Saturday, December 25, 2010

Relevant Design of Organisations

Some stories remain in my head for its symbols. I have the silhouette remembered far greater than the image in the center. I know that some of my classmates from my alumni institution brought back shawls from Tilonia, in Rajasthan. The Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) had its spin-offs in learning no matter what you learnt. I don’t quite recall how the following pieces stumbled into the storyline. I remember it for sure because of its delightful meaningfulness. So I present the silhouette with some definition, characters and a little imagination.

Once not very long ago; it so happened that a Scandinavian donor wished his development funding for a model village in the north Indian state of Rajasthan be scrutinized. There was to be an audit, presumably to learn of how the funds were spent. So the Head of the audit team, Ingvar Wunderbar arrived from Delhi on a rustic 5 hour drive from the airport.

Conscientious and dutiful, sleep did not come easy for Ingvar and the first night seemed like the protracted Scandinavian hours of evening for Ingvar. At 0430 or so Indian Standard Time, a singing male in the new settlement not far from the original village rent the air potential energy, long before the first rays of the sun could invigorate the forlorn cactus shrubs fencing his abode. A turban on the head, and the loin cloth wrapped around the legs, in the joothi footwear of a fifteen thousand suns, the lone voice agreed with the caressed sands as they lapped the morning dew that was in harmony with the pristine dawn. Ingvar knew that life had to be different here. Curiosity had him step out of the visitor’s room in the Guest House. He caught a glimpse of the villager for his orange turban color shone in the solar powered streetlight as he kicked the more unkempt fine dust to its freshest destinations. The mystery for Ingvar was in the large pail of water that Bharat, the villager, was carrying in what promised to be a model village. Drainage and sewage lines were installed. Bio-gas from the village dairy piped to houses for cooking purposes, reducing wood based cooking fires.
As the day’s audit schedule unfolded, luck brought Ingvar to the very settlement from which the orange turban departed into the morning fields with water that could hardly irrigate the fierce land. Ingvar politely summoned the social worker to pose his mystery question. ‘Why did this gentleman with the morning voice go to the fields with water dripping from a vessel?’ “Oh, he wished to commence the ‘lota parade’”; giggled the perky social work graduate who did her best to save the turban its expected honor. A friend in the crowd who gathered around the visiting auditors, was Arun, a sustainability architect from Delhi. Arun whispered “Ingvar, she’s not making fun of you, but trying to defend morning constitutionals of the locals here. You better check if toilets are getting sufficient water”. Little did anyone realize, that Ingvar’s curiosity was not an ordinary one. Beyond culture, Ingvar represented the best traditions of audit. So Ingvar insisted that he examine Bharat’s toilets.

However, little did the Lonely Planet guides on India, or the niche Inside-Outside magazines published from India prepare Ingvar for what he was to see in those toilets.

Firstly the stench of manure greeted the curious senses approaching the toilet. The next sense was visually challenging and novel beyond measure. A young calf sat peacefully across the sanitary ware of the Indian toilet, chewing hay and fresh grass placed specially for it. Ingvar’s disbelief had him place his hand across his forehead with tissues soaked in sweat of the mid-day sun. “So what is cattle doing in here?” queried the exasperated Ingvar. Arun explained the situation in a maturity that left the delegation of auditors stunned. “Bharat is no ordinary soul”, Arun ventured, with a realization that he too had a sight that explained the paradoxical constraints that Bharat had managed. Ingvar noted in the corner of his eye that Bharat’s face was a picture of prayerful submission, that sought understanding for his creative utilization of space and shelter. Arun continued, “Bharat decided that one feature he would not compromise on is the concept of his extended family. He is willing to retain his old habit of visiting the fields for his morning constitutionals, for the sake of his cattle. You see, in his previous settlement, cattle were more proximate to the living quarters, than is the case with the model village design. Bharat wished that this calf be given special shelter so that he could release it to its mother only during scheduled feeding hours. The cow’s milk is precious to him too. So he decided to house the calf in his own toilet, as it is Bharat’s extended family..” Ingvar began to see the bigger picture and saw the beauty of the uncovered situation as more than a story to tell back home. Architectural designers and settlement planning designers least expected to encounter such a need as they went about their blueprinting for the model village. Cattle as extended family was only a matter of precept and not a concept in architectural design. Again, it became clearer to Ingvar as to why India could not innovate the model village for itself, but how Bharat, an Indian innovated within his set of conceived resources. Only lately did I Vijay Kumar (IVK), the Chief Technology Officer of WIPRO’s IT business comment at an Innovation Summit in Bangalore that “India does not innovate, but Indians do”.

Considerations of Vision, Context, Structural material, and collateral technologies are what architects use to realize their designs. In the Tilonia story, the Vision for modern hygienic sustainable living was strong, but , the social context was uniquely differentiated. The structural material, of local stone and brick; and collateral technologies used like street lighting powered by solar cells, and piped cooking gas notwithstanding, the user’s perspective of a tenable design is as important to consider. An inhabitant uses the design to finally make the concept village come alive.

When we design we fantasize a future. Nothing wrong with that. What did we learn from our past designs that got implemented? So the next time you notice a Green building or an off-beat design, would you also check for how the user’s needs have been met? When your organization is designed, does the designer’s expertise override the employee's practical organisational needs? What criteria do you consider when designing your organization? What can you do to ensure it is effective? How will you know it? Whose responsibility is it anyway, when online collaborative technologies pervade our senses? Does Organisation Design ever get audited? Like Bharat, do you have innovative coworkers who don’t wish to be in the limelight and can unwittingly challenge the expert model of organization design?

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