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Balancing the Eco System

A human services agency internal eco system is a sophisticated enterprise and balancing the elements in the system so they efficiently support and complement each other is a delicate process. Think in terms of two dimensions I call diversity and scale. The diversity dimension addresses the number of dissimilar elements present in the eco system and the scale dimension addresses the number of similar elements. An agency’s internal eco system includes both dimensions. As we see in Figure 6 – by selecting one option from each column – we can represent the idea: high diversity and high scale, high diversity and low scale, low diversity and high scale, and low diversity and low scale. Keep Figure 6 in mind as we expand our discussion.

Diversity addresses the number of dissimilar elements in the enterprise. For example, SSI has units or departments for Executive Services, Fiscal Services, Administrative Services, Human Resources, Public Relations, Client Services, and others. These are dissimilar elements collectively populating the eco system. The more such elements there are, the more diverse the system.

Diversity extends to the next level within the eco system. For example, the secondary functions discussed above are each further divided into multiple sub-functions. Other services areas may be likewise divided into dissimilar elements thus compounding the diversity of the system. For example, client services might be divided into separate departments for assessment, counseling, and case management. Each of these may, in turn, be divided into separate units specializing with respect to particular clients or specific problem areas.

Scale addresses the number of similar elements in the eco system. For example, an agency with five counselors has lower scale with respect to the element than an agency with twenty counselors, assuming one counselor does more or less equivalent work to another counselor. An agency with ten case management units has higher scale with respect to the element than an agency with three case management units, assuming all case management units are more or less similar to each other.

The complexity of a system increases as scale increases. The complexity also increases as diversity increases. The point to see here is this. Large agencies have higher scale than smaller agencies, but may have lower diversity. Alternatively, small agencies have lower scale, but may have higher diversity than larger agencies. The conclusion is the diversity of an agency is not necessarily related to its size.

We attend carefully to scale within our agencies. It is important to allocate enough resources to each element within the system. Equally importantly, we avoid allocating more resources – people, facilities, services, equipment, etc. – to an element than minimally necessary to assure the success of the element. Resources are limited and must be allocated carefully and thoughtfully.

The point frequently overlooked is diversity must also be carefully and thoughtfully allocated. Individuals and organizations cannot function effectively if diversity is either too low or too high. For example, some SSI resources must be allocated to both Assessment Services and Case Management. Some resources must be allocated to Public Relations and Human Resources. This allocation process leads to diversity within the enterprise. The issue is what elements are necessary for the successful functioning of the eco system. Clearly, there is a minimum, necessary diversity.

At the same time, unnecessary diversity results in the system becoming excessively and unnecessarily complex. It becomes too cumbersome to effectively manage. At the extreme, diversity can expand to the level where virtually everything each person does is seen as unique and separate from everything done by anyone else in the agency. Everyone is a specialist and everything people do is specialized. If we do not attend carefully and thoughtfully to both diversity and scale and to the value associated with either increasing, both tend to increase more or less spontaneously over time. In the absence of competent Management, the complexity of the internal eco system tends to increase in terms of scale and diversity without a corresponding increase in either productivity or performance.

Just as each expenditure is carefully evaluated, each increase in diversity must be carefully examined. Just as expenditures – scale – are intentionally reduced to the minimum necessary for operational success, diversity should likewise be reduced to the minimum necessary for operational success. Excessive or unnecessary diversity is as ill considered and inappropriate as unnecessary scale. The optimal goal is always in the direction of lower diversity – lower scale.

Before we leave this discussion, a special area of what we can call diversity drift warrants some attention. There are many ways SSI cooperates or collaborates with other agencies and entities. Usually, these activities are routine and do not negatively affect the ongoing functioning of the SSI internal eco system. These activities may include consultation about specific clients, cooperative fund raising, participation in community planning, and so on. At times, these activities require commitment of significant resources, recurring SSI staff involvement, changes in how SSI manages particular clients or activities, and the like. When they start, the activities seem fairly miner and inconsequential. Over time, they expand and evolve into definable functions to which SSI has become committed. They represent a substantial demand on the resources and energy of SSI and strain the SSI internal eco system. The activities are themselves a new, unintended, identifiable element in the internal eco system. Diversity has increased and the internal eco system itself has to be adjusted, if the activities are to be sustained. This may require adjustments in Administrative Services, Fiscal Services, Human Resource Services, and so on. After the fact, we learn diversity drift is jeopardizing the entire internal eco system.

The message is to see diversity drift is a possible consequence of every unplanned activity, agreement to cooperate or collaborate, or sometimes by simply not saying No, when asked to do something outside of our routine. This does not mean we should refuse to cooperate or collaborate. Rather, it means diversity drift is real and we should be alert to those major and minor situations where inadvertently increasing diversity within the internal eco system is a potential outcome. Our decision to proceed should be made only after evaluating the potential costs and benefits of proceeding.

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