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design science

The latest issue of Organization Studies features articles dealing with organizational design. The organizers of the special issue argue that organization studies should be about trying to design better organizations, thereby improving the human condition.

A promising approach instead involves positioning organization studies as a science for design. While the natural sciences seek description, explanation or prediction of what is, design scientists ask what could be, seeking betterment of the human condition. Inspired by Simon’s (1969) The Sciences of the Artificial, an organization science for design seriously addresses the need for scholars and managers alike for better organizational forms and processes.

Their push to build a design science has links to the evidence-based management movement. The underlying logic is the same. The science of medicine is focused on helping improve human health, treat ailments, etc.; organization science should be focused on improving organizational functioning, treating organizational failure, etc.

This agenda can also be seen in light of organizational theory’s search for an identity (see previous discussion of the death of organization theory here and here). As strategy research has gained ground and become a core part of the MBA curriculum, organizational theory has been somewhat displaced.  Few business schools even offer organizational theory courses anymore.  Faced with this threat, I’ve heard a few organizational theorists in business schools talk about a need to have something theory-specific that can be taught to MBA students. Currently, organizational theorists teach a wide variety of courses, which don’t overlap at all institutions. One suggestion is that theorists take up organizational design as their unique teaching contribution. Strategy scholars teach strategy, and organizational theorists would teach how to implement those strategies through specific designs.

One potential problem with the whole design agenda is that it’s not clear that our theories have much to say about forward-looking design. If theorists are going to take design as their teaching focus, there is a need for a more practice-oriented theoretical approach (something not all of us are comfortable with). The other problem, as I see it, is that organizational “health” is not very well defined. Is design science meant to only improve organizations by boosting shareholder value or is there room for alternative conceptions of what a healthy organization looks like? What works for shareholders, after all, may not be what’s healthy for the rest of society. More thought on these issues need to take place before we submit ourselves to our new design overlords.

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Written by brayden king

April 2, 2008 at 3:23 pm

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