Taking power to the edge of the organisation: role as praxis

Title: Taking power to the edge of the organisation: role as praxis
Author: P.J. Boxer & C.A. Eigen
Category: Presentation
Publication Year: 2005
Where Published: ISPSO Symposium, Baltimore

In their book on the revolution taking place in military affairs, Alberts and Hayes provide an excellent critique of the 20th century industrial organisation and outline the main characteristics of the 21st century organisation. The transformational challenge of our time is to take power to the edge of an organisation. The ‘edge’ is where demand meets the organisation: leadership power needs to be at the edge because it is there that decisions must be made about how to respond to the particular form the demand takes. This is in contrast to holding power at the centre which is the traditional form of hierarchical organisation post WWII. Power held at the centre requires leadership to maintain the cohesion of the organisation as a whole and keep its members motivated to carry out their expected roles. Power taken to the edge requires leadership to be distributed. This implies a different relationship to role in which the authority of a role arises primarily through its relation to demand, rather than by virtue of position in a hierarchy.
The different relationship to role creates new challenges for the person- in-role. It is necessary to deal with the anxiety associated with their personal relationship to the role, as well as the systemic anxiety evoked when new forms of demand call into question the very formation of the role itself. A different form of role consultation is needed that can support this re-forming of role as a praxis. The traditional approach to organisational role analysis works with the differences between the fly-on-the-wall’s (phenomenological) view of what-is-going-on, the (normative) hierarchical view of what ought to be going on, and the role occupant’s (existential) view of what is felt to be going on. The transformational challenge requires the occupant of a role to re-form it in terms of a praxis in which the role emerges from its particular relation to demand. This adds a fourth (referential) view of what is going on in relation to the way the demand itself is constructed independently of the way in which the organization attempts to satisfy it. The challenge this creates can be appreciated if we characterize the person in role as a self-employed employee.
This presentation describes how we used role-as-praxis to enable individuals within an organisation to develop a different relationship to their roles based on their ability to make common cause with other individuals in order to meet new forms of demand. This systemic approach to understanding the formation of their role provides them with the means to manage anxiety through transformational change, and also to change the way they understand the organisation itself. Our presentation will combine theoretical exposition with case vignettes, and conclude by drawing out the parallels between the learning rooted in the WWII experience which brought the Tavistock thinking to the notice of its public, and the learning that is now arising from the war on terror that requires new forms of response to asymmetric threats.

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