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On the identity crisis in OBM.

Some confusion exists at present in the OBM community regarding the subject matter of the discipline and how concepts from outside the tradition of behavior analysis should be handled. Some of the confusion is traced to differences in historic definitions of the field, as well as issues concerning the compatibility of systems analytic concepts. Systems models used in performanceoriented analyses of organizational functioning are reviewed and compared to behavior analytic approaches. A strategy of analyzing the behavior of managers in large corporate systems is suggested as a way to better integrate systems analytic and behavior analytic approaches to understanding and improving performance.


Recent articles in the organizational behavior management (OBM) literature have raised questions regarding the content and direction of the area (e.g., Ghezzi, 2001; Hayes, 1999; Mawhinney, 2000, 2001). The issues revolve around the integration of concepts and models that are not behavior analytic in origin (e.g., systems models) or that appear to place behavior analysis in a secondary role. Including or excluding nonbehavioral concepts in the common language of the discipline is a practice that will have a major impact on the definition of OBM. Ghezzi, for example, observed that OBM is moving toward an identity apart from Behavior Analysis. Hayes wondered whether there is "room at the table" for nonbehavioral models in OBM. Mawhinney (2000) felt that the culture of the OBM community may be overwhelmed by the larger body of nonbehavioral models if the gates were opened to such concepts. These issues merit further discussion. In this article, I will review some of the historical sources of the "identity crisis" and address some ways to deal with it in a constructive manner.


Although the beginnings of OBM reach back into the 1960s, OBM began to establish a formal identity in the 1970s with the publication of numerous books as well as the founding of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management in 1977 (see Dickinson, 2000, for a review of the early history of OBM). It is clear that many key people involved in this period of the field's development saw OBM as an extension of applied behavior analysis. In other words, OBM would involve the application of behavior analytic principles to produce changes in behavior in the workplace. As Mawhinney (2000) pointed out, the editorial that defined the mission of JOBM (Daniels, 1977) explicitly modeled the mission statement of Baer, Wolf and Risley (1968) in defining applied behavior analysis. It appeared that OBM would be simply behavior analysis in business and industry.

At nearly the same time, Gilbert (1978) published Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance (republished with a new foreword in 1996). Tom Gilbert had roots in behavior analysis, going back to a brief stint studying at Harvard with B.F. Skinner. Gilbert had gone on to become a pioneer in the behavioral instruction movement in the 1960s. But in Human Competence, Gilbert put forth a conception of a field that appeared similar to OBM in some aspects, but different in other critical aspects. He argued that the focus should be improving performance, where performance encompassed both behavior and worthy accomplishments. Behavior was seen as a cost to be minimized, and accomplishments as the valuable results that would enable organizations to succeed in their endeavors to bring products and services to customers. Although a field dedicated to organizational performance improvement would necessarily involve behavior and behavior change, it would not be about behavior or behavior change. For example, Gilbert pointed out that accomplishments could be improved if defective tools or equipment were replaced; some behavior change might occur with the new tools, but performance improvement was not brought about by focusing on the behavior and its associated contingencies. In fact, Gilbert (1978/1996) was quite critical of the science of behavior, and B.F. Skinner in particular, in making claims that behavior analysis (referred to as "behavior modification" then by Gilbert) provided an adequate conceptual or practical groundwork for a discipline dedicated to performance improvement. What was truly needed in Gilbert's opinion was not a science of behavior, but a science of accomplishment, together with a technology of how to engineer it.

Gilbert's arguments for an accomplishment-oriented discipline represented a subtle but important difference in purpose and methods from that of OBM as it was being formulated by other behavior analysts (Gilbert referred to himself as a "behaviorist") in the 1970s. Clearly, Gilbert did not see the discipline he was advocating as just a branch of applied behavior analysis. In fact, the logic of his emphasis on results left the door open to ideas from any discipline that could help solve a performance problem. I do not believe that this latent interdisciplinary logic was fully recognized by behavior analysts at the time. That would only become apparent in later years, as discussed below. Nonetheless, Gilbert made extensive use of behavioral concepts as part of his approach to analyzing and improving performance, most clearly evident in his widely adopted Behavior Engineering Model, which was an elaborated kind of ABC model identifying six categories of variables affecting the individual performer. His ideas influenced so many behavior analysts that he is regarded as one of the key contributors to the development of OBM (Dickinson, 2000). From the beginning, then, there have been differing conceptions of the disciplinary nature of OBM.

Gilbert's ideas have influenced other communities that overlap to various degrees with the mainstream OBM community. Gilbert was one of the pioneers in what was then called the National Society for Programmed Instruction (NSPI), an organization of behaviorally oriented instructional designers in the 1960s. In the years following publication of his 1978 book, NSPI altered its identity to become first the National Society for Performance and Instruction (also NSPI) and later to the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI), taking to heart Gilbert's ideas of a discipline of accomplishment. This is not to say that Gilbert was the sole influence on ISPI; many other important conceptual contributions were made by people such as Dale Brethower, Robert Mager, Joe Harless, and Geary Rummler to name but a few (see Dean & Ripley, 1997). But the influence of Gilbert is undeniable. ISPI now describes its approach as human performance technology (HPT) and incorporates Gilbert's (1978/1996) Behavior Engineering Model as the core of its cause analysis model (Dean, 1994).

The interdisciplinary logic of Gilbert's results focus has now become manifest. Today's HPT contains practitioners from many disciplines (see Stolovitch & Keeps, 1992; 1999), some of which (cognitivists) are hostile toward, or merely dismissive of, behavior analysis as a primitive phase they had to go through to get to a more enlightened state of understanding. In fact, Binder (1995) has lamented that behavior analysis is now a neglected minority viewpoint in HPT. Gilbert's approach has been successful in attracting large numbers of followers. With over 10,000 members, ISPI is roughly 5 times larger than the Association for Behavior Analysis, of which OBM is only a portion. In addition, the Association for Training and Development (ASTD), an even larger professional group consisting mainly of people with an interest in corporate training, has also adopted a performance orientation and even offers a certificate in Human Performance Improvement (see

It may now be said that there is a large, eclectic community of performance technologists and a much smaller community of behavior analytic OBMers. The goals of each community are different. One (OBM) seeks to extend and develop behavior analytic tools for business and industry; the other (HPT) seeks effective technologies regardless of theoretical origin for solving performance problems. There is some overlap in the membership of both communities (I am a member of both, for example) as well as intellectual overlap. It is the overlap that is causing the identity crisis in OBM. The critical question becomes: should OBM maintain its distinct behavior analytic identity, or should it incorporate useful concepts and models from the broader performance technology community? Were there no useful ideas in the HPT community there would be no intellectual basis for an identity crisis in OBM; the only remaining basis would be the attraction of belonging to a larger community that has achieved more public acceptance than the small OBM community. The majority of the intellectual overlap at present is due to the influence of general systems theory and the resulting systems analytic models. These conceptions have been the focus of many of the questions raised regarding the theoretical identity of OBM.

Systems Models and OBM

Systems concepts have permeated disciplines ranging from physiology to ecology. With their emphasis on interacting parts making up the whole, systems approaches would seem an obvious fit to the analysis of organizational functioning. Indeed, organizational pundits such as Senge (1990) have deemed systems concepts one of the essential disciplines relevant to business management. Brethower (1972; 1982; 1995; 2001) was an early and persistent advocate applying systems concepts to help analyze and solve performance problems in organizations. He devised a generic, scaleable model of an entity (e.g., a company, or a department within that company) viewed as a system and referred to it as the Total Performance System (TPS; see Fig. 1). The TPS describes critical elements such as inputs, processes, outputs, customers (the "receiving system") and regulating feedback. As a model, the TPS is useful in providing the "big picture" of what comprises organizational functioning.

Rummler and Brache (1995) devised a more elaborate systems model (the super-system or adaptive system model; see Fig. 2) that includes additional elements such as competitors and other environmental influences affecting how an organization functions. In addition, Rummler and Brache proposed 3 levels of variables that drive performance: organization level variables such as company goals, process level variables such as the design of workflow through the organization, and performer level variables that encompass the elements of Gilbert's Behavior Engineering Model affecting individuals in the performance of their job duties. Although performer level issues are included in the Rummler-Brache model, the weight of their analysis focuses on the previously neglected process level. Their analysis of process problems spawned a huge interest in process mapping (drawing graphical representations of workflow) and process redesign as a strategy to improve organizational functioning (see, e.g., Malott, 2001).

These systems models are clearly compatible with a general performance improvement orientation, but they raise questions about their compatibility with the traditional principles of behavior analysis and with the goals of OBM. That has made some behavior analysts (e.g., Ghezzi, 2001; Hayes, 1999; Mawhinney, 2000) uncomfortable. What is it about systems models that seem to bother some behavior analysts? There are several answers. Systems models focus on the organization as a whole and the results the organization must produce to stay in business. They are fundamentally conceptions about organizations, not about behavior per se. Issues focusing on behavior are mentioned in systems models, but they are often given a status secondary to other systems issues such as process inefficiencies. Behavior seems to disappear in the models. This may be somewhat threatening to behavior analysts as their discipline is marginalized to some degree in systems approaches.

Systems operate according to principles other than those that govern behavior. Hayes (1999) made just this point, "Systems are not maintained by reinforcement. They aren't extinguished by its absence, and they don't come under stimulus control." (p. 65). Hayes wondered further whether behavior analysis and systems analysis are operating from the same philosophical foundations. Systems models include concepts that are philosophically or theoretically troublesome for behavior analysts. Performance is often described as goal-directed and regulated by feedback (see Brethower, 2001), concepts that behavior analysts have wrestled with for some time. The use of the term feedback alone has generated more than its fair share of debate in OBM over the years (e.g., Duncan & Bruwelheide, 1986; Normand, Bucklin, & Austin, 1999; Peterson, 1982).

On the other hand, there are some similarities to behavior analysis in systems approaches that have attracted the interest of the behavior analytic community for decades. Willems (1974) brought systems approaches to the attention of applied behavior analysts in his discussion of behavioral ecology. He pointed out that phenomena such as unintended side effects of behavioral interventions could be understood to be systems effects. Krapfl and Gasparatto (1982) saw systems analysis and behavior analysis as compatible approaches, capable of being blended into "behavioral systems analysis" for use in OBM. They pointed out that the core systems concepts of input, processes, and outputs together with feedback parallel the familiar behavioral concepts of antecedents, behavior, and consequences. Recently, Redmon and Mason (2001) have incorporated the systems models of Brethower and Rummler into a coherent framework for understanding corporate cultures. They proposed that their systems framework could be used to change cultures and provided some examples supporting that notion.

There is another feature of these systems models that enables them to be more closely compared to behavior analytic concepts: organizational systems are described as adapting to their environments in response to the actions of the marketplace. Rummler and Brache (1995) put it succinctly, "A processing system (organization) will either adapt to its environment, especially its receiving system (market), or cease to exist." (p. 12). Mawhinney (2000; 2001) realized that this adaptive property of organizational systems models is similar to the modern behavior analytic emphasis on selection as a causal process exemplified in Glenn's (1988; 1991) concept of the metacontingency. Thus, there is some common ground between systems analysis and behavior analysis.

Glenn's (1988) formulation of the metacontingency was intended to address broad issues of cultural practices and the mechanisms of their selection by consequences. Within a short time, organizational behavior analysts applied this concept to the study of organizational practices and organizational survival (Mawhinney, 1992; Redmon & Agnew, 1991; Redmon & Wilk, 1991). As applied to organizations, a metacontingency refers to the relation between organizational practices and those outcomes critical to the survival and success of the organization (such as profitability). The metacontingency selects contingencies within the organization that lead to effective organizational practices (those that produce organizational outcomes that meet the survival requirements of the ambient business environment). Metacontingencies of business survival also exert selective pressure against organizational contingencies and their associated practices that are not well aligned with the demands of the marketplace and business competitors. Such organizational cultures will perish. The concept of the metacontingency gives behavior analysts a tool to discuss macro-level phenomena such as organizational adaptation as instances of a common mechanism of selection- the same mechanism that operates at the level of the individual in the evolution of operant behavior and at the level of the species in biological evolution.

Can Systems Analysis and Behavior Analysis be Integrated?

Does the recognition of similarities between metacontingencies and adaptive organizational systems models like Brethower's TPS or Rummler and Brache's Super-system mean that systems approaches and behavior analytic approaches address the same issues with different language? On the surface it would seem so. One can make a case that the organizational systems models are fleshed out graphical representations of metacontingencies. In this sense, systems models outline some of the key elements involved in metacontingency selection processes. This is a step in the direction of bringing systems analysis and behavior analysis closer together, but I don't think it is sufficient to make behavior analysts fully comfortable with systems approaches. What is needed is something that would highlight the role of behavior within the larger system. There is just such an issue at the core of the selection/adaptation processes identified by the metacontingency and systems models. It is not the rather obvious and readily understood behavior of the performers carrying out work activities in the subsystems comprising the larger processing system. Rather, it has to do with the function labeled management within the processing system (refer to Fig. 2).

Rummler (in Rummler, 2001; Rummler & Brache, 1995) has been quite explicit about the role managers play in adjusting organizational practices to adapt to organizational survival requirements. His discussions of management practices make it clear that layers of management personnel monitor and adjust various components of the organization, from the strategic to the tactical level, in an effort to align the organization with the requirements of the marketplace. Redmon and Mason (2001) made a similar observation, "One responsibility of management involves monitoring external demands and setting conditions within an organization to support adaptive practices." (p. 439). This element is missing from the metacontingency concept, which, in striving to be generically applicable to any cultural entity, leaves open the details or mechanics of how lower-level contingencies and practices are developed, eventually to be selected by metacontingencies of organizational survival. Business organizations may be somewhat of a special case in that, unlike other cultural entities such as society at large, most organizational practices and contingencies are deliberately planned, designed, and adjusted by a cadre of management personnel. So, it is the systems model that points to a crucial behavioral issue, in principle analyzable by behavior analysts, but so far little analyzed- the behavior of managers in making adjustments to organizational policies and practices that affect organizational success and survival.

The behavior of those who design and adjust organizational practices is the missing behavioral linkage between systems level analyses and behavior analyses. Although Hayes' (1999) statement that systems are not reinforced or extinguished is true, the behavior of those who design and modify them undoubtedly is affected by consequences. A behavior analytic account of the variables affecting this management behavior would bring behavior to the forefront within organizational systems theory. This would go a long way toward solving the identity crisis in OBM brought on by systems models in which, at present, behavior seems to disappear.

OBM and systems analytic consultants already intervene in organizations through changing the behavior of management personnel. The consultant may train managers in the finer aspects of reinforcement delivery to their subordinates (see. e.g., Braksick, 2000) or hold multi-day workshops in which managers learn to revise defective cross-functional processes. Managers are seen as tools in producing performer-level changes, where the performer is an incumbent in a lower-level job creating the products or services of the firm. OBM has developed some proficiency in modifying such performer-level issues through the actions of managers. But this involves engineering the behavior of managers, and it is not the same as understanding the variables that influence it when a consultant is not directing or guiding them. More attention needs to be devoted to the analysis of the manager as a performer when he or she seeks and interprets receiving system feedback, makes decisions regarding company policies that will affect critical outcomes, or plans for future organizational growth. These are just some of the managerial behaviors that comprise the necessary actions involved in what Mawhinney (2001) referred to as "minding the metacontingencies."

A Real Challenge for OBM

Analyzing managerial decision-making and planning activities will be no easy task for behavior analysts. Such complex human behavior likely has certain characteristics that play to the weaknesses in current behavior analytic theory, not the strengths. I will speculate here on some of these characteristics. Much decision-making behavior in organizations is probably either covert on the part of executives or occurs as part of a social interaction in a committee. Critical strategic level decisions are bound to occur with very low frequency. They are also likely influenced by long personal histories acting in concert with rules derived from business lore or from advice given by business colleagues or management gurus. The consequences of decisions or plans made are likely to involve a multitude of events, many of them temporally remote (on the order of months and years) and distributed across groups of people. In addition, the very business environment to which managers are striving to adapt is highly dynamic, with competitors and customers redefining what is a valued product or service in relatively short time spans. This is not the profile of work activities so commonly addressed by current OBM methods: the higher frequency overt daily work activities of salespeople, waitstaff, call center operators, manufacturing line workers, and so on (see Nolan, Jarema, & Austin, 1999, for an analysis of publication content in JOBM).

Does OBM have the conceptual tools needed for the analysis of managerial behavior? At present, useful behavior analytic accounts of something like executive decision-making or planning simply do not exist. Concepts that might be applied to address the issues include rule-governed behavior and indirect-acting contingencies, but there is little consensus on their definition or utility at least on the part of OBM writers (cf. Agnew & Redmon, 1992; Malott, 1992; Mawhinney, 2001). Even a leading OBM figure like Hopkins (1999), for example, finds rule-governed behavior an empty concept and rejects it as belonging to the corpus of mainstream behavior analytic theory. Normand, Bucklin, & Austin (1999), on the other hand, argue that an understanding of rule-governed behavior is critical for OBM analyses.

Addressing low frequency behaviors may be very difficult. Behavior analysis deals with higher frequency behaviors much more readily than very low frequency behaviors for several reasons. First, it is easier to detect causal relationships with increasing repetition, so higher frequency behavior is more readily analyzed. Second, from an applied standpoint, a higher frequency of behavior provides more opportunities for contact with consequences. Explaining the social dynamics of behavior in committees would also present an obstacle. Despite the noble efforts of behavior analysts like Guerin (1994), any realistic assessment would have to conclude that behavior analytic conceptions of social behavior are still in a somewhat underdeveloped stage.

It is possible that new concepts may be needed for the analysis of managerial behavior, but behavior analysis has shown itself to have a rather slow cycle time from conceptual development to acceptance and use by a significant proportion of the community. Witness the concept of the establishing operation. Michael (1982) proposed it twenty years ago, and it is just within the last few years that the concept is being discussed at any length in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (e.g., McGill, 1999; Michael, 2000; Northup, Fusilier, Swanson, Roane, & Borrero, 1997; Smith & Iwata, 1997) or in the OBM literature (see Agnew, 1998; Hyten, 2001). It is notable that it has yet to receive any experimental treatment in the pages of the field's premier basic research journal, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Analyzing the behavior of managers within large systems is likely to be a long-range project for OBM. In the meantime, behavior analysts should feel a bit more comfortable using current systems models. There are important, complex, and fascinating behavior issues embedded within those box diagrams if we will only look for them. Systems concepts have proven that they are applicable to many different disciplines, and the work of Brethower and Rummler have shown that systems models are a good fit to the analysis of organizational performance. Systems models and their advocates are certainly not anti-behavioral; at the very worst they are neutral with respect to the role of behavior. In fact, systems advocates like Brethower have been among those reminding the broader performance technology community of the benefits of the behavioral approach (see Brethower, 2000). It would be foolish to shun such allies. In my opinion, the OBM community should accept current systems analytic models as valuable tools possessing a reasonable degree of compatibility with behavior analytic approaches while, at the same time, strive to develop an understanding of the behavior involved in the components of the system. Eventually, this may lead to a grand synthesis of the two approaches and there will be a unified model truly worthy of the name "behavioral systems analysis." Perhaps then the identity crisis in OBM will be resolved.


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Cloyd Hyten

University of North Texas

Author Note: Address correspondence to Cloyd Hyten, Department of Behavior Analysis, P.O. Box 310919, Denton, TX, 76203. Email:
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Author:Hyten, Cloyd
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Date:Jun 22, 2002
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