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Groupware Configurations of Challenge and Harmony: an alternative approach to alternative organization


Groupware Configurations of Challenge and Harmony
Communication nets vs. Tensegrity organization
Challenge and harmony
Levels and stages of comprehension
'Keeping the act together'
Computer facilitation
Dynamics: growth and evolution
Relevance: organizations, meetings, programmes
Configurative training

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Presented to a workshop on alternative organizations of the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Management (Brussels, June 1979); prepared for the international conference (London, August 1979) of the Society for General Systems Research (SGSR) and reproduced from its proceedings: Improving the Human Condition - quality and stability in social systems. Society for General Systems Research, 1979 (Editor R F Ericson), 1051 pages. Printed in Transnational Associations, 1979, 10, pp. 467-475 [PDF version]


Organizations have traditionally been based on some more or less explicit notion of hierarchy. This paper is not concerned with varieties of alternative organization which may be obtained by tinkering with the hierarchical formula and introducing participative forms of decision-making, worker management, etc. The intention is to look beyond hierarchy (1). A recently much-favoured approach is that of networks and 'networking' which has now been quite extensively described and practised (2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) as a contrast to hierarchical activity. It has also been taken up and combined with (alternative) 'grass-roots' community action and the commune movements or as the mode underlying 'situational networks' (8). But there in an emerging recognition that networks do not 'work'. Many would of course argue that they cannot be expected to 'work' in the traditional sense and that their action (or non-action) is more subtle and as such more effective. But at least it is unclear how their constructive activities can be facilitated above a certain threshold (9, 10).

Unfortunately 'network' is often attached as a label to what previous decades called 'movement' or even 'club'. Many 'networks' are in fact hierarchies, although it would be bad form to draw attention to this. It is even possible to speak of the 'diseases " to which networks are prone (11), particularly a certain 'flabbiness' arising from the progressive elimination of exposure to confrontation, criticism and discipline -- as being characteristic of the hierarchic mode. Such weaknesses reduce their viability as true 'alternatives'.

This paper rejects the extremes of hierarchy and network and is concerned with new types of organization which could combine some of the features of each. It is therefore based on a notion of complementarity between hierarchical system and organizational network (1, 12). The organization to which this approach may give rise could emerge from 'tensing' networks (10) as a corrective to 'flabbiness'. Exactly how this could be done is not very clear but a number of stimulating clues are available from the study of structural design, namely those relating to 'tensegrity' (i.e. tensional integrity) structures. The relevance of these clues to organization design has been discussed elsewhere (1, 13), as has their relevance to ordering concepts, needs and problems (14). The latter focus has highlighted the associated difficulties of comprehending complex configurations and the importance of developing information systems supportive of 'configurative thinking' (15, 16).

This is not a hardware problem but partly one of computer software and partly one of 'groupware' (17) or 'orgware' (18) as it has recently been termed -- namely the way in which a group of people work together in relation to the information system which links them (whether or not it is computerbased). Ironically it is within the sophisticated communication environments of the emerging computer conferencing systems (15, 19, 20) that these groupware problems are now being highlighted (17), although the tragic inability of the wise to communicate with each other or work together has been remarked upon in the past (21).

The concern of this paper is therefore not to describe existing efforts at 'alternative' organization but to see whether, from a study of formal structures, an entirely new approach to organization could emerge. This is therefore seen as a design problem in the broadest sense of the term (22, 23). This problem is particularly challenging when the range of disparate functions active within the organization is broad rather than specialised, and when few of the participants appreciate the relevance of functions other than those with which they are directly associated.

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