Structural Coupling

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Enterprises and technologies are rapidly co-evolving, driven by the ecosystem of globally integrated enterprises and enabled by such technologies as Web 2.0 and virtual worlds.  The generation coming into the working community is conversant with these technologies, and is expecting to use similar technical affordances in the context of their jobs. In this section we will bring these views together to explore the structural coupling that occurs and can occur between the organizational and technological domains.

We are operating from these definitions: “Structural coupling is the term for structure-determined (and structure-determining) engagement of a given unity with either its environment or another unity. The process of engagement which effects a ...history or recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems"  It is “...a historical process leading to the spatio-temporal coincidence between the changes of state” in the participants. As such, structural coupling has connotations of both coordination and co-evolution.  Niklas Luhmann has repurposed Maturana’s concept specifically for social systems theory. Luhmann described structurally coupled systems as being in a state of mutual irritation and resonance. “Structural coupling is a state in which two systems shape the environment of the other in such a way that both depend on the other for continuing their autopoiesis and increasing their structural complexity.”

In this case, of course, we are talking about coupling between the domains of enterprise and of technology. As we have noted, technology is not an inert enabler, but through an ecosystem of technological specialists is itself composed of an accountable set of human enterprises. The essence of this particular coupling is that ICT expands the range of communications and meaning processing available to the enterprise. As we discussed earlier, data processing in the form of accounting has produced efficiencies in the management of enterprise, and other applications have made it possible to handle complex operations more effectively. The Web made it possible for enterprises to extend their brands and operations beyond previous geographic barriers. What we are seeing now is that new forms of ICT are becoming available that promise to capitalize on the social aspect of human social systems. These technologies are coupled to the functions of enterprise that project the self of individuals and organizations into a globally open market of services and collaboration.

We have been at great pains to provide summarized architectural frameworks for both the enterprise and ICT domains, with a focus on the social aspects of both. The question that remains is how best to use these architectural constructs to explore the important process of coupling, within which forces of coevolution are operating at a rapid rate.

In general for the era of sociality, we need to look beyond the org chart and operational procedures to achieve effective design and technology introduction. Close attention to cultural and power architectures is necessary to perform interventions that result in healthy viability of organizations, and achievement of the desires that people seek in the context of enterprise.  A long-standing problem is that lack of attention to these factors causes many business and technology improvement efforts to go astray. The new emphasis on social factors should bring renewed attention to a situation that has existed for as long as people have been applying ICT in the enterprise. Examples abound. The challenge of the U.S. intelligence services, before and after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security can be seen as a cultural challenge as much as a technical information access problem. The uneasy marriage known as Daimler-Chrysler was a clash of cultures that is not uncommon in mergers and acquisitions of business enterprises. The aftermath of the IBM acquisition of PriceWaterhouseCoopers Consulting is a classic example of “right vs. right”  ways of addressing enterprise efforts. Disparate ways of working (practices and cultural factors) often jeopardize the most well intended of joint projects, even when each competing set of cultural practices has proven successful (right) within its own realm.

The next two sections consist of examples of structural coupling in relative detail, though still at a level that would probably not be adequate for serious real world business commitments. Based on the coevolutionary nature of structural coupling, we can predict with confidence that this technological “irritation” in these enterprises will whet the appetite for more fully functional affordances. On the other hand, there is always the chance that some irritation (in the form of ICT) will strike a countercultural nerve, and be rejected by the community of potential users.