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The Age of Emergence: Toward a New Organizational Mindset.


The management literature is replete with accounts of how the environments of organizations are changing. To name just a few, Bettis and Hitt (1995) described the new competitive landscapes, and D'Aveni (1994) characterized the new state of hypercompetition. In response to the environmental changes reported, other authors have reclaimed the necessity of new concepts and practices for managing and organizing (Handy, 1997, Ghoshal, Bartlett & Moran, 1999), or proposed new design principles for the 21st century organization (Ackoff, 1999).

Driven by such concerns, a new mindset, from now on labeled the "new standard mindset," appeared in recent years as an antithesis to the traditional mindset: the more divergent from the old mindset, the more revolutionary it would look and, thus, the more adjusted to the new competitive conditions it was supposed to be. Our proposition is that the new standard mindset may constitute an enriching way to help organizations adapt, but is not the only way. An "emergence age mindset," blending contributions from the old and new mindsets, may provide a insightful view of management and organization. Our theorizing is based on several recent empirical sources, including Brown and Eisenhardt (1997), and Brews and Hunt (1999), Tatikonda and Rosenthal (2000). The evidence provided by these authors gives credence to a dialectical view of organizations, showing that elements of order and chaos (Peters, 1987) can be complementary instead of antagonistic.

In this paper, we start by elaborating what we understand as the age of emergence. Later, the traditional (thesis), new standard (antithesis) and new emergence (synthesis) mindsets, are discussed.

An Age of Emergence?

Traditional management theory treated the environment of organizations as a given and as something independent of organizations themselves. The definition of environment as those elements located outside the organization, reinforced the distinction between the organization and its environment. The major role of management in such a scenario consisted mostly in making the strategic choices that would improve external fit and internal integration. Strategic planning was a major tool for achieving both tasks simultaneously, and situations of organization/environment misfit were mainly attributed to poor conception or implementation of planning.

In the recent past, we have witnessed a shift from the traditional view of organizations and environments as relatively independent entities, to a new perspective that views organizations as co-creators of their (emergent) environments. Emergence refers to "the process by which patterns or global-level structures arise from interactive local-level processes" (Mihata, 1997, p. 31). The recognition of organizations as agents and subjects of emergent processes is not new: Trist's 1967 paper (reprinted in 1997) was developed around this argument, showing that management scholars have been thinking along these lines for three or four decades.

Previous work from the same author (Emery & Trist, 1965) reinforces this point: the more unpredictable the environment, the more the environment itself, not its component systems, produces change. Understanding organizations as co-creators of their environments means that environmental characteristics emerge and take shape out of the interrelationships of many actors over extended periods of time. Dynamic environments, therefore, are inherently unpredictable, and misfit may not be as much a consequence of poor planning as a lack of adaptiveness. In these (hyper)turbulent fields, planning can no longer ensure stability.

Evidence on the emergent nature of organizational environments became more evident in recent writings (e.g., Van de Yen et al., 1999), but its origin can be traced to some classical works. An analysis of the writings of Mary Parker Follett, Mendenhall, et al. (1997) revealed the emergent properties of behavior according to the author. Complexity theory increased the visibility of an idea that came to achieve some prominence in the field of strategic management (e.g., Mintzberg & Waters, 1985; Hutt et al., 1988).

With the "age of emergence," we refer to the growing acceptance that organizations cannot predict what is going to happen because the future is molded continuously as they take action and find themselves doing things that are not necessarily in line with actions planned in advance. Therefore, the idea of strategic anticipation (corresponding to the traditional mindset) must be complemented by mechanisms able to facilitate strategic adaptiveness. In the following sections, the three mindsets are discussed and described in terms of five attributes: resources, means, ends, structures, and leadership. For an overview, see Table 1.

The Traditional Mindset

"If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail"

(Kotler, 1999, P. 165)

Five elements can be used to characterize the traditional mindset: planning, hierarchical integration, authoritarian leadership, and optimization. Other elements could certainly have been used, but our intention is no more ambitious than providing a contrast between different ways of looking at management and organization.

The traditional mindset arose in an era where the pursuit of predictability and order constituted major organizational tasks. Studies on the history of management show that the lack of systematicity and discipline of pre-Taylorist factories were a serious threat to the regular functioning of organizations. To counter chaos and disobedience, administrative theories of organization were developed that viewed organizations as machines (Shenhav, 1999). To prevent the undesirable intrusion of the human element, factories were designed as hierarchies, emphasizing efficiency and pursuing the optimal use of resources. In an organization built on the image of the machine, planning was a critical activity. Managers contributed to the smooth functioning of organizations through authoritarian leadership: "It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured" (Taylor, 1911, p. 83; emphasis in the original).

The managerial rationality put forward by the then emerging administrative science constituted a "powerful mode of thought and code of conduct in the modem world" (Shenhav, 1999, p. 1) and shaped a long-lasting organizational mindset.

The New Standard Mindset

"All I want is a clear picture of what the new organization looks like!"

(Nohria & Berkley, 1994, p. 70)

The new standard mindset can best be described as a negation of the traditional one. It was advanced in response to the radical change in organizational environments, which required new ways of managing. As Clegg and Clarke (1999, p. 192) put it, "The virtual organization [that can be considered the epitome of the new organizational mindset] is almost the exact opposite of the modern organizations that Weber first identified in the ways that it organizes its basis for authoritarian action." It departed from the assumption that "in fast changing markets, Taylor's 'scientific principles' are a recipe for disaster" (Freedman, 1992, p. 28).

Under the new standard mindset, planning is substituted by action, hierarchical/visible control by network/invisible control, efficiency by effectiveness, authoritarian by democratic leadership, optimizing by achieving satisfactory results. Authors like Peters (1987) fleshed out the revolutionary argument and popularized this new way of thinking about management. His arguments in favor of revolution (Peters, 1987), disorganization and liberation (Peters, 1992) have been influential in the legitimization and mainstreaming of the "management revolution" discourse. Other gurus of the revolution became quite popular in the 1990s due to their defense of radical change (Hammer & Champy, 1993) or of other initiatives that have had repercussions (Womack, Jones, & Roos, 1990).

To thrive in a business world described as uncertaln, fast, and chaotic, organizations developed and implemented new configurations intended to facilitate new management practices like empowerment, speed or innovation. Trust-based organizations, self-managing teams, and virtual structures became trendy structures for competing in the new time.

The new logic is based on invisible and socially-activated controls (Barker, 1993), on leading by listening and persuading (and no longer by enforcement [Conger, 1998]), and on the recognition of action as a source of discovery, learning, and coordination (Weick, 1979; Nohria & Berkley, 1994). These elements were made necessary by several important changes at the organizational and societal levels. On the one hand, the growing professionalism of organizational members made obtrusive controls less and less acceptable as normal practice. This created the need to substitute overt for covert leadership (Mintzberg, 1998) and to create new organizational structures able to accommodate these new control mechanisms. The increasing perception of organizations as knowledge-creation (exploration) systems also made apparent the necessity of a new mindset. At the societal level, the growing importance of multiple stakeholders pressured organizational leaders to adopt more liberating and democratic managerial practices.

A new mindset thus emerged, introducing "chaos" on the discipline of management and alerting organizational members to the necessity of changing the practice of management, internally and externally, in the face of hyper-competitive conditions. The Brazilian firm Semco is a radical and well-known example of the revolutionary new organizational mindset.

The Emergence Age Mindset

"Granted that there are genuine emergent processes...,then we must accept real limitations upon what we can predict and also accept that we have to live for some time with the future before we know it."

(Trist, 1997, p. 899)

The persistence and ubiquitousness of environmental change (Bettis and Prahalad, 1995), was not enough to seduce most managers about the advantages of the new standard mindset. Keegan and Turner (1999) showed that managers may have a tendency to believe that organic practices do not represent "real management." Therefore, suggestions to let organicism flow freely a la Peters, may sound countertuitive to some managers.

A new organizational mindset, however, may be emerging, one that alms to provide another way of conceptualizing organizations. We call it the emergence age mindset, in the sense that it tries to allow a synthesis between the old and the standard new mindset. This emergence age mindset is built on the assumption that a synthesis between the old (traditional) and the new (standard) mindsets may provide creative insights to deal with the paradoxes in which management is fertile ground: efficiency versus effectiveness, routine versus innovation, planning versus action, etc. Instead of moving along the old-new continuum (e.g., manage some parts of the organization organically and other parts mechanistically), the emergence mindset assumes the need to find genuinely creative solutions for managing paradoxes.

A dialectical synthesis between the old and new mindsets will express the possibility of some new thoughts about managing and organizing. Developed theoretical arguments about synthesis and paradox are available in De Wit and Meyer (1999), Evans (2000) and Kamoche and Cunha (forthcoming). Empirical evidence for synthesis can be found in Brown and Eisenhardt (1997) and Tatikonda and Rosenthal (2000). A brief presentation of synthesis in the emergence age mindset is offered below.

Planning and action. As demonstrated by Brews and Hunt (1999), planning/reflection and action should not be thought of as opposites. Plans can be used as guidelines for action and real-time discovery and learning. Thus, both planning and learning seem to be part of good practice: plans can be basically made of formalized goals and deadlines that set out a direction for action but do not deny the need for local adaptations to unpredictable events. As such, planning before acting and while acting may be relevant for managers.

Integration via minimal networks. The growing professionalization of firms and the importance of human resources in knowledge-based work stressed the importance of trust as a coordination device instead of more intrusive forms of control. Trust, however, may not be enough to counter individual interest, divergent perspectives, and functional thinking. A configuration of minimal controls (e.g., clear responsibilities and deadlines) may be necessary to provide some restrictions while guaranteeing space for autonomy and flexibility to occur in the process. The minimal network (Cunha, Cunha & Kamoche, 1999) may provide an adequate synthesis between trust and control in the sense that only general limits to individual action are set.

Efficient-effectiveness. In the face of hypercompetitive environments, a logic of efficiency/exploitation (do things right) should not mean the abandonment of effectiveness/ exploration (do the right things). Organizations need not only to explore but also to exploit (March, 1991) or maximize the number of exploited explorations (do the right things right). It is not relevant to find opportunities unless good use is made of them (Barrett, 1998). Considering the penalties for laggards and the high costs of innovation, establishing linkages between exploration and exploitation may be more than organizational choice.

Authoritarian-democratic leadership. Under the emergence organizational mindset managers may be compared to jazz leaders: when exercising leadership, they might seem authoritarian as they ensure that the minimal controls discussed above are respected. On the other hand, when, due to task specificities they take a position of followership, their role is similar to anybody else's: to democratically accept the direction of the transient leader. As shown by Weick (1999), the art of jazz improvisation may have important insights for management.

Bricolating. For contemporaneous organizations to pursue both efficiency and effectiveness, their managers are not asked to optimize resource utilization (i.e., doing the best with the best resources, which is made difficult by the need for exploration) nor to achieve a satisfactory use of the available resources (i.e., doing the possible with the available). They must now show their skills as bricoleurs: to use "whatever resources and repertoires one has to perform whatever task one faces" (Weick, 1993, p. 352). These approaches give way to bricolage, or the capacity to do the best with the available (e.g., Thayer, 1988).

Final Comments

Adding to the old and the new standard managerial mindsets, we have proposed the consideration of an additional mindset derived from a dialectical synthesis between the two. We believe our proposal to be in concert with Bettis and Hitt's (1995, p. 14) claim that "the mindset in the new competitive landscape must entail continuous and simultaneous unlearning and learning," being dialectical by nature and inviting organizations to combine the capacities of anticipation and real-time learning. Such a combination may be relevant for organizations competing in environments where emergence precludes the possibility of relying exclusively on planning.

In this paper, a new emergence organizational mindset was provided. It argues that some "old" concepts have been prematurely condemned in recent research (see Nohria & Berkley, 1994, or McCann, 1991, for examples of a switch from the old to the new mindset).

The emergence age mindset provides a potentially useful approach to the management of organizations. However, it may be difficult to implement due to the persistent antinomies of managerial thought in Western societies (e.g., organic versus mechanicist; see Barley & Kunda, 1992), and to the fact that it may look less fashionable and futuristic than most revolutionary recipes of great promise. Nevertheless, it may be closer to the everyday life of many organizations than the other alternatives. Further empirical testing is now needed to show when, how, and why the emergence mindset may be useful and what the notion of "designs for emergence" is all about (Pascale, 1999).

We hope this contribution generates further interest in a dialectical analysis of the paradoxes of 21st century organizations and that it will help management researchers and practitioners not to forget what they have learned, but to reflect on how to transfer the lessons of the past into the future.

Dr. Pina e Cunha focuses his research on organizational improvisation and change and the dialectical analysis of organizations. He is editor of the journal, Comportamento Organizacional e Gestao. Dr. Vieria da Cunha's interest are in organizational paradoxes, time, computer-mediated work, and change. Dr. Kamoche, whose work has been published in numerous journals, focuses on human resource management, organizational improvisation and knowledge management, and management in emergent economies. His book, Sociological Paradigms and Human Resources was published by Ash gate in 2000.


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Table 1
The Traditional, New Standard and New Emergence Mindset
 Traditional mindset New standard mindset
Resources Optimizing Satisficing
Means Planning Action
Ends Efficiency Effectiveness
Structure Integration via hierarchies Integration via networks
Leadership Autoritarian leadership Democratic leadership
 Emergence age mindset
Resources Bricolating
Means Planning and action
Ends Efficient effectiveness
Structure Integration via minimal networks
Leadership Authoritarian democratic leadership
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Author:e Cunha, Miguel Pina; da Cunha, Joao Vieira; Kamoche, Ken
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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