The book 'Organisationen - eine sehr kurze Einleitung' by the German sociologist Stefan Kühl, is discussing how organizations “tick”.
Below, you can firstly read my application of this book on safety management in organizations, and, secondly, my summary of the book. Bare in mind that this summary just scratches the surface. I urge you to read the book for yourself, if my description of it sounds positive to you.
In "Organisations – eine sehr kurze Einleitung", Stefan Kühl delves into the unique characteristics that define an organization - membership, purpose, and hierarchy. These characteristics are crucial for organizations to maintain their own identity and effectively perform their functions. In terms of safety management, organizations must ensure that their personnel selection process is based on the specific requirements of the job, rather than personal characteristics. Furthermore, organizations can cause unusual behavior in their members because of the strength of organizational rules and the role of membership in creating conformity. Therefore, it is important that organizations foster a culture of open communication and transparency to address safety concerns. The use of financial incentives to bind members to the organization can have negative consequences, such as members accepting demotivating tasks or tolerating negative information about the organization. Organizations have to find the balance between motivating members and ensuring their existence.
Organizations are often described using metaphorical language: as machines, games, and facades or theaters. Safety management professionals may focus on the machine aspect of the organization, emphasizing predictability and efficiency in safety processes. It is important, though, to understand the interrelatedness of these perspectives and to consider all three together for a comprehensive understanding of the organization. The use of structures or decision-making frameworks to simplify decision-making and reduce uncertainty, can lead to a lack of accountability in decision-making, as it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for a particular decision or outcome. Distributing the burden of proof, or responsibility for decision-making, is important to allow for flexibility and adaptability within the organization. The personal decision-making style of individuals within an organization can impact the organization's decision-making process. Organizations can manipulate their structure in order to achieve their goals and adapt to changing circumstances, but it is important to consider the informal structures that are created by the combination of certain expectations and the lack of accountability to official rules or guidelines.
From birth, we are already in contact with an organization, as most people are born in hospitals. As children grow up they become more familiar with organizations, starting in school, where we not only learn academic subjects, but also how to behave in organizations. There is no subject in school called "organizational theory" and most education only prepares us for specific roles in companies, government, hospitals, and religious institutions, but does not give much information on how to navigate and interact within those organizations.
In everyday language, organization is used to refer to the planning and regulation of activities to achieve a specific purpose. This understanding of organization is too broad, though, and includes almost anything that is structured, regular or goal-oriented. In order to have a deeper understanding of organizations, a more narrow definition of organization is needed, one that differentiates it from other social structures such as families, networks, protest movements, or nation-states. In scientific literature, organizations are usually referred to as a specific form of social structure or system that has distinct characteristics and features.
The main characteristics of organizations and can be distinguished from other social structures. Without formal education on the subject, people seem to have an intuitive understanding of when they are interacting with an organization. But, it can be difficult to determine what makes organizations unique.
Organization characteristics: membership, purpose and hierarchy
The sociologist Niklas Luhmann uses three characteristics to define organizations: membership, purpose, and hierarchy. These characteristics help to define organizations as distinct from other social structures such as families, groups, protest movements, or everyday conversations:
- Membership refers to the fact that organizations have a defined membership and individuals are considered part of the organization based on certain criteria;
- Purpose refers to the fact that organizations exist to achieve a specific goal or set of goals;
- Hierarchy refers to the fact that organizations have a defined structure of authority and decision-making.
Organizations are able to make decisions about their membership, hierarchies, and purposes independently, which is what makes them unique. If an organization's membership or hierarchy is imposed from the outside, or if its purpose is dictated by an external organization, it will have limited ability to maintain its own identity and will be perceived as a subsidiary of the more powerful organization. Organizations are able to make their own decisions about who becomes a member, what their goals and objectives are, and how their internal structure is organized. This autonomy is crucial for organizations to maintain their own identity and to be able to carry out their functions effectively.
When selecting personnel for a particular role within an organization, the best-suited person for the job should be chosen based on the specific requirements of the task, rather than based on personal characteristics such as ethnicity, social background, gender, or sexual orientation. Studies have found, though, that people from upper-class backgrounds are disproportionately represented in leadership roles in the business world, which may be problematic for organizational performance.
Organizations can bring about unusual behavior in their members, due to the power of organizational rules and the role of membership in creating conformity. Membership in an organization creates a status for individuals, which can lead them to behave in ways that are out of character for them in other contexts. Michel Foucault has coined the idea of power-knowledge nexus in organizations; the idea that organizational structures and practices exert subtle forms of control over individuals. The mechanism by which organizations produce conformity through the socialization of membership is through the creation of expectations that members will conform to certain behaviors and attitudes.
Memberships in organizations can be used to create conformity among members. When joining an organization, the specific tasks and responsibilities of an individual member may not be clear, and they must be willing to accept a level of indifference or flexibility in their roles. Employment contracts are more abstract and open-ended in terms of the specific tasks expected of the member than work contracts. Some expectations, such as those of police officers, student assistants, and professors, are clear, while others may be more open-ended.
Organizations use financial incentives to bind members to the organization. Money can be a flexible and effective way for organizations to attract and retain members, as members can be motivated by the prospect of future payments or by the ability to earn money through other means. This method of binding members to organizations can have negative consequences, though, such as members accepting demotivating tasks or tolerating negative information about the organization.
Organizations motivate their members to comply with their expectations in various ways. One way is through the use of money, where organizations pay their members to fulfill certain tasks or offer incentives. However, this method is dependent on the availability of financial resources and can be less effective in motivating members to comply with non-monetary expectations. Another method is through the use of force, where organizations use threats of punishment or use of physical force to ensure compliance from members. This method is less popular in modern societies, but is still used by some state organizations.
Various factors can lead to membership in an organization, including the appeal of the organization's goals, the attraction of the activities within the organization, and the relationships that members have with other members. Money can be a powerful motivator for membership, but it has limitations. In modern societies, the use of force or coercion to maintain membership is less popular. The appeal of the activities within an organization can be a strong factor in motivating membership, but not all organizations can offer only attractive activities. The relationships between members, or collegiality, can be a factor in motivating membership.
Organizations can motivate their members both to join and to stay. Organizations can motivate members through identification with the organization's goals, the attractiveness of the activities offered by the organization, and the social connections formed with other members. These motivations can sometimes conflict and organizations may have to balance different motivations in order to retain members. Some organizations may have started with a strong sense of purpose, but as they grow and gain access to funding, the economic motivations of members become more prominent.
Assigning people to organizations can be difficult. In recent times, various work steps are being taken out of organizations and then reintegrated back in, through outsourcing and insourcing. The hope is that competition between multiple providers will lead to a decrease in costs and an increase in quality. When it is found that the cost savings are small and the organization loses control and expertise, it is often decided to bring the services back in-house or to buy the external provider and run it as an internal department. This process of switching between outsourcing and insourcing is happening at a faster pace than before, and is becoming a common practice in many companies, administration and armies.
Organizations have a lot of flexibility in terms of the goals they set for themselves, such as increasing market share or reducing waste. The main task of top management is often seen as preparing for changes in the organization's goals through strategic vision. Consulting firms often help organizations review their goals and suggest alternative orientations. The role of goals in an organization is to provide direction, and to serve as a guide for decision-making and resource allocation. But, setting goals and objectives is challenging. Organizations may have multiple competing goals and objectives, and these goals may be in conflict with one another.
These goals may also change over time and be subject to the influence of internal and external factors. While goals and objectives play an important role in structuring organizations, their role is often more complex than suggested by definitions that focus on goal attainment.
Defining the purpose or goal of an organization can be difficult. Some researchers believe that organizations exist solely to achieve a specific goal, but in reality, the role of goals in organizations is often more complex. Organizations often have multiple, conflicting goals and can continue to exist even after achieving their original purpose. Goals also can change over time due to shifts in priorities, legal changes, or other factors. Achieving a goal does not necessarily mean the end of an organization, as they may shift their focus to new goals.
Goals versus actions
While organizations may present themselves as having a specific goal or purpose, in reality, their actions and decisions may not always align with this stated goal. The goals themselves may be sought after only after actions have already been taken, in order to justify or legitimize those actions. Stefan Kühl references the work of various organizational theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, Peter Blau, Richard Scott, Amitai Etzioni, and James March, who have studied and written about the complexities of organizational goals and actions.
Hierarchies are often the first thing that is noticed in most organizations. They are used as a way of structuring and organizing the organization. There are other ways to structure the organization, such as by finding suitable roles for existing employees, or by creating roles to fit the number of existing employees, rather than determining the number of employees based on the desired roles. While hierarchies have traditionally been seen as the main mechanism for controlling and coordinating complex decisions in organizations, in recent years there have been some attempts to democratize organizations. Hierarchies are often seen as the central mechanism for steering and coordinating complex decisions in various types of organizations, such as companies, government agencies, and educational institutions. But, hierarchies can be problematic as they may not align with the needs and desires of employees. Although many organizations often describe themselves as flexible and open to change, in practice, the ability to implement and enforce new policies can be challenging.
Hierarchies in organizations are necessary to align the organization with its external environment, without being overly influenced by the needs of its members.
Hierarchies within organizations have issues, though: Information can get distorted or lost as it moves up through different levels of the hierarchy, leading to a lack of accurate understanding among the higher-ups of what is happening within the organization. Many organizations assume that those in higher positions have a greater understanding of the business, but this is not always the case. Thus, experts in a certain field may be overlooked or not given enough weight in decision-making processes. Low-level employees may have their own sources of influence such as personal connections, expertise, and informal communication channels that are not controlled by the hierarchy. These sources of influence are "tools" that the employee possesses and can be used to their advantage.
In organizations, decisions are made in various ways, including through consensus, through a leader imposing their will, and through the use of hierarchy. In most organizations, the central mechanism for making decisions is the hierarchy. Acceptance of this hierarchy is even a condition for membership in the organization. Open decision-making situations can be resolved by leaders simply referencing their role as boss. Members of organizations not only have to fulfill expected tasks but also accept being subject to control and supervision by those above them in the hierarchy.
Organizations are often described using metaphorical language, with three main types of metaphor being used. Each of these metaphors highlights different aspects of organizations and can be used to understand and analyze them in different ways:
1. "machines", which emphasizes the predictability and efficiency of organizational processes; organizations are often viewed as machines because of their predictability and the way their parts work together;
2. "games", which highlights the dynamic and unpredictable aspects of organizational life; the informal aspects of organizations are not solely based on rules;
3. "facades" or “theaters”, which emphasizes the importance of presenting a polished image to the outside world; organizations present themselves to the public, and the outside world makes an impression of these organizations.
The three perspectives are often viewed separately, but they are actually interrelated and should be understood in context. Organizations are managed in a way thatdifferent specialists focus on different aspects of the organization. Knowledge about organizations is often taught in different disciplines and its presentation can be limited. To truly understand organizations, it is important to consider all three perspectives together.
The term organizational structure is often used in a vague and imprecise way. The term is often used when a more specific term would be more appropriate. It is often used as a way to avoid more precise discussions about organizational decisions. Organizational structurerefers to decisions that serve as premises or assumptions for other decisions within the organization. Understanding the concept of organizational structure is important for understanding how organizations make decisions and how they function overall.
In organizations, structures, or decision-making frameworks, are often used to simplify decision-making and reduce uncertainty, but they do not determine exactly how decisions are made. Conditional programs are pre-determined sets of steps that are followed in response to certain inputs or situations, while purpose programs set goals or objectives that must be achieved, but leave the means to achieve them open. The author argues that this can lead to a lack of accountability in decision-making as it can be difficult to determine who is responsible for a particular decision or outcome.
Also important for effective organizational decision-making is distributing the burden of proof, or responsibility for decision-making. This allows for flexibility and adaptability within organizations, as well as a more nuanced approach to decision-making.
The role of individuals within an organization is important, as their personal decision-making style can have a significant impact on the organization's decision-making process. Organizations can control the decision-making styles of individuals through hiring and firing practices, as well as through internal promotions and demotions. Internal transfers can be effective in managing an individual's decision-making style, as the organization is already familiar with the individual and their decision-making style. However, it is not a guarantee that their behavior will be the same in a different position.
Manipulating the formal structure
Organizations can manipulate their structure in order to achieve their goals. Organizations can change the communication channels, management structure, and personnel within the organization to adapt to changing circumstances. Organizations may have to rely on communication channels such as a deep hierarchy if they cannot rely on their programs or personnel. Organizations can use different structural features such as modularization and standardization of programs to shift focus away from personnel decisions.
Informal structures are created by the combination of certain expectations and the lack of accountability to official rules or guidelines. They can exist at the level of individual groups or entire departments within an organization. Informal structures can be created by a variety of factors such as cultural norms or unofficial expectations. The failure to follow these informal expectations can result in negative consequences for the individual or group who does not comply.
There are different types of informality in organizations, such as informal expectations that align with formal programs and informal communication channels that circumvent formal hierarchies. Informality can be compatible with formal rules, or can violate them. Informality can also be seen in different levels of an organization from individuals to groups to the entire organization.
Different forms of informality in organizations exist, including informal expectations that are not officially part of the organization's rules and regulations, but that are still expected to be followed by members of the organization. These can include unspoken customs, such as an expectation that colleagues will help each other out or that certain behavior will be rewarded. In some organizations, there is a functional use of informal exchange, such as bartering between employees. In other cases, the constant violation of formal expectations can lead to negative consequences for employees, who may feel that they are in a state of constant scrutiny and criticism.
Organizational Culture is often considered old fashioned and is often replaced by more trendy terms. It is often kept unclear in literature what the concept of organizational culture is and what it consists of, and how it should be studied. The dream of management is to control and shape informal processes through management, which is referred to as technocratic informalism. The book "In the Search of Excellence" by Peters and Waterman, reactivated this idea that the success of an organization depends not on its formal structure but on its culture. The promise is that if the culture is right, the organization will be successful. It is argued, though, that this idea is problematic because it implies that the culture can be managed and controlled by the management, which is not always the case.
Formalization versus informalization
Formalization in organizations can be used to control and manage informal processes. In some cases, organizations may choose to avoid formalization in order to allow for more flexibility and adaptability. An example of this is given in the context of medical treatment programs, where strict regulations can lead to doctors breaking rules in order to effectively treat patients. Organizational culture has replaced the idea of informality in management and research, but the definition of culture is often left unclear.
Organizations often seek a balance between formal hierarchies and informal networks. When formal expectations are put in place, informal structures may develop to compensate for the limitations and rigidity of the formal expectations. Individuals within an organization often have to weigh whether to take formal information seriously or to treat it as more of a formality.
Impression management is the process of creating and maintaining facades. Organizations use facades, or external appearances, to present a certain image to the outside world. These facades can be in the form of physical structures, language and communication, and even clothing. All these facades are used to create a sense of security and consistency in interactions with external parties. They are often created and maintained through conscious or unconscious copying of behaviors and language within the organization. Facades are not just present in physical spaces, but also in virtual spaces such as websites and social media. Organizations often build fascades in order to manage conflicting expectations from different stakeholders. An organization might want to reconcile conflicting demands, such as balancing traditional values with modern technology, and to maintain consistency in formal structures, such as policies and procedures. This presentation to the public can be achieved by using different methods, such as creating specific roles for spokespeople and developing different language rules for different audiences to manage these conflicting expectations. Facades alone are not enough to effectively manage the organization's image; they must be supplemented with other elements such as general value statements, communication strategies, and embellishments of the reality of the organization. The facade of an organization often differs from its formal structure, which can lead to discrepancies between the organization's image and its actual practices.
Formal versus informal structure
The separation of the formal and informal aspects of an organization allows for flexibility in addressing different expectations and requirements from different parties. Organizations maintain formal structures and at the same time respond to the specific needs of their members. Informal processes within an organization are not suitable for external representation though, as they often do not align with the desired image or values that the organization wants to project. While there may be some exceptions, in general informal processes are not used for external representation.
There is often a discrepancy between an organization's stated goals and values, and its actual practices; this is often criticized as hypocrisy. Organizations are under pressure to align their words and actions, and they sometimes make loud declarations of authenticity in order to appease this unrealistic pressure.
Because organizations often face a discrepancy between what they say they do and what they actually do, this can lead to crises of legitimacy. In response to such crises, organizations may make changes to their personnel or publicly commit to a new image. This is not a sustainable solution, though. The disconnect between the official image and actual practices is a fundamental aspect of organizational life. Organizations must find ways to align their official image with their actual practices.
The iceberg metaphor
When organizations are faced with crises, they often respond by changing personnel, as it is a quick and easy way to regain public trust and regain stability. This strategy is not effective in addressing underlying issues within the organization. The use of the iceberg metaphor, which suggests that there is more to an organization than what is visible on the surface, is often used as a way to acknowledge the existence of these underlying issues. It does not provide a concrete way to analyze and understand them, though. Therefore, the organization should focus on analyzing and understanding the structural and cultural issues below the surface level, such as power dynamics and communication channels.
In organizations, there are often things that are not spoken about or addressed, even though they have a significant impact on the functioning of the organization. This communication latency is a common issue in organizations, and it can lead to a lack of effective communication and the escalation of conflicts. Employees, consultants, and researchers can work to identify and address these unspoken issues, in order to improve the functioning of the organization.
The purpose of the book is to provide a concise and focused overview of organizations, without the author's own biases and discoveries interfering too much. The book presents a picture of organizations as social systems, using insights and examples from various theoretical perspectives. The book focuses on the front-facing aspect of organizations; other perspectives on organizations could also be presented. While the book primarily draws on the theories of systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, it also incorporates insights from other disciplines such as neo-institutionalism, micro-politics, and rational-choice theory.