Flexible Organisation - an Oxymoron?

A problem arises when an organisation employs staff to do its bidding. I am thinking of the national organisation of Quakers in Britain (known as BYM), but I am sure others have the same problem.

This is that one effect of the staff structure is to ossify the entire organisation. BYM has about 100 full time staff at its London headquarters. Every year their own structure and organisation becomes more refined, for added efficiency and effectiveness (as measured by their own tools), its budgets becoming more sophisticated with longer time-spans and lower variances. The policy-making process (into which the staff have a significant input) becomes more involved and its execution more streamlined.

So in BYM we now have a so called Long Term Plan, with budgets stretching three years ahead. We have a new, tighter, smaller, Management Committee, rationalisation of staff departments (by the three productive departments being merged into two), removal of direct control of staff from the policy making bodies (the Central Committees) to a centralised staffing service, and many other efficiency improvements including refurbished offices and extensive computerisation. Currently the reforms being pushed through include further drastic cuts in member participation in the policy making and monitoring roles.

All these reforms can be justified on grounds of cost and accountability, and certainly the central policy making bodies have been persuaded to acquiesce (despite continual calls for an end to continual reorganisation and painful staff upheaval).

But what happens when there arises a need or opportunity to react to an unanticipated external event? If this happens around the time, dangerous to the staff, of the annual policy making meeting ("Yearly Meting") one ploy is to try to silence those members deemed likely to rock the boat. (I know this has indeed been tried used, some few years ago.)

If the unanticipated opportunity arises at a time other than Yearly Meeting there seems to be no way open but to ask that the staff undertake it. However, a direct request is easily refused by one of two responses. If the task requested is costly, even though it may take little staff time, the response is to say there is no provision in the budget. If it involves much staff time it is clearly unacceptable, one has to go through the proper, involved channels, by which time the opportunity has passed, or the suggestion is referred to the same staff one originally addressed, with the same 'no budget' response.

To be sympathetic to the central structures one must agree that some measure of control along these lines is necessary unless one is willing for them to spend time and money on any hare brained proposal that emerges from the boondocks. However, the Management Meeting is supposed to be held in the Quaker manner, so I feel it should be allowed some scope.

But, looked at from the point of view of one concerned that the organisation DO SOMETHING the situation seems worse than if we had no central structures. The custom and practice, the organisational norm, is that any suggestions that 'we' corporately do something has to be referred to them. Not only is this the norm but were one not to do so would seem improper, a potential affront to the central organisation, an infringement onto their territory.

So the result is that things that the members would have done in their name just don't happen. The most frequently voiced concern is a lack of willingness to speak out on topical issues. Conversely, staff may continue implementing a policy that is clearly not desirable on the grounds that no-one (through the proper channels) asked them!

What then can a member do if he or she is concerned that an opportunity be taken? The correct answer is to take the concern to one's local meeting. If there is time to get it on the agenda, and if they immediately agree, which is highly unlikely, then it is referred to the area meeting, where the same conditions apply but more rigorously. Thence to the national meeting where the same conditions apply - whether it can be fitted into the agenda time, whether a timely decision can be made - and additional ones such as that despite the prescriptions of our 'rule book', these meetings are no longer held monthly - another efficiency 'reform', and that they will feel obliged to refer the matter to the appropriate department. The 'proper channels' are clearly unable to produce a timely response and yet there is reluctance to give offence by bypassing them.

Must we accept that we are unable to respond collectively to needs and opportunities in a timely manner. Is 'flexible (or 'responsive') organisation' an oxymoron? My view is that we should not continue to accept this situation. I now offer two possible solutions.

The first I have voiced before. The above is not the only complaint I have about the main productive function of our central staff, namely QPSW (Quaker Peace and Social Witness). The other is that (probably inevitably) it is not under any real control of what I called above 'the proper channels'. To maintain that it is, is not truthful, and truth is one of the four principle tenets of Quakerism. It would be more truthful and probably better for everyone, BYM, QPSW, and its many clients, if it were to be hived off as is the case in America, where the equivalent organisation, AFSC, is independent though ultimately governed by appointees of several Yearly Meetings. If our central policy making and monitoring structures were to be relieved of this their major responsibility, they would have more time for essential problems and perhaps be more able to respond flexibly to opportunities and needs in a timely manner.

However, that suggestion has fallen on stony ground. (Or a more apposite metaphor would be that I, as sower, feel as if I wade through thorns.) So my second suggestion is that we accept the situation and set up alternative groupings as and when necessary. That is, we shake off the yoke of our central corporate structure - let them continue on their worthy way, while we, the active members of our religious, witnessing movement, work together to ensure that our leadings are implemented.

I'd like to hear responses relating to Britain YM - let us not at this time confuse the discussion by trying to include other YM's, though of course helpful suggestions are welcome).

This is the end of the first part of an essay I have decided to split into two. The second part is called "Sabeel Conference on Christian Zionism"