A closer look at integration across organizations: thinking about coupling

Railcar CouplingWhen people ask me why I did something so strange as to leave a perfectly good career and get a Ph.D., the story I tell is this.

I designed and built information systems meant to improve the processes or the decision making of large organizations. I was troubled that organizational staff and managers routinely ignored the systems I created and continued running their departments and organizations pretty much as they always had. Either my designs were flawed or users were stupid (I’ll leave it to you to guess which hypothesis I favored).

I talked my way into a program—which involved explaining away aspects of my transcripts—and began hanging out with smarter people who were exploring similar questions about how organizations, systems, and technology fit together. This is the beauty of doctoral study; no one pretends to have the answers, everyone is trying to figure stuff out and, mostly, everyone wants to help you make progress.

This smart group led me toward the branch of organization theory and development that treated organizations as complex, designed, systems in their own right. The early days of organizational behavior and design as a discipline sought the “one best way” to organize. Paul Lawrence and Jay Lorsch of the Harvard Business School opened a different path; organizations should be designed to fit into and take advantage of the environments they operated within. In their seminal 1967 work, Organization and Environment, they made the case that effective organizations struck and maintained a balance between differentiation and integration. Where did you carve the organization into pieces and how did you fit the pieces together? Management’s responsibility was to make those decisions and to keep an eye on the environment to ensure that the balance points still made sense.

Two things make that managerial balancing responsibility far more difficult. One, the rate of change in the environment. Moderate pendulum swings have been replaced with what can feel like life inside a pinball machine. Two, the role of technology as an integrating mechanism that now spans internal and organizational boundaries.

Set the rate of change issue to the side; it’s well known even if not well addressed.

The technology links knitting organizations together were not something carefully contemplated in Lawrence and Lorsch’s work. Integration, in their formulation, was the task of managers in conversation with one another to identify and reconcile the nature of the work to be done. It was not something buried in the algorithms and data structures of the systems built to coordinate the activities of different functional departments—logistics, production, distribution, marketing, sales, and their kin—comprising the organization as a whole. Change in one function must now be carefully implemented and orchestrated with changes in all the other functions in the chain.

Electronic commerce further complicates this integration challenge. Now the information systems in discrete organizations must learn to talk to one another. The managers at the boundaries who could once negotiate and smooth working relationships have been displaced by code. Points of friction between organizational processes that could be resolved with a phone call now require coordinating modifications to multiple information systems. That couples organizations more tightly to one another and makes change slower and more difficult to execute, regardless of the willingness and commitment of the parties involved.

An example of how this coupling comes into play surfaced in in the early days of electronic data interchange. A grocery chain in the Southwestern United States agreed to connect their inventory and purchasing systems with Proctor & Gamble’s sales and distribution systems. P&G could monitor the grocery chain’s inventory of Pampers and automatically send a replenishment order. In order to make those systems talk to one another, P&G was issued a reserved block of purchase order numbers in the chain’s purchasing systems. Otherwise, replenishment orders from P&G were rejected at the chain’s distribution center receiving docks because they didn’t have valid purchase order numbers in their systems.

Now, these information systems in two separate organizations are intertwined. If the grocery chain upgrades to a new purchasing system and changes the format of their purchase order numbers, P&G’s sales department and IT department are both affected. Multiple that by all of your trading partners and even the simplest change becomes complex. Decisions about strategic relationships stumble over incompatibilities between coding systems.

We spend so much attention to the differentiation side of the equation that we overlook the importance of integration. Half a century ago, we had insights into why that was ill-advised. Maybe we’re overdue to take a closer look at integration.

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