A half century of growth in organization theory

The commentaries on the preceding chapters of Administrative Behavior mainly examined the important new ideas that have been injected into organization theory by the half century of research and observation since the book was first published. The purpose of these final comments is to observe how these ideas are related to the text that antedates them.

In the course of the discussion it will become evident that I see strong continuity extending from the writings on “classical” organizational theory right down to the present time. Sometimes this continuity is obscured in the literature by talk of “schools” of management,96 sometimes by the invention of new terminology when particular ideas attract the attention of researchers and are expanded (and renamed in the process). I hope that the emphasis on continuity will not encourage the false idea that “it was all there already in 1947.” On the contrary, there has been massive and continuous progress in management theory, which I hope is reflected in these commentaries. But the new knowledge amplifies rather than deconstructs what we knew earlier.

1. Human Relations

The so-called human relations movement in management, whose origins antedated by about two decades the appearance of Administrative Behavior, shows its influence in the book’s treatment of authority and identification, and generally in its emphasis upon psychological mechanisms in management in general. The earliest human relations theme was worker participation in decision-making; which spawned a great deal of research about the effects of participation on morale and the relation between employee morale and productivity.13

The participation theme subsequently provided some of the groundwork for the more general attacks on authority and hierarchy that began to appear in the 1960s and ’70s, and the concerns with self-actualization of human beings in the workplace. These developments have been discussed, in relation to the balance of inducements and contributions, in the commentary to Chapter VI; and in relation to authority, in the commentary to Chapter VII.14

2. Rationality and Intuition

Because of its emphasis on motivation and the emotions, the human relations research also played a part in generating objections to what was regarded as the excessively rational stance of other management models. But perhaps even more important than human relations for raising the rational-versus-intuitive issue was a reaction of skeptics to the enthusiasm for the quantitative tools of operations research, management science, and economic analysis that appeared after World War II.

Administrative Behavior found itself in an interesting position in the middle of this controversy, and like most occupants of the middle, it was sometimes attacked from both sides. On the one side, classical economists resisted the adjective in the phrase “bounded rationality,” and have only recently shown any willingness to depart from a strict utility-maximizing model. On the other side, non-quantitative students of management resisted the noun “rational,” believing that it left too little room for the intuitive component of human thinking. Both issues were addressed at some length in the commentary to Chapter V.

As conventional wisdom insists that in such controversies truth seldom lies at the extremes, I take comfort from the position of Administrative Behavior somewhere close to the middle. While challenging the adherence of most economic analysis to unlimited rationality, this book also shows how “intuitive” thinking can be analyzed as a (boundedly) rational process which needs no veil of mystery.

Intuition enables the expert’s rapid recognition of and response to situations that are marked by familiar cues, and thereby give access to large bodies of knowledge assembled through training and experience. This indexed encyclopedia in expert heads provides the basic mechanism for expert behavior and organizational routine.

3. Contingency Theory

The idea that different tasks and different environments call for different organization structures, an idea generally called “contingency theory,” comes straight out of the challenge in Chapter II to the proverbs of administration as universal principles of structure. The commentary to that chapter describes the relation between the critique of the proverbs and contingency, illustrating it by examples of accounting organization and the organization of product development. Two additional and more elaborate examples are presented at the end of the present commentary.

4. Authority Relations

One of the proverbs challenged by Administrative Behavior was the principle of unity of command, which was replaced by Barnard’s more sophisticated theory of the authority relation. While there now seems to be considerable consensus about the nature of authority and the way it actually operates, there is much less consensus about how authority should be

5. Computers and Communications

The new electronic technologies that began to emerge just as the first edition of this book was published have attracted, as they should, enormous attention, and have already had a large impact on organizations, especially in automating much routine clerical work as well as most engineering computation. Effects on the structure of organizations are less easy to define, but the possibilities of major future changes should not be dismissed. These issues are discussed, with what I hope is the appropriate degree of tentativeness, in the commentary to Chapter VIII.

6. Identification and Organizational Loyalty

It has become steadily clearer over the years that identification strengthens enormously the motivations provided by tangible rewards and the employment contract to work toward organizational goals. Meanwhile, a great deal has been learned about the psychological bases for identification: both the cognitive bases that derive from bounded rationality and selective attention to the environment, and the emotional bases that arise out of the exploitation by organizations of human altmism—the latter explained, in turn, by the interaction of bounded rationality with docility. These matters are discussed in Chapter X and brought up to date in the commentary to that chapter.

7. Organizational Culture

The rather new interest in organizational culture appears to be identical, except for the language that is used, with the long-established interest in the ways in which organization members characterize their environments and organizations. Hence, it has a close connection with contingency theory and with goals and representations, topics that are discussed in Chapters V and X and their commentaries, the commentary to Chapter II, and the remainder of this commentary.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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