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July 6, 2021

Human-centred design as the way forward for organisation design and enterprise engineering

Human-centred design is put forward as an intellectual framework that can benefit both organisation design (OD) and enterprise engineering (EE) research. While integration between OD and EE may not be a feasible proposition as part of the modelling exercise, the human-centred organisation design (HCOD) framework can provide the contextual background in which EE researchers can/should situate, conceptualise, develop, and test their abstracted process models. Moreover, HCOD can provide important conceptual hooks to link projects in the areas of OD and EE.

The roots of EE research can be found in the work of The Society of Enterprise Engineering, starting from a definition of enterprises as “systems of processes that can be engineered both individually and holistically” (Liles et al., 1995). In Europe, the DEMO (Dynamic Essential Modelling of Organizations) methodology has been presented as being part of the foundations of the discipline of EE (Dietz et al., 2013). Originally triggered by a dissatisfaction with the state-of-the-art in requirements determination in the 80s and 90s, DEMO is currently about Enterprise Ontology (Dietz & Hoogervorst, nd).

Thus, enterprises are “systems of processes” and as such they cannot be treated as being the same as organisations, given that an organisation is much more than a mere aggregation of processes. Having said this, it must be acknowledged that the processes that constitute the aim of EE methodologies are part of the building blocks of organisation. The organisation is made up of myriad types of building blocks or practices – people-related, technology-related, finance-related, marketing-related practices – all of which require not only engineering expertise but also significant organisational (human-centred) design capabilities.

Traditionally, organisational design has been unfortunately defined far too narrowly both in the academic and managerial worlds. In most textbooks, organisation design is still considered to be the same as the organisation’s structure and mainly due to this, it is not associated in the minds of managers or academics with other characteristics, such as image, reputation or the quality of relationships with employees or customers, nor with ethics and the organisation’s role in society. In order to overcome such a gap and with a view to a repositioning of the field, Magalhaes (2020) has proposed human-centred design as an alternative to rationalist design and to contingency theory, the traditional academic school of thought for organisation design research.

The new organisation design paradigm is founded upon the aims and principles of design as a discipline but is particularly influenced by the human-centred design movement, according to which design should primarily be defined as creation of meaning. After Krippendorff (2006) and others, designs are not only the meanings intended by the designers, but they are also the meanings attributed to the design by the stakeholders. Thus, with human-centred design, meaning-making and meaning-taking activities become central features of organisational life. If such a view is extended to encompass the sensemaking processes that reduce equivocality in organisations, human-centred design is brought very close to Karl Weick’s (1995) sensemaking theory. Simply defined, sensemaking is about the structuring of unknown contexts or actions and assigning them with meaning. Meaning is the engine that brings order to the ever-changing flow of human action, while sensemaking is the analytical tool that allows us to deal with meaning.

Sensemaking is tightly linked to organizing, a process that begins when interlocking routines emerge, enacted by the participants in accordance with collective sensemaking, i.e., jointly shared sense and meanings. Weick explains that organizing is “developed and maintained through continuous communication activity, during which participants evolve equivalent understandings around issues of common interest” (Weick, 1995: 75). Since organizing and designing are also closely associated, sensemaking, organizing and designing become a foundational triad for organisation design. Importantly, human-centred design is also guided by values of democratic participation. In his 2006 book, Krippendorff makes a special reference to his ambitious mission of creating a societal role for design, referring to it as “a fundamental human right” (Ibid, p. 322). Such desiderata are part of a wider trend of design humanism focused on the reduction of domination of the powerful over the powerless, the excluded and the economically less favored (Bonsiepe, 2006). Hence, if design is inherently democratic, in a scenario where organisation design is governed by design values and principles, organisations should progressively tend towards more ethical and socially responsible ends. As argued by Magalhaes (2020), it is imperative that the discipline of organisation design leave its agnostic comfort zone and embrace an approach closer to the ethical and sustainability concerns of contemporary society.

Human-centred organisation design as backdrop for EE research
The framework of human-centred organisation design (HCOD) briefly discussed above and further developed in the reference paper are offered as backdrop to EE research. Thus, as EE researchers go about their investigations, which involve abstracting, evaluating, judging and modelling enterprise processes, they are invited to reflect upon the overall picture of human-centred organisation design. In other words, in their role of builders of organisations and despite intervening at a very low level of analysis in terms of the overall picture, EE researchers have an opportunity to contribute to a change in the paradigm of organisation design. Seen in this light, HCOD can accommodate different types of methodologies, including DEMO.

Artefact-related meanings as mediators between people-oriented OD and modelling-led EE
In the research effort into EE there are several examples of work addressing meaning-related issues. For example, the agent-centric perspective, where the aim is to capture the behaviour (i.e., the meanings) of organisational members (Zacarias et al., 2010) and the view of enterprise architectures as boundary objects due to their distinctive ability to influence perspective making and perspective taking in the process of organisational sensemaking (Magalhaes et al., 2007). Along the same line, in a model-enabled approach to EE Magalhaes & Proper (2018) propose that models must be acknowledged as boundary objects in the communication among the different parties involved in organisational design. A boundary object is any object that is part of at least two different social worlds and is aimed at facilitating communication between them, for example a map. In addressing the topic of domain modelling, Proper and Guizzardi (nd) talk about its semiotic foundations, reinforcing the notion that models can enable informed interactions and become part of the continuous dialogue that defines HCOD.

Narrative design trace as a bridge between OD and EE research
The notion of design trace, which has been suggested in organisation design research: causal and narrative trace (Garud et al., 2008). While the causal type is mostly enabled by technological means, which provides data and information about past interactions or past designs, the narrative type is associated with qualitative meaning-driven approaches that rely on people and people’s recollections of past events. Causal design trace is applicable to EE research as part of studies on organisational self-awareness (Tribolet, 2005) and enterprise cartography (Tribolet et al, 2014), building upon the notion that the more organisational members know about their organisation’s activities, the more efficient they will become in reaching organisational objectives. On the other hand, artefact-led transactions and interactions can also be traced by means of interpretive methods, operating on the basis of the internal and external coherence of a narrative with the listener’s existing knowledge. Gherardi et al. (2018) suggest trace based on affect and in addition to the traces kept in the researchers’ own memories, as well as in annotations made in logbooks, those authors propose researching affectual traces by means of communication, through the choice of words, the pitch of the voices or the crescendo in the verbal interactions. This type of trace would be a perfect supplement to traces obtained through technological means.


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Written By

Rodrigo Magalhaes
Instituto de Engenharia de Sistemas e Computadores, Investigação e Desenvolvimento Lisboa, Portugal

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