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Introduction to activity theory- Book review

1 June 2017
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

The satirical work titled "Introduction to Activity Theory: Or Why Is the Neighbor More Successful?" was authored by Amos Katz in 1975. Although ostensibly fictional, it subtly references real-world organizations connected to both the book and the author. However, this isn't the central focus. Over time, and particularly within public services, the book resonates with various organizations. As organizations mature, they become susceptible to what the author terms "activity" - work that fails to advance their objectives.

The unstated objectives of both organizations and individuals revolve around increasing activity. The book explores methods for achieving this, covering topics such as:

  • Components of work

  • Characteristics of heightened activity

  • Executing activity enhancement

  • Managing activity escalation

  • Facilitating boundary-changing activity

I recommend reading the text attentively and engaging in self-reflection for improvement. Acquiring the original copy from one of the older bookstores is advisable if possible. The mathematical examples, models, and accompanying illustrations vividly elucidate the concepts presented here with remarkable brevity.

Components of work

Tasks within an organization encompass a variety of activities. While the author primarily associates these tasks with public and government institutions, their relevance extends across different contexts. Therefore, we will present the concept more broadly applicable to any setting or organization.

Work is typically categorized into two components:

  1. Execution: This involves actions undertaken to advance an organization's stated objectives. For instance, checking a suitcase at customs exemplifies execution.

  2. Activity refers to supplementary tasks that do not directly contribute to performance enhancement.

For example, generating customs inspection reports in the previous month represents activity. Increasing either of these components amplifies the workload, necessitating more resources such as budget, personnel, equipment, and infrastructure, consequently elevating the organization's prestige. Since many organizations have fixed goals, enhancing prestige often relies on augmenting activity and controlling the organizational mechanism.

Augmenting activity influences the size of the organizational hierarchy, consequently impacting individuals' opportunities for advancement. Thus, there exists a parallel between an organization's aspiration for expansion and an individual's ambition for progression within it. Both parties share an interest in elevating activity levels.

Characteristics of heightened activity

Increased activity within an organization manifests through various characteristics:

  1. Proliferation of Writing: The author regards writing as a camouflage tactic, with bureaucracy being a primary beneficiary. Forms serve as a buffer for writing. The abundance of different forms within an organization correlates with heightened activity levels.

  2. Duplicates: Instances of duplication, whether through double registration, role replication, or redundant treatment, signify increased activity. For instance, overlapping responsibilities indicate heightened activity when multiple individuals attend to the same citizen from different angles.

  3. Indecision and Hesitation: Indecisiveness within organizations reflects increased activity. Passing decisions from one person to another, along with prolonged decision-making processes, necessitates more effort to translate decisions into actions.

  4. Uniform Pressure: Organizations exerting uniform pressure across various aspects, including priorities and treatment, signal heightened activity. Failure to prioritize tasks and uniform pressure on employees elongate execution processes, leading to increased activity.

  5. Poor Execution Quality: High-quality execution in enterprises suggests focusing on execution rather than activity. Conversely, poor execution quality significantly emphasizes activity over efficient execution. The absence of financial accountability in public organizations enables subpar performance without immediate repercussions. Optimal staffing entails placing individuals in the most suitable positions.

  6. Gradient Distance: Organizations with a flat hierarchy prioritize execution, whereas those with substantial hierarchical gaps between employees and managers indicate heightened activity. The distance between an executing employee and a manager necessitates extensive information transfers and pyramid management, reflecting increased activity levels.

Executing activity enhancement

Several factors related to performance can broaden the scope of activity:

  1. Non-performance: Neglecting tasks associated with performance objectives leads to increased activity. Time initially allocated for execution transitions into activity, causing system strain and triggering activities such as investigations, inspections, meetings, and report requests.

  2. Poor performance: Inadequate execution fosters activity as the organization resorts to various justifications and excuses to account for subpar performance. This results in tasks born solely out of the need to address shortcomings, constituting activity for its own sake.

  3. Additional goals: Introducing internal objectives beyond executive goals generates significant activity. These additional goals drive work, expanding the organization's activities to align with the newly defined objectives.

  4. Ambiguous goal setting: Unclearly defined goals create a vacuum of ambiguity, allowing activity to flourish without clear direction.

  5. Initiative: External performance needs typically stem from external factors, whereas internal initiatives naturally drive activity. While new initiatives may seem to facilitate execution, they often contribute to increased activity. It's essential to recognize that initiatives, such as introducing new forms, primarily serve the organization rather than the customer.

  6. Data processing: Each activity related to data collection, analysis, report generation, summarization, trend identification, and similar tasks amplifies activity levels. Additionally, the accompanying work required for explanations, introductions, and meetings related to these summaries constitutes further activity.

Managing activity escalation

There are numerous management tools designed to boost activity:

  1. Committee Establishment: Whether standing committees (professional, technical, planning, personnel, improvement and efficiency, culture, etc.) or ad hoc committees for specific purposes, committees stimulate activity. They serve as pivotal instruments within the mechanism for fostering increased activity. Furthermore, creating oversight committees to monitor other committees can exacerbate the situation. Any challenging issue can conveniently be deferred to a committee for examination and resolution, often leading to a collective forgetting of its original purpose.

  2. Meeting Proliferation: The frequency and duration of meetings increase with an employee's progression. The book presents a model illustrating how advanced organizational workers gradually transition from primarily execution-focused roles to spending more time in meetings, tea breaks, and overseas trips, particularly for senior management. Meetings are conduits for various topics, ranging from managerial deficiencies to procedural shortcomings. Interestingly, the number of meeting participants tends to escalate inversely proportional to the subject's significance.

  3. Surveys and Reports: Commissioning surveys and reports is a well-established tactic for generating activity. While initially intended to monitor performance, the emphasis has shifted to "report first, action later (if at all)," thereby transforming the essence of these endeavors into activity. An intriguing example from the book highlights the plethora of records and reports demanded from teachers, seemingly without any meaningful review or action based on them.

  4. Exercises and Training: Engaging in exercises and training without subsequent implementation epitomizes activity over execution, resulting in substantial effort expended with minimal tangible outcomes.

  5. Tours and Visits: Visiting other organizations symbolizes peak activity. Individual visits, group tours, reciprocal exchanges, and visits to neighboring units all contribute to the appearance of productivity.

  6. State-of-the-Art Equipment: Advocating for modern equipment is a fertile ground for development involving the selection, procurement, training, and ongoing utilization of such equipment. Additionally, social events and personal activities, often encroaching on work time, further contribute to activity for its own sake.

Facilitating boundary-changing activity

A final set of recommendations revolves around limits:

  1. Pushing the Boundary of Non-Performance: Increasing non-performance almost to the brink of consumer dissatisfaction elevates activity levels, stopping just short of triggering customer backlash.

  2. Expanding Internal Activity Boundaries at the Expense of Execution: Intensifying bureaucracy stretches the boundary of internal activity, often at the cost of efficient execution. This continues until the bureaucracy's burden on workers approaches exhaustion, stopping shy of instigating a strike.

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