Changing organizations

Living with organizations is as human as walking on two feet.   People get things done through organizations.  From the earliest hunter gatherers to the most recent multinational business, organizations represent humanity’s attempt to maximize the benefit from effort.  Along with organizations comes conflict.

We under appreciate the relationship between peace, conflict and organizations.  Think about any armed conflict.  The fighting is done by people in organizations.  Whether its the US Army or al Qaeda, people must be recruited, trained, and deployed to do their work.  Soldiers, freedom fighters and terrorists all share the common need to feed themselves and their families, pay the bills and plan for the future.  Of course, sometimes some combatants, like some employees, have divergent needs and interests from others in the organization.  That’s where conflict emerges.  A peace process is as much about managing the political goals of an organization as it concerns organizational change.  Freedom fighters must be retrained to take up other work.  Organizational assets and resources must be either liquidated or modified for peaceful use.

Peace talks are filled with promise and threat.  The promise is an end to violent conflict, perhaps even getting what your side wants.  The threat, however, comes in peace undermining careers built through the use of violence.  When the Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan was signed members of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army faced the prospect of governing.  Not unexpectedly, SPLA members lacked the training and experience to run government ministries.  Skills honed on the battlefield don’t necessarily transfer to the cabinet room.  How many peace talks have foundered when members on one side realized their lack of peacetime experience would erode their power base?

Understanding peace processes as more than political events is critically important.  Recognizing peace processes as moments in organizational change would benefit most mediators.

It is surprising just how little attention is paid by conflict analysts on the organizational dynamics of peace and conflict.  Perhaps that’s because accessing information about internal squabbles over pay and performance, not to mention organizational change, is difficult.  Or, maybe its because such organizational matters don’t sound that interesting.  Yet, when it comes to day to day behavior of the men and women who fight, these are critically important matters.


Bruce Hoffman, of Georgetown University, was interviewed today, May 31, 2011, on the trove of documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan.  Hoffman claims that this find is unique, inasmuch as bin Laden was a record keeping wizard, and ran al Qaeda as if it were a multinational.   Hoffman’s mistake is to think that organizational dynamics don’t apply to other terrorist groups.  They do apply, bin Laden appears to have been particularly taken with modern ideas of organizational management.  Other terrorist and political leaders must grapple with the same dynamics, but their solutions may be less easily identified as ‘corporate’.

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