Creating the Collective

First of all, check out the comments on yesterday’s post, where Beemer refines what I’m talking about and comes up with a great example to illustrate it.

Today’s topic: what the heck does any of this French wacky social theory have to do with anything real?

I’ll lead off with a couple Latour quotes:

  1. “an organization is…made only of movements, which are woven by the constant circulation of documents, stories, accounts, goods, and passions.” (p. 179)
  2. “Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what.” (p. 31)

Latour’s point is that groups are constantly being created anew by their members. If a group’s members stop working to make the group cohere, the group no longer exists. Okay, that’s still too abstract.

Let’s get concrete. Take a typical corporate org chart, showing a nice hierarchy of management. People report to directors, who report to VPs, who report to the CEO. What makes this org chart real? Where does the authority implied by the org chart come from? It comes from real people making real decisions and enforcing those decisions.

There are other situations where the org chart is a complete fiction, where everybody knows that the real authority is somebody who has no power on the org chart, but influences those who nominally have power. The org chart does not reflect the reality of that organization. How can we tell? As Latour would have it, we follow the actors, and realize that they are not going up the hierarchy, but flanking it and going outside the org chart.

What makes this fascinating to me is the idea of how to make an organization, a company, a community work. It doesn’t just happen. One of the best descriptions of this process that I’ve read was Phil Agre’s article on “How to Be a Leader in Your Field”, where he explains the hard work necessary to create a community around a new issue. In business, you can’t just set up an org chart and believe that everybody will buy into it. It takes the work of managers and of everybody in the company to reify the org chart, to make it so that the org chart is an accurate map of the actual social discourse happening.

What implications does this have? Managers often complain that they don’t do anything, that they spend all of their time talking and in meetings. I think this viewpoint makes it clear what they are doing – they are the social glue that makes the organization an organization. They are the spokespeople for the company as collective (see last year’s post for details on the collective-forming process). They bring the social traces that bind the company together into being. They may be “just talking”, but talking is what builds social cohesion, what continues to create the network anew.

The best managers I’ve had managed by walking around. They dropped in on people, asked them what they were doing, told them about other things within the company that might affect their work. They spread information throughout the company, providing the centripetal force that made the company not just a group of people working in the same building, but an actual collective organization.

This is something I aspire to. That’s what I want to be (well, at least today). I want to be social glue. I want to be an impedance matcher between different parts of the organization. I want to be a structural hole (I’ve got Ron Burt’s book, but haven’t read it yet). I want to help create the collective.

Latour doesn’t quite have a pithy description, but he definitely provides inspiration in the form of a theoretical basis for such a role. If organizations just automatically matched what was listed on paper, there would be no need for such a role. You could just look at the org chart. Specs would be written down, and products could be built to them, and they would just work. But the world doesn’t work like that, as Latour describes. There is a need for people who can translate the theoretical org chart into reality, who can take the ideal mental model and figure out a way to push and shove at reality to make it kind of fit. My background in rapid prototyping and research makes me all too aware of how what works in theory rarely works in practice.

Of course, I’m still working on how to make my own life and reality fit my ideal mental model. So there’s still a few issues to be worked out here. But that’s another topic for another day.

7 thoughts on “Creating the Collective

  1. Hrm. Interesting point, re: what makes the structure. I’d sort of tried to put something like this into words a couple weeks ago on a gaming forum, when talking about why a company like Rare really isn’t Rare anymore, and why brand loyalty to a *company* is pointless – it’s brand loyalty to the people you want.

    But I didn’t put it nearly as succinctly as this. But here’s where my head gets wobbly:

    You say you want to be the social glue. That’s good – I think you’d be good social glue.

    I think, though, what I got out of the “reality of the org chart vs. the fiction of the org chart,” is simply that the essential structure of a system simply emerges. That, at least, has been my view of the companies I worked in in the past.

    So, rather than assigning roles, and having people fill those roles, how do you make the fiction fit the reality, instead of the other way around? Blah. I’m not making this clear. The text box I’m entering the comment in is too small, incidentally, and I’m almost having a hard time “cohering” my thoughts, because I can’t see what they were as I’m writing. Nonsequitur, I know.


    Ok, so, what I’m trying to get at is, is there a way to simply have an org chart be flexible enough to reflect reality, instead of dictate what reality should be?

    That is, let’s say you have a project, wiht a couple designers, and someone who’s been assigned to be the lead. And let’s say that everyone knows that lead isn’t the right person for the job, for whatever reason. So, the org chart says Person X is the lead designer. But then let’s say *in reality* the bulk of the decisions fell on the non-lead roles, and people would approach other designers to answer questions that should have been directed to the lead, but weren’t because the people know the reality better than the org chart.

    Is there a way to simply dynamically redraw the chart to reflect reality, and move the now-ex-lead into a role that better optimizes their utility?

    I know office politics are always a really huge factor in things like this, but just throw out the conventional wisdom for a while – what sorts of operational gains could you make by understanding the *reality,* as judged by the actual actions of the actors, rather than the intention of the group imposing the structure?

    Is such a thing desirable? Possible? Because clearly, the structure already occurs, and we just ignore it because it’s not polite to not abide by the org chart. So, certain people are radically undervalued, while others radically overvalued, creating tension, strain, blah blah blah. If the actors were safe from large negative repercussion, what kinds of benefits could you get from a system that was actually *honest*?

  2. First of all, duh, of course I should enlarge the comment box. So I did. As a total aside, I wonder if this will encourage longer and more coherent comments. Latour would say this is an example of how a non-human element can determine human actions. But anyway.

    The office politics are always a problem. If somebody is hired as a lead, but is much better suited to being a developer in the trenches, then do you reduce their salary to match the other developers?

    But I agree with you. I’ve always thought that it’s a manager’s responsibility to put people in the position in which they are most likely to succeed, where their strengths are maximized and their weaknesses minimized. Sometimes you are resource limited and don’t have a choice about who gets what tasks.

    The Google guys had a great quote about this: “You can try to control people, or you can try to have a system that represents reality. I find that knowing what’s really happening is more important than trying to control people.”

    I think one part where I slightly disagree with you is that the fiction of the org chart is still a useful artifact as a starting point. If you just start off everybody with no structure, then chaos ensues. An org chart imposes order. But it shouldn’t be static. Imagine if you rapid prototyped the org chart as well. You throw one out as a starting point, you see what works in it, you refine the org chart, etc. This ignores how many people don’t feel comfortable in a fluid environment, and want to just know their roles. But it’s an interesting idea.

    One place where the org chart is rapidly revised to fit reality is when the organization is in trouble. I’ve had two friends who ascended from engineer to VP in no time at all, because they were at startups which were floundering, and they showed they could get things done. In more stable organizations, that would never have happened – the upper management would have been content with the fictional representation. I’m not sure if that means we should have our companies always be run as if they were in trouble.

    Gah, the longer comment box just makes me want to write forever. I’ll stop now.

  3. Helava pointed me to your blog, as a lot of the subjects you talk about apply directly to the job that I’m doing now.

    You see… I’ve pretty much been put in the position of “the glue.” The walking-around-and-talking-to-people part is great. But just as glue works nicely to pull things together, it gets the crap beat out of it when things want to fall apart.

    As “the glue,” the point of the fictional org chart vs the reality is a good one that I hadn’t quite formed into coherent thoughts. There are definitely people within the company structure that wield power simply because they make things happen, and there are those who are given power, but are unable to wield it due to the fact that no one follows or trusts them.

    There is a definite need for structure; if there is no org structure on paper, information starts to fly every which way, and people start to go off and do their own thing. The paper chart gives them a guideline, and the individuals within the structure then start to make shortcuts on their own…

    I’ll go through and read more as it sounds like it’ll help me wrap my head around my job. 🙂

  4. So, over the course of the last year, I’ve managed to work with three types of managers: Good, bad, and indifferent. The managers of the past project I shipped were excellent. They knew the people who worked for them, knew what they were working on, and were proactive about dealing with problems. Even though things got a bit screwed up at the end, you at least felt like the people in charge were looking out for you, so you felt more secure, and more able to voice any concerns you might have.

    Then the management changed, and was replaced by a paranoid, insular group of new people. They didn’t try to get to know the people who worked for them, or the processes that had been in place before they were put in charge. Instead, they formed a little clique who issued dictates that were obeyed, or else. Bad in every way, and you could literally watch the team fall apart before your eyes, as people couldn’t abandon the sinking ship fast enough.

    On this project, the management simply doesn’t care about team coherency. They vaguely watch the schedule, don’t tell people what’s happening, and don’t foster any sort of team atmosphere. What’s weird about this is that the motivated people get to do good work, because they’re not being interfered with, but when things go wrong, they go wrong for a very long period of time without being corrected. There’s almost no communication, organization, or sense that we’re all even really working on the same thing.

    It’s quite weird.

    I mean, in the end what this really just means is, “I only really like working with good bosses,” which seems pretty reasoanble a conclusion, but it’s somewhat odd that I’ve worked with three completely, completely different groups in less than a year. The first, good group, illustrates the flaws in the others so clearly that it’s sadly thrown into stark relief how hard it is to find good leadership for a company.

  5. Wilfred Chow pointed me to your blog, which I’ve found delightful to read. Thank you for your insightful contributions to the pool of knowledge (and occasional garbage) that is known as the internet.

    This post in particular echoes with me, as I am coming of age as a fledgling manager at a company struggling to establish functional org charts. As you aptly described, I’ve found a large part of my managerial role involves spending most of my working time in meetings. I have a broader definition for meetings than others I work with, as I consider equally (if not more) important the offhand comments made in the hallway, the discussions and brainstorming at the common lunch table, and the formal discussions with accompanying minutes that take place around a table in a closed conference room.

    Outside work, I love to talk. At work, I favor quiet listening and observation. I seem to filter conversations for bits of strain, curiosity, praise, need, ideas, goals, how-to and “wouldn’t it be great if…”s. I have my particular way of mentally organizing, cataloging and maintaining the information I hear, allowing me to remember the cumulative history of filtered bits from most of the conversations I hear.

    My excitement comes when I hear in a new conversation a bit that matches with something I’ve heard before; something in my memory. At this point, I actually speak. My favorite contribution to the managerial gluepot is to link people who are searching for an answer with others who may have the answer; or more frequently, are searching for the same answer. Sometimes, the simple process of uniting two people who are in search of the same unknown is the only catalyst required to start the chain reaction leading to new discovery.

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