by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline (Doubleday, 1990) created? and (2) How does an organization create a critical mass of "changemasters," as defined by Rosabeth Kanter, so that it can initiate and manage large, complex, and cross-functional change efforts?

In existence for approximately eight months, the National Grocers group meets every two weeks. Initial meetings lasted four hours; more recent meetings last two. Three months after its formation, the group held its first off-site meeting with its external facilitator, so it could (1) begin to learn theories and concepts of continuous improvement, (2) get to know one another and begin to learn to work as a team, (3) share information about each group member's improvement project, (4) develop a "generic" agenda for regular group meetings, and (5) identify the topic areas, or modules, to which the group will devote learning time over the next year. Examples of these learning topics include strategic planning, performance measurement, competitive benchmarking, facilitation skills, and time management.

National Grocers' affinity group strategy is different from that of NP in a number of ways. First, of course, the National Grocers group is composed of performance-improvement leaders. In addition, the group's reporter invites to every meeting a guest speaker--usually, but not necessarily, a top manager in the organization--who gives a five- or ten-minute talk about either his or her vision for National Grocers or some upcoming event or initiative the group may be interested in. The purpose of this talk is to broaden each member's knowledge about the organization and to reinforce systems thinking.

Moreover, the National Grocers group places a significant emphasis on continuous-improvement education and training. About 80 percent of almost every meeting is devoted to learning a topic identified at the off-site. Each group member coordinates a learning exercise--a discussion of theory followed by an examination of practical applications--for a particular topic.

Finally, the National Grocers affinity group has a game plan for the future. Once it acquires the skills and knowledge base to support change and continuous improvement, it will design an affinity group structure for the rest of the organization. Group members may very likely serve as facilitators for these new groups, or for other project and improvement teams.


The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech recently developed an affinity group of clerical and administrative support personnel in the Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE) Department, with the head of the department serving as sponsor. Currently this Office Support Team (OST) meets biweekly, with the convener and facilitator designing the agenda the week before each meeting based on topics or concerns raised by group members. During its first six months, the OST primarily focused on two areas. First, because group members were unfamiliar and inexperienced with continuous-improvement philosophies, concepts, and tools, they engaged in educational activities, such as watching videotapes, listening to mini-lectures, and reading and discussing books such as ZAPP: The Lightning of Empowerment by William Byham and Jeff Cox (New York: Harmony Books, 1988). Second, the group began working with department leaders to establish rifles regarding its domain of influence. For example, members identified the decisions they would "own" (such as scheduling vacations) and the decisions about which they would provide input (such as the hiring of a new department secretary).

The OST is still in the storming and norming phase of development. To help it through this start-up phase, the ISE department has brought in an external expert in individual and group development to discuss such topics as group dynamics and interaction, conflict management, and the impact of different personality styles. The department anticipates that the success of the OST will spark other continuous-improvement efforts.


Overall, the results we observed were positive, although the groups had to overcome some obstacles. First, they all had difficulty getting established and organized. Simply working through the group-development phases of forming, storming, and norming took time. Some NP affinity groups did not designate conveners, recorders, or reporters until they had been meeting for six months or more, and actual role responsibilities varied across the NP groups. In addition, some NP group members lacked the skills needed to perform the recorder role; consequently, this role was the least used and least understood at NP.

Nevertheless, the organizations we studied recognized that sharing information on how group roles should be performed was of supreme importance. To make the affinity group process more consistent, for example, NP distributed a document describing group roles and role responsibilities and listing the names of people currently performing each role in each group. National Grocers and Virginia Tech also distributed such information. As group members gained experience in performing roles, their meeting and group effectiveness improved.

We also found that a group's ability to progress from the "getting started" to the performance stage depended largely on how often the group met. We recommend that groups hold biweekly meetings during the start-up phase, and that their first off-site take place within the first few months. During this off-site, group members should develop their charter, which should include the group's mission and domain, and they should get to know one another. We also found that the newer the organization, the harder it was for affinity groups to get started.

In addition to start-up problems, some groups had problems with the entire meeting process, including developing an agenda and conducting meetings. Many members lacked such critical meeting-management skills as agenda building, conflict management, and problem solving. In particular, the groups made up of administrative employees had little or no experience attending and managing regular meetings, much less designing agendas for them. The facilitators were crucial in helping these groups develop meeting-management skills and define and perform the group roles. We believe organizations could alleviate meeting problems by holding a mini-workshop on developing meeting-management skills, particularly for individuals not accustomed to attending meetings.

A third problem some groups encountered was that some members failed to find the time to attend meetings and/or work on assignments outside of meetings. In certain cases, managers did not view meetings as a legitimate way for administrative employees to spend their time. For example, one executive assistant at NP missed a meeting because she was called to her office director's office to handle some work. Her affinity group discussed this, and concluded that since office directors made an effort to protect their own time so they could attend meetings, executive assistants had to do the same. The assumption that secretaries and assistants do not attend "management-type" meetings was gradually overcome.

NP's Division Directors Roundtable had similar problems, with many members having difficulty finding the time to devote to group action items. Because some directors did not spend enough time on action items, but instead offered hastily developed solutions, the group questioned the quality of several members' recommendations, and often had to go back and rework them. To avoid this problem, we suggest that organizations communicate early on, and continue to reinforce, clear expectations for commitment and time investment.

Fourth, some of the NP affinity groups included members who were not accustomed to a cooperative work environment, but instead tended toward "empire building" and "turf protecting." Their inexperience with cooperation led them to concentrate on their own needs, often at the expense of the group or organization. This sub-optimization fostered a competitive, rather than cooperative, group environment, which is counter-productive to continuous improvement. However, as NP's group members developed trust and became more comfortable working with one another, this problem of "parochialism" began to subside.

A fifth problem we identified has to do with empowerment. Many groups were naive about decision rules, and wanted to tackle any and every problem or decision. In areas where group members had not previously been active in improvement and problem solving, this tendency toward "over-empowerment" proved threatening to those "in power." In addition, when affinity groups gain power before they gain adequate information and knowledge, poor-quality efforts can result. We have found it is important that affinity groups develop a clear decision-making domain (as part of their charters) early on.

Our final observation is that different aspects of affinity groups appeal to different individuals. For example, one NP executive assistant felt that the organization, by giving her the opportunity to meet with others and work in a group, was demonstrating its belief that executive assistants are just as important as managers. In addition, the executive assistants as a group appreciated the opportunity to build group cohesiveness and identity. On the other hand, one member of the Division Directors Roundtable felt the information-sharing aspect of affinity groups had significant value and utility. And for another DDRT member (who was admittedly skeptical at first about the usefulness of affinity groups), the respect for and interest in affinity groups that managers outside of NP demonstrated proved highly rewarding.


For the most part, the affinity groups accomplished, to varying degrees, the following results:

* They shared information within and among groups.

* They identified and developed solutions to problems and improvement opportunities.

* They increased the education, training, and development of members.

* They achieved team-building and developed trust.

By far, members said the greatest benefit of affinity groups was increased trust and group cohesiveness. Many members did not normally work closely with their counterparts in other functions. However, simply by meeting together on a regular basis, group members got to know one another, learned how to work together effectively, and developed trust. This trust was critical in fostering a cooperative environment, an important ingredient in continuous improvement. In particular, the administrative affinity groups were most enthusiastic about this benefit.

In addition, members said that affinity groups provided them with a way to make contact with their group's sponsor and with top managers. In the past experiences of most affinity group members, this kind of exposure was not typical. Affinity groups force time onto people's schedules and create new kinds of opportunities for contact.

Another significant benefit of affinity groups is that they help members gain an increased appreciation and understanding of the overall organization. Rather than narrowly focusing on their own divisions or departments, group members said they came to understand problems and issues their peers, bosses, and subordinates were facing. They also better understood how their position fit within the larger system, and began to think more about what was best for the organization as a whole.

Overall, the implementation of the affinity group model at NP, National Grocers, and Virginia Tech proceeded as planned and expected. While getting started presented more problems than anticipated, many of these problems were resolved. Of course, quality and productivity innovations, by definition, create new problems as they solve others, but a priority for group members was to learn to become better problem solvers. While some group members questioned the value of affinity groups at first, each group made progress. This progress demonstrated the value of affinity groups to everyone at NP; we believe the same will occur at National Grocers and Virginia Tech.


Designing, developing, and implementing continuous-improvement efforts requires systems thinking--thinking about the organization as a collection of systems while also appreciating the "gestalt," or dynamics of the whole. While managers and organization leaders have been executing "quick fixes" over the past 20 years, they are increasingly recognizing that interventions designed to improve overall quality and competitiveness must be comprehensive and integrated. Employee involvement is central to many interventions and therefore integral to optimization of the overall organization.

In our view, organizations have not "engineered" employee involvement using adequate theories of psychology and demonstrating an appreciation for systems. Quality circles are a dismal failure in this country; suggestion-system results have also been less than optimal; and although meetings are central to getting things done, we find that poor meeting management is an oft-cited roadblock to improved performance. In addition, team building is a mysterious process to most managers, and the knowledge base regarding how to structure teams of knowledge workers is quite small, although growing. Systems for involving people in meaningful improvement-oriented activities are crucial if U.S. firms are to progress. More experimentation with alternative modes of employee involvement are needed--and affinity groups represent such experimentation.

The challenge facing American organizations today is how to meaningfully engage 100 percent of the workforce in continuous-improvement efforts in a coordinated and systematic fashion. We have found that the affinity group concept is a viable mechanism in many cases. Affinity groups help develop, solidify, and positively influence the informal organization and culture. They promote the sharing of information and knowledge across organizational functions; enhance employees' problem-solving skills; encourage systems thinking and an appreciation for the overall organization; help employees identify and address education and training needs; and advance horizontal and vertical communications. In short, affinity groups can play an instrumental role in an organization's continuous-improvement efforts by providing a structured and systematic way of involving white collar and knowledge workers.


Dr. Steve Markham of the Department of Management at Virginia Tech suggested the terms supplemental initiative and replacement initiative used at the beginning of this article.

We are indebted to Monty Mohrman from the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) at the University of Southern California for the explanation of why there is an increased interest in team-based organizations. The Center is currently researching effective team designs for knowledge-work settings and has begun to share initial findings on key organizational design features.

For further discussion on parallel organization structure see E.C. Miller, "The Parallel Organization Structure at General Motors... An Interview with Howard C. Carlson," Personnel: The Management of People at Work, Vol. 55, No. 5, 1978, pp. 65-69; B.A. Stein and R. M. Kanter, "Building The Parallel Organization: Creating Mechanisms for Permanent Quality of Work Life," Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 16, 1980; pp. 371-388; and S.G. Goldstein, "Organizational Dualism and Quality Circles," Academy of Management Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1985, pp. 504-517. Goldstein's concept of the dual organization is similar to parallel structure.

For a comprehensive review and discussion of various definitions and dimensions of participative management or participative decision making, see E.A. Locke and D.M. Schweiger, "Participation in Decision-Making: One More Look" in B. M. Staw (Ed.), Research in Organizational Behavior, Vol. 1, 1979, pp. 265-339; and H.P. Dachler and B. Wilpert, "Conceptual Dimensions and Boundaries of Participation in Organizations: A Critical Evaluation," Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, 1978).

A survey conducted by E.E. Lawler III, S.A. Mohrman, and G.E. Ledford, Employee Involvement and Total Quality Management (Jossey-Bass, 1992), describes the most common involvement initiatives in place in Fortune 1000 organizations. For a discussion of creating high-involvement organizations, see E.E. Lawler, III, High Involvement Management (Jossey-Bass, 1986) and The Ultimate Advantage: Creating the High-Involvement Organization (Jossey-Bass, 1992). For a review of the four stages of group development, see B.W. Tuckman, "Developmental Sequence in Small Groups," Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 63, No. 6, 1965, pp. 384-399.

In Changemasters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in American Corporations (Simon and Schuster, 1983), R. M. Kanter uses the term changemaster to describe those "adept at the art of anticipating the need for, and of leading, productive change." Kanter also provides a discussion on the dilemmas of participation (Chapter 9). The dilemmas we observed most frequently in affinity groups were the "seductiveness of the hierarchy" and having "differential personal resources" within a group.

In J.R. Hackman's "The Psychology of Self-Management in Organizations" in M. Pallack and R. Perloff (Eds.), Psychology & Work: Productivity, Change, and Employment (American Psychological Association, 1986), Hackman provides a framework of self-management, where a self-managing group executes the group task and monitors and manages group output.

Characteristics of informal organizations are from a presentation by P. Scholtes at "Instituting Quality and Productivity," led by Dr. W. Edwards Deming (Washington, D.C., July 1991). Scholtes defines the informal organization as the invisible, hidden organization that accounts for two companies being very different even though their products, services, policies, procedures, and structure may be virtually identical.

The mission and organizational background of NP are detailed in the New Production Reactors Program Plan, Office of New Production Reactors, U.S. Department of Energy.




Serves as the coordinator of the group.

Develops and distributes the agenda.

Ensures that meeting logistics are managed.

Conducts group meetings, assisted by the facilitator.

Coordinates follow-up actions.


Records group output from group meetings: decisions made, action items, and key issues (these are not typical minutes--they are not long reports on every topic covered).

Prepares and distributes the above document to group members.

Helps convener and reporter decide where else to distribute the above document.

Works with convener on follow-up.


Serves as the group's liaison with other affinity groups.

Reports verbally on group activities to other affinity groups, other groups, and/or other individuals when invited to do so.

Reports to the group on information from other groups or individuals.

Identifies the group's information requirements and ensures they are met.


Serves as a coach and objective resource (the facilitator is external to the organization, and has no direct authority over any group member).

Serves as an "honest broker" (the facilitator has no vested interest in group outcomes).

Acts as a process observer and provides feedback to the group.

Ensures that members understand group roles and the group's purpose.

Encourages nonparticipating group members to speak up.

Helps convener identify group developmental needs and responds to these needs.

Helps convener develop the agenda and conduct meetings.

Acts as a linking pin to other affinity groups through the facilitators' conclave.




The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the Office of New Production Reactors (NP) is an affinity group of senior managers and staff established to determine program policy, conduct strategic planning, identify and resolve programmatic issues, and measure and evaluate program performance. It provides both participative and consultative assistance to the program director.


The Technical Directors Workshop is a peer group operating within the New Production Reactors Program (NP) in the Department of Energy. The purpose of the Workshop is to identify areas of NP operations that are causing technical problems at the interoffice level and to establish mechanisms through which to develop and effect solutions. The meetings provide (1) a forum for primarily technical communication among members and (2) the ability to resolve important problems that cut across the NP offices.


The Division Directors Roundtable (DDRT) in the Office of New Production Reactors (NP) shall be an affinity group consisting of division directors from all offices within NP. Members of the group shall have the same general position in the organization and share common interests and concerns. The purpose of the DDRT shall be twofold: to share information among members and to solve problems affecting members.


The Executive Assistants Council affinity group has been established to serve as a collegial forum of peers for discussions regarding interpersonal relationships within the Office of New Production Reactors (NP), administrative procedures and systems, interfaces with senior management, management techniques, and related matters. The format for dialogue will be informal, candid, and spontaneous.


The Senior Secretaries Panel affinity group has been established to create an atmosphere of quality that will promote professionalism, personal growth, motivation, confidence, and enthusiasm within the Office of New Production Reactors (NP). We will serve as advisors and/or counselors on work matters to the administrative support staff.

Eileen M. Van Aken is an associate with the Virginia Quality and Productivity Center in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. She received her B.S.I.E and M.S.I.E. degrees from Virginia Tech and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Management Systems Engineering Option of Virginia Tech's Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, where her research focus is on self-managing work teams. She has worked with a number of organizations in both the public and private sectors on improvement efforts, and was previously employed at AT&T Microelectronics in Richmond, Va.

Dominic J. Monetta is currently developing a resource investment strategy for sponsored applied research for the president and vice president of academic affairs at The George Washington University. Between 1989 and 1991, he was director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of New Production Reactors. He received a B.S. in chemical engineering from Manhattan College, an M.S. in engineering administration from The George Washington University, and a Ph.D. in public administration from the University of Southern California.

D. Scott Sink is director of the Virginia Quality and Productivity Center in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He is also an associate professor in that department. He received his B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. in industrial and systems engineering from The Ohio State University and is the immediate past president of the Institute of Industrial Engineers. He has published several articles and two books on the subjects of quality and productivity.
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Author:Van Aken, Eileen M.; Monetta, Dominic J.; Sink, D. Scott
Publication:Organizational Dynamics
Date:Mar 22, 1994
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