How Task Uncertainty Plays into the Social and Technical Coordination of Work
9th July 2020

How Task Uncertainty Plays into the Social and Technical Coordination of Work

6 Minute Read

Takeaway: Taking a look at the social and technical coordination of work means understanding when coordination is required in the first place.

Written by Dan Schmitz

It has always been a feature of effective organizations that once work activity is divided the work is then re-integrated into a whole system. You needn’t look further than the common functional separation between marketing and sales to know this is true. The topic of integration and coordination is particularly important for organizations, or parts thereof, that create value through knowledge sharing and innovation to solve complex issuesAn added challenge of our day is the coordination of interdependent but physically dispersed work. The COVID-19 environment has thrust many organizations into virtual work that places new demands on work coordination. 

This article first proposes structures that leaders can use to recognize the nature of the work requiring coordination. Focus then turns to a process for the development of coordination mechanisms that fit the work requirement. This approach will benefit organizations with both familiar  coordination requirements as well as those with work recently dispersed over time and space. 

“Every organized human activity – from the making of pots to the placing of a man on the moon – gives rise to two fundamental and opposing requirements: the division of labor into various tasks to be performed, and the coordination of these tasks to accomplish the activity.” Henry Mintzberg

How Value Stream and Structure Impact Coordination and Decisions

The initial framework for understanding work coordination begins with seeing the work and decisions that comprise an organization. The initial, high-level view is called the value stream. It is the flow of work and decisions that produces value in the form of products and services for a target market. A primary benefit of this view is that it forces a complete,  analytic orientation to systems of work. Because it applies to work systems, the idea of viewing streams of work and decisions that must be integrated together is applicable at any level of  an organization from enterprise to process. 

Work and decisions in the value stream are divided into work boundaries. This is commonly referred to as structurewhich is the sumtotal of ways that work is divided in an organization. The objective of dividing work is to find the most acceptable compromise between work specialisms and  whole work. The common result is that work is fragmented in some way from the complementary work needed to deliver necessary  outputsCoordination is therefore required whenever one work activity or decision is interdependent with another work activity or decision while being separated by some type of work boundary. As the fragmentation of organizations increases, so, too, does the need for coordinating mechanisms. 

Designing suitable coordination mechanisms involves understanding the nature of work in the value stream and how organizational boundaries must be crossed in the execution of that work. At one pole of the work continuum is task certainty. This is work that is well understood  and generally linear. Participants in the work know how to achieve required outcomes and access or deliver work and information from one organizational boundary to another. On the other pole is task uncertainty. This is work that is non-linear and not well understoodPeople require significant dialoguecollaboration, and exploration as they build the bridge to acceptable outcomes. 

Technical and Social Coordination of Work

Task uncertainty is an important concept that helps frame the context of work coordinationThose tasks which process linear, recurring, and well-understood work are low uncertainty tasks. Designing and building house is such a process even though it involves the close coordination of various subspecialties. Conversely, healthcare that treats complex, rare medical conditions is a high-uncertainty task. It must address non-linear, complex interactions requiring different and sometimes unknown  combinations of specialized skills and situational data. Recognizing the degrees of difference between these two ends of uncertainty shapes  thinking about the type of coordination mechanism needed to integrate work. 

Deliberation is another important concept to understandEasily overlooked or dismissed, deliberation describes the continuous processes of communication among members of an organization. Deliberations  assemble data, make sense of data, and produce decisions that permit work to move forward. They exist in degrees from formal and structured to informal and unstructured. They exist in the form of topics, forums, and participants. These patterns of information exchange and processing help explain how important information about a topic may be included or excluded from decision-making processes.  

Understanding differences in task uncertainty and the under-appreciated ubiquity of deliberations give leaders important concepts to understand  work more clearly and develop suitable coordinating mechanisms. There are two broad categories of mechanisms: 

  • Technical mechanisms exist in the form of highly specified work process, input and output standards, time-in-motion standards and other process measures, electronic coordination and fixed data formats, communication technologiesand other elements of the technical system of the workTechnical mechanisms are most suitable when coordinating organizational boundaries to process lowuncertainty tasks. 
  • Social mechanisms exist in the form of all forms of deliberations  (structured, semi-structured, and unstructured), team design, roles, jobs, and management structuresSocial mechanisms are most suitable for coordinating the organization across boundaries for highuncertainty tasks. 

The key idea is the generalizable alignment between task certainty and broad categories of social versus technical coordination of work. High-uncertainty tasks are good candidates for social mechanismslowuncertainty tasks are good candidates for technical mechanisms. As previously mentioned, there is generalizable alignment, but don’t fall too far into the poles of the generalized framework. There is almost always a mix of technical and social mechanisms at work when building any coordination requirement.  

The High-Level Process to Design Coordination Mechanisms

The process to design coordination mechanisms begins with  understanding the work and decisions in the value stream in the context of organization structure. Each work activity and decision in the value stream that passes work across organizational boundaries or requires participation from more than one work boundary, say from insights to sales, forms a coordination requirement. 

Here is a process you can follow: 

  1. Identify the critical work or decisions that require deliberately designed coordinationLook for the critical, high-risk work and decisions in the value stream. These are your minimum critical coordination requirements. For more granular work processes and tasks with more certainty, other members of the organization can sort out the coordination methods.
  2. Locate the work or decision on the Task Uncertainty continuum. This will shape early thinking about coordination mechanism possibilities and avoid the default response to more meetings.
  3. Form a core design team of members from the work boundaries that most obviously participate in the work and decisions identified in step 1. Ask this team to identify additional work boundaries that are involved, or may be involved, in the work or decisions. Assemble members from each boundary. 
  4. Specify the coordination mechanism(s). There can be more than onebut look for the most effective and efficient mechanisms for the work and decision(s). The following mechanisms do not involve  changing the structure of the organization and are thus most easily deployed: 
    • Informal Communication – ad-hoc/unstructured deliberations,  communication platforms, norms about responsiveness 
    • Project Planning – schedules, project management, agile work methods/agreements 
    • Work Standardization – input/output standards, defined  process and time schedules 
    • Electronic Coordination – structured data and shared databases, workflow toolscollaboration technology 
    • Deliberations – Defining topics, forums, and participants; semi-structured deliberations for non-linear problem solvingstructured deliberations for predictable problem solving. This can be integrated into defined processes and work standardization. 
    • Integrator Roles – With this item we’re beginning to touch on structure. However, formal or informal, temporary or permanent liaison“straddler, or integrator roles (three expressions for one idea) can be an effective solution to coordinate the flow of awareness, knowledge, and work across organizational boundaries.
  5. Document the agreement. What work and decisions are being addressed? What organizational boundaries are involved? Who is involvedWhat are the coordination mechanisms? How will they work? Edit and evolve the mechanisms and documentation based on experience and learning. 

If all this seems too complicated, remember that the objective is to determine how people with different skills and responsibilities will work together to advance work through the organization. This will happen by design or default. A lighter-weight version of this process is to spot the tension in the execution of work, form a team that is capable of collaborating with each other, give them this article, ask them to solve the issue, and hold them accountable. 

“A person working alone has no great need for any of the mechanisms – coordination takes place simply, in one brain. Add a second person, however, and the situation changes significantly.” – Henry Mintzberg

The Payoff of Coordination

The coordination of work and decisions across internal organizational boundaries makes organizations work. Coordination of work is particularly stressed when team members are not co-located in time and space and must collaborate to solve high-uncertainty tasksMost organizations default to meeting as the primary coordination mechanism. This is a time-intensive solution that frequently crowds-out other work in the organization, pushing it to the evenings, weekends, or transactional space between meetings. Adopting a framework that leads to better understanding of the context of work and the design of appropriate solutions is always in an organization’s best interest. 

Ask your direct reports to identify 1-2 coordination deficiencies they see from their vantage points. Pick one and assign a single point of contact to apply the process identified in this article. The benefit is organizational learning and incremental improvement in the execution of work and decisions that involve multiple boundaries in your organizational structure. 

Dan Schmitz is a Consultant at ON THE MARK. OTM has been in business since 1987 and is a leading organization design firm. Over our 30 years in business, OTM has completed close to 450 redesigns around the globe across most industries. Our experience and passion for collaborative business transformation is supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people that’s unparalleled.

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