Limits to Democracy: Constraints on Systems Approaches to Organizational Change

Roberta Snow


Both systems theory and systems practice address organizational design and transformation from a participative, hence democratic, perspective. The work of Ackoff, Beer, Churchman, Emery, and Checkland is predicated on the notion that stakeholder participation is necessary for meaningful and effective change. The greater the level of stakeholder involvement, the more complete the information brought to the change process. This leads to better decisions about the system’s future as well as a greater understanding of and commitment to the change.
Many of the organization design methods developed from the systems perspective are designed to create a forum for systemwide participation. Ackoff’s interactive planning methodology and Emery’s search conferences provide examples. The goal is to engineer the organization change process so that there is the greatest possible involvement on the part of members of the system.
A critical question remains unanswered within these schools of thought. Is there a point at which democratic processes become dysfunctional in the design processes of social systems? This paper argues that there are three conditions for effective democratic organizational design:
1. That the power relations are understood and the process is free of coercion.
2. That the members of the system are informed participants and have more than a superficial knowledge of the system.
3. That the members of the system have loyalty to the system beyond their involvement in the design process.
These three elements—power, knowledge and loyalty—are viewed as three constraining variables that limit the efficacy of democratic systems design processes. Examples from actual systems interventions in industry, government, and not-for-profit organizations are used in the paper to illustrate how the absence of any one of the three can impede both the process and the implementation of systems change.
Methods for working within these constraints are also discussed. These include methods for understanding and assessing sources of power and legitimacy within the organization, developing a uniform understanding of the system among participants, and understanding the nature of individual commitment and tenure within an organization.
Finally, the role of the systems thinker as interventionist is discussed. The ideological bias towards participative democracy is discussed and clarified. The conclusion is that the systems thinker must reaffirm his role as social scientist as well as interventionist to first develop sound assessments of the systems in which he is attempting to facilitate change.


systems change; democracy; organization design

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