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The Instrumental, Institutional, and Managerialist 20th Century

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The Instrumental, Institutional, and Managerialist 20th Century


As modern, industrial organization was tested under the extreme conditions of war production in the early-to-mid 20th century, management theorists were able to contextualize, contest, and confront the pure instrumental rationality and “ideal types” suggested by Taylor and Weber, and Fayol’s administrative management approaches. Herbert Simon (1946/1992, 1947) examines administration and the challenge of empirically analyzing its operations. Later, Simon and James March confront the issue of why bureaucracies – “the machine model of human behavior” (1958, p. 36) – result in as many unintended results as they do intended outcomes. To a contemporary reader, their findings of that time are not surprising:


…the elaboration of evoking connections [i.e., organizational complexity], the presence of unintended cues, and organizationally dysfunctional learning appear to account for most of the unanticipated consequences with which these theories deal. Many of the central problems for the analysis of human behavior in large-scale organizations stem from the operation of subsystems within the total organizational structure. (March & Simon, 1958, p. 47)


In the post-war period, characterized by massive industrial growth, high employment, and growing affluence (especially in North America), researchers realized the importance of connecting the human components of the industrial machinery to the technological components in order to achieve greater productivity and effective deployment of resources. Through their examination of work teams in coal mines, Eric Trist and Ken Bamford (1951) discover that the most effective teams adapt their work methods in response to the technological and situational circumstances of the moment. Such action represents a major deviation from the “one best way” (Taylor, 1911) to perform a job recommended by the prescripts of Scientific Management.


Emery and Trist later generalize this finding as socio-technical systems design (1960). They suggest that group and large-organization structure and operation should be minimally pre-designed, with the work group able to respond to specific contingencies as they occur. Contingent responses would be based on well-defined domains of responsibility that correspond to group and organizational boundaries, appropriate information flow, and fundamental compatibility between the organization’s processes and its objectives (Cherns, 1976).


Burns and Stalker (1961/1992) and Alfred Chandler (1962), seemingly influenced by the work of Bamford, Trist, and Emery, began to outline ways in which optimal organization structure conforms to both an organization’s strategy, and the external conditions to which it is required to respond. Chandler’s extensive and influential study of the evolution of corporate structures at DuPont, General Motors, Standard Oil, and Sears, Roebuck and Company justifies the instrumental logic used to build industrial conglomerates through the third quarter of the 20th century. Burns and Stalker, recognizing the structural changes that were becoming visible throughout society, describe what they observed as a contingent duality, namely “mechanistic and organic” management systems:


…the two polar extremities of the forms which such systems can take when they are adapted to a specific rate of technical and commercial change … explicitly and deliberately created and maintained to exploit the human resources of a concern in the most efficient manner feasible in the circumstances of the concern. (Burns & Stalker, 1961/1992, p. 207)


So-called mechanistic management corresponds to relatively stable and static conditions, and reiterates the fundamental principles of bureaucratic, administrative, and hierarchical organization management originally described and codified by Taylor, Weber, and Fayol. However, as the reality of quickly changing conditions and unforeseen interactions and outcomes became apparent – in other words, general instability in the midst of overall social change that characterized the 1950s and ’60s – so too did the need for another way of thinking about organization structure. Burns and Stalker’s description of organic management systems recognizes certain precepts that differ significantly from the well-ordered management principles prescribed by Fayol. In some circumstances:


  •          specific knowledge trumps legitimation and seniority with respect to task responsibility and control authority;
  •          communication follows a natural network of connected interests rather than hierarchical control paths;         
  •          the content of communications is informative and advisory rather than instructive and authoritative; and         
  •          one’s concern for specific tasks and the overall objectives of the organization must take precedence over personal loyalties and obedience to one’s superior.


Although the description of such organic approaches to management strategy and structure (the latter remaining stratified by knowledge, expertise, and experience if not by traditional class and social hierarchy) may appear to be consistent with the effects of what is now known to be the beginnings of massive connectivity, it remained exclusively functional and instrumental in its intent. Organic systems were seen to require an even greater commitment of an individual employee as a “resource to be used by the working organization” (Burns & Stalker, 1961/1992, p. 208) than in the case of mechanistic systems. In fact, the authors explicitly describe the importance of individuals assimilating the “institutionalized values, beliefs, and conduct in the form of commitments, ideology, and manners” (p. 208) of the organization to reinforce relatively more tacit control in the wake of the expected loss of formal, hierarchical, control structures.


The need for socio-technical systems design to perceive, recognize, and structurally respond to environmental factors – be they market, regulatory, or resource-constraint in nature – led to a scaffolding of sorts in functionalist, instrumental management thinking that continues to influence many contemporary organizations. Lawrence and Lorsch (1969) write that an organization’s internal structure, processes, and group make-up would have to match characteristics present in its external environment for it to be able to effectively perceive and process relevant information, and conduct business transactions. Moreover, organizations must be responsive to environmental change. “As the relevant environment changes, however, organizations not only need suitable matched units, but on occasion also need to establish new units to address emerging environmental facts and to regroup old units” (p. 28). A year later, they are quite specific about the modern organization’s  functional and structural responsiveness to changing external factors:


Rather than searching for the panacea of the one best way to organize under all conditions, investigators have more and more tended to examine the functioning of organizations in relation to the needs of their particular members and the external pressures facing them. Basically, this approach seems to be leading to the development of a ‘contingency’ theory of organization with the appropriate internal states and processes of the organization contingent upon external requirements and member needs. (Lorsch & Lawrence, 1970, p. 1)


Kast and Rosenzweig provide a “more precise” definition that emphasizes the functional and instrumental view of organizations framed in terms of structural contingency:


The contingency view of organizations and their management suggests that an organization is a system composed of subsystems and delineated by identifiable boundaries from its environmental suprasystem. The contingency view seeks to understand the interrelationships within and among subsystems as well as between the organization and its environment and to define patterns of relationships or configurations of variables. It emphasizes the multivariate nature of organizations and attempts to understand how organizations operate under varying conditions and in specific circumstances. Contingency views are ultimately directed toward suggesting organizational designs and managerial systems most appropriate for specific situations. (Kast & Rosenzweig, 1972/1992, p. 304)


Henry Mintzberg (1979, 1983), in what is among the most widely cited models of structural contingency theory, describes various coordinating configurations among five basic organizational components. The description of these components offers a detailed and usefully descriptive analysis of the structural “machinery” of modern organizations. In the second chapter of his 1979, The Structuring of Organizations, Mintzberg describes “the five basic parts of the organization,” that include the strategic apex, the “middle line” of functional management, the “technostructure” of analysts, the support staff, and the operating core of people who do the actual production work of the enterprise. These generalized structural components overlay three distinct models of workflow that account for varying relative amounts of interdependence among workers. Mintzberg’s account is a logical, modernist extension of the factory model of organization that yield five ideal types that correspond to distinct contingent environments: the simple structure, the machine bureaucracy, the divisionalized form, the professional bureaucracy, and the “adhocracy,” subsequently called the innovative organization[1].


 Recognizing the permeability of organizational boundaries, together with the specific application of general system theory (von Bertalanffy, 1950/2008) to social systems, enabled Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn to describe how the “system concept” applied to organizations as open systems (1966/1992). Despite their eponymous treatment of the Social Psychology of Organizations, the actual emphasis of Katz and Kahn’s work remained solidly functionalist and socio-technical, as opposed to, say, relational or humanistic. For example, the purpose of an organization considered as a system “should begin with the input, output, and functioning of the organization as a system and not with the rational purposes of its leaders” (p. 271). They go on to describe the open-systems approach as one that “begins by identifying and mapping the repeated cycles of input, transformation, output, and renewed input which comprise the organizational pattern” (p. 279).


The apparent dichotomy of open versus closed systems models for organizations in the paradigmatic context of functional, contingent determinism led to an equally dichotomous conclusion. A closed system perspective could be appropriate to model organizations in relatively stable, predictable environments, while open systems might prove to be more useful when there was an “expectation of uncertainty.” James Thompson (1967/1992) suggests a reconciliation of sorts that proposes a rational response to contingent and constrained conditions for what he termed, “complex organizations … [that is,] open systems, hence indeterminate and faced with uncertainty, but at the same time as subject to criteria of rationality and hence needing determinateness and certainty” (p. 285).  By proposing approaches whereby an organization could navigate amidst an interdependent environment while retaining some measure of self-determinism, Thompson contributed to establishing contingency thinking as a foundation for the (late-)modern, functionalist organization.


There have been numerous refinements of structural contingency theory – and considerable defences mounted against its critics (Donaldson, 1985, 1995) – through the end of the 20th century. Eric Trist expands on Thompson in proposing organizational ecology that redirects analytic attention from specific organizations to:


…the organizational field created by a number of organizations whose interrelations compose a system at the level of the whole field. The character of this overall field, as a system, now becomes the object of inquiry, not the single organization as related to its organization-set. (Trist, 1977, p. 162).


Continuing to draw on biological metaphors, and almost as a logical extension to Trist’s work, Hannan and Freeman (1977), apply biological population analysis, with a particular focus on theories of organic populations in particular environmental “niches” amidst natural competition. Adding considerations of an organization’s adaptability in response to resource availability (Pfeffer & Salancik, 1978) helped to explain the diversity of organization types as they adapt to specific environments, in a manner not unlike Darwinian natural selection. These ideas were further expanded into the concepts of institutional isomorphism (Meyer & Brown, 1977; DiMaggio & Powell, 1983) and economic sociology (Morgan, Whitley, & Moen, 2005) to explain why many organizations evolve to look alike. Westwood and Clegg explain:


Legitimacy concerns translate into practices of isomorphism on the part of organizations unsure what their structure should be: sometimes the isomorphism is coercively mandated, by external actors; other times it is normatively mandated, but of particular interest are the many cases where it is mimetic. In these, organizations consciously choose to mimic what appears as a highly valued form of social capital associated with structural design. Choosing something associated with prestigious social capital factors, such as designs operated by very visible, successful, or influential organizations would be the basis for these structure choices (Westwood & Clegg, 2003, p. 274)


Ironically, all of these theories position organization as a relatively passive responder to environmental change (Hernes, 2008), contrary to the image of innovator and shaper of economic landscapes that many organizational leaders might prefer to hold. Nonetheless, among those theorists with a functionalist and instrumental orientation, the various permutations of structural contingency theories remain the ne plus ultra of strategic organizational analysis for efficiency and effectiveness. In a relatively recent debate on organizational structure published in the Westwood and Clegg volume (2003), Bob Hinings claims that organizations are “rightly” understood by way of their structure. He explains that such an understanding is the way that their members consider organization and their individual roles within it, and the way in which processes and systems are “structurally enshrined” and legitimated through those with authority and their ensuing relationships. Accordingly, structural contingency theory is the primary vehicle through which structure informs organization theory by,


…establishing the relationships between structural aspects of organization and such factors as size, technology, task uncertainty, strategy, and ideology. Organization efficiency and effectiveness are a function of the fit between structure and these contingencies. Organizations adapt to these contingent conditions in order to remain effective. Contingency theory continues to be an important, parsimonious, and empirically tested approach to understanding organization. (Hinings, 2003, p. 275-276)


Hinings argues that even when analytical research and managerial concerns are centred on processes, strategy, quality improvement, and other operational positioning, the processes and activities under examination are “actually embedded in new roles, relationships, and authority, the stuff of structure” (2003, p. 280). On the other hand, this observation may well be explained as an issue of managerial socialization through reproduced experience and training in management schools (Huczynski, 1994). If one is taught to think in structures, if organizational structures are what are manifestly evident when one reifies the concept of organization, then organizations look like structures by definition.


For example, the immediate reaction of one of this research project’s participants[2] to a description that characterizes the investigation as considering the nature of “the organization of the future” is to respond specifically in structural terms, critiquing various non-hierarchical, and generalist versus specialist, organization structures. It is seemingly difficult for some to conceive of organization in terms other than structure-to-fulfil-a-purpose. Thus, it is possible that Hinings’s contention – “structure also needs to be a prime analytical construct for organizational theorists because it is central to the thinking of managers” (p. 280) – is more a matter of managerial training and socialization, rather than an endorsement of universal empirical validity[3] or claim to truth. Another alternative is to consider a different analytical construct, derived from a parallel organizational history of the 20th century, that may be able to facilitate a change in dominant managerial thinking, one that may be more consistent with contemporary circumstances.


Read On:  The Humanist, Relational, and Collaborative 20th Century

[1] Mintzberg later (1989) added “ideology” as a sixth basic component that encompasses norms, beliefs and culture, and yields a sixth organization type, namely “missionary” or idealistic organization.

[2] This participant is notable in this context as he has had formal managerial training that emphasizes a structural approach to organizational conception, an example of Huczynski’s contention.

[3] For instance, a rigorous empirical test of Mintzberg’s (1983, 1989) typology by Doty, Glick, & Huber (1993) found very few organizations whose ideal type matched their context, and no difference in effectiveness between those whose structural design matched the context and those that did not. In fact Doty, et al. were unable to prove any of the testable hypotheses predicted by Mintzberg’s model.


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