Texts on Longitudinal Thinking

Longitudinal Thinking : An Action Perspective

By Dr. Vinayshil Gautam

There is a differentiation between growth and development. Growth, as is recognized, consists of an increase in substance, usually manifested by a proliferation of the structures already present. It is essentially continuous and quantitative in character, but can proceed in the absence of new structures only up to a point. Development, as is agreed, consists of an increase in structure, which is manifested by emergence of new structural forms and very often has a qualitative character. This is of course in an organizational context. In the larger macro economic form, growth has been extended to cover areas of economic dimensions and more and is measured in terms of GDP. Development is a much wider concept and covers concepts of human welfare and ‘happiness quantum’ in certain cases. To get into that debate is not the purpose of this analysis but to provide the backdrop in which longitudinal thinking can be understood.

The present state, as defined by Vinayshil Gautam, is a result of the past state and the future state would be the result of the present state and the choices made today. This phenomenon is known as longitudinal thinking. Put simply longitudinal thinking helps

see the roots and antecedents of the present state of affairs and thereby strengthen the search for better solutions and better forms. Many have seen longitudinal thinking in terms of applied research and have talked of it as phenomena which cover repeated observations of the same items over long periods. There are some other definitions of longitudinal thinking and as D Mirrors and PH Frisen in his paper on Longitudinal Analysis of Organizations: A Methodological Perspective has talked of, it is “those techniques and methodologies and activities which permit the observation, description and/or classification of organizational phenomena in such a way that process can be identified and empirically documented”. Vinayshil Gautam believes that longitudinal thinking helps one to see the roots and impacting factors thereby helping to atomize the legacy variables. The advantage of this is that the legacy can be selectively decomposed into those elements which retard growth and those which accelerate growth. The elements which retard growth are to be eliminated and the elements which accelerate growth are to be strengthened. This means that any intervention for better preparation for the future can then integrate on to and be imbedded in what already exists. Operationally, longitudinal studies have been applied in many fields. In Sociology study of life events through life time help to generate a pattern. Longitudinal studies are particularly useful in understanding the nature of evolution and the critical points of change.

 There are people who have argued that there are different classes of longitudinal studies such as Cohort Study, Trend Study, Panel Study etc. Cohort Study requires subjects of a particular treatment being followed over a period of time and compared with another group who are not affected by the conditions under investigation. In Organizational Study, for example, people of same time length, education doing similar jobs could be a Cohort. This analysis requires measuring of some characteristics of one or more Cohorts at multiple points of time. In this manner, effects can be better mapped. This is about life history as mentioned earlier. In a Trend Study, information is generated about the aggregate net changes without manipulating the variable. Pre Electoral opinion polls are interesting illustration.

However, to find out the gross changes not to overlook the net changes, what is required is a Panel Study. This measures the same sample of respondents at various points of time. This is very useful for mapping shifting attitudes and changing patterns of behaviour.

Given the fact that change can be discontinuous in nature in organizations marked by a series of jumps from one level of organisation to the next, one has to be careful. Discontinuity here is referring to the sharpness of transition which results out of increase in scale.

Many would agree that amongst the pervasive problems confronted by present day organisations, number, increasing complexity, accelerated change, rapid technological advances, reliance on standardised strategies. Some organisations deal with this successfully, others crumble. Increasing complexity is difficult to scientifically analyse; accelerated change leaves people dazed; rapid technological advances call for high learning ability; standardisation does havoc to contextual factors.

Clearly such an organisation is a malfunctioning organisation. The symptoms quickly come to the fore. Employee spirits are blunted. Management struggles to keep going. Decision makers have problems of group identify and ego. Increasing number and uncertainty of crisis events leave several in the organisation with a sense of insecurity. There can be both genuine and studied helplessness. In an environment of declining performance and growing deterioration imaginative accounting is resorted to.

There is a need to recognise the positive organisations, systems and associations. There is a need to encourage the adaptive organisation that is open to ideas and perceptions also from the outside. One has to be alert to the present and likely future trends, learn from other's experiences and not convert oneself to an experimental menu. One has to be quick to respond, but restrained in reaction. Some of the major approaches to the management of organisations remain: Classical, Scientific, Behavioural, Socio-Technical, Operations Research Oriented, Information Systems Oriented, Systems Oriented and more. It may be unnecessary to swear by any one of them and sanguine to realise that all these approaches put together are what a situation requires. Ultimately the indicator of the modern times is variety and rapidity, and this needs flexibility coupled with a set of core values of integrity and non-malleability.

Resilience which is the ability to absorb and bounce back from external shocks is a permutation that has to go hand in hand with Homeostasis, which is the maintenance of constancy of the internal environment. The truth of life experience is symbolosis. For those who recognise this beautiful word would be aware that symbolosis is said to exist between two subsystems when neither can exist without the other. However, living systems have the capability of the decreasing entropy. One should, forever be a part of the growth and development process.

There is a need, as noted earlier, to recognise the distinction between processes of growth and development and have the ability to distinguish between the two. There are various sources of growth and they are very often cut short by a crisis or ellie of some variety. Illustratively, creativity is a source of growth. It is often terminated by a crisis of leadership. Ability to give direction is a source of growth. It is terminated by a crisis of autonomy. The answer lies, as already noted in the creation and strengthening of an adaptive organisation. This requires looking for organisations that encourage loosening up. It requires a search of organisations which variety and avoids strict controls. The challenge for such organisations would be in matching all this with a bottom line of standards and esconing it in an environment of quality. Anticipation of potential crisis in these organisations is matched by their pre-planned management. In this lies the essence of their capacity to cope with change.

Growth demands change and that is most effective when aided by longitudinal thinking. Environmental processes demand change, optimisation of technological variables demand change, emerging economic variables demand change, maintenance of position of excellence demands change, objectives demand change. In short, life itself demands change. Change comes because the structure of knowledge changes as do it's content. Attitudes need sharpening and behaviour needs modifications, just in the same way as cognitive systems require transformation. They all stand owned and disowned in various measures. Ultimately it is your funeral or salvation. You must learn to choose, choose consciously, choose wisely and be responsible for your choices. You must have learnt the technique of lateral thinking to enable all this. There is a need to recognise that there is a life beyond lateral thinking. There is a need to go beyond lateral thinking and also do longitudinal thinking.

Each one of us is a product of some heritage variables - our genes, our environmental conditioning, early childhood experiences. I have known of adults, who over thirty years of their adult life could not get themselves to learn how to close a lid, close a bottle or for that matter put a cap on any object. Such is the terrifying experience of the "inherited variable", which goes into making of all of us. Organisations are no different. The answer lies as pointed out and earlier in breaking down our variable of the tradition and fusing it with modern. The banal has to be rejected and positive retained.

The most important thing is to recognise the issue of the fusion of the modern and the traditional. To manage change is to register that neither modernity nor tradition, are any longer local phenomenon. In the era of globalisation, whether labour or capital travels or not, concepts certainly travel and have a universal dimension. This is natural because information revolution has strengthened and accelerated communication of ideas and concepts.

In view of the fact that, management is the art of the practitioner, globally people have been looking for ideas, which work, and strategies which produce results. The discipline itself is a quest for effectiveness. Gradually, it is being recognised that effectiveness as managers is rooted in effectiveness as persons just as much as effectiveness of the systems is rooted in the vibrant nature of the context. To contend with change, which is the law of life, is the basic issue, and this every human being faces. This every organisation faces. This requires special craft.

The human being faces fewer levels of change than what the manager does. 'Management Wisdom' is arrived at partly from empiricism & partly reinterpretation and application of the certain conventional disciplines in their scholastic traditions. As a system, Assyrian historical records, the Egyptian management practices, the Arab sophistication in decision making processes have a compendium of management strategies that have been periodically researched on and often eluded to, but rarely have they been built into a real world dynamic HRD architecture.

The charisma of the electronic revolution the dazzle of the armorial superiority of post industrial West & the sheer decisiveness of hard currency operations have made the protagonist of traditional wisdom not only defensive but at times apologetic. This has left both the modernists & the traditionalist somewhat isolated in watertight compartment in the world of management. Neither has been able to wield sufficient power in the absence of a synergistic integration. In the meantime, modernity itself has developed its own tradition and the modernity of tradition has similarly tendered to be overlooked.

There are number of situations which can be tricky in the quest of organizational effectiveness. For one, people often mouth opinion which they perhaps do not believe in nor understand, if not both. Hence using the same phenomena over a period of time for longitudinal analysis can be a problem. Similarly with the best of functions, the population which prospects in longitudinal analysis could change over a period of time. As B.C. Sutradhar in his text “Analysing Ordinal Longitudinal Survey Data : Generalize Estimating Equations Approach” says ‘one of the main goals of longitudinal survey is then to describe the marginal expectation of ordinal polytomous outcome variable as a function of covariates while accounting for the structural as well as longitudinal correlations. The structural correlations come from the polytomous nature of the response variable, and the longitudinal correlations from the repetition of the polytomous responses over time.’ Clearly the application of longitudinal thinking, as noted earlier, has been in large range of discipline and organizational study can be considerably enriched by drawing upon the lessons of its use elsewhere.

One thing that is clear is that in studying organizational issues, exclusive use of either quantitative tools or qualitative perspective will yield inconclusive results. The two have to be carried out together in tandem. The perspective of longitudinal thinking if carried out holistically will heighten many times, the range and depth of organizational analysis and thereby organizational effectiveness.


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“Longitudinal Study” Published in Wikkipedia,
Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longitudinal_study , Retrieved on December 3, 2010.