Featured Image: Jock Macneish and Tony Richardson The Choice 1994
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 4 October 2022
Several things coming together at once prompted me to think about Fred Emery’s ideas and my involvement in them from 1979 to the end of the 1990s.
First was involvement in doing politics differently and getting an independent senator David Pocock elected into the Australian parliament. After the election, I thought search-based focus groups could be used to develop an information-rich knowledge base and assist in community engagement.
Second, at the same time a health crisis made me think that it might be important to get together my knowledge of Fred Emery’s work.
The following articles have been an education and have re-engaged me with a set of powerful ideas around systems thinking.
The articles in order are: 1 Causal Texture (an annotated version of Emery & Trist’s famous paper), 2 The Search Conference (a description and explanation), 3 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis (a powerful statistical methodology as an adjunct to organisational change), 4 Participative Workplace Design (a description of workplace reform), and 5 An Organisational Thermometer (to measure progress in workplace reform).
The accompanying article on Q Research shows how I turned some of these ideas into a successful strategic marketing research business.
Participative Design or Re-design of the Workplace
- Purposeful organisational change and participative workplace design are required to make an organisational thermometer meaningful.
- Theory X and Theory Y revisited.
- Formal studies of the quality of work life in the USA 1972 and Australia 1973.
- An anecdotal overview of organisational change in the USA, Australia and other western countries since the 1970s.
- Participative workplace design, a maze of techniques, and what it isn’t.
- Learning from research at the TIHR (Tavistock Institute for Human Relations) and associated organisations.
- What participative workplace reform is.
- The six psychological requirements for a happy and productive workplace.
Although not stated overtly it should have become obvious in the two previous articles on Fred Emery’s work 1 Causal Texture and 2 the Search Conference that one needs to strategically and operationally introduce change into those enterprises that want to adapt to a turbulent environment, whose salient characteristic is uncertainty. Part of that process requires new methods of planning as embodied in the Search Conference — for new directions, in new ways for new times.
The third element that is required in this era of change (uncertainty, planning) is to modify or reform the workplace (participative workplace design).
The other article in the series on 3 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis concerns a novel statistical method for analysing social data and social science surveys. The McQuitty statistical analysis is important in developing an organisational thermometer to measure progress in participative workplace re-design and reform.
An organisational thermometer is a tool to measure staff satisfaction in any largish enterprise in an ongoing way.
2 Theory X and Theory Y
Before we begin to discuss participative workplace design we need to go back to a concept of organisations raised in Causal Texture that of Theory X and Theory Y
In Causal Texture I talked briefly about Theory X and Theory Y:
Douglas McGregor was an American management professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and was and still is famous for propounding Theory X and Theory Y concerning motivation and management at work in 1960.
Theory X: managers tend to take a pessimistic view of their people, and assume that they are naturally unmotivated and dislike work. They tend to use an authoritarian style of management.
Theory Y: people are self-motivated and enjoy the challenge of work. Managers with this assumption have a more collaborative relationship with their people, and motivate them by allowing them to work on their own initiative, giving them responsibility, and empowering them to make decisions.
2.2 Theory X
Obviously, Theory X type organisations would have little or no interest in an organisational thermometer.
Theory X organisations are built on earlier ideas at the beginning of the twentieth century of Taylorism or scientific management, the development of the assembly line and the idea of the worker as a small replaceable cog in a big machine. Unions in this type of capitalism were an anathema. Charlie Chaplin parodied the ideology in the movie Modern Times in 1936.
Probably in today’s world, despite ideological pressures, Theory X type organisations are becoming dinosaurs, except in limited social environments where exploitation is the norm.
2.3 Theory Y
Following the Second World War, there was the wartime experience of multi-disciplinary work and research, and new attitudes to work and organisation, that didn’t entirely dissipate after the war. Fred Emery and Eric Trist identified the concept of turbulent environments in the Causal Texture paper in 1965, which dictated the development of new ways of planning.
In the UK in the 1970s various researchers and some companies had a new idea of the role of the company and its accountability to society.
Paul Hill (mentored by Fred Emery) went as far as to articulate this in his work at Shell UK in his book Towards a New Philosophy of Management, 1971. Hill paved the way and Shell agreed in its statement of objectives and philosophy, that the company had privileged access to social (societal) resources and must be accountable to the whole society for the use of these resources and to use them in accordance with the prevailing values and standards of society.
This statement is from a long development project with Shell from 1965 to 1970. In the light of what happened with large corporations from the 1980s and 1990s to the present, it is nothing short of amazing.
3 A snapshot of Work in America and Australia in 1972 and 1973
James O’Toole et al. were commissioned by the US Government as a special taskforce on work in America published in 1972. This was subsequently published as a book in 1973. The taskforce examined existing information in the literature (reviewed by 10 members of the taskforce), interviews with blue and white collar workers and fifty papers prepared by specialists.
The 1973 book was enormously influential amongst academics, consultants and others in the quality of work life (QWL) movement.
Publisher’s Weekly 2006 says:
The 1973 study described workers trapped in dehumanizing jobs, which damaged economic productivity and workers’ health and happiness; it prescribed job enrichment, improved education (especially technical and mid-career training) and government-funded research.
The Australian Government commissioned Fred Emery and Chris Phillips to undertake a similar, but much smaller study based on carefully designed survey research, on the urban segment (cities and large towns) of the Australian working population in 1973 (published in 1976). Fred Emery consciously modelled the approach to be compatible with O’Toole.
Their findings were far less brutal than the American findings. The Australian working population were much better off than their American colleagues but a similar pattern was evident.
Emery and Philips have a particularly in-depth analysis of the disadvantaged worker (335 of 2000 or 17%), who described themselves as having no chances or opportunities in life. This disadvantaged sample was over-represented by women, migrants, those aged 55+, the unskilled, or those only having a primary school education (some in the sample were unemployed). 1973 was a time of low unemployment (easy to get or change jobs) but the pattern is a poignant reminder of what has or hasn’t happened since.
4 The Current State of Play
Putting aside the Gordon Gecko era of ‘greed is good’ and the massive transfer of wealth into fewer and fewer hands from the 1970s. And, despite, the frequent appalling behaviour of senior executives in major corporations uncovered by the media, the changes to workplaces in developed countries aren’t so bleak.
I suspect that the Theory X organisation in developed countries in its pure form is rare. Although, many companies may have mixed elements of X and Y. The norm has changed. Nevertheless, the position of low paid, sometimes unskilled, and certainly disadvantaged workers has not changed.
5 Speculations on Workplace Improvement since 1980
Improvements in the workplace in western countries such as Australia, the UK, Europe, Scandinavia and the USA have been gradual, but consistent. The best examples tend to fly under the radar. There are political imperatives to tend to hide them in some countries. However, these changes in western countries did not necessarily have positive consequences elsewhere.
I remember Fred Emery talking about Toyota in Japan (the story is the same elsewhere) where they improved the workplace by exporting variances (a term in sociotechnical systems) to their suppliers. An efficient system at Toyota’s main production line, was produced because the car seats and other components were made in ‘sweat shops’.
Similarly, with globalisation large American companies exported their variances and their labour forces to third world countries, often at arms length (through Taiwanese middlemen, for example). There were so-called ‘free trade zones’, which Naomi Klein exposed in the Philippines, as zones where the labour laws of the country were abrogated.
Nike was one of the first American companies accused in 1991, boycotted and humiliated, when it became public that it was using sweatshops and had been for twenty years.
The whole process of exploitation in poor countries by major brands is well-documented by Naomi Klein in No Logo, 1999. And, the issue is far from over.
A current movement in large corporations is to try to eliminate slavery from their supply chains (today, not in the 19th C).
5.2 Developments in Australia
In Australia recently, the gig economy (flexible, on-call, temporary workers and so called contractors) has become a major scandal. Some companies and major restaurants have been prosecuted for exploitation and under-payment. Giants such as 7-Eleven, McDonalds, Uber, Deliveroo and the like are included, as is much of the hospitality sector (and universities).
Covid has underlined the scandal of low paid workers and the working poor in child-care, aged-care, health and other sectors. The treatment of overseas students, immigrants, back packers (requiring to work to extend their visas) and farm labourers from the Pacific have all come under scrutiny for exploitative work practices. Covid exposed many poor practices.
The experiences in bad behaviour learned from exploiting poor people in developing countries have been translated back into rich countries.
1991, was also a relatively grim time in Australia I remember. I had no inkling of the workplace reforms revealed at the Workplace Australia Conference (where I ran a Search Conference). There was a lot happening in Australia and New Zealand, but it was not publicised. I’m sure there still is.
The survival of many firms in marginal or competitive environments requires clever work practices.
5.3 Developments in the USA
The USA is a difficult country to talk about (it is so huge and diverse); minimum wages are low and undocumented workers exploited. Yet, some companies seem to be beacons of hope and have been for years, as discussed for example by Marvin Weisbord and others in many books.
In large, newer, frequently tech corporations, where the quality of work life was admired, numerous whistle blowers recently have pointed to poor corporate practices.
Nomadland 2020, the movie drama with the brilliant Frances McDormand starring, shows how people on the fringes barely survive in modern America. They are the working poor. One section of the movie shows how working for Amazon helps them survive, but without dignity or organisational compassion.
Walmart has a slightly better reputation as an employer than Amazon, but its reputation is mixed.
Silicon Valley developed a reputation for creating excellent work campuses, with special conditions to make employees feel nurtured and valued. However, their recent reputations have been tarnished.
American tech companies are always parochial. I wonder if their overseas arms get the same treatment as in the US?
Yet, the beacons of hope are rarely publicised widely. I suspect there is a large market for companies wanting or needing to undertake workplace reform. And, there is also a need for well-constructed organisational thermometers to monitor progress.
6 Workplace Re-design
6.1 The Maze of Techniques
In the Search Conference Fred Emery was quoted saying.
The history of the applied behavioral sciences, and organizational development in particular, has been marked by an intense and faddish devotion to techniques. No sooner do they have a new tool in their hand than, like the little boy with the hammer, they start seeing the solution of every sort of problem as requiring this tool.
Because of what he says, there is a plethora of bad organisational development literature that people swear by or used to swear by. I’m going to keep it simple by quoting only a few sources, most of them old, but the practitioners are the best available.
One cannot go past Philip Selznik Leadership in Administration 1957 for a brilliant analysis of what is required of management and leadership in enterprises. (I also like Robert Townsend and Paul Hill.)
For practitioners in organisational change at the workplace level (previously known as the Quality of Life movement, QWL) I’ll be mentioning Fred and Merrelyn Emery, Tony Richardson with Jock Macneish and Marvin Weisbord.
6.2 What it isn’t
Fred Emery 1975 says that participative workplace reform is quite different from representative forms such as: joint consultative councils, worker directors, works councils, co-determination, worker control, town councils, advisory committees etc.
Jock McNeish and Tony Richardson in 1994 are much blunter. Their pictorial guide is called: The Choice: either change the system or polish the fruit. The illustration on the cover of the book says it all.
The cartoon below covers the maze of non-participative versions of workplace reform that Fred is talking about in the paragraphs above.
In the 1970s, the 1980s and the 1990s, the reformers talked endlessly about what QWL and participative design were to replace: Taylorism, the Assembly Line, Theory X and bureaucratic structures.
Fred Emery 1975 says:
Bureaucratic structures and the systems of management associated with them have been unable to systematically provide for the personal growth and development and development of their members, in particular the large numbers at the base of the pyramid, who may even be downgraded by their work experiences…
“The philosophy of management by direction and control… is inadequate to motivate…” (D McGregor 1970)
In 2022, while Theory X may not exist in pure form, there are sadly many enterprises that still run on bureaucratic lines, that is, polishing the fruit in Richardson and Macneish’s terms.
Therefore, we still do need to explain that there are better ways of managing workplaces and that they are more efficient and more productive than the old methods.
The differences are explained visually in the two figures in Fred Emery’s diagram, in his section of the 1975 booklet. Further, explanation isn’t really required. Figure 1 is the familiar example of bureaucratised workplaces. In figure 2, semi-autonomous groups are responsible for each of their own workplaces. Collaboration and cooperation are evident across the entire enterprise.
6.3 Learnings from the TIHR
Fred Emery was at the TIHR (Tavistock Institute for Human Relations) in 1951-2 and from 1957 to 1969.
Whilst there he was involved with democracy underground in coal mines particularly at the Haighmoor seam of the Elsecar Collieries (due to its short coal front). This was discovered and written about by Trist and Bamforth. (There were sensitivities here as government and management did not want to hear about workers developing a new approach to work in a coal mine.) Fred was also involved with designing industrial democracy theory and workplace reform based on sociotechnical systems. He was also heavily engaged with the Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiments at a national level.
Other researchers at the TIHR were involved in workplace reform, organisational change and organisational development with a large number of enterprises. The Quality of Work Life Movement (a network of practitioners) developed out of all this.
I wrote an obscure paper in India on diffusion in industrial democracy and the QWL movement. The paper was based on my researches on Fred’s work at the TIHR whilst on a fellowship in Northern Ireland. And, on my lengthy stay in a divan bed in Einar Thorsrud’s office in Norway. In brief, most industrial democratisation projects did not continue over time. They became encapsulated and did not spread because they were implemented from the top down.
Researchers at the TIHR also found that good workplace reform projects designed by researchers did not take off in the workplace and withered as soon as the researchers moved on. Whereas, even mediocre projects designed by the workers themselves tended to be successful, long lasting and even tended to diffuse to adjacent workplaces.
I think it was these overall experiences that prompted Fred Emery and Merrelyn Emery to focus on participative design workshops in the workplace in the 1970s. Their 1975 booklet Participative Design is an extremely practical guide to the process.
7 Participative Workplace Reform
7.1 Practical Requirements
Participative workplace reform is rather complex in its practical application, especially before running the participative design workshops in the workplace and even before participants are selected.
Top management needs to be fully supportive and to have a strategic plan for organisational change. This needs to be communicated throughout the organisation. Other levels of management, down to supervisors and the unions, right down to shop floor representatives need to be on-board as well.
Then actually planning and implementing participative design workshops across the organisation requires the involvement of a deep slice of the organisation and positive communications and reinforcement with every employee.
The workshops themselves are required across the workplace with every group capable of forming a semi-autonomous team to conduct the work.
Explaining this in detail is way beyond the scope of the present study but I’d direct you towards the names mentioned, even though some of the publications may be hard to access.
One does need consulting credibility and in-depth experience to undertake workplace reform. However, it has been initiated and is often undertaken by CEOs or business owners on perceiving a need. They do usually seek expertise or help from outside. Enterprise initiated organisational change and workplace reform can be successful.
However, enterprise management does need to negotiate the maze and avoid representative forms or fruit polishing mentioned above. I’d heartily recommend the Emery’s 1975 booklet Participative Design as a starting point.
7.2 Psychological Requirements in the Workplace
Although I don’t want to get into the intricacies of workplace reform. One overriding set of psychological job requirements is necessary for a satisfying (happy) and productive work environment.
These are, however, necessary but not sufficient for the totality of workplace requirements.
To paraphrase Fred Emery 1975, cumulative investigations (in Europe, North America and India) have enabled social scientists to identify important determinants of job satisfaction. These are located in the person-task relations and in the social climate of the workplace.
They are also very simple. (Otherwise, it would be very difficult to construct an organisational thermometer.)
There are only six. The first three are required to be optimal, not too little or too much (as shown in the cartoon). The last three are just required.
Workplace Environment Requirements
1 Adequate Elbow Room (autonomy)
Sufficient guidance but not the boss breathing down one’s neck all the time.
2 Learning on the job
The opportunity for learning new things on the job and going on learning, but not too much that it overwhelms you.
Sufficient variety to avoid boredom or fatigue from repetitive work, but not so much that you are swamped by variety.
4 Mutual Support and Respect
Conditions where one can get support and respect from one’s work mates to get the job done. Not a competitive environment, or one where no one will lift a finger to help anyone else, or where the group interest denies an individual’s capabilities or inabilities.
5 Meaningful Work
A sense that one’s own work contributes to the organisation’s objectives as a whole, and more generally to society as a whole. Also, not a job that a trained monkey or a robot could do as well. And, not something that doesn’t benefit society, or would were it not done so shoddily.
6 Career Path
A career path or desirable future. Not a dead-end job and hopefully one that will continue to allow personal growth.
Any participative workplace design needs to satisfy these requirements, as well as others.
Comment: These six key workplace requirements while not sufficient are pivotal to a successful workplace and to quality of working life. They are also pivotal to the design and measurement of an organisational thermometer.
Key Words: organisational thermometer, Fred Emery, Eric Trist, Paul Hill, privileged access to social resources, Theory X, Theory Y, Douglas McGregor, Taylorism, scientific management, turbulent environment, uncertainty, planning, workplace reform, participative design, James O’Toole, Work in America, quality of work life, workers trapped in dehumanizing jobs, job enrichment, Chris Phillips, disadvantaged worker, no chances, no opportunities in life, unemployed, Gordon Gecko, greed is good, massive transfer of wealth, norm, Naomi Klein, No Logo, free trade zones, Marvin Weisbord, Frances McDormand, Nomadland 2020, applied behavioral sciences, organizational development, maze of techniques, Philip Selznik, Leadership in Administration, Robert Townsend, participative workplace reform, Merrelyn Emery, Tony Richardson, Jock Macneish, Taylorism, the assembly line, bureaucratic structures, bureaucratised workplace, semi-autonomous groups, collaboration, cooperation, Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, TIHR, Haighmoor seam, Elsecar Collieries, Ken Bamforth, sociotechnical systems, Norwegian Industrial Democracy experiment, Einar Thorsrud, Quality of Work Life Movement, QWL, participative workplace design,, job satisfaction, person-task relations, social climate, satisfying, productive, happy, work environment, top management, strategic plan, organisational change, deep slice, 6 psychological job requirements, elbow room, autonomy, learning, variety, mutual support, respect, meaningful work, desirable future, career path
Thank you to Jock Macneish for permission to to use his two cartoons in this article, from the books cited below. If you want to see more cartoons and cartoon videos, I’d thoroughly recommend his site Strategic Images.
Fred And Merrelyn Emery Participative Design: Work and Community Life Occasional Papers in continuing Education 4, Australian National University, (Revised Edition) 1975, 22 pp. (Available from the NLA (National Library of Australia) and also published in slightly different form in the Tavistock Anthology Vol 2 see below.)
Fred E Emery and Chris Phillips Living at Work, AGPS 1976, 106 pp. A more detailed summary of the work will be provided in the next article on organisational thermometers.
Jock Macneish and Tony Richardson The choice: either change the system or polish the fruit: a pictorial guide to creating productive workplaces, (Second Edition) 1994, 100 pp.
Tony Richardson and Jock Macneish Imagine Your Workplace: Images of Dreams and Nightmares, 1996, 53 pp.
Tony Richardson and Jock Macneish published these entertaining cartoon books as part of their consulting practice. Tony is a senior consultant, Jock is the innovator and illustrator who runs a company called Strategic Images designed to carry ideas.
Paul Hill: Towards a New Philosophy of Management: A study of the company development programme at Shell UK Ltd, 1971, 255 pp.
Naomi Klein No Logo, 1999, 502 pp.
James O’Toole et al. Work in America 1973, 262 pp. Download available here.
James O’Toole, Edward E. Lawler III The New American Workplace 2006, 273 pp.
Antony P Stewart Some speculations on diffusion in the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Project and Quality of Life Movement PECCE, New Delhi, November, 1981 (copy available, for research).
Robert Townsend Up the Organization 1970, 213 pp. Townsend was the CEO of Avis and wrote a very entertaining but deeply knowledgeable book on establishing Avis as the number 2 in car rentals. His description of changing the organisation and developing a mission that was immediately obvious to everyone in the firm is an important adjunct to Selznick.
Marvin R Weisbord Productive Workplaces Revisited 2004 (sequel to 1987 book), 400 pp.
Marvin R Weisbord Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning and Community 1987, 412 pp.
Marvin R Weisbord Organizational Diagnosis: A Workbook of Theory and Practice 1978, 188 pp.
The Publishers Weekly 2006 review of the above book is the source of the quotation above
This was published by the University of Pennsylvania, where I bought my copies (and stupidly moved them on some years ago). The anthology covers the entire Tavistock period and includes papers very difficult to obtain elsewhere. This project was initiated by Eric Trist, but Fred needed to take over Volume 3 because Eric died. The volumes are probably available through large university libraries.
The Social engagement of social science : a Tavistock anthology/ edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray ; assistant editor, Beulah Trist, c 1990-1997:
- Volume 1 Edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray The socio-psychological perspective
- Volume 2 Edited by Eric Trist and Hugh Murray The socio-technical perspective
- Volume 3 Edited by Eric Trist, Fred Emery and Hugh Murray The socio-ecological perspective
For references to the coal mining studies see the end of Further Information in the Search Conference.
Published in Canberra