Category Archives: Government

Sternberg’s Theory of Organizational Change —What Minerals Are Government Agencies?

Dr. Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Human Development at Cornell University and inventor of the Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence. I became familiar with his work on successful intelligence in the mid-1980s and have used successful intelligence as the basis for my training and development work.

It’s his research program on organizational modifiability that I find relevant in my work. As we enter the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, there are many ideas from the candidates on how to reform the federal government. Add to these plans the current administration’s President Management Agenda which promises sweeping reforms to the federal government. The Office of Management and Budget recently announced award winners for their Government Effectiveness Advanced Research (GEAR) Center. As in the past administrations, there are several reinventing-government programs underway.

Even with all the change efforts, success has been mixed. What makes an organizational change effort successful? How should governments approach the change process? There are many theories of change management so, what insights does Dr. Sternberg offer?

Organizational Modifiability

Dr. Sternberg’s work deals with the ability of universities to change. As he notes:

Change is happening very rapidly in the field of higher education, whether the issue is MOOCs, criteria for accreditation, measurement of learning outcomes or models for charging tuition or for allocating financial aid. Learning institutions require three prerequisites for change.

Universities and government agencies have much in common. They have various sizes, serve different constituencies and are similar in the way their bureaucratic processes work. And like universities, government agencies also need to learn. Three prerequisites need to be present to build the agency’s learning capacity.

The first prerequisite is the ability to change. There are two reasons an organization cannot change: a lack of resources or culture of stagnation. The second prerequisite is that the organization must believe that it can change. Closely related to the organization’s belief is the third prerequisite, which is the courage to change.

Using these three prerequisites, Dr. Sternberg created a cultural framework for institutional learning and change. The framework assesses three factors:

  1. “How much desire is there for actual change [italics in original] in this institutional culture as a whole?”
  2. “How much desire is there for the appearance of change [italics in original] in the culture of the institution?”
  3. “What is the perceived quality or potential quality of the institution?”

Using the values of, “Low,” or, “High,” for each question, Dr. Sternberg describes eight types of organizational cultures in terms of learning and willingness to change. For each of the eight types, he assigned a different mineral as a metaphor.

Crystals

Organizational Cultures of Learning and Change as Minerals (These descriptions adopted from Organizational Modifiability).

“The Rusted-Iron Institution: Low in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.

The Granite Institution: Low in desire for actual change, low in desire for appearance of change, but high in perceived quality. Its mood is one of smugness.

The Amber Institution (with Internal Insects): Low in desire for actual change, high in desire for the appearance of change, and low in perceived quality.

The Opal Institution: Low in desire for actual change, but high in desire for appearance of change and high in self-perceived quality.

The Cubic Zirconium Institution: High in desire for actual change, but low in both desire for the appearance of change and in perceived quality.

The Slightly Imperfect (SI) Diamond Institution: High in desire for actual change, low in desire for the appearance of change, and high in perceived quality.

The Lead Institution: High in desire for actual change, high in desire for appearance of change, but low in perceived quality.

The Diamond in the Rough Organization: High in desire for actual change, desire for appearance of change, and perceived quality.”

Five Factors in Why Change is Hard

Even though Dr. Sternberg was describing universities, the above descriptions just apply to government agencies both in the federal, state and local governments. I have been on several change projects which purported to be diamonds in the rough but turned out to be opals or amber institutions.

According to Dr. Sternberg’s research, five factors determine how likely organizational change will happen. The first two factors are the perceived legitimacy and credibility of the change agent. If the change agent comes from outside the organization and does not appear to have the expertise for change management, the organizational stakeholders will resist change. I have seen this happen to numerous political appointees.

The third factor is who owns the change. If change is forced on the organization from the top without having the stakeholder groups buy-in to the change, the change effort will most likely fail.

The fourth and fifth factors concern the rate of change and the cultural compatibility of change. The organization and culture can only absorb so much change in terms of speed and the changing of existing cultural habits. As governments start a new round of change efforts, change agents would do well to consider the agency’s ability to learn and absorb the new change.

Business Process Management as If People Mattered: Adaptive Case Management

Does this look like your typical day as a local, state, or federal worker?

  • 31% of your workday is made up of purely ad-hoc, never happens the same way twice tasks
  • 30% of your work revolves around consistent, defined goals but various ways to achieve those goals
  • 20% of your work involves documented and managed tasks that are not automated
  • 17% of your work is automated, but there are numerous exceptions to the automated processes
  • 9% of your work is fully automated, and there are no ways to change the process (Fischer, 2011, p. 84)

Except for a very few exceptions, every government worker is a knowledge worker because they deal with continuously varying situations that we package into cases. We may deal with specific subject areas and perform repeatable functions, but the actual execution of this work will differ significantly from case to case. For example, when I was a paralegal/investigator for a public defender’s office, I helped with numerous assault cases. We had a specific process for interviewing the client, preparing the pleadings, assembling the evidence, and presenting the case. But the facts were always different.

One case was about an assault by a drunken student on an equally drunk off-duty policeman. Another case was a domestic violence issue, while a third involved a store employee who tackled a complaining customer. For each case, the kind of pleadings filed, how I conducted the investigation, and so on would differ based on the specific events in that case. You didn’t know what would happen from day to day, so it was challenging to determine routines beforehand.

These experiences have convinced me that the best way to improve government work is not by imposing Six Sigma and Lean processes onto government employees. Six Sigma and Lean are great methods if you are talking about repeatable procedures that have clear paths and outcomes. But as the above statistics demonstrate, less than 10% of a knowledge worker’s day will benefit from traditional business process management techniques.

But traditional case management, as practiced by many government workers, has many problems. Most government offices have overwhelming caseloads. There are conflicting rules and procedures imposed by top management. And, the current support systems cannot easily handle the many exceptions that occur frequently (Swenson, 2010, pp. 10-24). What is needed is a way that allows for the considerable variation in knowledge work but makes that knowledge work more efficient and effective. The newly emerging management concept of Adaptive Case Management (ACM) is the answer along with its closely allied discipline of Social Business Process Management (SBPM) (Fischer, 2011).

Office worker filling out a paper form.

ACM is still evolving, but there are several core elements. First, instead of being based on the principles of scientific management/Taylorism, it revolves around modern knowledge work. ACM deals with change and ad-hoc processes. Second, processes are not formalized, and created upfront but are developed as the knowledge worker continues to see the same issue in several cases. Third, rules and regulations operate more like guardrails that constrain the actions taken in a case. The fourth element is that the knowledge workers rely heavily on a community-built template library and body of knowledge.

ACM relies so heavily on social networking in the form of SBPM. In traditional business process modeling, discovering what processes exist and modeling these processes were done first. Then the knowledge workers were expected to follow the newly established procedures until the weight of exceptions demonstrated that the new processes needed to be modified. Under SBPM, process discovery and modeling occur as knowledge workers work on cases and share their experiences. Thus, there is a great deal of variation at first in handling cases. As knowledge workers gain more experience, they collaboratively develop best practices that can easily be modified when exceptions occur.

I have just briefly summarized these two new management concepts, but I am much excited by the potential to reform government work for the better. There are numerous case studies in Taming the Unpredictable including how one local government agency used ACM for better customer service in its case management processes. Much of ACM and SBPM makes intuitive sense and should be especially attractive to those who argue we need more knowledge sharing and collaboration in our offices.

References:

Fischer, L. (editor) (2011). Taming the unpredictable: Real-world adaptive case management: Case studies and practical guidance. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.

Fischer, L. (editor) (2011a). Social BPM: Work, planning, and collaboration under the impact of social technology. Lighthouse Point, FL: Future Strategies, Inc.

Swenson, K. D. (editor) (2010). Mastering the unpredictable: How adaptive case management will revolutionize the way that knowledge workers get things done. Tampa, FL: Meghan-Kiffer Press.