The process of composite decision

It should be perfectly apparent that almost no decision made in an orga- nization is the task of a single individual. Even though the final responsibility for taking a particular action rests with some definite person, we shall always find, in studying the manner in which this decision was reached, that its various components can be traced through the formal and informal channels of communication to many individuals who have participated in forming its premises. When all of these components have been identified, it may appear that the contribution of the individual who made the formal decision was a minor one, indeed.94

We may see the treasurer of a corporation affix his signature to a contract whereby the corporation borrows a sum of money to finance a particular project. The treasurer evidently has authority to make this decision for the organization and to commit the organization to it; but what steps preceded his decision? Perhaps the chief engineer (acting, no doubt, on information and analyses communicated to him by his subordinates) decides that for the adequate operation of a technological system there should be a particular structure that his department has designed at an anticipated cost of five hundred thousand dollars.

The general manager to whom he reports does not object to the proposal from the technological standpoint, but doubts that its value is sufficient to justify so large an expenditure; but before making a decision he consults the president or some members of the board as to their willingness to approve the risk of additional investment, as to the feasibility of financing, and as to the time of financing. This results in a decision to ask for a revision and curtailment of the proposal, and plans are redrafted in the engineering department to reduce the cost to four hundred thousand dollars. The proposal is then formally drawn up, approved by the chief engineer and the officers, and presented to the board. The questions then are: should the project be approved, and how should it be financed? It is approved, but it is suggested that in view of the danger of error of estimate, financing to the amount of four hundred fifty thousand dollars should be sought because otherwise the financial position of the company would be embarrassed if the cost should exceed four hundred thousand. Then, after much discussion, it is decided to finance by means of a mortgage loan at an interest rate not exceeding a certain amount, preferably placed with Company X, and the officers are authorized by the board of directors to proceed. Company X, however, when consulted is not interested in the proposal at the interest rate suggested and on examination of the plans thinks the engineering aspects call for revision. The matter goes through the same process again, and so on.

In the end, the officer making the final negotiation or signing the contract, though appearing to decide at least the major questions, is reduced almost to performing a ministerial function. The maj or decisions were made neither by the board nor by any officer, nor formally by any group; they evolved through the interaction of many decisions both of individuals and by committees and boards. No one man is likely to be aware of all the decisions entering into the process or of who made them, or of the interaction through a period of time that modified decisions at one point and another. That decision is almost always a composite process of this sort will be illustrated further in a later section of this chapter that deals with the planning process.

From the standpoint of process, it is useful to view composite decision from the standpoint of the individual who makes a decision, in order to see (a) how much discretion is actually left him, and (b) what methods the organization uses to influence the decisional premises he selects.

1. The Degrees of Influence

Influence is exercised in its most complete form when a decision promulgated by one person governs every aspect of the behavior of another. On the parade ground, the marching soldier is permitted no discretion whatsoever. His every step, his bearing, the length of his pace are all governed by authority. Frederick the Great is reported to have found the parade- ground deportment of his Guards perfect—with one flaw. “They breathe,” he complained. Few other examples could be cited, however, of the exercise of influence in unlimited form.

Most often, influence places only partial limits upon the exercise of discretion. A subordinate may be told what to do, but given considerable leeway as to how he will carry out the task. The “what” is, of course, a matter of degree, and may be specified within narrower or broader limits. A charter which states in general terms the function of a city fire department places much less severe limits upon the discretion of the fire chief than the commands of a captain at the scene of a conflagration place on the discretion of the firemen.

A realistic analysis of influence in general and authority in particular must recognize that influence can be exercised with all degrees of specificity. To determine the scope of influence or authority which is exercised in any concrete case, it is necessary to dissect the decisions of the subordinate into their component parts, and then determine which of these parts are determined by the superior and which are left to the subordinate’s discretion.

The behavior of a rational person can be controlled, therefore, if the value and factual premises upon which he bases his decisions are specified for him. This control can be complete or partial—all the premises can be specified, or some can be left to his discretion. Influence, then, is exercised through control over the premises of decision. It is required that the decisions of the subordinate shall be consistent with premises selected for him by his superior. The scope of authority, and conversely the scope of discretion, are determined by the number and importance of the premises which are specified, and the number and importance of those which are left unspecified. As pointed out previously, discretion over value premises has a different logical status from discretion over factual premises. The latter can always be evaluated as “right” or “wrong” in an objective, empirical sense. To the former, the terms “right” and “wrong” do not apply. Hence, if only factual premises are left to the subordinate’s discretion, there is, under the given circumstances, only one decision which he can “correctly” reach. On the other hand, if value premises are left to the subordinate’s discretion, the “correctness” of a decision will depend upon the value premises he has selected, and there is no criterion of right or wrong which can be applied to his selection.

When it is admitted that authority need extend to only a few of the premises of decision, it follows that more than one order can govern a given decision, provided that no two orders extend to the same premise. An analysis of almost any decision of a member of a formal organization would reveal that the decision is responsive to a very complex structure of influence.

Military organization affords an excellent illustration of this. In ancient warfare, the battlefield was not unlike the parade ground. An entire army was often commanded by a single man, and his authority extended in a very complete form to the lowest man in the ranks. This was possible because the entire battlefield was within range of a man’s voice and vision, and because tactics were for the most part executed by the entire army in unison.

The modem battlefield presents a very different picture. Authority is exercised through a complex hierarchy of command. Each level of the hierarchy leaves an extensive area of discretion to the level below, and even the private soldier, under combat conditions, exercises a considerable measure of discretion.

He does this by specifying the general mission and objective of each unit on the next level below, and by determining such elements of time and place as will assure a proper coordination among units. The colonel assigns to each battalion in his regiment its task; the major, to each company in his battalion; the captain, to each platoon in his company. Beyond this, the officer does not ordinarily go. The internal arrangements of Army Field Service Regulations specify that “an order should not trespass upon the province of a subordinate. It should contain everything beyond the independent authority of the subordinate, but nothing more.”2

So far as field orders go, then, the discretion of an officer is limited only by the specification of the objective of his unit, and its general schedule. He proceeds to narrow further the discretion of his subordinates so far as is necessary to specify what part each subunit is to play in accomplishing the task of the unit.

Does this mean that the discretion of the officer is limited only by his objective or mission? Not at all. To be sure, the field order does not go beyond this point. It specifies the what of his action. But the officer is also governed by the tactical doctrine and general orders of the army which specify in some detail the how. When the captain receives field orders to deploy his company for an attack, he is expected to carry out the deployment in accordance with the accepted tactical principles in the army. In leading his unit, he will be held accountable for the how as well as the what.

When we turn our attention, finally, to the man who carries out the army’s task—the private soldier—we see that a great mass of influences bear upon the decisions which he makes. The decision that he will participate in an attack may have been made by a divisional, or even a corps, commander. His precise geographical location and place in the attack will be determined with ever increasing degrees of specificity by general, colonel, major, captain, lieutenant, sergeant in turn. But that is not all. The plan of attack which the captain determines upon will be a result not only of the field orders he receives, but also of the tactical training he has received, and his intelligence of the disposition of the enemy. So also the private, as he moves forward to the attack in the skirmish line, must thenceforth rely more and more upon the influences of his training and indoctrination.

To understand the process of decision in an organization, it is necessary to go far beyond the on-the-spot orders that are given by superior to subordinate. It is necessary to discover how the subordinate is influenced by standing orders, by training, and by review of his actions. It is necessary to study the channels of communication in the organization in order to determine what information reaches him which may be relevant to his decisions. The broader the sphere of discretion left to the subordinate, the more important become those types of influence which do not depend upon the exercise of formal authority.

2. The Modes of Influence

The ways in which the organization brings its influence to bear on the decisions of the individual have been enumerated in Chapter I. The “external” influences include authority, advice and information, and training. The “internal” influences include the criterion of efficiency and organizational identifications. Each of these has been discussed at length in preceding chapters, and that discussion does not need repetition here.

It is a fundamental problem of organization to determine the extent to which, and the manner in which, each of these forms of influence is to be employed. To a very great extent, these various forms of influence are interchangeable, a fact that is far more often appreciated in small than in large organizations.

The simplest example of this is the gradual increase in discretion that can be permitted to an employee as he becomes familiar with his job. A secretary learns to draft routine correspondence; a statistical clerk learns to lay out his own calculations. In each case training has taken the place of authority in guiding the employee’s decisions.

“Functional supervision” often takes the form of advice rather than authority. This substitution of advice for authority may prove necessary in many situations in order to prevent conflicts of authority between line officers, organized on a geographical basis, and experts organized on a functional basis.

To the extent to which these forms of influence supplement, or are substituted for, authority, the problem of influence becomes one of internal education and public relations. Following is an example of this kind of influence:

To the administration of a big department, the staff of the department themselves constitute a kind of inner “public,” the right orientation of whose attitudes to each other in their mutual office contacts, in the inevitable absence of the direct personal touch which secures it in a small organization, would seem prima facie to call for just the same kind of attention the same “practical psychology” or “salesmanship” as their

Consider, for example, the machinery for preparing official instruc- tions to the staff     Do not official instructions tend to be drafted too rationalistically? Is not the draftsman’s attention often concentrated too exclusively on framing a logical statement setting accurately and comprehensively what ought to be done? … But after all, the primary object of an instruction is not to be admired by critical specialists in the same office; an instruction is intended to be acted on, and that by peo- pie who are as a rule neither critical, nor specialists, nor in the same office— in other words, to produce such an impression on the ultimate recipient that on receiving it, he will forthwith proceed to do what is required of him.3

Administrators have increasingly recognized in recent years that authority, unless buttressed by other forms of influence, is relatively impotent to control decision in any but a negative way. The elements entering into all but the most routine decisions are so numerous and so complex that it is impossible to control positively more than a few. Unless the subordinate is himself able to supply most of the premises of decision, and to synthesize them adequately, the task of supervision becomes hopelessly burdensome.

When viewed from this standpoint, the problem of organization becomes inextricably interwoven with the problem of recruitment. For the system of influence which can effectively be used in the organization will depend directly upon the training and competence of the employees at the various levels of the hierarchy. If a welfare agency can secure trained social workers as interviewers and case workers, broad discretion can be permitted them in determining eligibility, subject only to a sampling review, and a review of particularly difficult cases.

If trained workers can be obtained only for supervisory positions, then the supervisors will need to exercise a much more complete supervision over their subordinates, perhaps reviewing each decision, and issuing frequent instructions. The supervisory problem will be correspondingly more burdensome than in the first example, and the effective span of control of supervisors correspondingly narrower.

Likewise, when an organization unit is large enough to retain within its own boundaries the specialized expertise that is required for some of its decisions, the need for functional supervision from other portions of the organization becomes correspondingly less. When a department can secure its own legal, medical, or other expert assistance, the problems of functional organization become correspondingly simpler, and the lines of direct authority over the department need less supplementation by advisory and informational services.

Hence, problems of organization cannot be considered apart from the specifications of the employees who are to fill the positions established by the organization. The whole subject of job classification needs to be brought into much closer coordination with the theory of organization. The optimum organizational structure is a variable, depending for its form upon the staffing of the agency. Conversely, the classification of a position is a variable, depending upon the degree of centralization or decentralization which is desired or anticipated in the operation of the organizational form.

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

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