Aaron L. De Smet
Teachers College, Columbia University
- Historical Overview
- The Technical Approach: Scientific Management and the Bureaucratic
- Human Relations Movement: The Worker as Person
- Contingency Approaches: It All Depends
- The Political Approach: The Nonrationality of Power, Influence, and
- The Cultural Approach: The Importance of Norms and Values
- Open Systems Theory: A Contemporary Perspective on Organizations
- Chaos Theory
- Forerunners of Open Systems Theory in the Social Sciences
- Open Systems Theory
There are many practical and conceptual approaches to the study and understanding of organizations. This paper presents a broad overview of the major approaches developed over the last century, including historical and contemporary ideas on the nature of organizations. The paper concludes with a review of open systems theory, the theoretical underpinning for much of this paper and the companion paper "Adaptive Models of Organization for Substance Abuse Treatment."
Early approaches, influenced by the Industrial Revolution, treated organizations as
machines. Technological improvements and division of labor demonstrated that workers could
be more productive when work was broken down into basic tasks. For example, instead of
cobblers crafting shoes by hand one at a time, an assembly line allowed unskilled laborers
to hammer a nail into the same spot on the heel of every shoe to come down the assembly
line. Work was no longer seen as an art or a trade; science, technology, and engineering
could now be used to study and structure work. Frederick Winslow Taylor (1923) proposed
exactly this in an approach he called scientific management.
According to Taylor (1923), the key to organizational effectiveness was to engineer it
precisely, with the factors of production (e.g., labor, capital, raw materials) structured
and assembled like a machine. This view held managers as engineers or inventors and
workers as mechanical parts. Managers were expected to engineer the work to maximize
effectiveness and efficiency. Jobs and tasks were designed to be highly specialized,
repetitive, and easy to observe, and to require little or no skill. Because employees did
not necessarily know anything about the overall job they were doing (unskilled laborers in
a shoe factory may hammer nails without knowing anything about making shoes), supervisors
were employed to enforce policies and detailed work standards. Supervisors were like
mechanics, making sure that the machines parts acted as they were intended,
measuring actual work against specific standards and taking corrective action when
In addition to designing the work, managers also needed to be able to assess
applicants skills and match them to minimum task requirements. Industrial psychology
helped provide these assessment tools so that the human parts of the machine could be
assigned to their proper places. The fact that humans do not always act like machines, if
it was recognized at all, was seen as a problem, and trying to get employees to behave as
if they were machines became another task for the supervisor. The mechanistic design of
jobs and tasks included managers and supervisors. Studies were conducted to determine the
optimum span of control for a supervisor (usually six or seven supervisees) and how
supervisors should allocate their time.
The goal of scientific management was to build the most efficient and productive
organizational machine possible. Because every half-dozen or so workers needed a
supervisor, more and more layers of managers and supervisors became necessary to manage
increasingly large and complex organizations. In response to increased size and
complexity, Max Weber (1947) developed the idea of the legal-rational bureaucratic
organizationa way to mechanize control and coordination, not just production and
operations. Weber suggested that the best way to manage a business or institution was to
coordinate through a centralized, hierarchical, and highly departmentalized structure and
to control employee behavior through clear, prescribed lines of authority and codified
rules and responsibilities.
During a time-and-motion efficiency study at the Hawthorne facilities of the Western
Electric Company, a group of researchers led by Elton Mayo (1933; Roethlisberger &
Dickson, 1939) discovered an unusual phenomenon that cast doubt on the legal-rational
mechanistic approach. As Mayo and his colleagues decreased light on an assembly line, they
found that lower illumination levels actually improved productivity. Further decreases in
lighting led to greater productivity. In fact, almost any change, whether it be brighter
light or near-darkness, had a similar effect. Clearly, some nonmechanical factors were
affecting the workers; increased stimulation and attention, not decreased lighting, was
responsible for improved worker productivity.
The Hawthorne studies demonstrated that the machine approach did not account for
employees needs for autonomy and affiliation. A new school of thought dubbed human
relations conceived of exactly these factors, along with delegation of authority, trust
and openness, and concern for people, as critical for human and organizational
effectiveness. The human relations school saw effective organizations as cooperative
social systems, not machines or bureaucracies.
One boost for the human relations movement came in the quest for traits and
characteristics of the ideal leader, in which proponents of scientific management were
also interested, since the positions at the top of the hierarchy required substantially
more skill than those at the bottom. Separate research efforts at Ohio State University
(Halpin & Winer, 1957; Hemphill & Coons, 1957) the University of Michigan (see
Likert, 1961), and Harvard University (Bales, 1950) simultaneously identified two similar
dimensions of effective leadership. One dimension was related to conventional aspects of
managing the task, such as delegation and supervision. The second dimension, however, was
related to the people separate from the task.
Effective leaders need to do more than just figure out how to approach the task,
delegate assignments, and monitor performance; they must also successfully attend to the
socioemotional needs of the people performing the tasks. Moreover, the leadership function
need not be performed via the authority vested in a formal position. Rather, leadership
can be performed by any and all members of a group. In his summary of the Michigan
studies, Rensis Likert (1961) elaborated this third dimension, participative leadership,
proposing that leaders use the group itself as a way to manage subordinates, rather than
supervising each separately. Other research began to show that teamwork, loyalty, and
morale were all negatively affected by repetitive work, lack of autonomy, segregation of
task sequence, and centralized decision making. Researchers and practitioners began to
call for a more humane and democratic approach to management (Argyris, 1964; Likert, 1961,
The human relations movement also was interested in satisfaction and its relationship
to motivation and performance. Frederick Herzberg (1966, 1968), for example, pointed out
that job satisfaction has two components: motivating factors that actively satisfy
and motivate employees, and hygiene factors that may upset and trouble employees.
Once hygiene needs are minimally met, only motivators like achievement opportunities,
control over resources and pace of work, autonomy, feedback and accountability, and
personal growth and development will lead to increased motivation. Other proponents of
human relations (McGregor, 1960) suggested that supervisors mere belief that their
subordinates lacked drive and ability was detrimental to morale and motivation. Team
building, group and interpersonal relations workshops, and sensitivity training flourished
during the heyday of the human relations approach.
In many ways, scientific management and human relations approaches were diametrically
opposed. Some, however, believed neither to be universally superior to the other.
Contingency theories treated the effectiveness of either approach as dependent on the
Contingency approaches were developed for management style and decision making at the
individual and group levels, and for organizational strategy and structure at the
organizational level. At the individual/group decision-making level, for example, Vroom
and Yetton (1973) suggested that where subordinates acceptance of a decision is
important for effective implementation, a participative decision-making style may be
important, but if subordinates acceptance is not a factor, the decision can be made
autocratically or consultatively, depending on the available information. Hersey and
Blanchard (1984) made similarly contingent recommendations regarding an individual
managers management style, also distinguishing between "telling" and
"selling" forms of autocratic management (i.e., giving direct orders versus
persuading and convincing), the optimal style depending on the nature of the task and the
"readiness" of workers.
For an organization, the circumstance on which effectiveness depends is often the
diverse and rapidly changing nature of the business environment. Burns and Stalker (1961)
studied the management of 20 manufacturing plants in England and Scotland and found that
in turbulent, uncertain environments, organizations were more "organic." They
were flatter, less formal, and had more delegation of authority to lower levels in the
organization. In stable environments, however, organizations were
mechanistichierarchical, with well-defined lines of authority, and formal rather
than informal roles and policies.
In a related line of research concerning technology, Joan Woodward (1965) found that
mass production was much more suited to bureaucratic management than job shop
manufacturing. In general, companies based on routine operations are optimally organized
using a bureaucratic, mechanistic structure.
Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) studied differentiation and integration. In large
organizations, different departments within the same organization may face different
technological and environmental characteristics. Thus, one department may be suited to
bureaucratic management and another to a more informal, organic arrangement. Lawrence and
Lorsch compared managerial practices in three industries: (a) standardized
container-making (a stable environment), (b) food-processing (intermediate uncertainty and
complexity), and (c) the plastics industry (highly turbulent). They found that
container-making firms were largely stable and well suited to bureaucratic management.
Food-processing and plastics, on the other hand, had some departments or divisions
operating in relatively stable environments (e.g., production) and others in relatively
uncertain environments (e.g., research and development). The key was to match the type of
structure and management approach within the department to specific technological
and environmental demands at the department level. Integrating mechanisms are then
required to coordinate successfully the diverse and complex organizational relationships
created by this sort of structural differentiation. At the intermediate level of
uncertainty and complexity, food-processing firms were able to use formally
prescribed mechanisms for integration (e.g., formal oversight committees, formalized
cross-functional coordination, special monitoring and reporting relationships). Within the
plastics industry, however, the degree of turbulence and differentiation was not suited to
formal integration. Here, organizational coordination and decision making were lateral,
informal, and spread out, rather than vertical, formal, and centralized. Thus, contingency
approaches may be used to manage both the work and the management of the work.
Until the 1960s, the technical and human relations approaches were more or less favored
by scholars and practitioners. The tension between them gave the arrangement a measure of
stabilitythose who disliked one approach were likely to advocate the other. Most,
however, were content with the contingency approach: Sometimes one is better; sometimes
the other is better. Then the problems of power, politics, and decision making began to
emerge as legitimate areas of research with important implications for how organizations
really work. The political approach, in contrast to mechanistic and human relations
approaches, focused on how the nonrational motives of individuals guide decision making
and organizational behavior through complex interpersonal power dynamics and
James March and Herbert Simon challenged the assumption that organizations rationally
strive toward explicit goals (Cyert & March, 1963; March & Simon, 1958; Simon,
1948, 1964). Explicit goals can never fully and accurately represent the full range of
purposes held by an organizations members, and the actions aimed at attaining goals
are not based on discrete, sequential decisions. Even when decisions are rational, the
goals they serve are not (Simon, 1964). Goals are simply desired states, and the states
desired by various organization members are nonrational and tend to be diverse and
The idea that humans are rational decision makers has been rejected because it ignores
the limitations of humans as fallible information processors (Fischhoff, 1982; Nisbett
& Ross, 1980; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974). Contrary to Webers assumptions
about a legal-rational bureaucracy, humans do not make rational decisions; instead, they
"satisfice," choosing the first acceptable alternative within the constraints of
salient internal motives and external pressures (Braybrooke & Lindblom, 1963;
Forrester, 1984; Lindblom, 1959; Simon, 1952). This view has been called "bounded
rationality" because decisions may be rational within the bounds of desired outcomes
and limited cognitive capacity. It also has been called "muddling through,"
since systemic improvement over time is achieved not by a planned sequence of rational
choices that optimize functioning, but through a series of incremental,
While political scientists were studying power and political conflict as natural
processes arising from conflicting, nonrational goals and limited human ability, social
psychologists were finding that humans were, at least in certain conditions, remarkably
susceptible to authority and group norms. Asch (1952), for example, found that when
confederates in a "perception test" credibly reported that line A was longer
than line B, over one-third of na´ve subjects gave the same response, despite unambiguous
sensory information to the contrary. That human judgment is not only limited, but also
easily swayed, by seemingly benign interpersonal processes was not an endorsement of
In his seminal research on compliance and obedience, Stanley Milgram (1965) found that
even low levels of legitimate authority could powerfully influence human behavior. The
results of Milgrams experiments were damaging both to the bureaucratic school and to
the human relations approach. His study did not support a cooperative social system model.
Although it undermined the other two dominant approaches, the political approach seemed
incomplete as a paradigm for how organizations function. Individuals are nonrational
decision makers and are, under certain conditions, easily influenced by others. Unlike its
predecessors, however, the political approach was narrow in scope and virtually silent on
how to improve organizational functioning.
In addition to the technical, social, and political aspects of organizations, the
cultural aspect is equally important. According to Noel Tichys TPC
(technical-political-cultural) framework, an organizations success depends on the
alignment of these three aspects with the appropriate organizational strategy (Tichy,
1983), and cultural aspects are often the most enduring and difficult to change
(Schneider, Brief, & Guzzo, 1996).
An organizations culture consists of the underlying norms, values, beliefs,
attitudes, and cognitive mind-sets that its members hold over time (c.f., Deal &
Kennedy, 1982; Reichers & Schneider, 1990; Trice & Beyer, 1993). In some areas,
values and beliefs will stem more from societal or individual factors, but organizations
also have normative and cultural sides. Bradford and Harvey (1972), for instance, claim
that organizational myths are a ubiquitous and powerful force in organizations. "In
fact, any organization with more than a brief history has myths that do more to determine
and control the behavior of its members than do all of the structural arrangements, work
procedures, pep talks, counseling sessions and other managerial efforts designed to affect
organization behavior" (p. 244).
Organizational culture generally is not talked about explicitly, although it may be
manifest in, and perpetuated by, myths, language, customs, rituals, symbols, and stories
passed on over time (for a thorough treatment of organizational culture, see Trice and
Beyer ). Deeply ingrained norms and beliefs are often unconscious, and the cultural
currents underlying behavior within organizations are not likely to be perceived by the
members themselves. For example, employees may act as if "the boss will punish you if
you dont know everything," regardless of specific evidence to support or refute
their assumption (Bradford & Harvey, 1972). Nonrepresentative stories and rumors to
support the predominant cultural view may be passed on over time, developing a mythic
quality that lends further credibility (e.g., Allport & Postman, 1947). It may
eventually become unclear whether people are meticulous at keeping records because they
believe they need to be able answer all the bosss questions, or whether people
believe they need to answer all the bosss questions because everyone is so busy
keeping meticulous records.
Although the technical, human relations, political, and cultural approaches have
generated a bewildering array of information, much of it has been of little use in
practice. In part, this is because organizational studies are still in their infancy, but
organizational scholars also have tended to oversimplify their subject matter.
Organizations are complex, dynamic systems that cannot be understood as simply the sum of
various parts. The concepts of open systems theory provide a useful perspective with which
to view organizations. Thus, before a specific perspective on adaptation in organizations
is discussed, the systems approach is reviewed briefly (c.f., Ackoff, 1981; Bohm, 1983;
Capra, 1976, 1983; Ford, 1987; Gleick, 1987; Katz & Kahn, 1978; Miller, 1978; Shannon
& Weaver, 1949; von Bertelanffy, 1950, 1968, 1975; Wheatley, 1992).
In the 1960s, meteorologist-mathematician Edward Lorenz (see Gleick, 1987; Sparrow,
1982) discovered that a simple computer-simulated weather system produced complex, chaotic
behavior. With only three variables and only three equations, albeit nonlinear equations,
he was able to create what he called "deterministic nonperiodic flow." Roughly
translated, Lorenz created a completely predetermined, nonrandom system (deterministic)
whose pattern of behavior over time was unpredictable (nonperiodic).
A system governed by simple laws can exhibit extremely complex behavior. There
were no random fluctuations in the Lorenz simulation, just three simple equations to
completely and utterly govern the behavior of the system; but because the equations were
nonlinear, the resulting behavior of the system was totally unpredictable. Even knowing
the starting value of the three variables and the three simple equations that govern their
behavior over time, the only way to determine the value of the three variables on
iteration 2 million of the simulation would be to crank through 2 million iterations of
all three equations. Thus, the simplest model of the phenomenon was the phenomenon itself
(which, since it is no simpler, is not a model at all). No matter how far out in time,
Lorenzs system never falls into a precisely predictable pattern; it will
never loop back on itself in repetitive cycles, and there will never be a shortcut.
There is a pattern to dynamic complexity that can be studied and understood. Lorenzs
most interesting discovery was that although the simulated weather system did follow a
special sort of pattern, it never exactly repeated itself. If calculated to enough decimal
places, a line plotted in three-dimensional space (corresponding to the three variables in
the system) would never cross the same point twice. Lorenz discovered that apparently
simple rules can create complex, unpredictable behavior. Even more amazing was that,
despite unpredictability and chaos, there was an underlying pattern to the complexity.
A small change can have a big impact. During his experiments, Lorenz also noticed
that slight changes in a starting value for any one of the three variables can cause the
entire system to careen off in totally different directions. This phenomenon, called
sensitive dependence on initial conditions, is what led Lorenz in 1979 to ask his famous
question, "Does the flap of a butterflys wings in Brazil set off a tornado in
Texas?" The answer is, of course, noat least not in a linear way. A thousand
butterflies could not directly create a tornado even one foot away, much less halfway
around the world. But could a butterfly flapping its wings today in one part of the world
have an impact on the weather in some other part of the world several months or even years
later? According Lorenzs notion of sensitive dependence, it could.
Lewin (1935, 1938, 1951) conceived of individual and group behavior as the reciprocal
interaction of personality and environment. In developing field theory, Lewin proposed
that every individual exists in a psychological field representing his or her perception
of the environment, and that goals and aspirations lead certain elements of the field to
attract or repulse people from various behavioral tendencies. Borrowing from physics,
Lewin used terms like force and valance to describe the nature of
psychological fields. Complex fields and multiple aspirations of varying strength produce
an intricate network of positive and negative valences that push and pull people toward
various behavioral potentialities. When considering a given potential behavior, we can
think of those forces that are pushing or pulling the person toward the behavior in
question as driving forces, and those in the opposite direction as restraining forces.
Although the various driving and restraining forces may achieve an approximate balance,
the system is in constant flux. As new forces arise or existing forces change in
intensity, other forces within the system also change, often in ways that maintain the
current nature and behavior of the system. Thus, the equilibrium point is best thought of
Applying these concepts to social and organizational change, Lewin noted that it is
better to reduce restraining forces than to increase driving forces. Increasing a driving
force may initiate a backlash of counterbalancing forces. More important, increasing the
driving forces increases tension in the system, making additional change more and more
Floyd Henry Allport
Allport (1954, 1962, 1967) thought of organizations as social event structures. Social
structure, according to Allport, consists of cyclical patterns of human interaction, which
can be observed through the repeating cycles of behavioral events that drive
People are members of an organization to the extent that their roles create cycles of
behavior with members. Belonging to an organization is based on one person interacting
cyclically with another person. Put simply, the behavioral patterns are the
Allports approach has two major implications for the study of organizations.
First, social systems have no anatomical structure separate from patterns of behavioral
events. Thus, reorganization efforts are not tinkering with some mechanical, tangible
structure, but with an intricate system of interwoven behaviors, and the individuals who
enact those behaviors may be attached to the current pattern and resist attempts at
Second, the usual approach to understanding phenomena may be unsuitable for
organizational research. The traditional scientific approach involves determining the
impact of single variables on specific other variables to understand causal relationships.
To examine the ongoing structure of interacting events, however, we must take a different
view of causation. As Allport notes, causation in social organizations is neither
historical nor linear; rather, it is "continuous, time independent, and reciprocally
Building on the work of Allport, Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn (1978) proposed the use of
general systems theory to conceptually integrate our knowledge of organizations. They
identify the following as basic characteristics of all open systems:
- Importation of energy. Open systems import some form of energy into the system. Just
as a living organism (a biological system) thrives on food and oxygen, the human
personality (a psychological system) is dependent on a steady flow of environmental
stimulation. The deprivation of inputs into any system will hamper system functioning, and
prolonged deprivation eventually will result in death.
- Throughput and output. Open systems transform available energy into
something else. Throughput is simply some transformation or reorganization of the inputs.
While some of the energy imported is consumed by the system to sustain itself, there are
also outputs from the system.
- Systems as cycles of events. Input, throughput, and output activities
occur in a cycle. The process of consuming energy and exporting outputs sustains the
system itself, allowing it to import more energy. Similarly, as Allport conceived, human
behavior has structure only to the extent that behavioral events repeat themselves
(although, as Lorenz found, events may never repeat themselves precisely the same
- Negative entropy. The system must essentially import more energy from the
environment than it expends so that energy can be stored. In this way, the system is able
to fight the forces of entropy.
- Informational inputs and negative feedback. Inputs do not consist entirely
of energy; information also must be imported. Through coding and selective attention,
particular aspects of the environment, and the self in relation to the environment, are
fed back into the system to help adjust functioning and adapt to changing circumstances.
- The steady state. Energy is imported and stored, and entropy is halted, so
that the system might maintain some constant level of functioningthis is the steady
state. "The basic principle is preservation of the character of the system"
(Katz & Kahn, 1978, p. 27).
- Growth tendency and differentiation. Katz and Kahn qualify the striving of
systems toward a steady state with this caveat: Systems have an inherent tendency to grow
in size and complexity. By importing more energy than necessary (in order to hold back
entropy), the system often stores excess energy and becomes larger or uses it in more
elaborate system-maintaining processes. Thus, we eat before we are hungry and store excess
energy as fat. Open systems also move in the direction of differentiation and elaboration
so that general, simple subsystems become specialized and more complex.
- Integration and coordination. Differentiation must be controlled and
coordinated. Without integrative processes, qualitative changes in the complexity of a
subsystem would likely change the nature and character of the whole system. Through
integration, differentiated subsystems maintain their relationship to the system as a
- Equipotentiality and equifinality. Stated simply, equipotentiality is the
idea that two systems in very different states can change such that they later arrive at
an identical future state. Deterministic logical positivism asserts that perfect
understanding of a system, its environment, and the laws governing them leads to perfect
understanding not only of the present, but also of past and future states. A relativistic
open systems approach, on the other hand, presumes that through different potential paths,
two systems in different states can later achieve exactly the same end state. Thus,
"a system can reach the same final state from differing initial conditions and by a
variety of paths" (Katz & Kahn, p. 30). Katz and Kahn also point out that
equifinality can be reduced through elaboration of regulatory mechanisms. In other words,
complex control systems, by enacting and manifesting a particular potentiality, may reduce
or eliminate the probability of other potentialities. Infants brains, for instance,
in the process of creating neural pathways, simultaneously realize one set of
probabilities while eliminating others.
- Openness and boundaries. Although organizations are open systems, they
also intend to preserve the steady state. This implies that the system is only partially
open; it must have boundaries. Although system boundaries may be fuzzy, a system without
boundaries cannot exist.
Katz and Kahns (1978) application of open systems theory to organizations points
out several practical misconceptions that arise from closed-system thinking, but it also
serves as a starting point for understanding the critical relationship variables and
patterns that drive organizational effectiveness. In the companion paper, "Adaptive
Models of Organization for Substance Abuse Treatment," Part I builds on open systems
theory and presents a conceptual framework that facilitates a better understanding of how
organizations change, adapt, and learn over time. Part II uses that conceptual framework
to review and integrate two artificially distinct streams of literature on (a)
transformational organizational change and (b) organizational learning. Finally, Part III
applies the general concepts developed in Parts I and II and applies them specifically to
substance abuse treatment organizations.
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