7 min read
26 Oct



Perhaps the most powerful tool available for organizations in dealing with chronic conflicts is conflict resolution systems design.



The exciting field of DSD (dispute system design) brings the practical and measurable  benefits to various fields of conflict, and this essay considers what DSD is, how it should be made applicable to various South African conflicts (with an emphasis on workplace conflict), and what direct benefits we can derive from this innovation. 


Amler, Martinez and Smith (conflict researchers who are doing exemplary work in the field of DSD) define and explain DSD as follows: The phrase “dispute system design” (DSD) applies to both the product of design (the noun DSD) and the activity of designing a system for preventing, managing, and resolving conflicts and legally framed disputes (the verb to do DSD). DSD covers systems within all types of organizations: business firms, non-profit organizations, international and transnational bodies, systems that entail conflict in governance, and public agencies or organizations. It also covers systems designed by groups of people who form social associations or organizations by reason of proximity, shared religion or ethnicity, professional affiliation, or other shared interests in community. In summarised form, DSD is “the applied art and science of designing the means to prevent, manage and streams of disputes or conflict”. As these authors indicate, DSD is a new discipline, the result of skills and ideas from a variety of professional fields. These fields include conflict management, political science, HR, psychology, social sciences, law, business management and others. 

In its best form, DSD is a catalyst for innovation, across private, public, non-profit and community groups, that can shape and guide us in how we address and manage conflict constructively, that can aid in integration, and help us understand and apply “power with” instead of “power over”. It can educate, implement and maintain a practical approach, particularly in the workplace, of having not less conflict, but better conflict, where instead of costly and destructive conflict parties measurably gain from inevitable conflict and prevent or limit unnecessary or harmful conflict. It has its roots in the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) field, particularly the labour-management conflicts of the last two or three decades,  and manages to build and expand the best ideas excavated from those studies and praxis. It has general conflict principles, appropriately integrated with the specific field of intended application (say the specific business area or industry, education or political arena), and this focus then leads to the use of optimal systems and processes for that field. Its current main field of research and application remains the business world, but interesting and valuable work is being done in the field of NGO’s and government departments. 


In its original and most popular forms DSD include conflict systems designed for employers to manage conflicts that are ripe for resolution, such as union disputes and negotiations, internal disciplinary processes. William Ury and others started to include workplace mediation in these systems, with inspiring success. More recent additions to these conflict tools include an added focus on the prevention or reduction of conflicts at their root causes and triggers, using conflict tools designed for the specific employer, including grievance mediation, interest based approaches as opposed to rights based focus, and it tends to move conflict and dispute resolution internally, with an appropriate level of skills transfer, with attendant and measurable time, cost and productivity outcomes. This in itself makes DSD an absolute essential management tool. Current developments include the use of organizational development theories in DSD, which leads to even more integrated conflict management systems, with interesting work being done in customer conflicts, an internal ombudsman and other remedies. 


The MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program, as an example of one set of researchers, make use of fairness, efficiency, stability and wisdom as operating principles for such a dedicated DSD program. Fairness relates directly to the processes involved, efficiency relates to profitability and the system being commercially viable, and so on. An efficient workplace conflict system and dispute resolution management approach will deliver these outcomes, and also see to it that workplace conflict is managed in a modern and measurably efficient manner, within the resource capabilities and brand goals of that business or organization. Incontrovertible evidence, globally and locally, support the evidence that justice, in the wide sense of the word, shapes a society as well as the more immediate environment, such as a business. Amartya Sen, for instance, defines justice as “the lives that people manage-or do not manage-to live” or “a realized actuality”. People will simply not perform optimally or support businesses, systems and processes that they regard as being unfair or not supporting justice in this sense. 

CONTROL OVER THE DESIGN OF DSD – a few important considerations 

Our experience globally and nationally show that management and traditional leadership structures invariably take the initiative to have these conflict systems designed. This is so as a result of a variety of understandable reasons, such as management in a business benefiting from such systems, a more focused and resourced focus and so on. This is a trend that we believe will continue, and there is absolutely nothing to be concerned about with management taking, and continuing to take an active lead in getting these systems designed, implemented and functional. There are however two important considerations to weigh in the question of a possible or partial sharing of power in the actual designing and managing of these conflict systems. Firstly, such de facto power sharing in the designing of such a system may, at least in part, be a legislative requirement, such as we are already seeing in the consultation and design processes made compulsory by the Workplace Harassment Policies (with effect as from March 2022). Secondly, people may not be willing to grant a conflict system any legitimacy and acceptance if they did not, at least at some level, participate in at least the processes and outcomes sections of such a system. If there is no trust in the system people may choose not to use such a system. 


In its strongest forms, DSD involves important stakeholders in business or other group concerns, such as relevant service providers, communities etc. It can be built around dynamic requirements of local culture and diversity, and it provides management with an effective tool to turn workplace conflict into an asset, designed to aid, steer and grow the actual business and brand goals. Structures and processes can be designed so as to reflect current and future goals and aims, divergent interests can be reconciled without compromising on standards or industry requirements, and a graded approach to conflict can cut down on costs and time spent in rigid and outdated disciplinary processes. 

Employees and various levels of management teams can be trained and coached how to deal with certain levels of conflict by themselves, and the direct and indirect results and consequences of workplace conflict can be managed in this modern way. New conflict tools, such as structured negotiation, various levels of mediation, conciliation, arbitration, conflict coaching, targeted mentoring, and community interaction and so on would become available to management in a structured, measurable manner. 

Full integration with existing IT and other information systems, supply chain management and management teams are not just accidental occurrences, but actual parts of the design of a proper DSD. Decision makers retain full control over the allocation of resources to such system, and existing components of it (say certain disciplinary processes) can be retained with or without small amendments. These dispute systems can be expanded to train and manage staff to deal with customer complaints, social media criticism and brand management, certain interactions with service providers and so on. It is an extremely modern and efficient tool to derive benefit from workplace conflict. 


What would such a DSD process entail? While the field is a new one and efficient knowledge to design and implement such a DSD is, at least at this stage, still a rare skill and not one that we would advise be done by inexperienced conflict practitioners, there is every expectation that, with the growing popularity of DSD this will change over time, with more options becoming available. An efficient DSD should not be a Google project, and designed specifically for a business, group or community. Such a DSD can however, even at this stage, become a fully transferable and internally run system (that is part of the attraction and efficiency of it), and management can decide, on an ongoing basis, what functions of such a system should be handed to external consultants, if and where necessary. 

Such a process of design would begin with a Conflict Stream Assessment (CSA), which identifies causes and triggers of conflict that play a role in the management and efficient running of the organization, it identifies wasted cost and underperforming areas affected by such direct or indirect conflicts, and assesses the most efficient remedy for such situation, all done in an integrated, measurable and manageable system that provides for every possible detail needed to run such a system, from training, reporting, accountability and management, and from monitoring to flexibility and dynamic contingencies. Where necessary such a system will create and integrate systems and protocols necessary for the efficient running of the DSD, including templates, software and process manuals for interviews, hearings, mediations and so on. 

An important part of a DSD is its evaluation component, and the correct designing of the system will build into the system sufficient and management approved checks and balances, data collection mechanisms and other variables so as to make it an easily navigable and measurable tool in the hands of selected management individuals or levels, as well as selected stakeholders and outsiders, as we have discussed above. 

Outcomes and important decision drivers such as conflict areas, time and cost spent on various processes, outcomes, alternatives and options, constraints and accountable agents impeding progress, perceptions and so on are all designed into the system, so that management ends up with a real, structured and consistent advanced management tool. Levels of confidentiality, privacy and access can of course be designed into such a system, and altered as circumstances require, again as part of such a system. Accountability and report levels, including who gets access to what type of considerations and responsibility can also be included as needed, as can ongoing training and provision for variable outcomes or different scenarios anticipated by larger management strategic considerations. 

This can, in addition to being an indispensable management tool, also be of enormous strategic advantage during more overt conflict situations such as litigation, CCMA or bargaining council disputes, strikes, lockouts, retrenchment consultation processes and so on. 


The new field of DSD has earned its keep globally to the extent that, for all its relative newness, it is now a recognized as an important part of conflict management, especially at workplace level. Countries, large global corporations and academic institutions have accepted the principle and are working at it, and DSD will become mainstream in the foreseeable future. In South Africa the correct and focused application of DSD is still in infancy, but with some important inroads and developments already taking place. We have designed and implemented several such systems nationally, and in our view the concept of DSD is really inarguable, with just the details that should be debated. It removes several of the outdated workplace conflict causes and triggers and turns the expense and unpleasantness of workplace conflict into a source of growth and progress, all the while doing so in a measurable and manageable way. Everyone benefits from a properly run DSD, and it directly addresses several of our current South African problems and challenges, from diversity to productivity, from inequality to accountability, and whatever other dynamics that a group may need.  

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

October 2022

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