Systems Thinking and Population Ecology

bubble-19329_1920[We’re pleased to welcome authors Karen Macmillan and Jennifer Komar of Wilfrid Laurier University. They recently published an article in the Journal of Management Education entitled “Population Ecology (Organizational Ecology): An Experiential Exercise Demonstrating How Organizations in an Industry Are Born, Change, and Die,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Macmillan speaks about population (organizational ecology) and its applications:]



Organizations are embedded within complex, interdependent networks.  Yet it can be challenging for business students to conceptualize how organizations interact with others on a broad scale. This type of systems thinking does not come naturally. Most individuals tend to have difficulty understanding non-linear, interdependent connections when the relationships are distant in time and space.

One line of management study that takes a systems view is population (or organizational) ecology.  Rather than observing how an individual company evolves over a brief period, population ecologists look at all of the organizations within an industry and examine how certain characteristics (e.g., size), the environment, and random chance affect organizational outcomes. Population ecologists identify how industries change over many years, often finding patterns across industries in how organizations are born, change, and die.  This approach differs from traditional management theory in two key ways.  First, all members of a targeted population are included in the analysis. The premise is that to focus only on the most successful organizations (e.g., the Fortune 500) leads to an understanding of only a small portion of the total range of organizations. It can be useful to examine not only the winners, but also the losers, and even the runners-up. Second, population ecologists examine how processes evolve over relatively long periods of time. This can lead to different insights than a cross-sectional approach.

In order to help students develop systems thinking through a consideration of population ecology, we have developed an in-class exercise that allows participants to see first-hand in one class how all of the organizations within an industry interact over a long period. Full details are included so instructors can easily integrate this activity into the classroom. This process makes the theory come alive by asking students to put themselves directly into the role of an organizational decision maker in an evolving industry.

The exercise dramatically highlights how an organization affects, and is affected by, its context, and will help to prepare students to operate effectively within a multi-faceted business environment. This activity could fit within discussions on organizational design, organizational structure, organizational change, or inter-organizational relationships, and it complements instruction on more micro organizational behavior topics, or more linear or analytical approaches to management.  It challenges the idea that management is solely about control, and helps students see that each internal decision influences how the organization fits within a broader system, and affects, ultimately, its ability to survive.


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Beyond Developmental: The Decision-Making Applications of Personality Tests

5529311561_4ba9be7419_zThe use of personality assessments in organizations has often been limited to developmental applications. However, growing support for data-driven decision-making in recent years has made it apparent that personality assessments could also become a resource for talent management decisions. In a recent paper from Journal of Applied Behavioral Science entitled “Does Purpose Matter? The Stability of Personality Assessments in Organization Development and Talent Management Applications Over Time”, authors Allan H. Church, Christina R. Fleck, Garett C. Foster, Rebecca C. Levine, Felix J. Lopez, and Christopher T. Rotolo investigate the consistency of personality data over time and whether the changing application of personality assessments changes their validity. The abstract for the paper:

Personality assessment has a long history of application in the workplace. While the field of organization development has historically focused on developmental aspects of personality tools, other disciplines such as industrial-organizational psychology have emphasized its psychometric properties. The importance of data-driven insights for talent management (e.g., the identification of high potentials, succession Current Issue Coverplanning, coaching), however, is placing increasing pressure on all types of applied behavioral scientists to better understand the stability of personality tools for decision-making purposes. The current study presents research conducted with 207 senior leaders in a global consumer products organization on the use of personality assessment data over time and across two different conditions: development only and development to decision making. Results using three different tools (based on the Hogan Assessment Suite) indicate that core personality and personality derailers are generally not affected by the purpose of the assessment, though derailers do tend to moderate over time. The manifestation of values, motives, and preferences were found to change across administrations. Implications for organizational development and talent management applications are discussed.

You can read the paper, “Does Purpose Matter? The Stability of Personality Assessments in Organization Development and Talent Management Applications Over Time,” from Journal of Applied Behavioral Science free for the next two weeks by clicking here. Want to stay current on all of the latest research published by Journal of Applied Behavioral ScienceClick here to sign up for e-alerts!

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JABS Best Paper Award Winner Announced

Journal of Applied Behavioral Science announced that  Sustainable Change in the Public Sector: The Longitudinal Benefits of Organization Development,” by R. Wayne Boss, University of Colorado at Boulder, Alan D. Boss, University of Washington Bothell, Benjamin B. Dunford,Purdue University, and Mark L. McConkie, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, received the 2010 Best Paper Award. 

The award will be presented to the authors at  the Editorial Review Board meeting during the 71st the Academy of Management meeting in San Antonio this August.

Click here to read the award-winning article.

JABS is now included in the Social Science Citation Index. with an Impact Factor Pending. Click here to get to the homepage.

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Organizational Effectiveness

Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness“, by Kim Cameron, Margaret Calarco, both of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Carlos Mora, Trevor Leutscher, both of Determinant LLC, Ann Arbor, Michigan, was recently published in the Journal of Applied Behavior Science. Kim Cameron has provided some background about the article:

Who is the target audience for this article?

Organizational scholars, leaders, and change agents

What Inspired You To Be Interested In This Topic?

This has been a ten year journey to investigate the relationships between positive, virtuous practices and the performance of organizations. Up to now, little attention has been paid to these relationships, much fluff and hype has appeared in the popular press, and many of the terms have been considered non-scholarly and illegitimate for scientific investigation. The study helps us progress past these obstacles.

Were there findings that were surprising to you?

The findings were not surprising, just confirming.

How do you see this study influencing future research and/or practice?

The study helps provide a foundation for an area of inquiry that is beginning to develop, namely, positive organizational scholarship. It helps provide legitimacy for the entire field of investigation. For practitioners, it identifies some non-traditional, positively-oriented interventions that were found to affect organizational performance.

How does this study fit into your body of work/line of research?

This study is at the heart of my current research stream, and I will continue to engage in similar investigations in the future.

How did your paper change during the review process?

The reviewers were very insightful and helpful in their suggestions, as was the editor. The paper is clearer and more relevant as a result of their comments.

What, if anything, would you do differently if you could go back and do this study again?

This is the first step in a research trajectory, so this foundational study is needed before other more carefully controlled studies can be conducted. This is not a “final word” kind of study, but it opens the door for more empirical investigations in positive organizational scholarship.

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Organization Development

 “Revisioning Organization Development: Diagnostic and Dialogic Premises and Patterns of Practice” by Gervase R. Bushe and Robert J. Marshak was published in the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science in 2009 and became one of the top downloaded articles in the journal for the year. Here is a brief reflection from the authors on the article:

Around 2006 Bob Marshak and I became aware that we were writing about similar things under different labels.  We were seeing a shift in the way consultants were helping teams and organizations to change and transform that wasn’t being written about in Organization Development (OD) textbooks or taught in many OD graduate programs.  He was calling it “New OD”.  I was calling it “Postmodern OD”.  As it turned out the label became a very important issue as we tried to get our ideas published in mainstream academia.  Editorial boards didn’t like “new OD” because that meant there was “old OD” and new implies better than old and old would then need to get tossed out, and nobody wanted that!  Calling it postmodern OD meant the article got sent for review to critical theorists who seemed to think any truly postmodern OD would be about exposing the seamy underbelly of oppression that we all, supposedly, labor under blindly.  When Bob came up with the distinction “diagnostic versus dialogic” I immediately felt he had struck narrative gold – not only did it accurately encapsulate a core distinction we saw in the change in OD practice we were writing about, but the alliteration rolled off the pen.  Resistance to our ideas melted away and, instead, others are taking a closer look at the distinctions we are making in theoretical underpinnings and not just slogans.  The OD that is normally taught is a change process based on diagnosis against ideal models that leads to problem solving and top-down implementation of new behaviors. The different form of OD we tried to capture is based on orchestrating generative conversations that lead to new, collective ways of thinking and self-generated changes in behavior.  What’s made it difficult to see this dialogic form of OD is that it shows up in some very different forms and each is primarily associated with specific individuals.  These two change processes, diagnostic and dialogic, are based on very different philosophical and scientific premises but while the former have been clearly thought through and tested, the latter have barely been identified.  That’s what our Revisioning OD article did – identify some of those differences and offer a beginning point for thinking through and testing the underlying assumptions of Dialogic OD. 

I think people are reading the article because it captures something real about what is going on in the field of OD.  The OD practitioners who have commented to both Bob and I on the article say it captured and gave voice to a shift they had taken in their practices but hadn’t yet been named.  Personally, I don’t know anyone doing real transformational work in organizations that is using the kind of diagnosis – action planning change process historically taught in OD certificate and graduate programs at various schools and institutions.   I even had one person write me to say that a graduate student he was supervising had decided not to drop out of his OD program after reading the article, as it captured the kind of OD that student was interested in pursuing.  At the same time I believe there is a place and time for Diagnostic OD and one of the important areas of research ahead of us is understanding when and where each kind is most appropriate and when and whether they can usefully be combined.

It’s not unusual in management research for the academics to be playing catch-up with what is actually going on in practice, and this seems to be the current case in the field of OD.  So much of what gets written by change practitioners is little more than advertisements for their services.  I’m excited about turning pursuing a line of inquiry that may be energizing and generative for the OD profession, turning a  critically appreciative eye on the many new change technologies that really haven’t been subjected to rigorous scrutiny, and building a theory base for Dialogic OD.  Some of this work has already started under other names and in other guises but in academic OD the work is just beginning.  Bob and I are reaching out to academics and practitioners who want to articulate the theory and practice of Dialogic OD.  Our hope is that Dialogic OD will be a generative metaphor that takes those concerned with planned change and transformation down some new paths of research and inquiry into how we can increase collective intelligence and collective creativity and focus it on increasing collective wellbeing in our groups, organizations and societies.  I believe that is always, at its core, what organization development has been about and Dialogic OD offers a revisioning of ways to accomplish that while staying true to OD’s core values.

Gervase R. Bushe, Ph.D. , Professor of Leadership and Organization Development, Segal Graduate School of Business, Simon Fraser University

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New JABS Editor Named

The Search Committee for the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science has appointed William A. Pasmore, Columbia University, as Editor of the journal effective January 1, 2011. Read the full announcement here.

Submit your manuscripts to JABS!

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Journal of Applied Behavioral Science Accepted in Thomson-Reuters SSCI

We have received the news that JABS is now indexed in the Social Sciences Citation Index. The Impact Factor will be published in June 2011.

The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science is the leading international journal on the effects of evolutionary and planned change. Founded and sponsored by the NTL Institute, the Journal is continually breaking ground in its exploration of group dynamics, organization development, and social change. Click here for information on manuscript submission.

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