ACCORDING TO some conspiracy theorists, the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations is part of a sinister cabal aiming at world domination. 'If only,' sighs institute director Phil Swann. After a decade in which it has had to work hard to survive, the Tavistock, one of the UK's most original and fertile contributors to organisational theory and practice, last week celebrated its 60th anniversary. It has a new website, a new look, and new confidence that its accumulated strengths are more than ever relevant to the thornier problems of today.
In truth, the Tavistock has always been a high-wire act. Never more than 25 or 30 strong, its influence has been out of proportion to its size, and it has often found itself honoured more in other parts of the world, where a diaspora has founded many offshoots, than at home.
As with other pioneers, its discoveries and diagnoses - self-regulating teams, culture change, networks, selection processes, policy evaluation - have sometimes been so ahead of their time that 'the answer from the field was silence', in the words of one of its most distinguished alumni, Elliott Jaques.
This was the case with its remarkable investigations of culture and teams at Glacier Metal and the NCB respectively in the late 1940s and 1950s. Indeed, it didn't always recognise what it had come across itself. Later, when the concepts reappeared as mainstream consultancy products, it found itself dwarfed by competitors with less rigour but larger marketing departments. Business process re-engineering, empowerment and forms of teamworking can all trace their lineage back to work done at Tavistock.
The institute, a spin-off from the psychoanalytically oriented Tavistock Clinic, was established in 1947. The aim was to apply wartime breakthroughs in large-scale social psychiatry, pioneered in the army, to peacetime issues - notably the effectiveness of organisations. It invented an approach later known as 'action research' - generating new theory by using interdisciplinary teams to investigate problems, bringing to the surface the hidden, sometimes unconscious forces that lurk in all organisations, and empowering clients to take on social-science capabilities. Much of the research found its way into its academic journal, Human Relations
The institute's earliest strand of work was around individuals, groups and organisations in relation to their immediate environment. The second, best known and probably most influential, was in 'socio-technical systems', the relationship of individuals and groups with technology. Sociotech grew out of the startling observation that in the 1950s, mechanisation was decreasing productivity in UK pits. Tavistock researchers posited that organisations consisted of closely linked technical and human systems, neither of which could be optimised at the expense of the other. The relationship had to be optimised, not the individual elements. This strand pointed to new forms of work organisation, including self-regulating teams.
The third thread of work - socio-ecological - developed out of the more turbulent, interlinked world of the 1970s. The Tavistock's challenge now, says Swann, is to develop a fourth strand relating its own strengths to the distinctive issues organisations face today. There is no shortage of candidates: individual choice and dealing with variety the dynamics of partnership and inter-organisational working and the tensions between global or national and local, and centre and periphery, to name three.
The institute has had to confront many of these pressures itself. A body that is about organisational democracy and work-group autonomy and operated without a titular head, it has been obliged, controversially, to adopt a more conventional single form of authority.
As the first Tavistock director, Swann has a mandate to break down internal silos and 'articulate a single integrated group', mirroring internally what is happening in the world outside. Along with its ethos of collaboration and co-production, that puts it in an ideal position, he reasons, to tackle some of the boundary-spanning problems of today. The classic challenge is delivering public services, which requires linking local and central government, politicians and officers, and multiple agencies, all with different targets and priorities, across both public and private sectors.
In its seventh decade, the Tavistock will continue to have to justify its existence with results - it has no research funding. On the positive side, in a climate that favours an evidence base, and in which organisations are beginning to look for alternatives to an exhausted conventional management model, its agenda of rigorous pursuit of both theory and practice, of accepting rather than denying complexity, and of improving effectiveness through individual and organisational well-being suddenly looks both modern and urgent. Many happy returns.
The Observer, 23 Sepltember 2007