Ecological Perspectives on Organizational Change

Although organizational processes figure prominently in social change, most macrosociological theory and research make little reference to systematic research on organizations. In Chapter 2 we argue that this situation reflects the partial intellectual isolation of the field of organizational sociology from the rest of the discipline during the 1960s and 1970s. Organizational sociologists made considerable progress during this period in developing methods for analyzing variations in organizational structures and, to some extent, in developing theories to account for these variations. However, the field became preoccupied with a narrow set of static concerns focused mainly on the interrelations of various aspects of formal structure (and with the effects of size and technology on these characteristics). Progress in addressing these narrow issues was achieved at the expense of a retreat from concern with classic problems of the relations of organizations to society and the effects of organizations on social change and levels of inequality.

But during the later 1970s organizational sociology began to return to its roots in political sociology and more generally in macrosociology. Research has shifted from a narrow concern with internal arrangements to the fundamental questions asked earlier by Marx, Weber, Michels, and other pioneering theorists. Theory and research on organizations are once again studying (1) how social and historical transformation has affected the world of organizations, and (2) what role organizational diversity and change play in creating and shaping social change. Contributions have come from diverse directions but nonetheless suggest some common ground for debate. Recent work in population ecology has specified how social changes affect forms of organization as well as how competition shapes the diversity of forms (Hannan and Freeman 1977, 1984, 1987; Carroll 1987, 1988). Institutionalists have developed linkages between broad social norms, especially norms of formal rationality, and organizational arrangements (Meyer and Scott 1983). Recent Marxist work has noted that organizations have become key arenas in struggles for control over the labor process and that organizational structure reflects the character of this struggle (Burawoy 1979; Gordon, Edwards, and Reich 1982).

These and other important strands of organizational theory and research disagree about the processes shaping the world of organizations. The con- temporary literature contains at least three broad points of view on organi- zational change. Each speaks to questions concerning organizational diversity and social change.

Selection Theories

The ecological theories developed in this book hold that most of the variability in the core structures of organizations comes about through the creation of new organizations and organizational forms and the demise of old ones. These perspectives argue that existing organizations, especially the largest and most powerful, rarely change strategy and structure quickly enough to keep up with the demands of uncertain, changing environments. They emphasize that major innovations in organizational strategy and structure occur early in the life histories of individual organizations and of organizational populations.

Adaptation Theories

A second view, which might be called adaptation theory, proposes that organizational variability reflects designed changes in the strategy and structure of individual organizations in response to environmental changes, threats, and opportunities. The numerous variants of this perspective differ widely on other dimensions. Contingency theories emphasize structural changes that match organizational structures to combinations of technologies and environments (Thompson 1967; Lawrence and Lorsch 1967). Resource dependence theories emphasize structural changes that neutralize sources of environmental uncertainty (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). An institutional version of this perspective holds that organizational structures adapt rationally to prevailing norma- tively endorsed modes of organizing (Meyer and Scott 1983). Marxist theories of organization typically assert that organizational structures are rational solutions for capitalist owners to the problem of maintaining control over the labor process (Burawoy 1979).

All adaptation theories agree that the largest, oldest, and most powerful organizations have superior capacities for adapting to environmental cir- cumstances. Size and power enable organizations to create specialized units to deal with emerging environmental problems. More important, these characteristics convey a capacity to intercede in the environment and to forestall or direct change.

Random Transformation Theories

The third broad perspective, which might be called random transformation theory, claims that organizations change their structures mainly in response to endogenous processes but that such changes are only loosely coupled with the desires of organizational leaders and with the demands and threats of environments (March and Olsen 1976). This view emphasizes the ubiquity of organizational change and the fact that it is usually random with respect to both the goals of the organization and the demands of the environment.

Progress in explaining organizational diversity and change requires un- derstanding both the nature of organizational change and the degree to which it can be planned and controlled. In this book we concentrate mainly on the first issue: does most of the observed variability in organizational features reflect changes in existing organizations, whether planned or not, or does it reflect changes in populations, with relatively inert organizations replacing one another? In other words, does change in major features of organizations over time reflect mainly adaptation or selection and replacement?

There is a subtle relation between adaptation and selection that depends crucially on the choice of level of analysis. Adaptive learning for individuals usually consists of selection among behavioral responses. Adaptation for a population involves selection among members. More generally, processes involving selection can usually be recast at a higher level of analysis as adaptation processes. However, once the unit of analysis is chosen there is no ambiguity in distinguishing selection from adaptation.

Source: Hannan Michael T., Freeman John (1993), Organizational Ecology, Harvard University Press; Reprint edition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *