Book Notes & Thoughts: Organization Theory

org theory

Over the last few days, I read a textbook. And if I’m honest, I loved it. Graduate school continues to feel like a privilege and a luxury, to learn about ideas that I find interesting, do engaging and meaningful work with teachers and other researchers, and try my best to write in a way that captures my thinking.

I remember a high school English teacher telling me that the easiest (and therefore worst) way to write a summary is to do so chronologically: “And then, and then, and then.” It’s the easiest to write, because it’s also the easiest way to understand. This is what I needed to wrap my head around organization theory, which I want to use for the conceptual framework for my dissertation.

This book, Organization Theory, by Mary Jo Hatch, gave me an entry point into the scope of study, both chronologically (from classical, modern, symbolic/interpretive, to post-modern) and topically (core concepts, decision making, power, politics, change, and learning). Not only did this give me an entry point into this field, but it also allowed me to see where my interests are. What does thinking about schools through the lens allow me to see, understand, and say? And of course, how do I limit my view by seeing it through these theories?

Classical period, 1900 onward; Modern, 1950s onward; Symbolic/Interpretive, 1980s onward; Post-Modern, 1990s onward. Theory = a system of ideas; Social theory = a perspective on reality.

Modernist organizational theorists believe that theory is our current best explanation for empirical observations. The role of scientists is thus to test, refine, or eliminate theories. There is a “truth” to how organizations work, and we need to derive this empirically. In this perspective, the organization is an object to be measured, analyzed, and compared. The problem with this is that there is no way to disprove a social theory. For examples, there is no objective “better”. There is no objectivity, perhaps because we are part of the system we are attempting to study.

  • contingency theory
  • resource dependence theory
  • population ecology

In contrast, symbolic/interpretivists believe that there is no natural law – everything is a matter of social convention: how we define better, what our goals are, what we take into account in our analysis. In this case, an organization is a subject whose meanings must be understood.

  • institutional theory – consideration of how the organization is adapting to its institutional context; Foregrounding the social and cultural processes by which organizations become institutions.

In terms of culture, the symbolic/interpretivists see it as as the context for meaning making and interpretation, whereas modernists see it as a variable to adjust or change.

Post-modernists challenge the grand narrative of universal truths about the world. This denies the search for one best way and prioritizes how we perceive our construction of the world. The world and our knowledge of it is instead seen as fragmented. The challenge here is to look at who benefits, problematize power, give voice to silence, and practice self-reflexivity.

Hatch presents the root of organization theory in the division of labor, during the industrial revolution. There are questions as to how we consider organizations in post-industrial society.

To take a systems perspective, based in Boulding’s hierarchy, organizations are seen as more complex than humans, so their complexity “supersedes and over overwhelms our own” (p.37). Therefore must always approach phenomena as nested systems, using language like embeddedness or levels of analysis.

One key idea I want to try to remember is “bounded rationality” (Simon, 1957, 1959), which is the idea that people make decisions with limited information, about complex problems, have human information-processing capacities, have limited time available, and have conflicting preferences toward organizational goals.

Hatch cites Czarniawska-Jorges’ work on control from a post-modernist perspective, that we need to be conscious of control vs. autonomy. Autonomy offers flexibility and creativity, but also chaos; control offers predictability, but also constrains. I think this is a really interesting tensions in collaborative design work. Further, whereas Marxists see ideology as controlling, Czarniawska-Jorges sees ideology as a “medium through which people make history as conscious actors,” and ideology becomes a vehicle for change.

On the topic of change and learning, classical organization scholars look for stability, whereas there has been a more recent movement towards dynamic, or change-centered, perspectives. Social construction (Weick) is inherently dynamic because organizations are continually being reproduced through enactment. This is represented by the shift from seeing organizations a static objects to organizing as a verb.

Change asks the question for where the agency is for change, whether it is planned by someone or emergent from the system. Modernists talk about Lewin’s model (unfreezing, change, freezing) and the Big Three model. Symbolic/interpretivists begin with culture. Schein wrote about culture as the assumptions, values, and artifacts of the organization. Gagliardi wrote about apparent change, revolutionary change, and cultural incrementalism. Hatch also included her model of cultural dynamics, where culture is a process of interrelations amongst values, assumptions, artifacts, and symbols.

Post-modernist views of change look at power, autonomy, and creativity. Typically power is seen in terms of oppression or domination, but there is also a call to see it as an opportunity for freedom and innovation (p. 368). The key to this is the importance of the discourse we use. Interestingly, Hatch then links to the work of Peter Senge, who I just got to hear at the Carnegie Summit a few weeks ago, in terms of the importance of learning and reflexivity (seeing ones own place in the system, or application of a process to oneself). His work is about needing to tap into the commitment and capacity for learning at all levels.

I have previously written about the work of Argyris and Schon, Theory in Practice, and use their ideas about theory of action and double-loop learning quite often. I liked Hatch’s take on them, that they approach this from a modernist perspective of seeing the technical systems of stimulus-response, like their analogy of the thermostat. In contrast, the symbolic/interpretivist perspective would be that these are social systems with symbolic aspects. For instance, Weick claims that most organization learning conceptions are built on this stimulus-response paradigm, but what about the learning from actions and outcomes? (p.375) We should consider that perhaps the learning of an organization can be seen in the domains of knowledge, language, and interpretation. In other words, how do the talk and text of an organization reproduce it? I think there is something of interest here, but I’m not quite sure how to proceed. I guess I have more to read!

Follow up reading:

  • Leavitt & March, Organizational Learning
  • Senge, Fifth Discipline
  • More Weick?





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