Types of Problems and Organizational Strategy
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Published in: International Associations 23, 1971, June,
pp. 332-334. [PDF version]
The main problem in the study of "problems" and the organizations
attempting to solve them is that the environmental context of organizations
is changing, at an increasing rate, and towards increasing complexity. In many
cases, the changed texture of the environment is not recognized by the executive
body of an organization until it is too late. It fails entirely to appreciate
that a number of outside events are becoming connected with each other in a
way that leads up to irreversible general change. The first response to this
situation is to make an herculean effort to defend the traditional approach.
When this does not succeed, many upheavals and changes in approach take place,
until a "redefinition of mission" is agreed, and slowly and painfully
the organization reemerges with a very much altered programme, and something
of a new identity.
It was this experience and a number of others, not dissimilar, by no means
all of them industrial (and including studies of change problems in hospitals,
prisons, and in educational and political organizations), that gradually led
two scholars, F.E. Emery and E.L. Trist, to feel a need for redirecting conceptual
attention to the nature of the organization environment *. They isolated four
"ideal types" of organization environment. An attempt has been made
below to define the four types of problem that may be associated with each of
the four types of organizational environment described by Emery and Trist.
Type 1: Docile, isolated problems
The simplest type of problem is relatively isolated. This means that it
is in effect "contained" by an organized and orderly environment.
An organization is therefore free to locate such problems and move towards them,
attack, and eliminate them. Because such problems are randomly distributed,
there is no necessity for an organization to make any distinction between tactics
and strategy. The optimal strategy is just the simple task of attempting to
do one's best on a purely local basis. The best tactic, moreover, can be learned
only by trial and error, and only for a particular class of local environmental
This means that organizations can easily adapt to each new problem as
it is located within their domain.
Type 2: Docile problem groups
The situation becomes more complex when the problems are no longer isolated,
but are grouped or clustered together in certain ways. The solution to a problem
in one part of the structure may be compensated by some increase in strength
of some other part of the problem cluster.
An organization under these circumstances can no longer afford to attempt
to deal tactically with each new environmental variance as it occurs. Some form
of strategy is required. The organization needs to know how to manoeuvre in
its environment around the problem cluster in order to find the most useful
method of attack. To pursue a goal under its nose may lead it into part of the
field fraught with danger, while avoidance of an immediately difficult issue
may lead it away from potentially rewarding areas.
The organization has to learn to concentrate its resources, to organize
them in terms of a general plan, and to develop a distinctive competence in
handling certain types of problems. Organizations under these conditions, therefore
tend to grow in size and become hierarchical with a tendency towards centralized
control and coordination.
Type 3: Dynamic interactive problems
This is a situation when changes in one problem area give rise to changes
in another problem area. The situation is complicated because it is no longer
possible for an organization to assume that it can act without taking into account
other organizations. Several, or even many, organizations may be concerned with
the same group of interacting problems. The solution of one problem by one organization
may create several new problems for other bodies.
The goal of one organization may be the same as the goal of another organization.
Noting this, each will wish to improve its own chances by hindering the others,
and each will know that the others must not only wish to do likewise, but also
knows that each knows this. Unfortunately, this attitude is not only applicable
to profit making organizations, but also to non-profit organizations.
Thus two organizations with the same non-profit objective (whether it
be "development" refugee-relief, etc.), will not always be purely
cooperative in their relationships with one another. As soon as one organization
feels that the other is infringing upon its "territory" it starts,
indirectly, attempting to hinder the other.
It now becomes necessary to define the organizational objectives in terms
of capacity or power to move more or less at will, i.e., to be able to make
and meet competitive challenge. This gives particular relevance to situations
in which stability can be obtained only by a certain coming to terms with competitors,
whether enterprises, interest groups, or governmental agencies. One has to know
when not to fight to the death.
Type 4: Aggressive interactive problems
In the final stage of complexity, the interactive problems do not merely
respond unpredictably to the actions of the organizations tackling them, but
appear to have a momentum and aggressive initiative of their own. They increase
or decrease in importance and manner of interaction without it being possible
to determine the original cause of the change. The organization's environment
may now be called "turbulent " and the assumptions upon which the organization
bases its action are threatened by this turbulence. The "ground" is in motion.
For organizations, these trends mean a growing increase in their area
of relevant uncertainty. The consequences which flow from their actions lead
off in ways which become increasingly unpredictable: they do not necessarily
fall off with distance, but may at any point be amplified beyond all expectations;
similarly, lines of action that are strongly pursued may find themselves attenuated
by emergent forces.
This turbulent environment demands some new form of organization that
is essentially different from the hierarchically structured forms to which we
are accustomed. Whereas Type 3 problems require one or other form of
accommodation between like, but competitive, organizations, whose fates are
to a degree negatively correlated. turbulent environments require some relationship
between dissimilar organizations whose fates are, basically, positively correlated.
This mains relationships that will maximize cooperation and which recognize
that no one organization' can take over the role of "the other". and
become paramount. It is in this type of environment that matrix organizations
should be considered. (Matrix organizations were discussed in an article in
International Associations, 1971, March, pp. 154-170).
Problems and their identification
Another approach to identifying problems is to distinguish different levels
of ease with which they can be detected. In the previous section, the four groups
of problems differ along the dimension of simplicity/complexity. A slightly
different approach below is based on the degree to which the difficulty of perceiving
certain problems is inherent in the organizational, cultural, or psychological
assumptions of the people attempting to detect such problems.
The following seven problem levels are an indication of this:
1. First level
problems: direct consequence of lack of adequate economic resources, e.g. malnutrition,
disease, rich-poor gap, etc.
level problems: social consequences and repercussions of the presence of primary
problems, e.g. refugees, illiteracy, crime, etc.
3. Third level
problems: economic and social consequences of adaptation to an environment modified
by the presence of primary and secondary level problems, e.g. population explosion,
impoverishment of social structures, urban decay, mental health, delinquency,
level problems: organizational (or societal) coordination and resource allocation
problems (arising from the institutionalisation of organized response to past
low level problems) which prevent adequate response to current problems, e.g.
problems of coordination and resource allocation between agencies interested
in lower-level problems previously considered to be isolated and now recognized
to be interacting. Selection of high priority projects, design of adequate systems,
value-related problems, problems of relevance, credibility. etc.
5. Fifth level
problems: conceptual, psychological and cultural problems (deriving from the
difficulties of communication in the fragmented environment characterized by
the presence of fourth level problems) which prevent decision-makers and
their supporters from being able to justify inter-territorial, inter-disciplinary
or inter-jurisdictional solutions - thus reinforcing fourth level problems
and positions, e.g. problems of meaning of same terms in different cultures
or disciplines, problem of establishing criteria of relevance to a spectrum
of disciplines and interests, problem of focussing on the interdependence of
disciplines and interests, problems of defining integrated closed systems.
6. Sixth level
problems conceptual and cultural problems opposing awareness of society as an
ongoing integrated process with a multiplicity of social entities and subprocesses
in ecological balance- providing a framework for the solution of fifth level
level problems: problems deriving from lack of awareness on the part of social
entities of their particular positive and negative functions in the social process
in which they are embedded-namely feedback sensitivity of organizations, disciplines
The first two levels are generally recognized within governmental programmes,
the third in the more farsighted government programmes (e.g. Unesco), the fourth
level by those studying the problems of planning and decision-making,
the fifth level and above are only noted in isolated studies and analyses of
the social crisis.
|4 Types of Problem
F. E. Emery and E. L. Trist. The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments. Human Relations, 18, 1965, pp. 21-32