death of organization theory?

One of the more provocative questions that was asked by a senior scholar at the very outset of the BYU Comparative Organizations Conference this weekend was: is this conference in effect a last-ditch effort to “save” organization theory?  The question surprised me. It seemed over-the-top. Conferences, small ones in particular, sometimes tend to elicit these kinds of provocations. Is organization theory really disappearing, dying? The intent of the conference certainly was not to save organization theory – if indeed it needs saving – rather, the purpose was much more specific: to advance an agenda, or at least consider the feasibility, of comparative organizational studies. However, after thinking about the question further, comparative organizational studies presupposes that we take the organization itself seriously. Presently organizational theories do not do this, and thus the question of the death of organization theory seems valid and worth considering.

The organization itself is increasingly lost in open systems organization theory.  The key theoretical constructs and associated mechanisms and explanatory variables of open systems models focus on ever-higher levels: fields, networks, populations, categories, culture, institutions, community, and so forth.  Organizational boundaries are increasingly permeable, and the relevant “action” happens at higher levels.  The organization enters in only as the ‘lesser and residual’ dependent variable — the site of diffusion, the receptacle of stimuli, an instantiation of the environment.

While that is all well and fine – it is a truism that organizations are embedded in contexts and open systems insights certainly have advanced our understanding since their introduction in the 1970s – nonetheless, the organization itself gets lost in the process, becoming a residual category to be explained by more meaningful higher level factors (thus, implicitly assuming that the organization itself is homogeneous). So, while everyone agrees that higher (and lower for that matter) levels matter – everything matters – can or should organizational scholars in essence theoretically “privilege” a particular level, namely, the organization?  Or, is it inherently the case that we simply take a pragmatic approach to organizations and look both below and above to come up with varied theories, depending on what phenomena we are interested in. Or, yet another approach is to take and stick with a particular theoretical party-line and implied level – hmm, which perhaps this post itself suggests – where one in Meyerian, cookie-pushing fashion hangs onto a key level; I respect the cookie-pushing approach though my own cookie differs.

The point here of course is not to say that other levels don’t matter.  Rather, to simply suggest that as organizational scholars we ought to have some unique things to say about the organization itself.  Or, perhaps not.  Overall, for me, the question of the death of organization theory resonates; it crytallizes some important points.  More related thoughts later.

Written by teppo

September 30, 2007 at 7:29 am

11 Responses

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  1. did natural systems and inertia die somewhere along the way?



    September 30, 2007 at 7:06 pm

  2. There are still remnants and pockets, sure.

    By the way – I forgot to mention a related conversation that I had with a prominent strategy scholar. His assessment was that both theoretically (and teaching-wise) org theory is dead, overtaken by strategy. Frankly, I don’t quite see what the theoretical angle is, though, one can easily see that in strategy the organizational level is inherently taken more seriously.

    Teaching-wise – while I do teach org theory, my sense in sampling friends teaching at other b-schools is that org theory does not really get offered. Most org theory scholars (or sociologists) at b-schools teach strategy. Of course the PhD level is a different matter.



    October 1, 2007 at 12:53 am

  3. My sense is that this claim wasn’t controversial at all. If I remember correctly, the scholar who said this didn’t mean that no one is doing theory anymore, the scholar meant that no new theories have emerged that have really shaken the foundations of organizational research. People have been saying this for sometime now. Perhaps returning to the organization as a source of “inspiration” will provoke us to be more creative.

    BTW, what was the last major theoretical breakthrough? One person who I respect a lot told me that he thought Powell 1990 was the last. But Zuckerman 1999 is more recent and may, in the long run, be equally influential; although at the moment the Powell piece has 1,925 Google Scholar citations and Zuckerman has 196.



    October 1, 2007 at 1:16 am

  4. You are right. I guess I was focusing more on the ‘organization’ part of organization theory, but perhaps we lack contributions in terms of theory as well. Though, the two points I think are linked as I believe we are still broadly building on the radical open system innovations of the 70s (resource dependence, environment, networks) – methodological contributions and sophistication certainly has increased, but perhaps its time to reduce down a bit (I’ll post more on that later – I frankly think the organizational landscape has changed significantly to warrant this).



    October 1, 2007 at 1:23 am

  5. […] death of organization theory? […]


  6. One thing that seems curious about this debate is that it is so focused on theory as if theoretical innovation is supposed to occur for its own sake. Yet, what was refreshing about those 1970s papers that we all know and love is that the theory that they espoused, rather than being the “theoretical theory” of the armchair guys, was empirically motivated theory. It resulted from real empirical phenomena in the world that begged accounting for. Why do we get boom/bust cycles of organizational foundings in certain industries? How is it that there is so much heterogeneity and uncertainty at the level of task structure in certain organizations but so much homogeneity at the level of formal structure? Why is it that organizations founded at a particular point in time retain certain routines even after they seem to no longer be functional?, etc., etc., etc. What appears to me to be lacking from those who are ready to bury organizational theory (and from those who want to move the discussion to ontology) is the same sense that there is a set of important phenomena that is staring at us in the face and that requires explanation.

    In other words, Kuhnian “anomalies” that our theories cannot account for. Instead, what appears to me to be happening is that we are “conceptually tired” of our theories, but very few can provide important empirical reasons for why we should move forward. The historical institutionalist stuff regarding “institutional change” seems to me to not be powerful enough, for the simple reason that it is not a sufficiently systematic empirical set (as was for instance the rampant decoupling of formal structure from task activity in institutionalized organizations vis a vis rational system theories of the firm). Instead, it is an unsystematic, and ad hoc “set” of historically unique occurrences. Theoretical paradigms are only superseded when faced with constant, recurring and “chronic” empirical disconfirmations, not when intermittently poked by those which are digged out of the historical obscurity bin by imaginative scholars.



    October 1, 2007 at 3:46 pm

  7. […] lone economist in a group dominated by sociologists, I found the experience a little disorienting. Teppo, Brayden, and Gordon Smith — another non-sociologist participant-observer — have posted […]


  8. […] Strategic management is a thriving subfield of organizational studies (see our previous posts on strategic management to get a flavor of what it’s all about). The Strategic Management Journal is considered a high impact journal and the Business Policy and Strategy division of the Academy of Management is one of the largest divisions of the association. The prominence of strategic management is incredible when you consider that it emerged in the late-1970s as a relatively nonintellectual course topic. Strategic management has become so successful as a subfield that some strategy scholars now claim that organizational theory (as a viable competitor) is dead. […]


  9. I want to follow up more on the strategy as the replacement of org theory comment from the beginning of the comments. My very off the cuff reaction is that when I have been around org people (rarely), like at AOM, strategy as a field and a phenomenon is taken as inherently real and good. I want to know more about what the people who “do” strategy are talking about because I always thought it was simply a part of what all organizations do all the time. I may irk someone with this comment, but isn’t strategy simply thinking and doing in your capacity as a member or decision maker for an organization? Of course its important, but does it need to be discovered, labeled, peeled apart, pickled, and left in a jar of formaldhyde?



    January 23, 2008 at 2:48 am

  10. […] THAT is why organizational theory is not dead and never will be dead (despite hearing this comment at every management conference I attend). […]


  11. […] is liable to hear that there is a “crisis” in organizational theory (see Teppo on the death of organization theory or more generally Fabio on that 70s sociology). Just as often, there is an added impression that […]


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