A paradigm refers also to the model that you are currently using. When this model appears to be obsolete, you shift to another one more adequate.
Currently, the most used model is command-and-control as a residue of 19th century Taylorism or autocratic model. This model makes the assumptions that a single person (the boss) concentrate the whole knowledge and all his/her subordinates are assisting him/her. Even if this sentence appears unfortunately rude, I believe that in this case, stereotypes are helpful to ensure clear understanding.
L.E. Greiner explained in “Evolution and revolution as organization growth”, HBR 1972, that an organization has a certain kind of evolution lifecycle like this:
All these phases can be considered as a shift from an older to a newer more adapted to context.
Now, we are in 2018, and the world of work has made a huge shift too: we are most all connected, we are travelling more, knowledge is accessible and everything sounds to be more complicated. Before WW2, you worked for your chief who was a substitute for your “father”. You accepted that position because you knew the chief knows it all. This relation is called in basic psychology a child-adult situation or commodity.
Before WW2, manufacturing responded to a huge demand through mass production. After WW2, things started to change because manufactures produced more and customers asked for mass customisation.
The 21st century evolved into new consuming paradigms emerging from the mass collaboration mostly through Web 2.0 and now from digital. Because the world of work has changed completely, we need to understand that a single person cannot concentrate the whole knowledge like before (the chief) but knowledge emerges from the collective intelligence bubbling up from a new way called co-creation.
Like in the picture above (origin D. Snowden), work has evolved from scientific management to sensemaking through system thinking, these are the 3 major paradigms still in use in actual organisations.
Scientific management is the belief that a single person or a single group of people have the capacity to plan and handover to commodities to execute that plan. This is what is mostly taught in MBA classes, this is how most of the big consulting companies are working and this is why most of the companies are putting their future in jeopardy.
Let´s take a look from a business perspective. These 3 paradigms are addressing different necessities through different strategies that we can highlight through product lifecycle graphs:
In scientific management, the belief is that the product is perfect and remains perfect on time and customers have to come and buy it without any efforts. This is a simple cause and effect relation and people working in such organisations are applying standards and best practices. In that model, the thinkers are working with cheap commodities to maximise the profits on a very long period of time. Because R&D was a one-shot, nearly most of the “knowledge workers” have been replaced by cheap managers keeping the original set on track.
Systemic is a direct evolution of scientific management with some residues. You still find the same approach but you consider that your product has an end. Here a new category of “agents” emerged, the process managers. Process managers are ensuring that the system is stable, the quality reaches the standards. Their goal is to avoid variability in that system. Even if the concept sounds accurate and the idea of “product flow” sounds accurate, the consequence is that variability in the system was more cost-cutting than improvement. The most known systemic approaches are Kaizen, Toyota Production System, Lean, Lean Six Sigma.
Attention, this is not a judgement, this is related to a certain period of time. Scientifiy management brought wealth a century ago and lead to systemic that lead to sensemaking.
Sensemaking is the response to the increasing complexity of work. It is also called Complex Adaptative Systems where each cause doesn´t produce the same effects. This is the nature of work nowadays. To ensure the wealth of your organisation the aim is making the whole organisation responsive by using the whole potential of the organisation.
This way of working has been experimented in banks since the 70s (beyond budgeting), in manufacturing (ex. Gore & Associates, Agile Manufacturing), Services (SEMCO), and in the IT world through agile.
Now, AO is a framework to help you to shift from one paradigm to the sense-making.