Routinized Activities and Organization Design

| Sep 7, 2020 | Research Papers

By means of this paper, we posit the following arguments, that point towards routinized activities as the carrier of organization capabilities. 

Argument #1: Organization’s differentiated capabilities reside in the activities that it pursues on a routinized basis.

Argument #2: The way these routinized activities are coordinated and shaped, constitutes the differentiated value proposition of the organization as a whole.

Argument #3: The routinized activity itself has a complete eco-system apart from the routine, that brings differentiated knowledge and capability to the firm and shapes the macro-capabilities and resource-knowledge-capability triads.

Argument #4: Evolution of the given organization is closely tied with evolution of the routinized activities, either everywhere or in a part of the organization, to respond to the dynamic nature of the external ecosystem, requiring an organization to match the dynamism internally by changing the routinized activities or the mix of routinized activities. This evolution may be in the product, service, marketplace or the ecosystem itself.

Argument #5: The change is akin to change of habits in the individual parlance, as any individual change would require.

1. What constitutes a Routinized Activity?

A routinized activity by its very expression is a repeatable and point-in-time transaction that is carried out by an array of resources including human/s and / or machine/s. The activities may be carried out with synchronization of one or more human actors and / or one or more machines. To further the arguments as outlined above, we posit that presence of a human actor in some part of the activity is a required condition. The repetitiveness of activities is irrespective of the duration; though most repetitive activities will have shorter time horizons.

The Activity Tripod:

A routinized activity is a triad comprising of the act itself, the attention and the awareness. While the act is usually coming in form of a code, standardized by definition, the attention and awareness are variabilities due to the human actor/s. To understand the three more deeply:

The Act, is a stand-alone activity or programmed sequence of activities coupled with defined or undefined resources, to obtain a certain standardized outcome. The activities are codified into simple steps that are repeated to attain such outcome/s.

The Attention, for the argument here, is the property of the mind to attend to a situation with a higher degree of concentration on the elements of the routinized activity that one is engaged in. The attention may be extended to collective minds if the activity engages more than one human mind.

The Awareness, is the ability of the human actor to keep the objectivity in the attention and observe the act as well as the ecosystem, without turning it into a psychomotor[1] operation. The awareness is therefore, remaining conscious of the act, adjacencies and the ecosystem it is embedded in.

Usually the literature developed so far on the resource-based view, the arguments on activities have remained focused on the “Act” itself without understanding the whole ecosystem of the routinized activity. We posit that the routinized activities have to be seen in the overall context of the attention and awareness that is brought in, in addition to the Act to a given scenario.

It is also worth highlighting here, that the absence of any specific element from this tripod would lead into the activity becoming mechanistic and presence of all three elements will make the activity meaningful. Thus a routinized activity, with standardized act and higher degree of attention and awareness would bring meaning to work.

The literature on meaningful work outlines and we concur that purpose is a key ingredient in making work meaningful. However, to ensure purpose at the routinized activity level it has to integrate with awareness to become meaningful. Organizations and managers that may provide this linkage between purpose and awareness are able to not only be more dynamic in their capabilities, but also are able to transform the activities faster in line with external market situations. Needless to say, they also, provide more meaningful work to their employees and stakeholders at large.

Furthering the arguments, we posited, requires a deeper look at the routinized activity and its ecosystem to understand the relationships that the activities have in shaping the knowledge, capabilities and the organization itself through the interface of human actors and all the other resources.

Impact of Tripod on Emergent and Manifested Work

Before the routinized activities actually take shape they are emergent on the three aspects of the tripod, that is, on The Act, The Attention and The Awareness both at the individual and collective levels.

The emergent work is the work which is slated to happen in a time and space based on the routines but is waiting to happen. At this stage, the work is a normal pre-decided routine, yet to be carried out and is subject to the outcome requirements and availability of resource mix. The emergent work itself, is not dependent on the pre-decided routinized activity itself and is at best probable to a certain degree, before it actually happens. This further requires application of attention and awareness to the routinized activity, that finally shapes the work to the emergent requirement of the situation. Emergent requirement may or may not be linked to the pre-decided outcome based on the act itself.

In the simplest example, the emergent work may be achieving certain production goals in car making business, however, market and environmental conditions of the downturn would shape this activity pretty differently, basis the depth of the downturn itself.

Thus emergent work is also a factor of several loosely coupled dimensions which depend on the act, the attention and the awareness of the members of the organization. As the routinized activity takes shape, it is naturally connected to adjacent activities, procedures and plans that may be housed in an overall process that create the eco-system of the routinized activity. Naturally, similar sounding routinized activities in different organizations, may also have different norms, basis the culture of the organization. In essence, there are several aspects of work, workplace and ecosystem that overtly or covertly play a role in the shaping of the routinized activity itself and application of attention and awareness. As we look into the ecosystem of routinized activity, we find that there are several variables at play. Further, these variables may be uniquely connected in each case and is highly dependent on the individual motivations. All the connections jointly form the dynamic capability at any given time. The capabilities from an organization perspective are a flux of dynamism and may vary depending on the strange connections that the knowledge, resources and environment shape to form the capabilities of the organization. In addition, there is a deeper influence on these capabilities of the individual or collective motivations. The strange connections are dynamic, fuzzy and highly situational in nature and therefore coming together of the knowledge-resource-environment triad to form capabilities is a dynamic process. However, as the routinized activities become more attentive and aware in addition to the act itself, the chances of these strange connects taking place become higher. Thus routinized activities which are more disciplined in awareness and attention, provide organizations a better chance of transformation in the activities at any inflexion point. In addition, this continuously takes the organization up the capability spiral.

To understand the dimensions more in detail that require continuous interface with routinized activities, we have:

  • Knowledge: Knowledge based view has established several ways of looking at knowledge as an important factor in shaping capabilities. Both tacit and explicit knowledge have an influence on the routinized activities and we need to understand their influence even more explicitly to build our argument on the routinized activity as the source of capability building for an organization.
    1. The explicit knowledge is codified in the act and the richness of activity is based on this explicit knowledge of the matter pertaining to a particular routinized activity.
    2. It may be hypothesized at this stage that a more mature and well-established explicit knowledge would create more-value adding routinized activities for an organization. On the other hand, tacit knowledge is conditional to the attention and is applied in situations, where individuals or the collective are attentive to the routinized activity.
    3. Further, there is knowledge which is waiting to be explored and may be visible in other arms of the organization, in parallel activities, knowledge bases or outside the organization. The adjacencies are numerous and may be formally and / or informally available. Such knowledge is available intra-organizationally or exo-organizationally (in other organizations or in abstract form). Such knowledge is accessible only when awareness is brought in to the routinized activity.
    4. We therefore posit that upward capability spiral can be achieved if the activity tripod is balanced with all three factors playing a role in carrying out of the routinized activity, i.e., The Act, The Attention and The Awareness.
  • Resource: A host of resources come together to shape a routinized activity. While there may be finite intra-activity resources, there may be a host of intra-organization or exo-organization resources available which require connections to be established. Nevertheless, whether intra-activity or intra-organization, or exo-organization it requires connections to be established to be activated.

    Resources manifest through connections in physical equipment, mental constructs and / or social & symbolic paradigms. These are largely latent till the right connections are established between different constructs, which is usually done through knowledge, cognition or even emotions, that bring them together.

    The connections would largely remain static within the routinized activities, unless necessary attention and awareness is brought to the act itself.

  • Environment: The environment is largely an amorphous system which presents both the host environment for the organization and individuals in the form of society as also the ecosystem for conduct of organization’s business. Environment in that sense owns the organization, as the environment is where all the collective knowledge and resources are hosted. Organizations are embedded in the society. As a source of inputs to knowledge and resources, environment presents infinite opportunities. However, this also requires connections to be established between the organization and its ecosystem.

As is clear, establishment of connections is a key aspect in converting the Knowledge-Resource-Environment triad into organizational capability. This requires not only intra-knowledge, intra-resource and environmental connections but also connections between the three. Thus, resources connecting with knowledge and environment will shape the organizational capabilities through the organization’s routinized activities.

As the connections of knowledge, resources and environment are initially more abstract and are facilitated by the individual or collective minds, it is hitherto important that individual motivation is directed to forming such connections. From this point of view too, routinized activities must have the interface of attention and awareness in addition to just the plain act.

Balancing the Tripod

Balancing the tripod, would require all the three legs to be functioning optimally in a given routinized activity. This means, that the act, must be well structured and clear in terms of resources and sub-activities down to the last detail. Similarly, attention would require to be optimal during the course of the routinized activity for the subject (the human actor) to make observations for immediate or delayed perusal. Further, optimal awareness of the immediate and broader ecosystem is required to create insights for further transformation and triggering upward capability spiral.

Any disbalance in the tripod will result in task and routinized activities becoming mundane and static. For dynamic capabilities to grow The Act, The Attention and The Awareness need to be in sync and harmony.

In line with our arguments, the routinized activities are the ones that create the upward capability spiral as human actors apply more attentiveness and awareness to knowledge, resources and their environment. The capability creation is then fed back to the existing routinized activities thus creating an upward loop of knowledge and capability creation.