Book review: Making Work Systems Better - Luc Hoebeke

Oct 15

Wanting to testify how important Hoebeke’s ‘Making Work Systems Better’ has been for my practice as a process consultant, I felt compelled to write this review. The book is both in style and content unlike any other management book I know. The terseness of the discussion - stretching to a mere 180 pages - and its obvious conceptual rigour make it at first difficult to approach. It took me a while to tunnel through to its deeper messages, but now I feel confident with the material and I find it informs many aspects of my practice as a professional in the field of strategy and organisational development.

The breakthrough in my appreciation of Hoebeke’s work came when I realised how masterly it bridges the gap between the ‘lived texture of organisational life’ (thus Peter Checkland in his Foreword) and the elegance and power of systems science concepts. ‘Never confuse a definition with the mysterious reality beneath it’, is a key message very early on in the book and yet for a long time I failed to grasp its importance. I can see now why that is: as a professional it takes time to mature up to a point where one enters open and relaxed into a client organisation, without being stifled by fears of personal failure or feeling compelled to ‘make a point’. Paradoxically, this groundtone of empathy with the messiness inherent in a concrete organisational reality creates a much more effective starting point for the mobilisation of disciplined conceptual thinking. It is only when this insight started to sink in that this book moved into the center of my practice.

If I want to do justice to Luc Hoebeke’s fundamentally anti-bureaucratic stance, I need to be careful here with the concept of ‘organisation’. As a matter of fact, in an attempt to avoid its pernicious connotations with power and ownership, the author disposes of the term right from the start. Instead he prefers the concept of ‘work system’ which denotes a purposeful but more or less loosely coupled and self-regulated group of people. Organisational boundaries as a rule do not coincide with those of related work systems. By looking at the reality around us as composed of myriad interacting and overlapping work systems, we see sets of meaningful and concrete ‘activities’ and set of ‘relations’ between the people performing these activities. Hence, the bulk of Hoebeke’s book is devoted to a conceptual framework that allows us to identify relevant work systems, the sets of activities that constitute these volatile systems and the contributions that are made by those people engaged in the system. Again, the formal character of the language should not obscure the fact that it refers to the concrete, living reality of people burning carbohydrates in manifold ways, all in the process of jointly pursuing a shared purpose. As such, the framework and the language that goes with it constitutes a fundamental alternative to the ideological organisational templates that are populating textbooks on organisational development.

Work systems are firmly anchored in the world surrounding them by the purpose they have identified for themselves. Building on Peter Checkland’s notion of ‘system definition’, Hoebeke characterises this purpose as an elementary transformation of a specified input into a particular output. Once there is a shared understanding of this purpose then there is a basis for studying in depth the processes or activity models that support this transformation (and thereby constitute the essence of the work system). It is here that the specifically systemic nature of Hoebeke’s framework comes into play: processes can be differentiated in a recursive hierarchy of domains, stretching from the operationally oriented ‘added value’ domain to the spiritual domain, with the ‘innovation’ and ‘value systems’ domain in between. The recursive nature of the hierarchy comes down to the fact that the output of work systems operating at a higher recursion level are creating viability conditions for the underlying domain. Each of these recursion levels is associated with different types of activities which unfold over increasingly wide timescales as we move up the systemic hierarchy.

The bulk of the book is taken up by a detailed treatment of each domain in terms of its basic characteristics, generic transformation process, strategic dilemma and information needs. Hoebeke lightens the otherwise quite uncompromising rigour of his discussion by weaving in many examples of his own professional practice, often in quite adventurous settings. They warrant detailed study as many of them are exhilarating examples of out-of-the-box thinking. The move from the added value domain, dictated by a purely economic logic to the spiritual domain, where the struggle with one’s own mortality is fought, is a captivating journey. Hoebeke approaches the latter with trepidation and his treatment of these highly personal and at the same time universally human issues is of utmost brevity. Yet the depth of insight is truly humbling. Together with a few chapters from Roger Harrison’s ‘Consultant’s Journey’ these are amongst my most cherished pages in the whole of ‘management’ literature.

In Chapter 8 Hoebeke starts to play around with the framework as a whole, showing how elegantly and effectively it leads us to the disclosure of all kinds of socially constructed paradoxes, tensions and controversies that continue to wreak havoc. At each of the recursion levels, Hoebeke broaches fundamental issues - such as the nature of competition in the added-value domain and of democracy in the value-systems domain - all in his characteristic, quietly iconoclastic way. It is an excellent demonstration of the framework’s power as a diagnostic tool when in capable hands.

A fifteen-page synopsis, neatly summarising the key points for each of the domains, brings the book to a close.

‘Making work systems better’ is a wayward book. Sometimes I find the basic ideas simple, only to bump in unexpected layers of complexity the next day. Its layout is scientifically rigorous, yet at the same time the book holds on to a strangely labyrinthine quality. It gives few answers but prompts many good questions.

It is a pity that this book never had a great audience. Wiley published it as a hardback in 1994. Since it has sold about 1.500 copies. Now it has been withdrawn from the catalogue. A cheap paperback reissue, more moderately priced than the original publication, would be most welcome. I know from personal correspondence with the author that he has been considering a reissue, taking the opportunity to expand the book with a rich collection of essays written in the last five years. I advised him strongly against doing so. The book as it stands now has all it needs to become a classic in the long run. Not only in its uncompromising terseness and severe logic I would compare it to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. Similar to the latter its angular facade conceals a humane and wise attempt to help us to come to terms with the world and our place in it.

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