How do local organisational structures successfully negotiate conflict, external subsystem demands, and feedback?
Cybernetic organisations are comprised of any number of subsystems, which must be permeable in order to exchange information, resources, input, and engage in processes of exchange and feedback. Conflict can arise in these systems as a result of challenges made to the unified values, aims and goals. In these instances, a process of limited input occurs, which trickles into other subsystems and eventually erodes the distribution of input and closes down the system. Responses to conflicts may promote growth and regeneration by rediscovering cybernetic attributes of the organisation, creating a resurgence of flows of input and increased attention to processes of feedback and negative entropy. Decision-making in groups enables individuals to feel more positive about change. Individuals within systems may act as network links or bridges, increasing density and combining attributes of cybernetics and networks within a systemic organisational approach.
External subsystems of community organisations reveal the presence or lack of permeability and receptiveness to exchange and feedback, as external environments provide the majority of information required by or concerning the local community. Complex relationships exist within hierarchical structures, which are not synonymous with classical management hierarchies but are instead indicative of the organised manner in which subsystems communicate with each other. These hierarchical structures also include external subsystems, and therefore we can assume that the culture or milieu of the organisation does not reside within the spatial location of the volunteers alone. Practical examples and evidence of events from the placement (in the form of textual description and appendices) will demonstrate the presence and activity of the theoretical approaches described above.
Body of report – findings
1. The management was changing as a response to conflict, and in the process of enjoying the benefits of renewal and change.
2. The impact of the conflict and subsequent changes seemed to negatively influence systems of input without suddenly or fatally impacting the system of output.
3. The broadcasters of voluntary broadcasting systems seemed to have more say in the decision-making about their program content because their listeners are a co-operative subsystem which provide powerful feedback.
I initially set out to explore decision-making in radio broadcasting environments. With that framework in mind as I began my placement, the fieldwork may lean towards a more subjective interpretation. One reason for this is that the majority of people anticipate that the power of decision-making in organisations lies in the hands of those at the ‘top’ level of management, and my notes may reflect instances of power distribution with a certain bias (i.e. I may overemphasise the power given to volunteers in cybernetic systems compared to employees of bureaucratic systems). Decision-making was shared between 4 subsystems: the board, the manager, the broadcasters , and the local community. Management and the existence of bureaucracy impose order in organisations, Open systems in cybernetics are both necessary and ever-present because of the inherent protected values of volunteering (see appendices). These subsystems within the organisation work together to help systems who are primarily concerned with the input of finance and public involvement into the station, as well as the output of content through broadcasting. Volunteers are all viewed equally, instead of bureaucratic approaches which constantly monitor, assess and use pressure to create results. Many of the theoretical terms I use in each finding will be repeatedly used in other areas, and if a definition is not instantly provided or explained in later analysis, the glossary will explain and relate these terms.
1. The management was changing as a response to conflict, and in the process of enjoying the benefits of renewal and change.
Miller (p73) states that a system (at its most basic level) is an assemblage of parts, or components, and that in an organisational system, these components are the people and departments that make up the organisation. The organisation in question consists of two separate systems of operations, in which two unique groups of volunteers undertake the tasks or actions that comprise the organisation. Systems are made up of smaller subsystems (composed of smaller work groups and individuals) and are parts of larger supersystems. The two groups that I refer to (broadcasters and board members) form four subsystems.
Broadcasters engage in the creation of radio content and the broadcasting of this content; while the board committee consists of members who meet monthly to address issues and make decisions that concern the effective running of the organisation. Broadcasters are involved in these meetings and have input into final decisions made in these meetings (see appendix). The board contains three separate subsystems which relate to the creation and maintenance of input for the station so that broadcasters can focus on output: programming and production, sales, and marketing. To successfully operate, sub-systems must be open to each other, having permeable boundaries (this will be discussed later).
If one member of any subsystem chooses to undermine any of the shared goals, aims or values of the organisation, then all subsystems will be negatively affected as conflict will eventually travel from one system to another.
In an incident occurring prior to my placement, one individual was identified as working against the primary aims of the organisation after investigations into certain discrepancies over time within the board became noticeable by other group members. In this instance, conflict was recognised, where intervention and decision-making was required to prevent the individual’s active pursuit of organisational entropy in order for the organisation to continue to flourish. Here we can see theory in practice, if we look at Putnam and Poole’s definitions of conflict as ‘the interaction of interdependent people who perceive opposition of goals, aims, and values, and who see the other party as potentially interfering with the realisation of these goals’ (Miller, p183). These goals, aims and values within this organisation are clearly outlined (see appendices), perhaps making clear to new volunteers the need for unity within the organisation. Indecision about which course of action to take in this example of conflict would have resulted in additional delayed damage to systems of input into the organisation, in which it would inevitably cease to survive.
Because input exists in this kind of community organisation in multiple ways, and the organisation exists to serve the needs of the community (see appendix), it is imperative that the community perceive the organisation as a worthwhile means of accessing and distributing information for input to continue to flow in to the organisation from the public. The effects of the hidden conflict had damaged the public perception of the organisation, meaning that the board had to identify the weaknesses that had been caused in the interdependent relationships between their subsystems, and in the ways that input had been prevented from moving through these subsystems. This is a key example of the need for rapid decision-making by board members and the pressure of making the ‘right’ choice to respond to conflict and change. The individual responsible for generating conflict, as a result of being confronted about the violation of ethical conduct and lack of conformity to the value statements of the organisation, departed the organisation in order for it to ‘take care of itself’.
Following this change in board structure, decision-making among the remaining board members about how to respond to the entropy that had spanned an unknown period (and therefore required the undertaking of instant corrective measures) resulted in the employment of a part-time manager. Miller (p170) states that studies in participation of many individuals in decision-making leads to proposed increased decision effectiveness and improved productivity. The decision that was made was reached because of the need for an individual within the organisation to be able to devote more time than volunteers could, with more guarantees for promised results. The tasks that the board identified as necessary to create the desired results (listed in the 2008-2009 Business Plan; see Appendix) consisted primarily of maintaining and generating new broadcasters, generating revenue through fundraising in order to relocate to a new and more visible location (in which the public would be able to view and monitor the progress and achievements of the station), and reviving public support. All of these areas underwent entropy during the latent conflict, wherein the means of input had been damaged by entropy and conflicting individual agendas.
Although I am uncertain if in previous years the organisation was involved in creating business plans, the 2008-2009 business plan displays evidence of a clear recognition of entropy created as a result of conflict, and seeks to actively rectify problems and engage in the meeting of key objectives. These objectives are deconstructed in terms of strategies, timeframes, and methods of evaluation as well as identification of who will be responsible for achieving these objectives. Separate agendas exist for each of the four sub-sections of the organisation, as well as in areas of training, social activity, and ethnic programming. That these sections are separated in this way also shows that there is knowledge of the subsystems, and that action must be taken for each area in order to benefit the others. The newly-appointed manager was part of the creation of a new network, in which there was a closer link between the broadcasters and the three sub-systems of the board. The introduction of network bridging (Miller, p88) was created by acquiring a manager.
The new paths of communication generated by the presence of the manager focussed on repairing and opening flows of input, but also managed, perhaps in an unpredicted way, to create a temporal shift in which the needs of the broadcasters were met with more speed and efficiency than the decisions made at the monthly meetings of the board.
The notion that conflict can be productive can be examined within this framework, because it is evident that negative events lead to the ‘impetus for organisational change and development‘ (Miller p182). The change in management has not altered the core values of volunteering or infringed new methods of authority upon the volunteers and their methods of ‘work’. However, it does draw attention to the inevitable failure of individuals who attempt to take control of cybernetic systems comprised of equal subsystems, which by their very nature, are required to serve each other rather than themselves in order to succeed.
Miller explains that in the example of interorganisational conflict, individuals who belong to more than one part of an organisation are ‘boundary spanners’ (p184). The spanners (who are named thus because of their inherent ability to span two separate subsystems) may feel the effects of conflict in a more severe way than individuals who belong to only one department or subsystem. Members of the board who also participate as broadcasters can be seen, as Miller explains (p184), as ‘individuals on the ‘edges’ of organisations who have significant interorganisational contact, and for whom interorganisational conflict is particularly stressful because they are asked to understand the needs of both organisational insiders and the outsiders with whom the negotiation takes place’.
Broadcasters can be insiders, as can the board members, because each sub-system can, theoretically, be considered its own organisation. However, if this approach is taken by any of the volunteers (in any subsystem), a breakdown of unity occurs in which there is a prevention of understanding the cybernetic system (which is present in this organisation), its needs, and its functions. Cybernetics theory discusses the organisation as a living thing, in which all areas affect each other (as explained in the application of subsystem theory above). When one individual sees the subsystem that they belong to as more important than the others, additional breakdown occurs because the prerogative is not to nourish others, but only themselves.
When one individual sees the subsystem that they belong to as more important than the others, additional breakdown occurs because the prerogative is not to nourish others, but only themselves.
As I was not present during the manifestation of the conflict, I can hypothesise that the individual participant in the construction of conflict may have perceived the organisation in this way, although I cannot be certain. Pondy (quoted in Miller, p185) explains the levels of conflict, which consist of: latent conflict, perceived conflict, felt conflict, manifest conflict, and conflict aftermath. My presence during the conflict aftermath has lead me to the following assumptions.
2. The impact of the conflict and subsequent changes seemed to influence systems of input (the board and the public) without suddenly or fatally impacting the system of output (the broadcasting subsystem), although implementation of stronger network links and increased response time to entropy has benefited the broadcasters.
According to Miller, systems theory (as an aspect of cybernetics) proposes that there are three system components, two input (input-throughput-output) processes, and up to four system properties. In the analysis of this finding, I will examine feedback processes, as well as the component of permeability and the properties of both holism and negative entropy. I will also briefly explain how the presence of network properties (links, roles) can work in tandem with systems structures, which is depicted in the presence of the newly-appointed manager.
Permeable boundaries allow information and materials to flow in and out. Units (e.g. members of each subsystem) must be open to each other to facilitate the flow of people, information, and materials. The larger whole must have permeable boundaries in order to freely communicate flows of information in and out of one another (we should also remember during this report that the public contributes an additional subsystem because the organisation is non-for-profit, and deemed a “community” organisation). While these attributes were present prior to the changes implemented in response to conflict, these attributes have changed in their nature. The decision-making participation seems to have provided all volunteers under the supersystem with a belief that they can unite against decay, or entropy, by becoming more aware of the exchanges of input and output within the system.
Entropy is, as Miller states (p76), the ‘tendency of closed systems to run down’. Therefore, we can view the deviance of individuals who work against supersystem goals as actively closing down permeable boundaries, shutting off forms of input to the cybernetic system. Morale observed in the organisation during the placement also seemed to be indicative of the positivity to move towards new goals, and feedback from broadcasters during suggested that this period of renewal is exponentially more positive than plateau-like periods of consistency. Therefore, we can further interpret Miller’s statements that negative change may promote new and better methods of organising the workplace as a response and defence against future conflict.
All of the subsystems in this cybernetic organisation necessarily contain permeable boundaries, but there are slight differences between the broadcasting subsystem compared to the other groups. Broadcasters are primarily concerned with output (in which they absorb information and transform it, participating in the process of throughput), and therefore the equipment required to complete these tasks must be operational at all times in order to be successful. When members of the public contribute community announcements to the station (this is how information is absorbed), the technology used to record these announcements must be operational in order to transform the data into sound played over the airwaves.
When one of the two microphones in the broadcasting room was recognised as being faulty, the fault was communicated rapidly to other broadcasters and an alternative measure was put in place to rectify any problems. However, because of the non-for-profit nature of volunteering (which means that funds are not always instantly available) and the impact of the entropy experienced during the stages of conflict mentioned earlier (which impacted the quantity of available funds to the organisation), there was no way to immediately replace the faulty technology.
Earlier I discussed how it becomes difficult for those who span inter-organisational systems to adapt to or solve conflict, because they have multiple perspectives that become apparent when separate subsystems become concerned with their own agendas and cause a breakdown of unity. Conversely, these individuals can benefit from their participation in multiple roles, given the right circumstances. In cybernetic theory, when all individuals believe in and understand the cybernetic nature of their organisation, specific individuals who belong to separate subsystems can simultaneously enjoy the benefits of and contribute to the wellbeing of the organisation, because of their properties as “network links”.
When one person shares many perspectives, we see what Miller calls network density – one person as a chain or link becomes stronger because they perform more than one task. This also cuts down on the repetitive communications from one volunteer to another, saving time because there are fewer exchanges needed to communicate information between group members, which also increases the understanding and multiple perceptions held by one person within the group. This density is evident in the examples of several broadcasters performing duties in different board subsystems, where the needs or requirements of the broadcasters can filter back through systems of input, therefore enabling the group concerned with output to gather the resources required to achieve goals. By performing multiple tasks, the sharing of knowledge between individuals becomes easier because each individual knows about many influential factors (both internal and external), and becomes less concerned with one particular point of view.
Those who may have been affected most by the sense of disappointment generated by the division of values and aims between board members seemed to feel the most reassurance or satisfaction about subsystems working consistently again, and enjoyed the positive benefits of engaging in tactics that enabled negative entropy to occur.
Negative entropy is the ability of a system to avoid deterioration because of its openness (Miller, p79), which was revived once the threat of conflict (and subsequent closing of systems) was removed. Although values and aims were undermined in other subsystems, the presence of exchange systems between the public subsystem and the broadcasting subsystem remained intact. Through the finding and the research, we can propose the idea that even if one subsystem is negatively affected, the organisational supersystem may continue to survive (albeit, with damage accumulating) by relying on other areas of input, although it is impossible to predict how long for.
3. The broadcasters of voluntary broadcasting systems seemed to have more say in the decision-making about their program content (than commercial station broadcasters, or even, in fact, the decisions of the other subsystems of the board) because their listeners are a co-operative subsystem which provide powerful feedback.
Having addressed most aspects of cybernetic systems, I will be exploring the remaining concepts that are applicable to this relationship of decision-making between the listener, broadcaster and board. Interdependency is a key term which will be utilised in the analysis, as well as concepts of hierarchical ordering, exchange processes as a form of feedback, and examples which illustrate the presence and consequences of the external environment (the listener and community audience) as a subsystem.
Katz and Kahn (1978, in Miller p72) argue that organisations should be conceptualised as complex open systems requiring interaction among component parts and interaction with the environment in order to survive. The two groups (four subsystems) of volunteers must communicate with each other and the external sources of input (the community) in order to cater to the fifth subsystem of the station – the listener. To understand how this organisation is an open system, and that external environmental forces affect its existence more than any other subsystem, we can begin to look at how the local surrounding community performs as a subsystem in this organisation.
In using or applying a systems approach, organisations are not viewed as self-contained and self-sufficient machines, but as ‘complex organisms that must interact with their environment to survive’ (Miller, p71). This organisation exists to serve the public by and providing information and resources, and therefore by its own definition the organisation must interact with the community that it attempts to serve. Taking this statement into consideration, we can observe how a hierarchical ordering becomes apparent, in which the public are the most important subsystem in the organisation – whether they know it or not. Hierarchical ordering suggests that a system is not random or undifferentiated; it emphasises that although each component is interdependent, each system is comprised of subsystems.
Because the community comprises such an important aspect of the successful functioning of the organisation, it is only logical to conclude that the public are part of the interdependent relationship common to cybernetic systems, which characterises the way that the supersystem functions.
Without one component of the system, all components will fail – for example, if there were no listeners to the station, then no sponsors would participate in the contribution of input to the organisation, and the system would close down altogether. In this example, we can consider that each aspect of the system affects each other in different ways, but not in the way that classical management theorists propose that hierarchy conforms to an authority-based organisational chart (Miller p73). We can also further explore the strengthening of hierarchical components through the alteration of external components. Because the broadcasting area of this organisation has been amplified (see appendix), the potential audience is expanded, increasing the size of the community and logically therefore increasing the potential amount of feedback through the interdependent relationship with the broadcasters.
Although I briefly addressed the importance of communication between subsystems to maintain technology that enables the input-throughput-output process of exchange to occur in the last section, I will also examine the process in relation to the interdependent relationship between the broadcasting system and the audience as an external source of material. Without discussing the use of technology in exchange processes, we can look at the ways that local community can offer content to be utilised in exchange processes. Broadcasters receive material from several sources (in the process of exchange, the source is defined as an environment outside of the system) depending on the openness of its permeable boundaries. Members of the community can travel to the organisation to pass documents on to the broadcasters, who use the written information to create ‘community diary announcements’. The material undergoes a transformational processes known as throughput, ‘after which the system returns the transformed output to its environment’ – which we consume as the advertisement or announcement which is put to air at the end of this exchange process (Farace, Monge and Russell, 1977; Miller pp74-75).
Negative feedback helps to maintain steady system functioning, which materialises within the organisation as (among other things) time sheets for sponsor announcements and organisational memos that explain why the automate function must always be activated when a broadcaster is not present (see appendix). A second type of feedback is known as growth feedback (or positive/deviation-amplifying feedback). This consists of information that serves to change system functioning through growth and development, rather than maintaining it in a steady state. The business plan (see appendix) is an example of growth feedback, which outlines the ways in which the board members and broadcasters will participate in the development and changes in the organisation over a specific timeframe.
The decisions of the board members belong to the category of corrective feedback (serving to keep a system on a steady course). The actual feedback from listeners about whether they approve or disapprove of the station content belongs to the category of growth feedback, which serves to transform or change a system (Miller, p79). During the course of this placement, no individual listeners rang to lodge any complaints about the content of the current broadcasting programs. Several broadcasters responded to questions about the potential for this to occur, although no broadcaster stated that they experienced complaints from the public. Several broadcasters did receive requests during the placement, to which they happily obliged (although this was dependent on whether they had copies of the songs requested). Some broadcasters indicated that they would purchase content requested by listeners if it ‘fitted’ with the style of their program. Other broadcasters chose not to utilise any specific style to their program, instead selecting music content at random in an attempt to ‘keep everyone happy’ (satisfying the external subsystem).
During the placement, evidence emerged that although the public has a large part to play in growth feedback, broadcasters have a persuasive power over their listeners and utilise them in such a way that the listener supports the aims of the broadcaster, often to the exclusion of other subsystems. Because the audience’s feedback is more influential than the board system, the broadcasters can learn to appeal to the listener to their advantage. In turn, the CBAA is an external force which has control over what is/is not allowed to be broadcasted and provides financial support for community stations. In these layers of influential forces that act upon the organisation, we can also see hierarchical ordering exists within the larger supersystems of community broadcasting. As long as the broadcasters operate within the codes and standards set by the CBAA, the broadcasting content is malleable, and can be manipulated according to what the broadcaster and audience member negotiate as suitable. The audience constructs the methods for this negotiation by using telephone, email, webpages or post, giving feedback the organisation. Broadcasters then discuss the general content of the feedback with other subsystems, therefore integrating an open flow between the audience into the larger supersystem of the organisation.
During my placement I observed an instance where a broadcaster had the opportunity to alter the program to conform to CBAA/APRA standards which would increase revenue for ethnic broadcasting, but the audience responded to the broadcaster’s announcement of potential change by contacting the organisation to advise that they would not appreciate this change. In this instance, the listeners participated in corrective feedback which was offered by the broadcaster, which was then heeded by the organisation. Although the opportunity for revenue in this instance was rejected in favour of maintaining the existing systems to satisfy the audience, other opportunities for receiving revenue are (at the time of the placement) being discussed and negotiated. Corrective feedback doesn’t necessarily have to rule out an option altogether, but in this case it maintained that one specific broadcasted program remain the same.
I believe the responsive decision-making by the board, broadcasters and members in the instance of perceived conflict was efficient, positive and beneficial to all involved, and expect further improvements will manifest themselves over time due to the implementation of corrective feedback methods. The introduction of a new staff member in a specific bridging position complemented the existing presence of cybernetic systems, which is often present in volunteer organisations, as it recognises and further utilises the interdependency of the volunteers, embracing the qualities of permeability and network density that became closed off during the stages of conflict. The removal of the cause of conflict enabled open and permeable systems to regenerate, benefiting the indeterdependent subsystems. Now that the organisation is aware of the potential for conflict to occur, they appear more involved and supportive in the monitoring of subsystem operation. I believe the internal organisation has responded in the most viable manner available, and their awareness of the organisational structures, attributes and goals makes them more informed than the external subsystems about conflict response. I hope to return to the organisation at a later date to observe additional improvements according to the integration of their Business Plan.
Miller, K 2003 ‘Organizational Communication: Approaches and Processes’ , Wadsworth, California (Third Edition).
Putnam, L.L & Poole, M.S 1987 ‘Conflict and Negotiation’ in Jablin, F.M, Putnam, L.L, Roberts, K.H, & Porter, L.W. (eds) Handbook of organizational communication: An Interdisciplinary Perspective Sage Publishing, Newbury Park, California (pp.549-599).
Pondy, L.R. 1967 Organizational Conflict: Concepts and Models. Administrative Science Quarterly Vol 12, pp296-320.
(terms taken from Miller, K 2003)
Boundary spanners: individuals on the ‘edges’ of organisations who have significant interorganisational contact (p183).
Change: The ability of organisations to naturally evolve and adapt to environmental needs (p205).
Conflict: Individuals within organisations who oppose goals, aims and values or parties who potentially interfere with the realisation of these goals (p183).
Corrective feedback: Feedback that serves to keep a system on a steady course (p79).
Cybernetics: The process through which physical, natural, and organisational systems are steered towards reaching system goals (p80).
Entropy: The tendency of closed systems to run down (p76).
Growth feedback: Feedback that serves to transform or change a system (p79).
Hierarchical ordering: The highly complex ways that subsystems and supersystems are arranged (p73).
Holism: The property that suggests a system is “more than the sum of its parts” (p76).
Input: The first part of exchange, requiring input of material or information from the environment through its permeable boundaries (pp74-5).
Interdependence: The functioning of each system component relies on other components (p73-4)
Negative entropy: The ability of open systems to grow and sustain themselves through the flow of information and materials between the environment and the system.
Network density: Increases with more interconnections among network members (p87).
Network roles: Define the ways in which individuals are connected with each other (p88).
Output: In exchange systems, transformed output is returned to the environment (p75).
Permeability: The ways that system components allow information to flow in and out (p74).
Throughput: The stage of exchange in which the input of materials is transformed (p75).
Subsystem: Smaller parts of larger systems (p73).
Supersystem: Larger system that the organisational system belongs to (p73).
Systems metaphor Concepts of organisations as complex open systems that require interaction among component parts and with the environment in order to survive (p72).
Systems Processes: Refers to exchange processes and to feedback processes (p78).