What do people mean when they speak of
"Sustainability"?Definitions of sustainability abound. However, most definitions of "sustainability" seem to share at least two things in common: (1) they are all anthropocentric (unless the human component is removed from the picture); and, (2) they all speak of an ideal process or state. Based on the these two observations and on the seminal work of Ackoff and Emery (1972), the only operational definition of sustainability to this day is:
Process Characterized by Ideal-Seeking Behaviour
characterized by the DESIRE and the ABILITY (i.e.,
opportunity & resources),
to progress toward a common ideal by choosing a new goal when one is
achieved (or the effort to achieve it has failed)
to sacrifice a goal for the sake of an ideal.
IDEAL: An unattainable state or process (in a given point in time/space) but endlessly approachable. Only ideals serve as appropriate guidelines within a context of uncertainty and complexity because only ideals are time-free, hence, intrinsically adaptive in themselves (Emery, 1993). The four universal ideals are:(1) Homonomy; (2) Nurturance; (3) Humanity; and, (4) Beauty (Ibid).
Sources: Ackoff & Emery, F., 1972; Emery, M. 1997
Literature advocating a variety of organizational designs
("Matrix", "Poised", "Fractal", "Learning","Chaordic" etc.) and "participatory"
forms of decision-making abounds (Argyris, 1955; Alutto and Belasco, 1972;
Bragg and Andrews, 1973; Fallon,
1974; Gormley, 1989; Hirsch and Shulman, 1976; Packard, 1989; Ramsdell,
1994; Resnick and Patti, 1980; Thrupp et al., 1994; Toch and Grant, 1982;
Turner, 1991; Wynn, 1995; Pretty et al., 1996). However, all these
(re)designs have been nothing but fiddling around the phenotype of a hierarchical structure. As for the "participatory" forms of
decision-making these have also remained only 'phenotypic'.
Emery and Trist (1965) in their seminal work The Causal Textures of
Organizational Environments demonstrated that there are at least four
types of such environments:
They recognized our
current Turbulent (Type IV) Environment as emergent back in 1962
- I Random Placid
- II Clustered Placid
- IV Turbulent
Source: Emery & Trist (1965)
The work of Lippitt and White (in late 1930's
and early 40's) and that of Fred Emery (1945-1997) demonstrated that all
human organizations make a conscious
or unconscious choice between two, and only TWO genotypic and fundamentally
different organizational designs:
- 1) Bureaucratic (i.e. behaviour-constricting)
- 2) Participative Democratic (i.e., behaviour-enhancing)
also the choice of Laisser faire, which some believe to be a
bureaucracy and participative democracy but it is not! Laisse faire is a
non-structure thus not a valid alternative.
dichotomy between bureaucratic and participative democratic organizations
is very evident
in theory, in reality it is much subtle.
The Bureaucratic Organization or Variety-Decreasing
The Bureaucratic - First Design Principle
Bureaucracy is an organizational design principle for administering organizations involving
a specific structure of authority and a clearly defined set of rules and
regulations. Bureaucracy may be found in large and small, formal or
informal, public or private organizations, such as government,
corporations, churches, schools, political parties, amd even households.
One of the keys to the historical development of bureaucracy was supplied
by Max Weber (a German sociologist) who saw it as characteristic of the
movement toward rational social organization in modern societies with
governments based on "a system of law where leaders obtain their offices
through legal procedures and the power to rule is vested in their
positions rather than in themselves as individuals" (Weber, 1947). Clearly,
a utopian concept of bureaucracy.
Bureaucracy, as a structure of administration, may also be seen as
related to the growing complexity of society. The French sociologist,
Emile Durkheim (1933), saw societies in terms of the division of labor
within them. In primitive societies there is relatively little division of
labor which is largely based on age and sex. As societies become more
complex, their members no longer share the same experiences and thus, a
new basis of uniting individuals with the collectivity is required.
Durkheim characterized modern society as based on "organic solidarity," in
contrast to primitive societies based mostly on "mechanical solidarity".
Most institutions or organizations can be categorized as having a
bureaucratic organizational design that follows the variety-decreasing
principles and dominant hierarchy or DP1 structure (Emery, 1993)
About a hundred years ago the word bureaucracy meant something
good. It had the connotation of a 'rational' and 'efficient' approach to
organizing something, bringing the same logic to government and
institutional work as the assembly lines brought to factories (Bjerknes,
1993). This is no longer the case.
Bureaucracies and human needs have been in conflict ever since the
dawn of homo sapiens as a struggle for human values, individual
fulfillment and social equality (Kranz, 1976). Although Max Weber
introduced and idealized the term bureaucracy in the beginning of the 19th
century, its emergence , as we now know it, can be traced back to the end
of the 17th century with the advent of world economy and resources
competition (Emery, 1977). By the end of the 18th century, when large
organizational acquisitions took place (triggered by technological
breakthroughs in the energy generation and communications field)
bureaucracy was fully developed, and the institutionalization of
bureaucracies with their hierarchies of personal dominance began (Emery,
1977; Hyneman, 1950; Kranz, 1976).
The pervasiveness of the bureaucratic organizational structure is
best explained by the Type III environment of the time (i.e., disturbed
and reactive) which favored and allowed for the institutionalization of hierarchies of personal dominance
(Emery, 1993). And also by perspectives mostly based on Max Weber regard
of it as "technically superior in theory to other forms of organization"
(Reinhard, 1962). The bureaucratic structure was 'legitimized' by Theory X
and Taylorism, which view humans as machines not fully exploited
(Carnevale, 1995). This is the main reason why bureaucratic structures
cannot deliver what the theory behind them expects them to deliver. The
bureaucratic structure was designed for "instruments" not humans capable
of purposeful and ideal-seeking behavior.
The building block in a DP1 structure is redundancy of parts.
Redundant parts are based on what Feibleman and Friend (1945) called
"subjective seriality" where the governing relation between two parts is
that of "asymmetrical dependence", i.e., the sharing of parts is necessary
to one of the parts only (Ibid). Because of this asymmetrical dependence
DP1 structures are inherently error-amplifying (Emery, 1977). This can be
E = (1 - P)
E = error
P = probability of error, and
= number of redundant parts within the system.
In addition, the governing principle of asymmetric dependence also
causes the bifurcation of the two primary functions of communication,
i.e., to inform and to instruct (Emery, 1977), thus reducing
"communication" to a one-way street either to inform or to instruct. This
type of organizational structure is characterized by linear thinking and
highly dominant hierarchies of parts. In this type of structure the
coordination and control of work is located at least one level above those
doing the work (Emery, 1993).
The bureaucratic, variety-reducing or first design principle (DP1)
was arguably appropriate for the disturbed and reactive environment of a
time (i.e., industrial revolution). This type of environment demanded
fool-proof and variety reducing organizations. At that time, Weber's
regard of bureaucracy as superior to any other form of organization was
probably justified . People were (and to some extent still are) considered
unreliable and incompetent (hence the need for supervisors). The task was
(is?) to make them as standardized and interchangeable as possible in
order to better achieve their function as cogs in a machine (Emery, 1977,
1995). Despite their pervasiveness, bureaucratic structures cannot deliver
what the theory behind them expects them to deliver because humans are not
instruments but beings capable of purposeful and ideal-seeking behavior.
Bureaucracies, however, deliberately restrict the behavior of their
elements from coerced to (at best) goal-seeking individuals, a far cry
from being ideal-seeking individuals. The difference between a goal or
multigoal-seeeking individual and an ideal-seeking one is particularly
evident in a turbulent environment (characterized by increasing relevant
uncertainties and system discontinuities) where goals need to be
The five disciplines (i.e., personal mastery, team learning,
shared vision, systems thinking and mental models) considered by Peter
Senge (a systems thinking "expert") as essential for a "learning
organization" are deliberately restricted by bureaucratic structures.
Thus, bureaucracies keep organizations from becoming learning
organizations. This is is particularly negative in our turbulent
environment characterized by increasing relevant uncertainties and system
discontinuities and where continuous learning is essential for survival.
The turbulent environment was first noticed as emergent in 1962 (Emery and
Trist, 1965) and has now become an accepted and continuing phenomenon
(Antonovsky, 1993; Gordon, 1992; Gregersen and Sailer, 1993; Kiel, 1994;
Jurgen, 1995). In a non-turbulent environment it was possible to predict,
rather accurately, the trajectory of a given system and thus it made sense
to concentrate most of the resources in the means toward the predicted end
(Emery, 1993). Unfortunately, accurate forcasting is very difficult, if
not impossible, in a turbulent environment. In our current environment
(type IV) people need considerably more freedom and responsibility if they
are to have a knowledgeable and active-adaptive relationship with their
turbulent and changing environment and behave as ideal-seeking individuals
Although various forms of involvement -often called participatory-
take place in DP1 structures their variety-decreasing, error-amplifying
nature and design principle remain unchanged. Hence, the relationship
between the system and its elements is non-cooperative, dependent, and not
ideal-seeking. It has been shown that in DP1 structures it is counter to
the individual's interest to cooperate with others (e.g. prisoner's
dilemma). For people, under a DP1 structure, the job environment seems
unchanging and there seems to be little, if anything, to be learned,
people show apathy, stress and disaffection (Cabaņa, 1995). People under
this type of structure may have the desire to behave as ideal-seeking
individuals but not the ability to do so for they are forced to act as
robots but without the ability to cope with, let alone positively respond
to, the physical and psychological pressures inherent of a DP1 structure
and hence the pathologies associated therewith. Thus, DP1 structures can
not satisfy people's psychological requirements for effective work i.e.,
adequate freedom in decision-making, a learning-inductive environment,
adequate variety, support and respect, a sense of meaningfulness, and a
desirable future (Emery, 1994) (see Table 1). The failure to satisfy these
critical human requirements for effective and purposeful work generates
the defense mechanisms and the typical pathologies of bureaucratic
structures. Under these type of structures an active-adaptive management
process, required for high performance and sustainability, is not
possible. The "misappropriation of human awareness" (Purser, 1997), which
produces the "egocentric" nature of bureaucratic (DP1) structures, leads
to an alienated, static and repetitious form of structural organization
standing counter to change, knowledge, and novelty (Tulku, 1990). Hence,
the "egocentric" nature of DP1 organizational structures is
"anti-adaptive" (Bateson, 1972).
In a Bureaucratic Structure The responsibility for
control and coordination of work is located at least one level ABOVE
those doing the work and thus people behave accordingly:
- Organizational structure does not foster cooperation &
- Decision-making & control by supervisors. People Goal driven (little to learn)
- Narrow & rigidly defined jobs -complicated work
environment. Detailed specification of everything
- Workers focus on tasks -the big picture is
- Subjective Seriality (asymmetric dependence)
- Error increasing (T=1-F)n (responsibility and blame easily
- Organizational "success" (sustainability) a function of
'smart' direction from top.
Participative Democratic Organization or Variety-Increasing
Participative Democratic - Second Design Principle
DP2 structures are based on open-systems theory
(Contextualism) and the model of directive correlation between system and
environment. The resemblance of
DP2 to an "Ecosphere" may not be accidental. DP2 was purposefully designed
to reconcile scientific knowledge (expertise) and ecological knowledge
(common sense) based on ecological learning, open-systems and the model of
directive correlation thus, catering to physical and psychological human
needs and aspects (i.e., to allow for purposeful and ideal-seeking
behavior). Some of these aspects are an active-adaptive and participative
leadership, shared responsibility and accountability, high cooperation and
commitment, and effective communication (Emery, 1994; Fallon, 1974; Rehm,
1994; Trist and Murray, 1993). In DP2 structures, interactive
participation, cooperation and commitment are the only viable way to
accomplish anything (e.g. mingas). As Fred Emery (1995) puts it
"Participative design is a redesign of the process of redesigning
organizations. DP2 replaces conventional STS [Socio Technical Systems],
while offering all the promise that STS sought to but was unable to
deliver". In DP2 structures there is a balance between the technical
system (technosphere) and the social system (participative-democratic
ecosphere), i.e., people at work who are continuously learning. This
continuous learning by the social systems is what gives DP2 structures the
ability to adequately address relevant uncertainties, system
discontinuities and negative externalities and proactively and swiftly
adapt in a competitive, dynamic and turbulent environment (Emery, M. 1995,
1996). The building block in a DP2 structure is a self-managing --but not
autonomous-- work team that creates a non-dominant hierarchy of functions
(see Fig.2) (as opposed to the dominant hierarchy of parts in DP1) (see
Fig.1). In DP2 structures, the governing relation between two parts is
that of "symmetrical dependence", i.e., the sharing of parts is necessary
to both of the parts (Emery, 1977). Because of this symmetrical dependence
DP2 structures are inherently error-attenuating (Ibid). This can be viewed
E = (1 - P )
E = error
P = probability of error, and
= number of redundant parts within the system.
The governing principle of symmetric dependence does not cause the
bifurcation of the two primary functions of communication, i.e., to inform
and to instruct (Emery, 1977), thus assuring effective communication as a
two-way street to inform and to instruct.
In a DP2 structure, processes and reward systems induce higher
participation (i.e., from Pretty's #5 to #7), cooperation, commitment, and
performance ( Bragg and Andrews, 1973; Fallon, 1974; Trist and Murray,
1993;Van Eijnatten, 1993; Emery, M. 1995, 1996).
In a Participative Democratic structure The
responsibility for control and coordination is located WITH those
doing the work and thus people behave accordingly:
- Organizational structure predicated on cooperation &
participation. People Ideal driven (plenty to learn)
- Decision-making & control by those doing the work. Little
specification as possible ("Smart-proof").
- Broad & flexibly defined jobs -uncomplicated work environment.
- Workers make decisions about tasks -awareness of 'big picture'
- Complementary Seriality (symmetric dependence)
- Error attenuating (T=1-(F)n) (responsibility and blame
cannot be shifted).
- Organizational success (sustainability) a function of
knowledgeable, and actively adaptive collaborative behavior.
What Does The Choice of Organizational Design Imply For Sustainable Development?
The implications in terms of
human behavior derived from organizations built on the first design
principle (DP1), i.e., Bureaucracies versus organizations built on
the second design principle (DP2), i.e., Participative Democracies, are
When people work for the system (Bureaucracy)
the organization is said to be 'Variety-Decreasing' and the range and
level of behavior of its elements is restricted (goal-seeking). When
The System works for the people (Participative Democracy)the
organization is said to be 'Variety-Increasing' and the range and level of
behavior of its elements is enhanced (ideal-seeking).
What happens when:
This is best exemplified with in terms of human behavior,
Participants are instrumental to the Project as in variety-decreasing
systems such as Bureaucratic Organizations?
As opposed to when:
The Project is instrumental to participants as in variety-increasing
systems such as Participative Democratic Organizations?
Varying levels of Beneficiary 'Participation':
- From Passive (Goal-seeking) Participation
- To Active (Ideal-seeking) Participation.
TYPOLOGY OF PARTICIPATION
(Adapted from Pretty et, al., 1994)
1) Passive participation, i.e., people told what to do.
2) Informative Participation, i.e., people simply answer
3) Consultative Participation, i.e., people consulted by
external agents but decision-making power remains with agents.
4) "Bought" Participation, i.e., people participate
return for incentives (e.g., cash, food).
5) Functional participation, i.e., people have a say but
only after major decisions have already been made by external agents.
6) Interactive participation, i.e., people participate
in joint analysis and take control over local decisions.
7) Active Self-mobilization, i.e., people take control and
start action independent of external agents.
So The Seven Levels of Beneficiary "Participation" Range
- Passive Participation (Coercion ==> Goal-seeking)
- Active Participation (Purposeful ==> Ideal-seeking)
The importance of qualifying the 'type' of participation is obvious.
Given the different shades of participation it cannot be expected that all
forms of participation will produce the same outcomes.
Interestingly enough, Ackoff and Emery (1972) also present in
their seminal work On Purposeful Systems seven types of behaviors. Mere
coincidence? Perhaps. In any case, based on passive and active structure
of actions and single and multiple function of outcomes they came up with
seven types of "functional systems" as follows:
1) Passive functional system: It can do (passively) only one
type of thing in any defined environment (e.g.,
time-telling devices, themometers, etc.).
2) Passive multi-functional system: It can do (passively)
more than one thing in different environments.
(e.g., waste emitters).
3) Reactive functional system: It can (reactively) do only
one thing in the same or different environments. (e.g.,
automatic pilots, thermostats, etc.).
4) Reactive multi-functional system: It can (reactively) do
more than one thing in the same or different environments. It
can adapt passively, i.e., discriminate between different enviornments,
but cannot learn (e.g., robots).
5) Active functional or goal-seeking system: It can respond
(not just react) in more than one way in the same or different
environments in pursuit of just one goal at a time. This system is
responsive not reactive thus can learn as well as passively adapt (e.g.,
6) Active multi-functional or multi-goal-seeking system: It
can pursue more than just one goal at a time but cannot
determine the goal just the means to pursue it (e.g., computer program).
7) Active multi-functional or
purposeful: It can pursue more than one goal at a time as well as
determine the goal and the means to pursue it, i.e., display ideal-seeking behavior
A key aspect of purposeful systems is their ability (given the
right environment) to go the higher level of purposefulness, i.e., to be
Purposefulness, thus, according to Ackoff and Emery (1972), is a producer
of ideal-seeking behavior, i.e., it is a necessary but insufficient
condition for ideal-seeking behavior, just as an acorn is a necessary but
insufficient condition for an oak tree (Ibid).
Based on Pretty's typology of participation, on Ackoff and Emery's
(1972) work on purposeful systems, and on the working definition of
sustainability used here, it can be argued that Pretty's Interactive
purposeful behavior) is a necessary (but still insufficient) condition for
performance and sustainable outcomes. To the extent that purposeful
behavior and participation do exist, they are most routinely manifest in
terms of less than ideal-seeking behavior (e.g., goal-seeking or
multigoal-seeking behavior) exemplified in one of Pretty's first four
classifications of participation (i.e., passive, informative,
consultative, and "bought" participation) or in one of Ackoff and Emery's
first six functional types of systems. This means that, in practice,
individual behavior is still considered instrumental to the organization
instead of the organization being instrumental to the individual (i.e., a
means towards an end and not as an end in itself) (Carmen, 1990; Narayan,
1995). This 'instrumental' view of individual behavior reinforces the
hierarchical approach in organizational redesigns or re-engineering
initiatives and allows for the prevalence of variety-reducing structures (i.e., DP1). As
Ackoff and Emery (1972) point out, all systems have a constant tendency
towards either decreasing or increasing the variety in the range and level
of behavior of their component elements as the following quote from their
work On Purposeful Systems indicates:
One of the most important characteristics of a system -one that
shows why a system is either more or less than the sum of its parts- is
the relationship between its behavior (taking the system as an individual)
and that of its elements (taking them as individuals).
...the instrumentality of a system tends to be of a lower
system order than the system. Thus, although a social system is a
purposeful system, all of whose elements are purposeful, there is a
constant tendency toward increasing or decreasing variety in the range and
level of the behavior of the elements. In that the individual elements are
instrumental to the system, the system will be variety decreasing: the
range of purposeful behavior will be restricted, and increasingly behavior
will be at a lower level of multi-goal-seeking or goal-seeking behavior.
In that the system is instrumental to its component elements, it will tend
to be variety increasing: the range of purposeful behavior will be
extended, and increasingly behavior will be at the higher level of
Given the increasing interdependencies within our global
environment the future of humankind will be increasingly determined by the
choices people make. Thus, ideal-seeking behavior (e.g., Pretty's #7
self-mobilization) must be given serious consideration as the central
theme of any real empowering or design process as a the major requirement
(i.e., necessary and sufficient condition) for high performance and
As Pretty (1994) indicates, long-term economic and environmental
revitalization are only possible when people are given the power to make
decisions and their knowledge is valued (i.e., people exhibiting the
desire for and ability to pursue an ideal).
Advocacy of deterministic redesign models of blueprint
interventions (e.g., re-engineering, TQM, transfers of technology) or
naive, populist processes of participation cannot account for the social,
economic, and political forces at play in the interaction of contrasting
and conflicting knowledge systems (Thompson and Scoones, 1994). To achieve
high performance and realize positive sustainable outcomes
organizational design principle that moves beyond the "centralized mindset" (Resnick, 1997)
(c) Copyright 1998-2005 J.C. Wandemberg