3. f NON-EMERY approaches to Search Conference and STS Models of multi-organizational change

Born on: September 16, 1999
SUMMARY of TD3: These are non-Emery Search Conference and STS Sociotechnical Systems Model.
  •  Marvin Weisbord's Future Search
  • Lou Davis Sociotechnical Systems &  Quality of Work Life work
Similarities to other TD methods:
  • a  4. SEAM Socio Economic Analysis of Management
  • C - 5. Participative Action Research

Dissimilar to other TD Methods:

  • l#2 Emery Model of Participative Democracy.
  • ? Reengineering 

Introduction - OK, you got asked to brush up on non-Emery models. Keep in mind there is a Grand Canyon of difference between the Emery and the non-Emery approaches to STS (Sociotechnical Systems) and the Search Conference approach to developing and changing networks of relationships among organizations. The basic issue centers around the preference for democratic modes of participation in the Emery approach.  Despite the Weisbord book title, there is not a lot of common ground. We will look at the differences then give you some ideas of the uniqueness of these non-Emery approaches. It is the uniqueness that can be used to shape your method. And we conclude by critiquing them all.

My Time with Lou Davis - In the late 1970s I was privileged to teach classes for Lou Davis, one of the pioneers in Sociotechnical Systems work. In the late 1970s at University of Illinois and at UCLA, I also met Eric Trist, who was a major founder of the Tavistock group in the UK, and worked with Fred and later, Merrelyn Emery.  In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Lou and James Taylor, worked UCLA and did some great projects that built cooperative relationships between unions, workers, and management, as part of the Quality of Working Life (QWL). QWL flourished in the 1970s and 1980s but with the downsizing and reengineering mania of the 1990s fell on hard times.  As luck would have it I got to teach the sociotechnical systems and environments of sociotechnical systems courses when Lou took a sabbatical.   I had been teaching Transorganizational systems, and noted some of the differences.

Sociotechnical systems, as Lou Davis, taught it was focused on combining social and technical. The social system was based in a Parsonian goal model of systems. Never much liked that part of it.  Parson's model was highly functionalist, that a system is composed of subsystems, performing functions for the whole or entire system. Subsystems and entire systems as social units where viewed as being formed to accomplish goals. Parsons (1964) believed the value system of society was worked out in the goals of an organization and its subsystems. The organization enhances its functional stability in society by processes of adaptation, coordination, and operation. Besides goals, Parsons posited that organizations fashion central value systems, which enhances the stability of the organization. When Davis did STS, the social side of STS, was analyzed as

(1) adaptation: the need to relate to the environment by taking resources from it;

(2) goal attainment: the setting of goals for the system;

(3) integration: the maintenance of internal order;

(4) latency or pattern maintenance: the generation of sufficient motivation to perform tasks

There are several problems with the Structural Functionalist perspective that Parson theorized and Lou Davis and others in STS have adopted:

  1. The functionalist perspective is inherently conservative. When all the parts of society are seen as acting as a part of a unified system, altering one part of the system has impact on all the other parts. For a purely biological system, dramatic change is harmful to the system. Since change tends to be viewed as a negative consequence, the problem of maintaining social order becomes a central problem for understanding society (More, see Russ Long, 2000).
  2. C. Wright Mills saw Parsons' functionalism as complicit with the will of the American power elites: economic, military, and political.
  3. Critique of functionalism gave rise to conflict theory; feminism; Critical Theory; Neo-Marxism; and the critique of male-stream sociology (e.g. Judith Burber).

I dropped out of the Parsons approach to the social in STS. To me the social analysis by the Emerys does a better job.

Variance Analysis - But I did learn a lot from the technical analysis. The idea was to get a very specific understanding of the technical work flow. Did not matter if it was a government office, a bar, or a factory. The task was to lay out all the phases of operation in the work flow.  Who passed the work to whom, what did each do?  Then, there was that word, "variance."  A variance is any breakdown point in a person-task network (or workflow).  A variance is a problem that when passed along, makes everyone else's job miserable.  The idea was to build variance charts to figure out where little problems crept into the production process, then see how they had domino effects on down the line.  For example, if you make an error in taking a person's job application, then you might assign the person to tasks they are not well suited or trained to perform. Once they are placed, the problems can magnify.

  1. for an example of a Variance Matrix chart of work flow, see Derya A. Jacobs, Abel A. Fernandez and Charles B. Keating. Using a Davis-style method of STS, they "asked each of the core team members to identify the sources of variances that could impact technical performance and cost of cryomodules, both from components or process."
  2. J-Labs Variance analysis example.

One use of variance analysis in interorganizational networking is to lay out the work flow processes, and all the anticipated (and current) stages that involve various organizations. This would include the supply chain and distribution chain, as well as the core of producing organizations in the network. Further, there are all those pesky protest and consumer groups that constitute postmodern networks of resistance to such things as global capitalism, factory farming, sweatshops, etc.

The next turn in the story comes in the mid 1990s when I moved to New Mexico State University.  I told how I had worked with Lou Davis at UCLA and I got some lecture. She described Lou Davis, as the father of STS (sociotechnical systems) in the USA. But, then added that when Davis apprenticed with Fred Emery at Tavistock, in the early days, he left before all the experiments had been completed. Lou Davis kept doing the variance analysis of the technical, and Parsonian social analysis as the basis of STS in the USA, but Emery moved away from that . 

Participative Democracy or Expert STS - Emery embarked upon the Norwegian National Industrial Democracy Project, and both Fred and Merrelyn have stayed with the idea that for organizational and environment transformation, STS must have a democratic focus, which they call Participative Design for Participative Democracy.  Over time the USA model of STS continued, but for the most part focused upon improving QWL, doing variance and Parsonian analysis, but did not take the democratic turn (for more see (Emery, M., 1993: 142).  The USA STS approach, stayed with what Emery's consider to be an "expert" approach. The experts come in to fix the system. Whereas, the Emery's focus on training participants to collect their own data and do their own analyses as the basis of the system redesign. 

In truth, what I know of the Davis approach is not quite as non-participative as Emerys make it out to be. While, it is true that the approach is expert driven, there is also a focus on action research, and working with cross-sectional teams composed of managers, workers, and union representatives to change and redesign work situations. In PDPD, there are multiple design teams instead of one overall team.

One way to proceed in doing a multiorganizational network development project is to bring the stakeholders together to effect some kind of data gathering. As we shall see there are differences in the Emery and among the non-Emery approaches concerning how this is done.

 There are more differences. For example, with the Emery approach, the participants have to become conscious of the design principles they are using.

DP1 - by adding redundant parts to the system; each part is replaceable; as and when one part fails another takes over.

In DP1, coordination and control are located one level above where the work is being done.

DP2 -  by adding redundant functions to the parts, at any one time some of the functions of any part will be redundant to the role it is playing at the time; as and when a part fails in the function it is performing other parts can assume the function, so long as a part retains any of its functional capabilities (i.e. functional relative to system requirements), it is of some value to the system (Emery, F., 1977, as cited in M. Emery, 1993: 102).

In DP3, the responsibility for coordination and control resides with the self-managing group.

Emery (1993) says the training in variance matrices, and work flow analysis, takes months and ends up being the focus of the transformation, where in PDPD, it takes 90 minutes to get trained in the basic tools of how to assess a skills matrix (who performs what skills).  In addition, participants are not clear if they are choosing to do DP1 or DP2. 

Weisbord and Future Search - Another student of Fred Emery was Marvin Weisbord. Both Emery and Weisbord do something called a "Search Conference," and focus on design principles 1 and 2, but have some major differences.   To Emery (1993: 5), "Weisbord loses the Search Conference as a design principle 2 method of participative planning in a grab bag of participative events."

Weisbord's "Future Search Conference" method competes with the Emery PDPD Search Conference method. Weisbord (1992: 325) is cited by Emery (1993: 228) as mixing "focused searching with experiential learning exercises, training modules, 'ice breakers,' expert lectures, question and answer sessions, and any group activity that takes people away from the central tasks they have come to do."  A more unforgivable sin, is Weisbord mixes PD1 and PD2 together in a mixed mode training course Emery (1993: 229) finds an unacceptable mix of training and workshop: "at this stage all conceptual distinctions have disappeared and total confusion reigns." Harsh words. 

The Weisbord Future Search Conference has the following steps:

The process is managed by a steering committee and the (consultant) facilitators.  large rolls of paper are unrolled and taped to the four walls of the room. The large group acts as a group mind to work through the stages (there is also small group work).  For more, see (1).

You can explore the following web sites to get a good understanding of the components of a Future Search Conference. You will need to be able to conduct such a conference in order to convene stakeholders from different organizations, groups, and communities in order to bring about some kind of tranformative change.

  1. Brief History of Future Search Conference http://www.futuresearch.net/fsconference/overview/hist_theory.htm
  2. What Is a  FUTURE SEARCH? By Marvin Weisbord & Sandra Janoff http://www.futuresearch.net/fsis.htm
  3. What is Future Search http://www.gilsteil.com/futuresr.html
  4. What is Future Search http://www.refflect.dk/English/future_search_conference.htm
  5. Wildland Fire Research Future Search Conference Notes Example of Future Search http://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_p1/
  6. Medical College of Pennsylvania example http://www.mcphu.edu/institutes/iwh/elam/forum/appendix.htm
  7. A Conversation With Marvin Weisbord Future Search:  A Power Tool for Building Healthier Communities by Joe Flower http://www.well.com/user/bbear/weisbord.html
  8. Consultants using the approach 1, 2,

Despite the protests of Emery, Weisbord has some similarities to the Emery approach.

  1. Weisbord suggests (1986,1987) "Third-Wave" consulting requires practitioners to help their client avoid dependence upon the assistance of "experts" to help solve organizational problems (1).
  2. Both do their training with a large group, who use flip charts or rolls of paper on walls to plan the future of their network of organizational and interorganizational relationships.
  3. People normally not in contact get in touch with each other to work on common problems and create action plans.

However there are also important differences.

  1. PD1 and PD2 are the main design principles for Emery
  2. The focus of PD2 stays on PDPD  for the Emerys (if that is what the group elects to do).

In sum, the non-Emery approaches to STS and Search Conference have similarities and differences with the Weisbord and Davis (non-Emery) approaches. 

For an approach that integrates parts of Emerys' and Weisbord's approaches

  1.  http://www.buzzblick.com/search.htm
  2. The Search Conference as a method of participative strategic planning  by Fran Ryan http://web.bps.org.uk/sub-syst/division/dop/search/method.htm

If we move beyond the differences between Emerys, Weisbord, and Davis, we get to the idea of future scenario

Figure One - 4 Future Scenarios

Push following to see graphics (Consumerland), (New Civics), (Ectopia), & (I Will). This is one approach to building future scenarios, that is to look at the future in each of the four quadrants.

We could spend days deconstructing the narratives and these images. But it will give you some easy points of intersect between non-Emery approaches and the Spectacle approach below. If the typology was resituated, it could be useful. E.g. the dimensions of Fragmentation/Coherence and Individual/Community map some of the tensions of late postindustrial capitalism and the spectacle of postmodern culture.

One implication of Figure 1 is the need for Future Search and Search Conference approaches to look at the environment in terms of four areas. First, the tribalism of new civics. That is the consumer and anti-globalism and other protests that are mounting to counter predatory forms of corporate behavior. Second, consumerland would include all the over-consumption and addictions to consumption. This means the McDonaldization of the planet, the fast food movement that colonizes the globe and transforms family farm into factory farm. Third, the me or I-oriented generation of narcissism. Fourth, the "real" ecology and environment. Here, I would have to say that the environment is more than polite and elite terms such as "uncertainty" or "complexity" or even "turbulence." Rather, there is a space and temporal ecology with animals and vegetation in which organizations operate. Emerys, more than the other approaches seem to take this into account in their Search Conference approaches and non-Parsonian models.


If we look closely at PDPD, we see that it is not as participative as may first appear. That is, the self managing work team is the focus of PD2, but this is not the same as having worker participation in policy, investment. and other firm decisions. It is local, workplace control over the work that gets done by the people doing the work.  There is an entire field of study on worker governed firms.  I know John Luhman (2000), did his Ph.D. on the topic. The Emerys, Davis, and Weisbord do not touch worker governance. As Luhman describes it "the cooperative movement advocated an alternative form of work organization to challenge the dominant capitalist economic entities" (p. 4). "The point of interest for the organization theorist [and practitioner] is the question of what exactly are the management practices of firms controlled by workers through their ownership of the firm?" (Luhman, 2000: 172).  In the case of Emerys, Davis and Weisbord, the basic capital-managed firm has not been challenged, be it DP1 or DP2.  Yet, the current consumer protest movements are about pulling the corporate charter of firms that continue to take from a community, a Third World country or a work force, without giving anything but grief in return.

The Emery approach goes farther than Weisbord and Davis in bringing about democratic participation in scenario planning and in making work locally controlled. There is more to be done in making interorganizational networks (and organizations) more democratic.  Cooperative relations among organizations goes beyond the work of this perspective.  In all likelihood, networks of organizations are fashioned out of enterprises that have a wide range of differences in democratic governance assumptions and practices.  And out of this mix, will come a call for cooperative behavior, as well as much coerced and mandated relationship.

Related Links



Davis, Lou E. (1979). Optimizing Organization - Plant Design: A Complementary Structure for Technical and
Social Systems, Louis E. Davis. Organizational Dynamics, Autumn.

Emery, F (1959) Characteristics of Socio-Technical Systems,' Reprinted in Emery, F 1978, The Emergence of a New Paradigm of Work. Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Emery, Merrelyn (1993) Participative Design for Participative Democracy.  Centre for Continuing Education, Australian National University, Canberra.

Emery, Merrelyn and Purser, Ron, The Search Conference, Jossey Bass 1996

Luhman, John Teta (2000). Searching for organizational democracy in labor-managed firms: A narrative study of the literature. New Mexico state University, Department of Management Ph.D. dissertation (December).

Parsons, Talcott (1964). A Sociological Approach to the Theory of Organizations: Structure and Process in Modern Societies. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Shani, A.B. (Rami) & Michael W. Stebbins (1998) Organization Design And The Knowledge Worker. The Journal of Systemic Knowledge Management, February.  http://www.tlainc.com/article5.htm - Contains explanation of variance matrix and variances.

Taylor, James C. & David F. Felten (1992). Performance By Design: Sociotechnical Systems In North America, 1/e -  Published November, 1992 by Prentice Hall Business Publishing http://www.prenhall.com/books/be_0136564976.html Taylor worked closely with Lou Davis at UCLA and after.

Taylor, James E. & John J. Cotter (1980). A Socio-technical Analysis (Including a Variance Matrix, and a Social Systems Grid) for the Cotter-Cherns Scottish Sandwich Corp. Ltd. (C.C.S.S.C., Ltd.), E. Lauck Parke.  University of California, Los Angeles, CA.

Weisbord, Marvin R. (1987). Productive Workplaces. Jossey bass.

Weisbord, Marvin R. (1992). Discovering Common Ground.  San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

 Press to return to TD Game Board or Td for a TD narrative.