Designing for Organizational Effectiveness  

by Judith Heerwagen, J.H. Heerwagen & Associates
Kevin Kampschroer, Kevin V. Kelly and Kevin M. Powell, U.S. General Services Administration



The study of organizational effectiveness has long been the province of those in the management sciences. In recent years, however, workplace consultants and strategists have become increasingly interested in designing physical environments that promote organizational success. Although there are many ways to measure success, a number of factors consistently show up in effectiveness metrics. These include the following:

  • Achieving organizational mission
  • Product/service quality and value
  • Customer satisfaction
  • Capacity for innovation and creativity
  • Adaptation to organizational and technological change
  • Effective information sharing and communication
  • Employee attraction and retention
  • Effective group and individual work
  • Quality of work life
  • Developing partnerships and alliances
  • Operational efficiency
  • Image and branding

For any given organization, measures of effectiveness vary, depending upon its mission, environmental context, nature of work, the product or service it produces, and customer demands. Thus, the first step in evaluating organizational effectiveness is to understand the organization itself—how it functions, how it is structured, and what it emphasizes.

In this Resource Page, we explore two topics: 1) how models of organization can be used to identify effectiveness goals and measures and, 2) how new organizational analysis techniques can be used as part of the design process to generate solutions tailored to organizational business needs. In the final section we discuss a new U.S. General Services Administration program, WorkPlace 20·20, that aims to create strategic workplaces and evaluate their success using an organizational effectiveness framework.


Organizational Trends

Change and development in organizations is closely intertwined with technological advances and sociocultural changes. Most organizations in the early industrial period were highly bureaucratic with tightly prescribed ways of working. The bureaucratic organization still exists, but it is now joined by many other forms with different ways of working as well as different ways of relating to coworkers, customers, and competitors (Baker and Branch, 2002; Mohrman et al, 1998; National Research Council, 2001). See also WBDG The Changing Nature of Organizations, Work, and Workplace.

Metaphors for Organization

"Organization is always shaped by underlying images and ideas."
(G.Morgan, 1986, p. 343)

There are many ways to conceptualize and model organizations. One of the more interesting approaches, described by Gareth Morgan in his 1986 book, Images of Organization, uses metaphors to understand the key features of organizations and their consequences for effectiveness measures. Of the metaphors he discusses, three have high relevance for workplace design: "machine", "organism", and "brain".

The driving force for each metaphor is the external context in which the organization exists. It shapes the co-evolution of organizational form and function. For instance, is the environment stable and predictable? Or is it complex, rapidly changing, highly competitive, and turbulent? A stable environment favors a machine-like, bureaucratic organization. A complex and competitive environment favors an organic approach, while a turbulent, rapidly changing, extremely competitive environment favors an organization that acts like a brain.

Organizations in the industrial period had a highly mechanical, bureaucratic structure and functioning as described by the Machine metaphor. Beginning in the 1950's, organizations began to be show more features of the Organism metaphor largely due to concern that internal rigidity was maladaptive and could lead to competitive stagnation (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Scott, 1987). This concern coincided with the human relations movement in psychology and its emphasis on employee motivation, satisfaction, participation, and quality of work life (Weisbord, 1987). The organic model is commonplace today. An emerging form, one which resembles a brain in its structure and functioning, is associated with innovative, high-tech firms.

The features of these metaphors are described in Table 1 below. Although the table shows the models as discrete forms, actual organizations may combine features or be in a transition space between one model and another. For instance, many organizations follow the hierarchical model of the mechanical metaphor for decision making, but also integrate aspects of the human resource orientation of the organism model, including training programs, job enrichment, and participation. Furthermore, with the increasing interest in communication and collaboration (Heerwagen et al, 2004), even bureaucratic organizations, such as government agencies, are striving to design work systems and spaces that improve information flow and task work within and across groups.

Morgan suggests using the metaphors as a framework for reading the organizational context from different perspectives. What is the key organizing metaphor (e.g., what metaphor best fits the organization overall?) In what way is the organization like the other metaphors? What components or processes can be organized for efficiency? What does the organization need to do to survive in its environment? How is the organization like a cognitive system and how should it encourage learning and development for innovation?

The metaphoric approach enables a rich discussion of how the organization currently operates and how it views its future direction. Although Morgan's audiences are management and organizational development specialists, the approach is highly valuable also to workplace planning and design.

Table 1. Metaphors for Organization
(adapted from G. Morgan, I997. Images of Organization)

Key aspects of metaphor Network of parts arranged in a specific sequence; standardization of output Survival by adaptation to the environment; high attention to competition; operates as an open system Rapid and continual information processing; double loop learning, distributed memory, and knowledge
Environmental Context Stable, predictable Competitive and complex; rapid technological changes create new opportunities and challenges Turbulent, constant change, highly competitive; increased rate of technological change; high uncertainty
Key Organizational Concerns Command and control of process, information, and decisions to provide reliable output Concern with survival; need to better fit products/services to the environment; creativity and innovation are increasingly important Innovation, creativity are primary concerns; rapid response to market, internal learning, and high information flow to turn new ideas into outputs rapidly
Work processes characteristics Well defined jobs and tasks; codified processes; vertical decision-making; formalization of roles and responsibilities Increased communication and teamwork; commitment to experimentation; different approaches for different tasks; groups empowered to make decisions; importance of environmental scanning Self-organizing groups, redundancy of skills and functions to enable rapid accommodation to new ideas and information; highly collaborative; ideas emerge from all parts of the organization; action is inquiry-driven
Human relations orientation Low individual initiative; managers plan and think, workers implement; adherence to rules and regulations highly valued; high monitoring of performance Key concern is creating a motivated and empowered workforce; focus on job enrichment; participation, responsibility; democratization of work and decision processes; team players highly valued High individual initiative; individuals capable of acting on others' behalf due to redundant skills and knowledge; capacity to change points of view, argumentation and questioning highly valued
Key product/Service issues Efficiency, stability, timeliness, replicability of output Increased productivity, work quality; external positioning; improving competitive capacity Cutting edge output, creativity, continuous stream of new products/services

Organizational Effectiveness and the Workplace

The idea of designing a workplace to support organizational effectiveness is not a new idea. Many workplace experts have written on the topic (Horgen et al, 1999; Becker and Steele, 1995; Duffy, 1997). Nonetheless little evidence of linkages exists, beyond isolated case studies.

Furthermore, current workplace research tends to address a limited number of topic areas (such as ambient conditions) and a limited number of outcomes (particularly occupant comfort and perceptions). There is much less attention paid to group and organizational level processes and outputs. In many instances the research agenda is unconnected to organizational strategy and goals, but rather reflects the interests of the researcher. In the academic world, researchers are often more interested in developing and testing theory than in understanding whether the workplace supports organizational needs and goals (Cooper, 2001).

However, there is clear interest in fashioning a new agenda for workplace research, as evidenced by the Environmental Design Research Association's workplace network group (EDRA, 2005) and other professional groups with a similar focus on understanding how workplace design can influence organizational success.

Even though there is an increasing interest in designing with organizational effectiveness in mind, methods for doing so are still in their infancy. Furthermore, knowledge about organizational life produced by decades of research is rarely incorporated into the overall discovery and design processes. This knowledge remains the province of organizational and management scientists and consultants. GSA's WorkPlace 20·20 program is an exception.

What is WorkPlace 20·20?

WorkPlace 20·20 is a process and methodology for linking workplace-making to organizational business goals and strategy. Key components are organizational analysis, design concept development, design implementation, and project evaluation. The following description of WorkPlace 20·20 is derived from a recent article by Kampschroer and Heerwagen that appeared in Building Research and Information in 2005.

Organizational Context Analysis

The client engagement process begins with an analysis of the organizational context. The topics covered in the organizational assessment are similar to those shown in Table 1. Discussions, exercises, and interviews are used to translate insights about the organization into design themes and concepts. The analysis is done by a multidisciplinary team including workplace strategists, organizational scientists, and designers.

An initial visioning session and synthesis of information is organized around the Balanced Scorecard organizational measurement system (Kaplan and Norton, 1999). The BSC then forms the basis for the link between workplace design and organizational effectiveness.

Design Concept Development

Information from the organizational analysis contributes to the evolution and prioritization of design concepts using a charrette-like process. Members of the research teams also take part in providing knowledge about existing research findings relevant to the workplace design. The charrette results in a design direction and key concepts that are carried forward in design development.

Workplace and Organizational Evaluation

The evaluation process includes both pre- and post-measurement and incorporates both core methods used across projects as well as specific measures developed in each project to assess links to organizational effectiveness using the Balanced Scorecard (BSC) (Kaplan and Norton, 1996).

The Balanced Scorecard is used in two ways: First, the WorkPlace 20·20 team uses it to initiate discussion about the organization. For instance, questions address its mission, internal and external constraints, customer focus, work organization, employee learning and growth, cultural characteristics, and valued skills and knowledge. This step in the process generates information similar to that shown in Table 1.

The second use of the BSC is in developing a research plan that links the workplace to the business goals and success measures. This includes the development of a "strategy map" and a measurement matrix. A matrix for one of the current projects, the GSA Public Buildings Service office in Chicago, is shown in Table 2 below. The Xs in the Table show the BSC domain for each measure. The four domains are customer service, business process, human capital, and financial.

The key organizational goal addressed in this matrix is "improved understanding of customer needs." Creating the matrix involves a series of discussions to identify the kinds of behavioral and work process changes that are necessary to lead to improvements in customer understanding. Once these changes are identified, the WorkPlace 20·20 team and client begin to identify workplace design strategies that support the behavioral and process changes. And finally, the group identifies measures to assess whether the workplaces has lead to improvements in this particular organizational effectiveness goal. The project is currently in construction. A post-occupancy evaluation will be conducted after move in.

Table 2. Matrix for the Strategic Goal:
"Improve Understanding of Customer Needs"

Desired Change Workplace Strategy Measures CS* BP HC F
Better project integration and coordination across groups Reduce visual and spatial barriers within and between groups

Provide more space for meeting and interaction
Communication and interaction patterns (observation and survey)

Customer service surveys

More sharing of customer knowledge Provide centralized project files to encourage information sharing and an integrated knowledge of project status

Provide dedicated project spaces to track progress
Time to complete projects

Space utilization

Customer service surveys



Improve internal flexibility Provide more flexible infrastructure and furnishings to support work practice changes Spatial change and adaptation over time   X X X

(*CS = customer service, BP = business process, HC = human capital, F = financial)

Creating a Linked Mechanisms Map

One factor that distinguishes WorkPlace 20·20 research from other studies is the use of a rigorous technique for connecting physical aspects of the environment to changes in behavior or processes. The linked mechanism technique (Wyon, 1996) creates a logic model that is used to select research measures and to test hypotheses. An example of a linked mechanism model is shown in Figure 1. This map was developed for a project emphasizing improved information flow and knowledge integration.

Example of a Linked Mechanism Map showing the links between circulation, openness, proximity, and group spaces; Modified by culture, organizational structure, and organizational policies

Figure 1. Example of a Linked Mechanism Map

Some Preliminary Findings from Pilot Projects

The majority of WorkPlace 20·20 projects have not been completed, so firm post-occupancy results are not available. Nonetheless, findings to date suggest several organizationally-relevant outcomes that have been generated by the client engagement process.

One consistent benefit of the process is the self understanding gained by organizations as they reflect on what they do and why, especially when it is not forced upon them as part of an externally driven need for reorganization. As noted by a manager for one of the pilot organizations:

"I believe the approach and methodology that the WorkPlace 20·20 effort is applying offers and extremely valuable tool for organizations to better determine who they are, how they interact and identify arrangements that facilitate a positive workplace space arrangement. Could we have come up with a similar arrangement without going through the 20|20 process? Maybe. For the little bit of effort we were required to put into supporting the 20|20 studies, we reaped far greater gains in understanding and appreciating the complexity and total involvement of the entire Division in our core business processes. This may be an intangible benefit that provides a better perspective to our entire Division on how important each and everyone's job is to carrying out our mission."
– J. Kaplan, 2004; pers comm.

The examination of mission and business goals led another WorkPlace 20·20 organization to rethink all of its sites, rather than focusing on just the initial pilot location. As a result of the organizational analysis, the client assessed the inter-dependencies of related teams located elsewhere in the area. This led to a reexamination of all organizational links. The organizational benefits included avoidance of unnecessary renovation costs, reduced spatial needs, better accommodation for their call center, and a long-term plan that has the potential for further organizational improvements.

Another benefit for many organizations is the ability to visualize previously "hidden" work practices and relationships. Many everyday activities are routine and institutionalized and therefore not consciously experienced. While this is often perceived as the way to do things efficiently, the opposite is also true. Routines often develop to "work around" constraints in the environment. For instance, one workplace consulting team identified numerous old and unsolved problems that were considered normal work practices, but which ultimately interfered with the desire for groups to work more effectively together. Once these were identified, the client and workplace consulting team were able to identify new ways of working and new environmental supports.

In another example, WorkPlace 20·20 methods helped one client gain a better understanding of conflicts between behaviors that supported individual work and those which supported learning. In this particular agency, learning through experience and interaction was highly valued. Yet the behaviors that supported learning—talking, asking questions, giving advice—were considered a nuisance and distraction to individual work. The conflict was solved in the current workplace by creating barriers that kept others at bay, thereby reducing distractions. However, the barriers also reduced the potential for informal interaction to support learning and information flow. Once the conflict was identified and discussed, the group was able to move toward the development of solutions that more effectively supported both behavioral needs.

These preliminary findings show that organizational benefits can emerge not only from the end product (a new space), but also from the process of reflection that occurs during the organizational analysis.

As results from WorkPlace 20·20 pilot projects  become available, this Resource Page will be updated to disseminate key findings and lessons learned.

Additional Resources


  • The Balanced Scorecard by Kaplan, R.S. and D.P. Norton. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.
  • The Changing Nature of Work: Implications for Occupational Analysis by National Research Council, Committee on Techniques for Enhancement of Human Performance: Occupational Analysis. Washington DC: National Academy Press, 2001.
  • "Collaborative Knowledge Work Environments" by J.H. Heerwagen, K. Kampschroer, K.M. Powell, and V. Loftness. In Building Research & Information, 32(6):510-528, 2004.
  • "Concepts Underlying Organizational Effectiveness: Trends in the Organization and Management Science Literature" by K. Baker and K. Branch. In Managing Science as a Public Good: Overseeing Publicly-Funded Science, E.L. Malone, K.M. Branch, and K.A. Baker (eds). 2002. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Excellence By Design: Transforming Workplace and Work Practice by T.H. Horgen, M.L. Joroff, W.L. Porter, and D.A. Schon. New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998.
  • Images of Organization by G. Morgan. Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1986.
  • In Search of Excellence by T.J. Peters, and R.H. Waterman, Jr. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
  • "Indoor Environmental Effects on Productivity" by D. Wyon. In Proceedings of IAQ '96: Paths to Better Building Environments. Oct. 6-8, Baltimore, MD: 1996.
  • The New Office by F. Duffy. London, UK: Conron Octopus, 1997.
  • Organizations: Rational, Natural, and Open Systems by R.W. Scott. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1987.
  • Productive Workplaces: Organizing and Managing for Dignity, Meaning and Community by M.R. Weisbord. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1987.
  • "The Strategic Workplace: Development and Evaluation" by K. Kampschroer and J.H. Heerwagen. In Building Research & Information. In press.
  • Tomorrow's Organization by S. Mohrman, J.A. Galbraith, E.E. Lawler III, and Associates. San Francisco. CA: Jossey Bass, 1998.
  • Workplace by Design: Mapping the High-Performance Workscape by F. Becker and F. Steele. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1995.