No more theoretical models: experience the metal process organically!

No more theoretical models: experience the metal process organically!

In practice, I see that organizations regularly have a vision and a strategy that have been set up to fit the best practices of the standard software they are looking for, before teaming up with the software provider to design the integrated software as seamlessly as possible.

Organizations typically start off by developing a basic strategy, asking questions such as: what kind of organization do we want to be and what are our core competences? In this process, they often resort to a range of theoretical models, such as the model developed by Tracy and Wiersema. According to Tracey and Wiersema, every vision must be based on the answers to these questions about an organization’s basic strategy.

I will not comment on whether the theoretical models are right, but I do see things happen in practice that no model can describe, or which are even hampered by models. Apparently, not all models will help you (neither the organization itself, nor an adviser/consultant) get to the bottom of an organization and not all organizations can be straightjacketed into a model.

So if theoretical models are not always the solution, what useful steps can an organization take to facilitate collaboration with a software provider?

Food for thought

Managers often think according to idealized, abstract models about the world, and of course the same applies to me. When it turns out that that world does not correspond exactly to reality, however, this can leave them a little surprised. I think this is the case because the way we think is shaped and molded by our schools, colleges and the world of business. Theoretical models make it easier to understand and influence the world around us, but unfortunately these abstract concepts may also stand in our way.

An example:

Nowadays, businesses pay a lot of attention to determining whether employees have the right competences. In the past, people just did their jobs without ever having heard of competences in their lives. In a manager’s ideal model, the manager will sense there is a problem if certain employees do not have the right competences, as they don’t all have the right label. Although no specific problem has arisen yet, the manager feels as if his employees do not all fit into his ideal model of the organization. He starts focusing on competences and sends his employees on training courses in an attempt to create what the model has convinced him is the ideal employee. When he succeeds, he’ll have realized his model organization and finally have the time to sit back and relax. His work is done.

However, will this process automatically lead to the most important goal, i.e. a successful, innovative business?

In practice, I meet a lot of successful people who do not have the theoretical competences that they are supposed to have in the manager’s ideal world. Often, though, they are even better businesspeople than the employees who do have those competences. How is that possible? And, crucially, why do we keep clinging to our ideal models?

The same applies to visions and strategies. I believe that many “chaotic” companies are more successful (and more agile) in their first few years than a company organized entirely according to an ideal theoretical model. A major danger inherent in relying too much on theoretical models is rigidity.

Managers enjoy living in an imaginary world that dictates exactly how everything should be done, before looking up in surprise when this does not, in fact, reflect reality (Homan & Wijsbek).

When we only think in terms of models, problems will start to arise. The real world around us is in constant motion, yet we still try to capture it in abstract, rigid models.

When you only look at the world from the ideal perspective, you will only see the things that fit the model while disregarding reality. People start communicating about the model and lose sight of the real world.

How can we do things differently?

When I am asked to contribute ideas, I first try to experience and get to know the processes of the organization in question. This means I’m hardly doing any talking, but a lot of listening and studying. It’s about discovering how the wheels spin instead of analyzing the wheels themselves and immediately incorporating them into a model.

Because organizations tend to be preoccupied by their daily routine, they will often struggle to look at how their methods/processes work in the bigger picture and will typically lack insight into which new software tools will provide the best support. On the other hand, however, every organization in the metal industry is unique: cutting sheet metal is completely different from elongating a coil. That is why the ideal combination consists of a consultant that serves as a fresh set of eyes and an employee who knows exactly what makes or could make their organization unique. Together, they can discover which innovations are best suited to the company.

I believe in having the consultants of the software provider and the client organization take a more organic approach rather than follow a formal, rigid process based on a range of ideal theoretical models. These models work as fences, which stop us from discovering lush pastures. This organic process has to take place throughout the organization, from the very top to the very bottom. After all, you want to avoid the situation in which managers proclaim how customer-oriented and quality-conscious their organization is while the lower layers of the organization have a radically different experience.

Naturally, this organic process has to be structured, but there has to be enough wiggle room in order to respond to unexpected developments (both positive and negative) during the development process. The project manager, for instance, will have to put some real effort into facilitating certain things, such as determining when there should be a discussion, and with whom. How many iterations the process can include, etc. However, the content and the solution have to remain completely open to interpretation, freed from the fetters of a theoretical model.


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