Open Systems Applied
In the most recent installment in our Organization Change series, we introduced readers to the organizational concept of “open systems.” Fundamental to this approach is the idea that there is no one best way to organize. Just as with living organisms, the effectiveness of an organization depends on the alignment among characteristics of the system and between the system and its environment. In this installment, we want to review how open-systems theory applies to symphony organizations.
There are several well-established conceptual frameworks available to help understand and assess orchestras as systems. One of the most applicable models was developed by Lawrence and Lorsch (1967). This model grew out of a study comparing organizations in different industries, with different products, and operating in different environments. Lawrence and Lorsch found that organizations that had stable, predictable environments were most efficient and productive when they used a traditional hierarchical structure. However, those exposed to rapidly changing environments or technologies were more successful if they pursued more flexible structures in which authority and control were decentralized. The authors also found that the higher the level of external change and uncertainty, the more subsystem specialization was necessary. More specialization in turn created a need for more communication and cooperation among diverse groups within an organization.
Applying this framework to the typical symphony orchestra organization, we might first consider the characteristics of the environment. No two organizational environments have exactly the same characteristics, but it is fair to say that there are some widely acknowledged environmental forces that affect most orchestra organizations. Just a partial list, with many correlations, would include:
- an aging audience base;
- reductions in arts education in schools;
- shifts in listening habits from live to recorded music;
- less willingness to commit and subscribe to distant-future concerts;
- more choice, and thus a higher valuation, on personal time expenditure;
- intense competition from a wide variety of entertainment forms and leisure-time services;
- the explosion of Internet technology; and
- the challenge posed by increasing cultural diversity to the preeminence of a largely Eurocentric classical tradition.
In other words, the external environment for orchestra organizations has become—and the outlook continues to be—highly uncertain, unpredictable, and risky!
According to Lawrence and Lorsch, an organization in such an uncertain environment should maximize its flexibility with a decentralized authority structure and highly developed lines of communication. The organization should be able to coordinate the work of individuals and subsystems with different specialties, and have the capacity to understand (even constructively use) the inevitable friction that will arise between these subsystems.
A further consideration is that each subsystem of the organization operates within its own sub-environment. These sub-environments may differ in some significant ways, even in a single organization, and those differences need to be recognized and accepted.
In an orchestra organization, certain subsystems routinely work across “boundaries.” For example, executive leadership, development staff, marketing staff, and so on are constantly exposed to the boundary between their organizational system and the external environment. For them, the external environment IS, to a large extent, their sub-environment. Ideally, such subsystems will be structured with a minimum of hierarchy and a great deal of cross-communication among task groups.
In many ways, the immediate environment of the board of directors subsystem is even more predominantly the external environment of the symphony organization. It is only through functional board committees (which can be viewed as sub-subsystems) that some board members begin to share the sub-environments of staff members. How to structure the board subsystems of a symphony organization, taking into account the importance of external environment participation, but have effective spanning into internal environments, is a fundamental challenge to symphony institutions.
Conductors and players, on the other hand, traditionally work far inside the boundary of their organizational system. They are insulated by other task groups from contact with the system’s environment. Although they play and even speak in front of audiences, they rarely interact with them. In fact, it is unusual for musicians to interact with anyone outside their institutional boundaries in an “organizational” (as opposed to an “individual-professional”) capacity. Their technological environment is relatively stable; the tools, methods, and practices by which they create sound, rehearse music, and perform for audiences have changed little in the past century. From an intellectual point of view, their environment is dominated by “music.” In such a subsystem, according to Lawrence and Lorsch, the most effective structure is a traditional hierarchical one—and that’s in fact the pattern we see followed within the subsystem of the orchestra.
But here’s the rub. While these subsystems may function acceptably within the context of the organization itself, the challenges of coordinating different sets of needs and values—and creating an overall organizational structure that can respond to the environment—still may not be met. The system as a whole may even function well for a given set of outputs (for instance, presenting full-orchestra programs of Romantic music in large halls). At the same time, it may not have the capacity to change these outputs effectively in response to environmental forces.
A student of the systems approach to organization change would encourage orchestra organizations to examine:
- their structure at both the whole-system and subsystem levels,
- the fit of each system’s structure with its own level of environmental uncertainty, and
- the possibility of integrating differently structured groups with somewhat different priorities.
This discussion and review might result in:
- redrawing some boundaries,
- creating new organization-wide pathways for communication, and
- generating strategies for using conflict productively.
Only then can a symphony organization effectively address environmental challenges, either by adjusting its outputs or influencing its environment.
With the need for communication and conflict management, the “engineering” approach of systems theory intersects with what, as we earlier mentioned, Douglas McGregor called “the human side of enterprise.”
In our next installment, we will look at organizations as “cultures,” with explicit and implicit beliefs, values, and behavior patterns that are at least as powerful as “structure” in their impact on system effectiveness.
See you then!
Lawrence, P., and J. Lorsch. 1967. Organization and Environment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
Reading List and Links
McNeill, K. F. Outline notes on his course in Formal Organizations at the University of California, Riverside. (especially Chapter 5)
Mullett, R. Diversity, Conflict, and Organizational Effectiveness. Organizational Resources Counselors, Inc.(especially p. 5-6)
Nadler, D. and M. Tushman. 1997. Competing By Design: The Power of Organizational Architecture. New York: Oxford University Press.