Systems Theory/Coordination< Systems Theory
Coordination may be defined as the process of managing dependencies between activities (Malone & Crowston, 1994). The need for coordination arises from the fact that literally all organizations are a complex aggregation of diverse systems, which need to work or be operated in concert to produce desired outcomes. To simplify the picture, one could decompose an organization into three broad components of actors, goals and resources. The actors, comprising of entities such as management, employees, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders perform interdependent activities aimed at achieving certain goals. To perform these activities, the actors require various types of inputs or resources. As explained later in the paper the inputs may themselves be interdependent in the ways that they are acquired, created or used. The goals to which the actors aspire are also diverse in nature. Some of them will be personal while others are corporate. Even where the goals are corporate, they address different sets of stakeholders and may be in conflict.
Calls for coordination are evident is situations where a) temporality is a factor, such that effects of delays or of future consequences of today’s decisions are not immediately apparent b) there is a large number of actors c) there is a large number interactions between actors or tasks in the system or d) where combinations or occurrences in the system involve an aspect of probability (stochastic variability). In summary, the more complex the system (and organizations are complex aggregations) the more coordination is necessary.
Multiple actors and interactions, resources and goals need to be coordinated if common desired outcomes are to be achieved. Viewed from the need to maintain perspective and solve problems that might arise from these multiplicities, coordination links hand in glove with the concept of systems thinking.
In contrast to traditional methods of problem analysis, system thinking focuses on how a component of a system under study interacts with other constituents of the same system (Aronson, 1998). Organizations are systems in the sense that they comprise of elements that interact to produce a predetermined behavior or output. Traditional analysis approaches focus on isolating individual parts. The systems thinking approach instead works by expanding the analytical spectrum to take into account the broader picture of how the constituent parts of the system interact with each other. Change in a constituent part of a system may constrain efficient functioning of other parts of the same system or alter required input or output specifications. Others, especially resources, may need to be used in combination to achieve desired changes. The point here is that looking at small parts of an interacting system involving multiple actors, resources and goals may accentuate a problem that analysis seeks to solve. Coordination, in a systems thinking approach fashion is called for.
Crowston (1998) refers to coordination theory as “a still developing body of theories about how coordination can occur in diverse kinds of systems. According to this theory, actors in organizations are faced with coordination problems. Coordination problems are a consequence of dependencies in the organization that constrain the efficiency of task performance. Dependencies may be inherent in the structure of the organization (for example, departments of a university college interact with each other, constraining the changes that can be made to a single department without interfering with the efficient functioning of the other departments) or dependences may result from processes - task decomposition or allocation to actors and resources (for example, professors teaching complementary courses face constraints on the kind of changes they can make without interfering with the functioning of each other).
The solution to coordination problems, according to coordination theory, lies in the actors performing additional activities called coordination mechanisms. A professor who wishes to change a course module must check if the changes will affect other courses in the department and other departments in the college. The theory maintains that dependences and mechanisms to counter them are general in the sense that they arise in one form or another in nearly every organization. The theory this makes a recommendation that it is essential to identify and study dependences in a system and their related coordination mechanisms before decisions are made or action taken. Actors must also realize that there are several mechanisms to manage a dependency each of which may result in different processes. The ideal one should be based on situational factors and often involves trade offs. To summarize, an organization considering change (or an organization in the process of formation) ought to first identify inherent dependences and coordination problems likely to be faced and then choose from alternatives the coordination mechanism that best achieves the desired goals in the circumstances (Crowston, 1998). A key point here is that coordination mechanisms are variable parts of the organization system and that choice of a specific mechanism has consequences for efficiency and goal achievement.
A simplified typology of the kind of dependences that call for coordination in an organization may be: a) Task-task: o Tasks may have overlapping, conflicting or outputs with the same characteristics; o Common inputs for tasks may be shareable, reusable or non-reusable o The output of one task may be the input of other tasks or a prerequisite for performing subsequent tasks. There may be conflict in specifications that need coordination. b) Task-resource i.e. resources required by a task c) Resource-resource: a situation in which one resource depends on another resource. Each of these dependences requires an appropriate coordination mechanism to manage it.
In conclusion, solution to organizational problems, implementation of change or formation of a new organization involves the management of numerous dependences among tasks, resources and goals. Dependences are best managed by coordination of the dependent parties. The choice of a specific coordination mechanism results in a unique organizational form and/or processes that have consequences for achievement of organizational goals. Coordination is a constituent application of systems thinking in the sense that it requires an organization wide examination in how a change in one component of the organization affects other components of the same system. The aim of coordination is not new; improvement of performance is a universal organizational goal. Approaching the task from a broad perspective differs from the traditional mechanisms of analysis i.e. breaking down the problem into small parts. Finally focusing on dependences and coordination mechanisms is not a one-time effort. For organizations in dynamic environments, it is a recurring theme.
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- Malone, T.W. & Crowston, K. (1994) The Interdisciplinary Study of coordination, Computing Surveys, 26 (1), 87-119
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