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Public Sector Leadership

Conducting a Multi-Rational Orchestra


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In a recent talk Otto Tausk, the Conductor of the St. Gallen Symphony Orchestra, spoke of parallels between conducting orchestras and managing organizations and how conducting today is a democratic distributed process.

Research by Ali Asker Guenduez and Professor Kuno Schedler, at the University of St Gallen, suggests that managing public sector organizations involves a further complexity. Not only are there individual instruments to be conducted but parts of the orchestra are playing different tunes (or rationalities).

Public sector organizations are ‘multi-rational’, in that they don’t adhere to a single rationality archetype — for example, they are not uniquely political organizations, or economic organizations, or legal organizations, but rather all of the above. So the role of the public-sector manager is to enable these different rationalities to collaborate effectively. The key, according to social systems theory, is communication: finding the common language.

According to systems theory, rationalities have specific languages. “They use different terminologies and thus speak different ‘languages’ on account of their different rationalities.” write Guenduez and Schedler. Thus, for example, an organization will have a legal team that communicates based on the rationalities of the legal function system. Their values and language will be more closely aligned with other legal professionals than, say, with the engineers in the same organization.

This barrier between a public organization’s “highly autonomous self-referring subsystems, where each subsystem uses a specific type of specialized communication to process subsystem specific rationality and meaning” encapsulates the challenge of management of public organizations.

In order to solve the tensions and conflicts that inevitably arise, the manager must find a way to combine and convey information in a way that is acceptable to the members of the different rationalities. To this end, managers should use:

Translation. To help people who speak different ‘languages’ understand each other. Frame the information so that it has meaning at the subsystem level. This means that a manager must understand the different meanings of information in different subsystems. Use rationality specific knowledge as resources to explain and justify management decisions. “Skills-and-knowledge-based” communication has a better chance of being accepted across different rationalities.

Shared meaning. Create a collective rationality. In addition to the communication or ‘translation’ task, managers also need to create a collective rationality, one that enables the disparate parts of the organization to collaborate effectively. In other words, managers must also strive to create a common shared meaning by cultivating a common language. They must enable what Guenduez and Schedler call “shared patterns of argumentation and justification without abandoning individual rationalities.” in order to provide all members of the organization with a “shared picture of the organization.”

Context control. Although different rationality subsystems can act as barriers to direct management control, managers can influence these different rationalities by the way they structure the context of the subsystems. For example, the CEO of a hospital is not going to be able to control the medical decisions taken within the organization. However, there are context factors — budget, infrastructure, personnel, technology, and even output and outcome requirements — over which the CEO does have control. Of course, decisions concerning these contextual factors must be taken carefully, as the responses will be rationality-specific (e.g. finance officers might approve budget reallocation, but the doctors will have a different perspective).

Translation, finding shared meaning, and influencing through context control will enable public-sector managers to meet the daunting challenge of managing multi-rational public sector organizations.

Otto Tausk, Conductor, Symphony Orchestra St. Gallen, was the Keynote Speaker at the 2014 Annual Alumni Homecoming at the University of St. Gallen. Prior to his speech, he also took time to provide these thoughts for a wider audience in this short video.

See more about this research at Ideas for Leaders DOI 10.13007/497

If you wish to go deeper, there is a book: Multi-rational Management, Kuno Schedler and Johannes Rüegg-Stürm, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014, ISBN 978-1-1374-4440-0

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