work as a social process

Work as a social process

Peter Checkland says that human activity systems or work systems can be regarded as a set of activities and a set of relations between the people doing them. This idea is also a central element of Systems Leadership Theory, framed around the notion that “Work is a social process”. By social process I mean the interaction between humans to achieve a purpose.

Work occurs across three different dimensions, Technical, Commercial and Social. The Technical and Commercial aspects often get all the attention and the Social aspect is somewhat ignored. The remarkable failures of countless Mergers & Acquisitions and other change programs are surely a testament to that – it all looked great on paper…

Unfortunately the social dimension of work is often overlooked as it has a profound impact on the output of human undertakings. It is often assumed that it will look after itself. Sometimes it is outsourced to HR or the more fancy labelled “People & Culture” team to deal with the soft people stuff. Reality is that the soft stuff is the hard stuff. It is hard partly because we don’t have the same degree of shared language for the social processes as we have for the technical and commercial processes.  The quote below from Brigadier R Macdonald captures the importance of understanding the social dimensions of work.

“When human beings are part of the solution, a technical solution is no solution at all”

socialising-with-a-purposeImage Courtesy of Gaping Void

The Decision Making model and the Task Assignment model are both designed to support a good social process by providing clarity around context and purpose and clarity around expectations, both in term of behaviour and output/outcomes. Poor communication is often cited as a big issue in many organisations, a remarkable scenario since every resume I have every seen suggests that everyone is a fantastic communicator.

I think that the “poor communication” issue is not so much a personality or people issue, it is more likely to be a system issue. Having shared language and shared models for decision-making and task assignment can support better communication by providing clarity for both sender and receiver about what is intended. This can greatly enhance the two-way flow that is critical for communication to actually occur. Stafford Beer made the point that successful communication is only achieved when the objective of the message has been actualised as intended, not when the message itself has been sent (which tends to be the view of many – “but I sent them an email…”)

Our over reliance on written communication to speed things up often ends up delaying things as misunderstandings and different interpretations are not realised until it is too late. How many emails does it take to organise a meeting when one phone call would have sufficed?

A good written task assignment is therefore only a vehicle to support the social interaction that is often essential for providing full clarity about expectations. The social process might take a few days to complete depending on the complexity of the task and the people involved. Some people need to reflect on the information provided and may need time to do this before accepting the task.

An essential process that I have not made explicit in the decision making model and only hinted at in the task assignment model is the Review process. To enable a learning environment we have to continuously review our work – both successes and failures. A review can happen at any time, however, tasks and decisions should always end with a review.

The purpose of the review is primarily to learn about the social process, what worked well, what did not work well, what led to person x making this decision etc.? The technical output is usually the easy bit to review, did you deliver what you said you would, yes or no? The point here is to review the judgments used to get the results and learn.


2 thoughts on “work as a social process

    • Thanks for your comment Michael. I think the difficult situation many Managers find themselves in, is that they do not understand how systems drive behaviour and lack the skills to change behaviour through aligning systems, symbols and behaviour. This can mean that focusing on people is the only visible path to them and seems then the obvious choice.

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