great paragraphs from org theory, 1

On page 40 of Philip Selznick’s Leadership in Administration:

The study of organizational character-formation is, then, a phase of institutional analysis. Here the emphasis is on the embodiment of values in an organizational structure through the elaboration of commitments – ways of acting and responding that can be changed, if at all, only at the risk of severe internal crisis. As in the case of individuals, the emergence of organizational character reflects the irreversible element in experience and choice. A great deal of management practice, as in the hiring of personnel, may be viewed as an effort to hold down the number of irreversible decisions that must be made. On the other hand, a wise management will readily limit its own freedom, accepting irreversible commitments, when the basic values of the organization and its direction are at stake. The acceptance of irreversible commitments is the process by which the character of an organization is set.

This paragraph comes from what is, in my mind, one of the greatest but also one of the most underappreciated books in organizational theory. Selznick, mostly known for his wonderful TVA and the Grass Roots, summarizes his theoretical contributions in this elegant essay. The main premise is that organizations are institutionalized when they become “infuse[d] with value beyond the technical requirements at hand” (17; an insight that I’ve claimed is the major contribution of organizational theory ). While that statement has become well-known and is often cited, less cited is the idea that values become infused in an organization through the process of decision-making. Certain choices are so critical to organizational functioning that they represent “irreversible commitments.” Reversing those commitments would fundamentally alter the nature or character of the organization and could potentially lead to identity crisis. Examples of critical decisions include choices about product emphasis, decisions regarding personnel recruitment; implementation of particular training program; establishment of a system to coordinate subgroups and to resolve conflicts between those groups; and formation of interorganizational alliances.

In this slim book, Selznick lays the groundwork for what becomes contemporary institutional theory (forget the differences between old and new!), theories of organizational identity (even the ecological variety), and contingency theory. In addition, Selznick prepares the way for much of Stinchcombe’s work that would appear in the next decade.Leadership in Administration ushered in the contemporary era of organizational analysis, focusing on how environments shape organizations, but what is unique (and still fresh) about Selznick’s perspective is his focus on the important meso-level – the internal decision-making functions of organizations. Selznick, like his contemporaries in the Carnegie School, was primarily concerned with how the environment translated into organizational action. It is this ability to move between macro and micro that really appeals to me as a scholar and makes Selznick’s Leadership a potentially very useful perspective for those of us interested in revitalizing a focus on meso-theory.

Written by brayden king

July 1, 2008 at 4:16 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Happy to see praise for Selznick…who is too often forgotten. His later work became very communitarian and rather Nordic, if that characterizes anything fairly. The greatest org theorist of his generation, IMHO.


    Ryan Lanham

    July 1, 2008 at 4:50 pm

  2. Say no more. It’s in the Amazon shopping cart.



    July 1, 2008 at 10:41 pm

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