The third era of process support: Empathy

Rita Gunther McGrath’s post this week on the HBR Blog called Management’s Three Eras: A Brief History has a lesson for those of us designing business process technology.  The parallel between management and process technology might be stronger than we normally admit.

According to McGrath, management didn’t really exist before the industrial revolution, at which time it came in to being to coordinate these larger organizations.  The organization was conceptualized as a machine to produce products.  The epitome of this thinking is captured by FW Taylor and others who preached scientific management.

Early process technology was similarly oriented around viewing the organization as a machine.  Workflow, and later business process management (BPM), was all about finding the one best process, and constructing machinery that help to enforce those best processes.

The second phase of management emerged in the decades after WWII when organizations started to focus on expertise and to provide services.  Peter Drucker invented the term “knowledge work” and Douglas McGregor called Theory Y a management style distinguished from the earlier Theorey X.  Command and control does not work, and a new contract with workers is needed to retain their talent and expertise.

There is a second phase in process technology as well, with the dramatic rise in interest in Case Management technologies recently to support knowledge workers, to allow them to leverage their expertise, and to enable far more agile organizations necessary to provide services.

Glistening Dew Along the High Sierra TrailMcGrath proposes that we are at the dawn of a third era in management.  The first era was machine-like to produce products, the second collaborative to provide advanced services, the third will be to create “complete and meaningful experiences.”  She says this is a new era of empathy.  A pull organization would be empathetic in the sense that customer desires rather directly drive the working of the organization.  This might be the management style that Margaret Wheatley, Myron Kellner-Rogers, Fritjof Kapra, and other new path writers are hinting at.

We should brace ourselves for a similar emergence of technology that will enhance and improve our ability to work together in this more empathetic style.  A hyper-social organization might be the organizing principle.  What will that new process technology look like?  I don’t know, but we have some time to sort that out.

Management I emerged in the 1800’s to 1950, while that early process technology appeared in the 1980’s and 1990’s.   Management II emerged in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the process technology started appearing in a real way around 2010.  If Management III is appearing now, perhaps we have until 2020 to get to the point where the technology to support it is being worked out. That leaves us plenty of time to work out the details.

Or maybe not.  What if Management III is emerging concomitant with social and enterprise 2.0 technology we see starting to be used today?  What if Management I was originally tied inherently with the rise of use of steam and electric power, while Management II inherently came with technology of telephones and telefaxes?  If Management III is tied directly to new social technologies, it might be that by the time it fully emerges, the technology base will be set.  We see the technology support for management I & II as separate because the information technology came later, but that is not the case for management III.  It might be happening now.

Surely in the future, when we look back on these times, we will recognize the early attempts at systems that support an empathy style of management starting here and now.  We need only look for it, and recognizes it for what it is.



7 thoughts on “The third era of process support: Empathy

  1. Pingback: The third era of process support: Empathy | Emp...

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  3. I’ve tried here and there over the past decade to articulate that core OD principles (dating more or less from from Trist & Emery’s work in the 60’s) which have been developed and refined by Beckhardt, Oshry, Weisbord, Block, Wheatley, Senge, de Geus, Hock and a host of others over the subsequent 50 years offer us all a new management framework (Management III if you will). Socio-technical systems theory and proactices from the 70’s and 80’s also have value when looking at the structure and dynamics of emergent networked organisations.

    It will become fundamentally necessary to develop “out loud” a framework for focus on objectives and a participative and engaged culture, resulting in shared vision and values, objectives owned by those charged with realising the objectives, and a set of management protocols that involve using ongoing feedback as the raw informational material or energy for the organisational system

    I think you’re essentially saying the same thing here.

  4. I forgot about people like Ackoff, Schein, Argyris, Handy and others. Drucker also would welcome, I believe , the arrival of social computing in terms of helping management focus on the essentials of flexibility, adaptation and responsiveness necessary in today’s (and tomorrow’s) conditions.

  5. Pingback: The third era of process support: Empathy | Lea...

  6. Pingback: The third era of process support: Empathy | Col...

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