The Organizational-Activity Game as a Method of Collaborative Planning and Problem Solving in the Former Soviet UnionArticles by Robert E. Howell, Irena G. Postalenko and Dmitri M. Rabkine
Collaborative planning and problem solving is growing in popularity as a means of bringing diverse groups of stake-holders together to work on the resolution of complex public problems where there is potential for controversy. These methods have been used both in the resolution of potentially contentious and difficult community problems (Strauss, 1993) and natural resource disputes (Walker and Daniels, 1994). This paper reports on a method of collaborative planning and problem solving that was uniquely developed in the former
During a roughly 20-year period of rapid social and economic change in the former Soviet Union that preceded the period of perestroika launched by the Communist Party General Secretary Michael Gorbachov during the latter part of the 1 980s—a period which has been characterized as a “revolution ofthe mind” by Russian scholar Blair Ruble (1993), significant developments were occurring associated with the development of a unique method of collaborative planning and problem solving. Known as the Organizational-Activity Game (OAG) or igra (translated from Russian into English as “game”), the purpose of the effort was (1) to examine individual and collective thinking activity, (2) to provide participants with an opportunity for thinking more clearly and expressing what is on their minds, and (3) to transform the thoughts of individuals concerning pressing issues or problems in an organization or society into collective thinking activity.
The work on collaborative planning and problem solving in Russia has many parallels to philosophical and theoretical work which underlies collaborative learning recently proposed for planning and problem solving in complex organizations by the Director of MIT’s Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning Program, Professor Peter M. Singe (1990), and applied to the resolution of environmental problems by Walker and Daniels (1994) and the resolution of community problems by Strauss (1993), also see Himmelman (1994). Additionally, given the growing interest in
The research upon which this paper is based used a multiple methods strategy. The American author of the paper collected information while serving as a participant-observer in two organizational-activities games and through an extended period of joint research with Russian specialists in the field. The Russian authors of the paper all had first-hand experiences with the development and application of the OAG in
The American author was first introduced to the OAG when a Russian specialist in the method, Dr. Sergei V. Popov of
In the fall of 1991, a second and related group of Russians again came to the
During the 1993-94 academic year, the American author went to
Another part of the methodology was jointly teaching both
The final step planned for the research process was to attend at least one organizational activity game conducted in
Lastly, the authors were informed about the method through a review of related research and information about the OAG published in English. Fortunately for the American author, an American scholar (a professor of geography at the
A second paper written in English about the OAG was authored by two Russian leaders in the field, G.E. Shchedrovitskii and S.P. Kotel’Nikov (1988). This article provided a concise overview of the method and discussed its history as well as different types of applications. Several parts of this paper are based upon information provided by Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.). Reviewing descriptions of the OAG written in English served to clarify misunderstandings by the American author, and provided additional insights into the method.
The history of the organizational activity game goes back to 1953 when a group of Soviet philosophers, mostly at
Members of the MMC were well educated in the European tradition of philosophy, including the work of Hegel, Kant, the early Greek philosophers, and Marx. They were particularly influenced by Hegel’s theory of reflection (see Houglate, 1995; Behler, 1990: 82; and Loewenber, G., 1965:50-54) and the Marxist theory of activity (Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, op. cit.). According to Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.), from 1952-1960 the methodologists worked on epistemological issues in the theory of thought. Secondly, from 1961 through 1971 they worked on developing a general theory of activity. Thirdly, from 1971 on they worked on what was called a “systemic thinking activity approach” and the development of the “general structure of methodology”. The OAG was developed as a special applied form of their work on the organization of collective thinking and thinking activity.
An important theoretical foundation in the development of the organizational activity game was the work of the methodologists on general systems theory, the theory of cognition, and related topics. Some of this early work was translated by an American scholar noted for his work on systems theory, Professor Anatol Rapoport, and published in the journal General Svstems (Shchedrovitskii, 1977). Additionally, the methodologists were influenced by the sociometry of J.L. Moreno (Moreno, 1950 and 1951; see also Northway, 1952). The work of Moreno provided many of the scientific methods used by the methodologists, and influenced their use of symbolism to represent social activity within a system being addressed in an organizational activity game as well as the relationships which developed among participants within the game.
Another important foundational component to the research of the methodologists was their involvement as leaders in the practice of conducting multi-disciplinary seminars at many universities in the former
The multidisciplinary seminars were extremely enlightening for everyone involved. They were a totally new and liberating phenomenon in Soviet society. They also helped the methodologists as well as the participants better understand the “organization of multi-subject thinking,” and how to coordinate “knowledge from different subjects into a unified configuration.”
The university-based seminars provided a positive experience that was compelling for testing in settings outside of an academic setting. According to Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov (op. cit.) the period 1976 through July of 1979 was a transitional period in the development of the OAG. Here the methodologists began to apply the tactics used in what they called “intellectual-methodological games” conducted in university settings to “practical learning games” that were carried on outside of the university among athletes of the voluntary athletics associations of trade unions (op. cit:, 61). This gave them insight into the difficulties of training people to undertake tasks requiring a high level of skill and understanding. It also provided an opportunity to leap from academia to application in the real world of problems in society.
At this point it should again be stressed that significant economic and social changes were occurring in the former Soviet Union, which included an increase in the quantity and quality of education for the Soviet population as a whole as well as a greater differentiation of the Soviet work force (Ruble, op. cit.: 342-245). There was also a growing awareness among Communist Party leaders that there were significant lags in the productivity of the command economy and the need for substantial improvements. In this setting, the methodologists decided to apply their work to the resolution of practical problems in society. The first opportunity was in July of 1979, when they embarked upon responding to a proposal for “developing a range of consumer goods for the Ural region.” This situation gave them an ideal opportunity for “designing and testing a new, complex and systemic organizationalformror team thinking activity aimed at dealing with a complex economic problem” (Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov, op. cit.: 62). The methodologists could now create an organizational activity game in an actual setting involving participants who were faced with a need to take action on real problems in society.
It should also be noted that during this period business games were becoming very popular in the former
Shchedrovitskii and Kotel’Nikov actually refer to the period before the game held in the Ural region as the pre-history of the organizational activity game, with the period that followed providing the methodologists with the challenge of consciously creating a “new organizational form of thinking activity” (op. cit., 63). It was during this period that the methodologists developed the principles, design features, and techniques for conducting the organizational activity game.
Principles, Design Features and Techniques as Developed for the Ural Region and Subsequent OAGs
Out of a problem situation in which a client, in this case a government official who is responsible for production of the command economy in the Ural region, was faced with a complicated situation of not knowing exactly how to best achieve the target set forth in the production plan, the methodologists developed their game strategy. The situati