Organizations as open systems

Key to understanding the “ontology of government” is the empirical and theoretical challenge of understanding how organizations work. The activities of government encompass organizations across a wide range of scales, from the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles (40 employees) to the Department of Defense (861,000 civilian employees). Having the best understanding possible of how organizations work and fail is crucial to understanding the workings of government.

I have given substantial attention to the theory of strategic action fields as a basis for understanding organizations in previous posts (link, link). The basic idea in that approach is that organizations are a bit like social movements, with active coalition-building, conflicting goals, and strategic jockeying making up much of the substantive behavior of the organization. It is significant that organizational theory as a field has moved in this direction in the past fifteen years or so as well. A good example is Scott and Davis, Organizations and Organizing: Rational, Natural and Open System Perspectives (2007). Their book is intended as a “state of the art” textbook in the field of organizational studies. And the title expresses some of the shifts that have taken place in the field since the work of March, Simon, and Perrow (link, link). The word “organizing” in the title signals the idea that organizations are no longer looked at as static structures within which actors carry out well defined roles; but are instead dynamic processes in which active efforts by leaders, managers, and employees define goals and strategies and work to carry them out. And the “open system” phrase highlights the point that organizations always exist and function within a broader environment — political constraints, economic forces, public opinion, technological innovation, other organizations, and today climate change and environmental disaster.

Organizations themselves exist only as a complex set of social processes, some of which reproduce existing modes of behavior and others that serve to challenge, undermine, contradict, and transform current routines. Individual actors are constrained by, make use of, and modify existing structures. (20)

Most analysts have conceived of organizations as social structures created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specified goals. Given this conception, all organizations confront a number of common problems: all must define (and redefine) their objectives; all must induce participants to contribute services; all must control and coordinate these contributions; resources must be garnered from the environment and products or services dispensed; participants must be selected, trained, and replaced; and some sort of working accommodation with the neighbors must be achieved. (23)

Scott and Davis analyze the field of organizational studies in several dimensions: sector (for-profit, public, non-profit), levels of analysis (social psychological level, organizational level, ecological level), and theoretical perspective. They emphasize several key “ontological” elements that any theory of organizations needs to address: the environment in which an organization functions; the strategy and goals of the organization and its powerful actors; the features of work and technology chosen by the organization; the features of formal organization that have been codified (human resources, job design, organizational structure); the elements of “informal organization” that exist in the entity (culture, social networks); and the people of the organization.

They describe three theoretical frameworks through which organizational theories have attempted to approach the empirical analysis of organizations. First, the rational framework:

Organizations are collectivities oriented to the pursuit of relatively specific goals. They are “purposeful” in the sense that the activities and interactions of participants are coordinated to achieve specified goals….. Organizations are collectivities that exhibit a relatively high degree of formalization. The cooperation among participants is “conscious” and “deliberate”; the structure of relations is made explicit. (38)

From the rational system perspective, organizations are instruments designed to attain specified goals. How blunt or fine an instrument they are depends on many factors that are summarized by the concept of rationality of structure. The term rationality in this context is used in the narrow sense of technical or functional rationality (Mannheim, 1950 trans.: 53) and refers to the extent to which a series of actions is organized in such a way as to lead to predetermined goals with maximum efficiency. (45)

Here is a description of the natural-systems framework:

Organizations are collectivities whose participants are pursuing multiple interests, both disparate and common, but who recognize the value of perpetuating the organization as an important resource. The natural system view emphasizes the common attributes that organizations share with all social collectivities. (39)

Organizational goals and their relation to the behavior of participants are much more problematic for the natural than the rational system theorist. This is largely because natural system analysts pay more attention to behavior and hence worry more about the complex interconnections between the normative and the behavioral structures of organizations. Two general themes characterize their views of organizational goals. First, there is frequently a disparity between the stated and the “real” goals pursued by organizations—between the professed or official goals that are announced and the actual or operative goals that can be observed to govern the activities of participants. Second, natural system analysts emphasize that even when the stated goals are actually being pursued, they are never the only goals governing participants’ behavior. They point out that all organizations must pursue support or “maintenance” goals in addition to their output goals (Gross, 1968; Perrow, 1970:135). No organization can devote its full resources to producing products or services; each must expend energies maintaining itself. (67)

And the “open-system” definition:

From the open system perspective, environments shape, support, and infiltrate organizations. Connections with “external” elements can be more critical than those among “internal” components; indeed, for many functions the distinction between organization and environment is revealed to be shifting, ambiguous, and arbitrary…. Organizations are congeries of interdependent flows and activities linking shifting coalitions of participants embedded in wider material-resource and institutional environments.  (40)

(Note that the natural-system and “open-system” definitions are very consistent with the strategic-action-field approach.)

Here is a useful table provided by Scott and Davis to illustrate the three approaches to organizational studies:

An important characteristic of recent organizational theory has to do with the way that theorists think about the actors within organizations. Instead of looking at individual behavior within an organization as being fundamentally rational and goal-directed, primarily responsive to incentives and punishments, organizational theorists have come to pay more attention to the non-rational components of organizational behavior — values, cultural affinities, cognitive frameworks and expectations.

This emphasis on culture and mental frameworks leads to another important shift of emphasis in next-generation ideas about organizations, involving an emphasis on informal practices, norms, and behaviors that exist within organizations. Rather than looking at an organization as a rational structure implementing mission and strategy, contemporary organization theory confirms the idea that informal practices, norms, and cultural expectations are ineliminable parts of organizational behavior. Here is a good description of the concept of culture provided by Scott and Davis in the context of organizations:

Culture describes the pattern of values, beliefs, and expectations more or less shared by the organization’s members. Schein (1992) analyzes culture in terms of underlying assumptions about the organization’s relationship to its environment (that is, what business are we in, and why); the nature of reality and truth (how do we decide which interpretations of information and events are correct, and how do we make decisions); the nature of human nature (are people basically lazy or industrious, fixed or malleable); the nature of human activity (what are the “right” things to do, and what is the best way to influence human action); and the nature of human relationships (should people relate as competitors or cooperators, individualists or collaborators). These components hang together as a more-or-less coherent theory that guides the organization’s more formalized policies and strategies. Of course, the extent to which these elements are “shared” or even coherent within a culture is likely to be highly contentious (see Martin, 2002)—there can be subcultures and even countercultures within an organization. (33)

Also of interest is Scott’s earlier book Institutions and Organizations: Ideas, Interests, and Identities, which first appeared in 1995 and is now in its 4th edition (2014). Scott looks at organizations as a particular kind of institution, with differentiating characteristics but commonalities as well. The IBM Corporation is an organization; the practice of youth soccer in the United States is an institution; but both have features in common. In some contexts, however, he appears to distinguish between institutions and organizations, with institutions constituting the larger normative, regulative, and opportunity-creating environment within which organizations emerge.

Scott opens with a series of crucial questions about organizations — questions for which we need answers if we want to know how organizations work, what confers stability upon them, and why and how they change. Out of a long list of questions, these seem particularly important for our purposes here: “How are we to regard behavior in organizational settings? Does it reflect the pursuit of rational interests and the exercise of conscious choice, or is it primarily shaped by conventions, routines, and habits?” “Why do individuals and organizations conform to institutions? Is it because they are rewarded for doing so, because they believe they are morally obligated to obey, or because they can conceive of no other way of behaving?” “Why is the behavior of organizational participants often observed to depart from the formal rules and stated goals of the organization?” “Do control systems function only when they are associated with incentives … or are other processes sometimes at work?” “How do differences in cultural beliefs shape the nature and operation of organizations?” (Introduction).

Scott and Davis’s work is of particular interest here because it supports analysis of a key question I’ve pursued over the past year: how does government work, and what ontological assumptions do we need to make in order to better understand the successes and failures of government action? What I have called organizational dysfunction in earlier posts (link, link) finds a very comfortable home in the theoretical spaces created by the intellectual frameworks of organizational studies described by Scott and Davis.

Is the Xerox Corporation supervenient?

Supervenience is the view that the properties of some composite entity B are wholly fixed by the properties and relations of the items A of which it is composed (link, link). The transparency of glass supervenes upon the properties of the atoms of silicon and oxygen of which it is composed and their arrangement.

Can the same be said of a business firm like Xerox when we consider its constituents to be its employees, stakeholders, and other influential actors and their relations and actions? (Call that total field of factors S.) Or is it possible that exactly these actors at exactly the same time could have manifested a corporation with different characteristics?

Let’s say the organizational properties we are interested in include internal organizational structure, innovativeness, market adaptability, and level of internal trust among employees. And S consists of the specific individuals and their properties and relations that make up the corporation at a given time. Could this same S have manifested with different properties for Xerox?

One thing is clear. If a highly similar group of individuals had been involved in the creation and development of Xerox, it is entirely possible that the organization would have been substantially different today. We could expect that contingent events and a high level of path dependency would have led to substantial differences in organization, functioning, and internal structure. So the company does not supervene upon a generic group of actors defined in terms of a certain set of beliefs, goals, and modes of decision making over the history of its founding and development. I have sometimes thought this path dependency itself if enough to refute supervenience.

But the claim of supervenience is not a temporal or diachronic claim, but instead a synchronic claim: the current features of structure, causal powers, functioning, etc., of the higher-level entity today are thought to be entirely fixed by the supervenience base (in this case, the particular individuals and their relations and actions). Putting the idea in terms of possible-world theory, there is no possible world in which exactly similar individuals in exactly similar states of relationship and action would underlie a business firm Xerox* which had properties different from the current Xerox firm.

One way in which this counterfactual might be true is if a property P of the corporation depended on the states of the agents plus something else — say, the conductivity of copper in its pure state. In the real world W copper is highly conductive, while in W* copper is not-conductive. And in W, let’s suppose, Xerox has property P rather than P. On this scenario Xerox does not supervene upon the states of the actors, since these states are identical in W and W*. This is because dependence on the conductivity of copper makes a difference not reflected in a difference in the states of the actors.

But this is a pretty hypothetical case. We would only be justified in thinking Xerox does not supervene on S if we had a credible candidate for another property that would make a difference, and I’m hard pressed to do so.

There is another possible line of response for the hardcore supervenience advocate in this case. I’ve assumed the conductivity of copper makes a difference to the corporation without making a difference for the actors. But I suppose it might be maintained that this is impossible: only the states of the actors affect the corporation, since they constitute the corporation; so the scenario I describe is impossible.

The upshot seems to be this: there is no way of resolving the question at the level of pure philosophy. The best we can do is to do concrete empirical work on the actual causal and organizational processes through which the properties of the whole are constituted through the actions and thoughts of the individuals who make it up.

But here is a deeper concern. What makes supervenience minimally plausible in the case of social entities is the insistence on synchronic dependence. But generally speaking, we are always interested in the diachronic behavior and evolution of a social entity. And here the idea of path dependence is more credible than the idea of moment-to-moment dependency on the “supervenience base”. We might say that the property of “innovativeness” displayed by the Xerox Corporation at some periods in its history supervenes moment-to-moment on the actions and thoughts of its constituent individuals; but we might also say that this fact does not explain the higher-level property of innovativeness. Instead, some set of events in the past set the corporation on a path that favored innovation; this corporate culture or climate influenced the selection and behavior of the individuals who make it up; and the day-to-day behavior reflects both the path-dependent history of its higher-level properties and the current configuration of its parts.

(Thanks, Raphael van Riel, for your warm welcome to the Institute of Philosophy at the University of Duisburg-Essen, and for the many stimulating conversations we had on the topics of supervenience, generativity, and functionalism.)

The culture of an organization

It is often held that the behavior of a particular organization is affected by its culture. Two banks may have very similar organizational structures but show rather different patterns of behavior, and those differences are ascribed to differences in culture. What does this mean? Clifford Geertz is one of the most articulate theorists of culture — especially in his earlier works. Here is a statement couched in terms of religion as a cultural system from The Interpretation Of Cultures. A religion is …

(1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (90)

And again:

The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (5)

On its face this idea seems fairly simple. We might stipulate that “culture” refers to a set of beliefs, values, and practices that are shared by a number of individuals within the group, including leaders, managers, and staff members. But, as we have seen repeatedly in other posts, we need to think of these statements in terms of a distribution across a population rather than as a uniform set of values.

Consider this hypothetical comparison of two organizations with respect to employees’ attitudes towards working with colleagues of a different religion. (This example is fictitious.) Suppose that the employees of two organizations have been surveyed on the topic of their comfort level at working with other people of different religious beliefs, on a scale of 0-21. Low values indicate a lower level of comfort.

The blue organization shows a distribution of individuals who are on average more accepting of religious diversity than the gold organization. The weighted score for the blue population is about 10.4, in comparison to a weighted score of 9.9 for the gold population. This is a relatively small difference between the two populations; but it may be enough to generate meaningful differences in behavior and performance. If, for example, the attitude measured here leads to an increased likelihood for individuals to make disparaging comments about the co-worker’s religion, then we might predict that the gold group will have a somewhat higher level of incidents of religious intolerance. And if we further hypothesize that a disparaging work environment has some effect on work productivity, then we might predict that the blue group will have somewhat higher productivity.

Current discussions of sexual harassment in the workplace are often couched in terms of organizational culture. It appears that sexual harassment is more frequent and flagrant in some organizations than others. Women are particularly likely to be harassed in a work culture in which men believe and act as though they are at liberty to impose sexual language and action on female co-workers and in which the formal processes of reporting of harassment are weak or disregarded. The first is a cultural fact and the second is a structural or institutional fact.

We can ask several causal questions about this interpretation of organizational culture. What are the factors that lead to the establishment and currency of a given profile of beliefs, values, and practices within an organization? And what factors exist that either reproduce those beliefs or undermine them? Finally we can ask what the consequences of a given culture profile are in the internal and external performance of the organization.

There seem to be two large causal mechanisms responsible for establishment and maintenance of a particular cultural constellation within an organization. First is recruitment. One organization may make a specific effort to screen candidates so as to select in favor of a particular set of values and attitudes — acceptance, collaboration, trustworthiness, openness to others. And another may favor attitudes and values that are thought to be more directly related to profitability or employee malleability. These selection mechanisms can lead to significant differences in the overall culture of the organization. And the decision to orient recruitment in one way rather than another is itself an expression of values.

The second large mechanism is the internal socialization and leadership processes of the organization. We can hypothesize that an organization whose leaders and supervisors both articulate the values of equality and respect in the workplace and who demonstrate that commitment in their own actions will be one in which more people in the organization will adopt those values. And we can likewise hypothesize that the training and evaluation processes of an organization can be effective in cultivating the values of the organization. In other words, it seems evident that leadership and training are particularly relevant to the establishment of a particular organizational culture.

The other large causal question is how and to what extent cultural differences across organizations have effects on the performance and behavior of those organizations. We can hypothesize that differences in organizational values and culture lead to differences in behavior within the organization — more or less collaboration, more or less harassment, more or less bad behavior of various kinds. These differences are themselves highly important. But we can also hypothesize that differences like these can lead to differences in organizational effectiveness. This is the central idea of the field of positive organizational studies. Scholars like Kim Cameron and others argue, on the basis of empirical studies across organizational settings, that organizations that embody the values of mutual acceptance, equality, and a positive orientation towards each others’ contributions are in fact more productive organizations as well (Competing Values Leadership: Second Edition; link).

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