Luc Hoebeke: Making Work Systems Better (1994)

A Systems Library, Vol. 18

The book is both in style and content unlike any other systems 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. Even the title offers a puzzle. 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 in helping ‘change makers for good’ to hone their strategic conversation.

A new lens

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 ground tone of empathy with the messiness inherent in a concrete organisational reality creates a much more effective starting point for disciplined conceptual thinking. It is only when this insight started to sink in that this book moved into the center of my practice.

Hoebeke’s book offers a distinctive lens to look at organisations, and to understand what may be going on in them. It is a perspective that draws on the work of systems thinkers such as Peter Checkland, Elliott Jaques and Stafford Beer. Its value is first and foremost heuristic: Hoebeke’s framework suggests myriads of questions that remain otherwise unasked. Its ability to do so rests on a number of important conceptual dislocations.

From ‘organisation’ to ‘work system’

Indeed, if I want to do justice to Luc Hoebeke’s sympathy for the lived texture of our collaborative relationships, 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. Very often formal organisational boundaries 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 templates that are populating textbooks on organisational development.

Purpose in work systems

Work systems are firmly anchored in the world surrounding them by the purpose they have identified for themselves. A work system is not an a priori given entity but the result of an agreement of all the parties involved in a joint action that they are contributing to a shared definition of their work system. Indeed, “the actions taken for improving the operations of a public library will be quite different if it is defined as a work system for keeping books in an orderly manner or as one that lends books to readers.”

Building on 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 activities 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.

Understanding work domains

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 economic logic to the spiritual domain, where one confronts one’s own mortality, 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.

The story of the four stonemasons

Hoebeke illustrates the recursive hierarchy of work domains by a well-known parable: the story of the four stonemasons. I am going to quote that passage here in full as it helps to get a feel for the thrust behind his thinking.

During my travels I came to a city and saw on its outskirts great works being undertaken by many stonemasons. I started to inquire what was happening and asked one: ‘What are you doing?’ He answered: ‘I am cutting my 20 stones a day, so that in the evening I can go home with my daily wage and am able to feed, clothe and shelter my wife and children.’ I went to a second stonemason and again asked what he was doing. He answered: ‘I am struggling with a new chisel that I designed last week. Some of the stones cannot be cut because of their difficult grain. I don’t like to throw them away and am looking to cut them beautifully against that grain. I have nearly succeeded in making the right chisel: four of my previous attempts have failed, but I have the feeling that now I am succeeding.’ I went to a third stonemason and again asked what he was doing. He answered: ‘Look around you! Don’t you see that I am building a cathedral?’ Much impressed, I went to a fourth stonemason and asked what he was doing. He turned his head towards me, looked me straight in the eyes and said: ‘Don’t you see that I am cutting stones?’ After that I stopped travelling and lived in that city, because it was a good place to stay.

In his framing of the parable Hoebeke emphatically makes the point that the recursive hierarchy of work domains (with ‘higher’ domains creating viability conditions for ‘lower’ domains) is not a power-driven management hierarchy. Here is how he puts it:

I would like to make several points here:

You have probably realized that the four stonemasons are examples of the four domains. The first belongs to the added-value domain, the second to the innovation domain, the third to the value-systems domain and the fourth to the spiritual domain.

To be able to locate in which domain a person is making contributions, one cannot rely upon his or her behaviour. Only communication permits us to grasp the perspective or the domain in which he or she is working. More precisely, doers do not necessarily work within the lowest domain nor thinkers within the highest. When we come to the description of typical activities of the spiritual domain, we will be confronted with the fact that these have mostly a very physical expression. I want to stress that point, because Elliott Jaques’s concepts are often misinterpreted as a justification for a meritocratic class society, in which the abstract and complex thinkers are seen to have the ‘right’ to manage or even direct the others.

Every domain has its own emergent characteristics which cannot be deduced from the others. The language of each domain and its interests are quite different. Hence the need of an overlapping stratum. There is thus no hierarchical power relation between the activity domains. Designing them as hierarchical management levels is not very helpful, either in the understanding of their meaning, or in improvement efforts.

Embracing paradox

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.

Pragmatism and poiesis

The book as it stands now has all it needs to become a classic in the long run. Its angular facade conceals a humane and wise attempt to help us to come to terms with the world and our place in it. Hoebeke’s aim is to make things simpler, to scale down our ambitions when intervening in human affairs. We can’t solve all problems and control all systems. Also we can’t shut out uncertainty. We have to accept existential risk. In fact, there’s relatively little we can do apart from asking good questions once in a while. The book offers a language and a framework to ask those questions. Hoebeke’s pragmatic, social-constructivist approach, his focus on malleable work systems and his emphatically non-teleological conception of human behavior offer a fertile ground for a practice of ‘poiesis’ that continuously brings to life new behavioral repertoires, enhances our receptivity towards difference and complexity, and increases our capacity for accommodation between these differences.

Wiley published Making Work Systems Better as a hardback in 1994. It has been withdrawn from the catalogue. Luckily an electronic version has been made freely available. A Spanish translation has also been prepared.

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?