Determinants of the Enactment Process of Organizations

Noting that an organization’s environment is enacted, or created by attentional processes, tends to shift theJhcusMrom-chaxactfixis,tics,of important dimensions to tins decision: some are relevant when the attentional process is considered at a point in time; and others are relevant when the attentional process is considered over time.

At a given point in time, the attentional process is determined largely by the structure of the organization, the structure of the infor- mation system in the organization, and the activities of the organiza-transmission through the organization. The fact that certain information is regularly collected focuses the organization’s attention on it The collection of certain information occupies the time and attention of the organization, which necessarily restricts the time and attention devoted elsewhere. Second, the fact of its existence and prominence conveys the impression that the information is somehow important. New entrants to the organization will accept this importance and begin to construct their perceptions of the organization and its problems around the available information. Third, the availability of the information will create a demand for the use of the information. It is evident that the information system creates a demand for certain details, as well as their supply. If reports on market share are prepared monthly, when they are not prepared on time, there will probably be a demand within the organization for them. Theoretically information systems are designed and created to provide the information the decision maker requires, but that is an impossible task because the decision maker does not know what he needs but only what is available. The available information provides cues to what is considered organizationally important and provides the  information which will tend to be used by decision makers.

The information system also focuses attention on some aspects of the organization’s environment, and since attention requires time and resources, both of which are scarce, it can be reasonably argued that certain things are noticed while others are not, with a trade-off being made in the attention process. Seen as similar to one of Cyert and March’s (1963) standard operating procedures, the information system can be viewed as providing a memory for the organization. The information system indicates what aspects of the environment the organization believes are important and provides information on what portions of the environment are considered by the organization.

An organization’s information system focuses not only the attention but also the behavior of organizational members. Ridgway (1956), who examined some of the functions and dysfunctions of performance measurement within organizations, noted that the act of measurement frequently had unanticipated consequences. An example is Blau’s (1955) observations about a public employment agency. At one point in this agency’s history, employment interviewers were appraised by the number of interviews they conducted. As a consequence, they interviewed as rapidly as possible. The specific needs of job seekers or employers for a certain job or certain skills were overlooked. Later, in addition to sheer numbers of interviews, the agency kept records on other performance information, including referrals of applicants which were weighted according to their difficulty of placement. Behavior of interviewers changed accordingly. Blau (1955) also looked into a federal investigative agency, where he noted that employee’s behavior was structured around the cycle of accounting periods. At the end of an accounting period when pressured to look good, employees took on easy jobs to fill the records; difficult cases were tackled only at the beginning of a measurement period. Granick (1954) found that the glory of setting a new production record in a Soviet factory led managers to go all out one month, pushing both the men and equipment quite hard. After the record was established, production fell off. Berliner ( 1956 ) found that even without trying for a record, Soviet administrators practiced “storming” just to meet production quotas, neglecting repairs and maintenance at the end of the month. Then, the following month, the overdue maintenance was done early, the factory fell behind, and a new cycle of storming began.

The important point is not merely that measurement affects behavior, but that what gets measured focuses activity and behavior. When the employment agency studied by Blau began to collect eight measures of performance, behavior adjusted to fit each aspect of performance measured. “Even where performance measures are instituted purely for purposes of information, they are probably interpreted as definitions of important aspects of that job or activity and hence have important implications for the motivation of behavior” (Ridgway, 1956:247). Moreover, the collection of information on something means that it can be included in organizational decisions. Without information about it, it is not likely that the factor will be used in determining organizational behavior.

Since organizations adapt to, or deal with, environments they enact, “the analysis of organizational behavior will be enhanced by a descriptive analysis of the determinants of organizational information systems and other elements that help to determine the attentional process in the organization. What factors may lead organizations to collect information on certain aspects of their environment or their operations? One is the sheer ease of collecting the information. Reports about production are more readily collected and, therefore, more likely to be than reports about markets. Another possible dimension is the ease of processing the information, or fitting it into a presentable and transmittable form. This would place a premium on information which is quantifiable and easily measurable. Information about markets and production are more likely, then, than intelligence reports on government activities and possible legislation.

In addition to these simple features of the information, the attention of the organization is also likely to be determined by the necessity for the information, that is, its relevance to problems and operations. There are fovo aspects to the necessity dimension. One is that the activity being monitored is critical to the operations of the organization, either because it represents a dominant portion of the activity or because it is central to all other activities. Many universities, for in-stance, collect information on the publishing activities of their faculty and relatively little information about teaching. Obviously, this priority for information reflects the organizations’ definition of their critical functions. As these definitions change, frequently in response to environmental demands, so does the information system. The second aspect of necessity is the utility of the information in decision making. Information reduces uncertainty. It no uncertainty is experienced with respect to a certain sphere of activity, collecting information is unnecessary. A firm which never experiences difficulty in disposing of its products or services does not need a lot of market research. Data about the market becomes necessary only when the organization has difficulty predicting future demand relative to planned production, particularly when production schedules and levels cannot be altered easily.

Another critical determinant of the decision to collect information is the structure of~tEe organization. Information is not neutral. The more important a problem is, the more important it becomes to have information about the problem, and the more important are those who control or gather the information. One would suspect that subunits, which are themselves concerned with their own survival and power in the organization, would collect information which enhances their own value in organizational decision making or which convinces others in the organization that they have information needed for organizational problems. In either case, attentional processes^are determined bv the organizations own structure of influence. As Katz and Kahn (1966) and Downs ( 1967 ) have noted, organizational subunits have dynamics of their own; they act to enhance their power and prestige relative to other departments in the organization. Subunits established to examine or deal with some aspect of the environment, then, will attempt to show that ( a ) that aspect is the most important part of the environment for fihe.organization, and (b) the subunit is doing a good job of dêâïïng~with it. It is almost a management adage that when something becomes a problem, one establishes a department to deal with it. A converse implication is that organizational units already dealing with some aspects of the environment will emphasize those environmental aspects as meriting the organization’s attention, A public relations department, once established, makes public images a more important concern of the organization. If a department of market research is established, the customer will become a more salient and important part of the environment. If a legislative relations unit is established, the legislatures with which the organization deals will now become more important to it.

Organizations also establish units to screen out information and protect the organization’s operations from external influences. The Nixon White House has been characterized as an elaborate filtering mechanism for protecting its occupant from external information. When critical comments were made by outsiders, these would be clarified by pointing out the questionable sources that produced them. Many business firms establish consumer complaint divisions to achieve the same purpose. The complaints received by the organization are routed to the complaint division where they are handled. The complaints, however, rarely arouse organizational action because the individuals responsible for handling the complaints are used to seeing them and, moreover, the complaints are localized in a subunit which is seldom structurally well connected to the operating units of the organization.

The establishment of departments and the development of information systems are both partly guided by considerations of adaptation. Organizations learn what portions of the environment to attend to thrnngh past experience. Caught off guard by some consumer organization, an organization will probably develop a surveillance system to keep that portion of the environment in focus. Organizations learn to attend to new sectors of their environments when these sectors begin to demand certain performances of the organization. Those that do not develop new, appropriate information systems are less likely to survive. Either through adaptation or selection a similar result will emerge—as environments change, organizational information processing and attentional mechanisms will change.

Because the environment is enacted through organizational processes of attention and because these processes themselves are developed as organizations respond to the environment, the organization is, in a sense, always lagging. It’s attentional processes are inevitably focused on what had been important in the past. Weick has argued that planning is retrospective. One reason for this should be apparent. Planning is customarily done with the information and organizational structures that developed to deal with past environmental contingencies. The environment enacted for planning is some portion of the organization’s past environment, which will not necessarily be relevant to the changing context of the organization’s future. It takes time to build new information structures, and the structures that exist are guarded by the departments representing them. The failure of the canning company which Emery and Trist (1965) described may not have been caused by a turbulent environment so much as by the organization’s being trapped in the history of its own success.

Source: Pfeffer Jeffrey, Salancik Gerald (2003), The External Control of Organizations: A Resource Dependence Perspective, Stanford Business Books; 1st edition

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