Deliberate and habitual rationality

In the final pages of Chapter IV a number of distinct types of rationality were discussed briefly. In particular, it was asked whether a choice should be regarded as rational if it served a purpose (e.g., withdrawing a finger from a hot stove), or only if it were made with deliberate purpose (a skilled typist striking a particular key), or—a still stricter criterion—only if it were both deliberate and conscious. All of these kinds of rationality can be seen in organizations. Many actions are undertaken consciously and deliberately; but the underlying purposes or reasons for many other actions may not be known to the actor: the clerks’ tasks may simply be to ’ file certain papers according to account numbers: their’s not to reason why. Even if an actor has developed a procedure quite deliberately and consciously, it may in time become wholly habitual, but still retain the same utility and purpose.

Habits and routines may not only serve their purposes effectively, but also conserve scarce and costly decision-making time and attention. For that reason, a very large part of an organization’s activities (or a person’s) is likely to proceed according to established rules and routines, which may be reviewed at shorter or longer intervals for possible revision. The establishment of such rules and routines is itself a rational decision, and when we speak of rationality in organizational decision-making, we must include them and the processes for establishing them.

Some recent writings on organizations have suggested that, because of the large role played by habit and routine in organizations, it is not appropriate to describe organizational behavior in decision-making terms.15 But this is mostly a misconception. As we have just seen, the routines themselves are embodiments of “once and for all” decisions, and applying them in particular circumstances is a decision, albeit often itself a routine one. When routines take over, our analysis must turn to the processes that created them, and those that lead, from time to time, to questioning, reviewing, and periodically revising them. Since Barnard, we have been aware that determining the occasions for decision (or for not taking a decision) is itself a key element in the decision process.

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

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