Johan Strümpfer[1]




The idea of participation in management and decision making is often perceived as a desirable objective. There are many attempts at implementing participative management at present. It is however, also true that in practice there is a lot of conflict around participation in decision making, because the various parties often entertain different purposes for participation. In particular the issue centres on differences in perceptions on why participation is needed. One needs to understand why this mismatch is so pervasive.


Clarity on the purpose of participation and clarity on the framework for implementing participation goes a long way towards making it work for instead of against you. This article presents a framework for understanding different purposes for participation and presents a framework for implementing participative decision making. It is a premise of this article that the concept of participation in management and decision making is deceptive, because the meaning of the concept is thought to be well understood whereas in reality it is not. This description clarifies this meaning.



We attempt to make sense of the world around us by interpreting it through mental constructs. These mental constructs are neither arbitrary nor necessarily simplistic. They are models that we apply to help us understand specific situations in practice and to guide our actions based on this understanding. Traditionally three models were used to interpret organisations, namely mechanistic, organismic and social systems (Ackoff,1981, Gharajedaghi and Ackoff,1984). Increasingly other metaphors for examining organisations are taking root, e.g. a political metaphor (Flood,1990, and Flood and Jackson,1991)


Descriptions of the different organisational models can be found in Ackoff(1981) and Gharajedaghi and Ackoff(1985).


One can use the different organisational metaphors to question the underlying models themselves. For example, using the political metaphor one can ask what are the assumptions about power that is being made in the classical models. The mechanistic model assumes that the power is outside of the system; the authority and responsibility for what the system (organisation) does lie with the owners and designers of the system. The organismic model assumes that the responsibility to exist lies with the system itself. Power accrues to those who are concerned with the survival of the system. In the social systems model survival is no longer the sole purpose of the system; development of its members and serving its environment are added. In this context the sources of power shift ultimately to the members of the social system and the interest parties in the environment of the system. If these are not served in the long term they can destroy the system by organising to do just that.



In the situation where the ultimate decision, so to speak, of what the system should do lies with the members and its environment, the question of controlling the organisation becomes problematical. The word "control" is used here in the sense of giving direction to, or governed; it is not used in the sense of obeying the will of an operator.


The question of controlling a system is one that each person faces. The moment we start interacting, in whatever capacity, with other human beings, we ask ourselves, usually implicitly, how we can influence the behaviour of the larger whole. Whether manager or partner in a relationship we come up with answers to the how-do-I-influence question based on our mental model of the larger whole. In an organisational context the mechanistic, organismic and social systems models have played a fundamental role in shaping answers to this question of control. Each of these models makes fundamentally different assumptions about how the system should be controlled.


The assumptions underlying controlling a mechanistic system include the following. First of all there is an assumption that the function of the system is fixed, fixed in the sense of being determined by forces outside of the system itself and therefore unmanageable. It would be appropriate to refer to such a system as having an external locus of control. The primary control in such a system is by controlling the inputs to the system, because what happens to these inputs inside the system is assumed to be predetermined in a deterministic manner. The behaviour of the system is specified a priori by a set of specifications. There is a meta level assumption that it is in fact possible to develop a full set of specifications of how the system should operate given certain inputs. In practice no one really believes that this is practical, but still it is a point to strive for. In this sense the control is static, because even if in practice we continue developing these specifications, it is assumed that these specifications, once discovered, need no or little adjustment. Component behaviour in such a system is then determined by these specifications; hence the rules and regulations determine what needs to be done in an organisation seen to be under this type of control. They are easily recognised in practice by voluminous sets of standard operating procedures: Some of the best known companies in the world had many meters of rack space devoted to company guidelines.


Viewing an organisation as a organismic system lends itself to seeing the means of control as cybernetic control. Cybernetic refers to control by information feedback. Such a control model assumes centralised decision making as its departure point: there is but one brain. This decision making centre is fed information by a range of distributed sensors. Control of the components of the system is by sending out information on objectives. The brain does not control the hand, at least at the conscious level, by instructing every nerve and muscle individually, but by issuing an instruction "pick up the glass and drink." This becomes the objective to achieve for the various components. One is reminded of the Management by Objectives approaches. In such a control system there is particular focus on performance measurement and feedback on performance, as well as on the co-ordination of the various actions. In practice the operation of this model can be recognised, amongst others, by emphasis on information and communication systems to support management.


A third model of control is one best labelled as aligned self-control. It makes the following assumptions. There should be a process, centrally supported and maintained, which develops a shared understanding of the context in which the system has to operate, and a shared vision as to what the system should achieve. This understanding and vision must be shared by the parts and the fact that it is shared provides the necessary integration that enables the system to operate as one, to be more than the aggregate of individual behaviour. The buy-in into the vision and understanding provides the necessary co-ordination and enables the parts to operate in a synergistic manner. It is assumed that the behaviour of the individual parts is under their own control, in other words, autonomous self-control, but takes place against the integrating vision and collective understanding of what is important. In practice this model of control is recognised by the focus on process in planning, problem solving and decision making, and on vision. The concepts of vision, alignment, and empowerment are meaningless in the first two models of control; they are central to the aligned self-control model.


It is important to realise that in any real situation these control models may operate simultaneously, and may alternate in dominance over time. They represent the primary colours from which the painting is constructed. In the same way that a painting may have a dominant hue, any real situation may be dominated by one of these models. The most important point to realise though is that these underlying ways of thinking about control lead to fundamentally different styles of management. In particular, the role of participation in management differs fundamentally depending on which control model is being pursued. The problem is that the argument is never explicitly about which control model is appropriate as these assumptions are held and pursued implicitly. It is worthwhile repeating that these models represent answers to the question each of us starts asking at birth, namely how do I may myself influence the behaviour of the larger whole? It is because these assumptions are so implicitly held and unexamined that participation can be so disruptive when the assumptions differ.




The purpose of participation differs from control model to control model. Management and labour may be in direct conflict not because labour wants participation, but because they want "meaningful" participation. The meaningfulness of participation depends on the underlying model of the person making the judgement.


In the external locus of control model there is in theory no need for participation and in practice there was very little of it in mechanistically conceived organisations. In reality there was some form of it, in the sense that workers were gathered together for instructing them in the rules and regulations; this was simply for the sake of efficiency in implementing the rules. In principle it could be done, as was done, by any other means of informing. The only communication was this top to down informing, which can hardly be called participation. History overtook this style of management, although it has yet to die in many instances.


The cybernetic control model actually requires two way communication to operate. First the centre has to be informed about what is going on. The various parts of the system become sensors to the centre and must interact with the centre to keep it informed enough for decision making. One of the reasons for participation under this model is this need to obtain the insights, understanding and data from the parts. Employees become important not only for what they do but for what they sense as well. The second reason for participation is that it is very efficient to inform and instruct employees on the desired objectives when they are present. The purpose of participation in this model is then to receive input and to efficiently convey the results of decisions. In practice there is somewhat more interaction in the sense that discussion takes place to clarify information received and to ensure that objectives are understood and accepted. The important point to realise is that this model does not open up decision making per se to participation although participation is required to enable decision making according to this model.


Whereas participation in the cybernetic control model is necessary, it is critical in the aligned self control model. The reason is that this model cannot operate as a regulating mechanism if each and every part of the organisation is not aligned with the collective understanding and vision. The purpose of the participation is to develop this alignment. Buy-in in the vision and shared understanding is nothing but agreement on the decision criteria to use in deciding on action and behaviour. The integration of the system depends on having collective decision criteria that guide all parts. These decision criteria can take various forms in practice, e.g. policies, strategies, values, norms and even self accepted rules and regulations. All of these are decision criteria in that they determine the behaviour of people in various circumstances by providing a reference framework according to which individuals and groups decide on action appropriate to the circumstances. The very purpose of participation is to develop these decision criteria, ensure acceptance and sharing. The difference between this and the two previous models of control is that in the first two it is the decision criteria of a few that determine the behaviour of the whole but in the last model the decision criteria transcend the individuals and reflect the whole.




The aligned self control model has the ability to self organise to a far greater extend than systems controlled according to the other two types of control models. The reason is that the integration of the system, which provides the synergy and co-ordination to act as a whole, delivering more than the sum of individual actions, becomes more flexible and pliable. Such a system has a greater openness to creativity from a larger range of sources, it has a larger ability and scope for learning and innovation, and, as a consequence, can learn, adapt and develop more quickly. This then is the real root purpose for pursuing this form of participation: it promotes long term survival and adaptability. It has been one of the messages from systems study, that highly integrated and centrally controlled systems are vulnerable to changes in their environment. Of course, long term survival is by no means promoted by aligned self-control on its own, but only if the central process developing the shared decision criteria is alive and well as an active process of learning. In short this means that aligned self-control only makes sense if the organisation strives to implement the ideas of a learning organisation simultaneously. The ideas of planning as learning and participative management therefore becomes two sides of the same coin.


Aligned self-control as a model for management implements the twin pair of alignment and empowerment. Empowerment has some specific connotations attached to it in this context that are discussed below. Both these concepts are popular ideas that are mostly improperly understood. Aligned self-control provides the context for properly understanding them. In this context it becomes possible to address one of the major bugbears of management, namely communication. The reason is that this model allows the individuals in the system to have their own decision criteria reflected in that of the whole, and to act in a meaningful way using their own insight into a specific situation but in the context of the wisdom of the larger whole.


Aligned self-control promotes long term viability but should not do so at the expense of executive decision making. Executive decision making as used here means the ability to make a judgement on appropriate action in a specific case. It could have this negative effect if it is implemented without the idea of empowerment and then will paralyse the organisation to act because it introduces a lag between current events and the ability to act on them. The key to avoiding this is a distinction between decision criteria and executive decisions discussed below.


Another perceived cost of aligned self-control in practice is the time it takes. This is in reality not a cost but a saving. It is true that it will take longer to develop decision criteria in a group than to ask one person to make a decision. The point is that the group never makes the decision but develops the rules for making decisions. This does take time but saves on the time that it would take to implement the decision. In the absence of consensus about the appropriateness of the decision it may be obstructed in execution and then never have any effect. So what you pay in terms of time before the decisions are made you gain in implementability of the decisions. The overall time it would take for the system to act meaningfully is actually reduced.





Empowerment can not be implemented meaningfully under the classic notions of responsibility, authority and accountability. The currently dominant views on the meaning of these concepts are tightly tied to an inadequate view of the world which in itself is being replaced.


Authority is the power attributed by the containing system to pursue objectives. Authority from a mechanistic and deterministic world view is the power over others, to ensure that they act in congruence with what the person in authority wants to achieve. Authority from a systems world view is the power to achieve desired objectives. It has more to do with influencing and development than with issuing instructions. Authority has to be seen to be power to rather than power over if empowerment is to take place successfully. The implication for management is that they become process facilitators and couches rather than solely decision makers about what is to be done and working  out how to get the system to do this.


Responsibility is likewise dependent, as it is currently perceived, on a deterministic linear model of causality. The classical view of responsibility assumes falsely that the responsible person controls all the required resources and variables to produce a particular output. This is simply not true in complex systems. Complex systems are characterised amongst others by systems causality that operate in a non-linear way with feedback loops, complex interactions and lags. The level of interlinking in complex systems is so high that the interactions become very complex to understand, let alone to place them under the control of a single individual. In organisational terms it is not uncommon, as has happened in a recent practical case, to find that less than 5% of the employees that have a direct influence on a particular performance measure not to report to the manager responsible for the performance. To regard an individual as solely responsible to achieve a desired outcome is to ensure that empowerment will drown in fear. The individual involved simply understands the complexity of the situation to be such that the best action from the individual's perspective is to minimise the risk of failure of the individual rather than to strive for organisational success. Empowerment, in the sense of being able to act in the interest of the larger whole, evaporates. There are encouraging signs that groups themselves are rejecting this classical notion of responsibility, despite dictums of management consultants (Katzenbach and Smith, 1991).


Accountability, in the same vein as responsibility, was also looked at from a deterministic and reductionistic viewpoint. It was assumed that the responsible individual must account for the outcome, either bad or good. In systemic terms one needs to distinguish emergent properties. Emergent properties are properties of the system that arise out of the interaction of the parts and are not discernible in the parts themselves. Examples are the ability of the body to breathe and circulate blood, where a whole complex set of interactions takes place to ensure that this can take place. In the corporate context business success is an emergent property. It is produced through the complex interaction of a multitude of parts. Failure can also be an emergent property but can sometimes be related back to the failure of a single part. Assigning accountability to a single person for emergent properties is simply meaningless. Systems are too often so complex that even thinking that one individual can be held accountable for success or failure is to ensure failure. Proper empowerment in the aligned self-control context has to assign accountability to the whole. The implication is that rewards and failures be shared by the whole.


In the foregoing section it was argued that aligned self-control as a basis for management necessarily requires the simultaneous implementation of empowerment. This can not be done without rethinking the meaning of concepts of authority, responsibility and accountability.





There are some principles that help to implement participative management, in the sense of the aligned self control model. These principles deal with the structure and process for participation, and the scope the decision making.


Some of the structural ways of introducing participative management, include task groups, quality circles and planning boards. The common theme in all these ways is that a shadow structure is created to carry the process alongside the formal organisational structure. This is especially useful when participative management is introduced in an existing organisation, to overcome resistance to change in the formal structure. It is however important that these shadow structures be empowered in the meaning described above: If they do not acquire the necessary authority, responsibility and accountability for their effective functioning the formal structure will prevail. Planning boards is a concept developed by Ackoff(1981) for the purpose of carrying out interactive planning. The idea is that the planning board is constituted from the manager, the manager's manager, and all the manager's direct reports. Whatever structure for participation is chosen the golden rule remains that all persons who have a direct contribution to make in implementing the decisions need to be present. This is a direct consequence of the principle of aligned self-control: Alignment is created through participation in the decision making.


The process dimension of participative management is all important. There needs to be a very clear process agenda to ensure that the interaction in the group remains directed and covers the required ground to enable execution and implementation. While there are many possible ways of structuring the process of group inquiry, the following is a set of guidelines with broad applicability:

                            1. Formulate the current situation.

                            2. Explore future implications of current situation.

                            3. Establish a desired future state.

                            4. Establish patterns of required action.

These constitute classes of activities the group follows in a cyclic process of learning. Interactive planning (Ackoff, 1981) is a refinement on this type of approach. There are alternative processes to this, especially in the task group context, e.g. soft systems methodology (Checkland, 1981), and various approaches to quality management.


In the foregoing mention was made of the idea that participation in decision making be restricted to developing decision criteria for executive decision making. This is a pragmatic guideline that is based on the recognition that developing consensus may be time consuming. Therefore, to require that every decision be a group decision will result in time lags in effective action taking that will impact negatively on the ability to act timeously. Viability of the organisation will suffer because its decision making processes will be to slow. The principle then is to retain executive prerogative over operational decision making: In all cases of a one off nature, in specific circumstances the relevant person in the formal organisation structure retains the responsibility for making that decision. However, the decision criteria according to which such a person has to make the decision is developed in a group context. Depending on the context, these criteria may be quality management principles, strategies or policies, for example. It is the responsibility of the management group to develop these criteria, which are by nature not decisions relative to a specific situation, but guidelines for decision taking applicable to classes of situations. By appropriately adjusting the degree of this separation the organisation can vary the level of local empowerment Vs the ability to act as one whole. Determining this scope of the relative decision making powers balances the need for self maintenance against the ability to evolve.



CASE 1: {written but not typed up; illustrates participative management in a meeting context under the cybernetic control model}

CASE 2: {to be written; illustrates the difference in process and level of decision making under the aligned self-control model}




Ackoff, RL. Creating the Corporate Future: Plan or be Planned For. John Wiley and Sons, 1981.


Checkland, P. Systems Thinking, Systems Practice. John Wiley and Sons, 1981.


Flood, RL. Liberating Systems Thinking. John Wiley and Sons, 1990.


Flood RL and MC Jackson. Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention. Wiley, 1991.


Gharajedaghi, J and RL Ackoff. Mechanisms, Organisms, and Social Systems. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 5, pp289-300, 1994.


Katzenbach, JR and DG Smith. The Discipline of Teams. Harvard Business Review, March-April 1993, pp111-120.



[1]Systems Practice, email sysprac@iafrica.com

© J P Strümpfer, 1994-1998.



This site was last updated 2006-07-31