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Organization theories- Book Review

1 July 2006

Dr. Moria Levy

Knowledge management does not function in isolation. It is widely acknowledged that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions in this domain, and each solution must be customized to the organization in which it is being implemented. Organizations within the same professional field differ in values, organizational culture, sharing practices, process nature, computing environment, and computing habits.

Therefore, despite apparent similarities, the nature and nuances of solutions and the intricacies of their implementation vary and are adapted to each unique organization. A profound understanding of organizational processes and operations is undoubtedly crucial in this context, falling within the realm of organizational theory.

Organizational theory delves into the dynamics of individuals and groups within an organizational structure alongside the inherent nature of organizations. Like other behavioral sciences, this field seeks to analyze, predict, and explain behaviors, aiming to equip practitioners with tools to enhance organizational performance and foster the development of the organization and its employees.

Mary Jo Hatch's book, co-authored by Anne Conliffe, stands out as a comprehensive resource. The book thoroughly reviews organizational theories, tracing their evolution from the inception of this science (Smith 1776 and later Marx 1867) to the present day. While the book was initially penned a decade ago, its relevance endures, with examples resonating with readers even in the current era shaped by computing and globalization trends.

Despite time, the book continues to be recommended for every reader. A 2006 edition has further enriched its content, incorporating updated examples and introducing new teachings, some of which are still in the developmental stages.

In her book, Hatch critically examines organizational theories, focusing on three complementary aspects:

  • Historical Development (over the years)

  • Ingredient Broth

  • Perspective

The examination of these theories is anchored in five primary circles: the individual, the group, the organization, the external network (partners, suppliers, customers, authorities, competitors, trade unions, and stakeholders), and the overall environment (constitutional, cultural, political, social, technological, economic, and physical). These circuits can be conceptually outlined as follows:

These circles collaboratively shape the organization's behavior and mutually influence each other.

What is the Ingredient Broth? Hatch defines the various theories based on four main components:

  • Social Structure: This area is primarily concerned with defining structures and their impact on organizational performance. Different structures (hierarchical, matrix, M structure, etc.) suit organizations with varying needs, sizes, and life cycle stages. It's essential to recognize that no single structure prevails, and even within the same company, a single structure may not endure over time. Decisions on when to change and what is preferable should be context-dependent.

  • Technology: A broader term than commonly ascribed, encompassing products, services, tools, and equipment that facilitate company activities. This also includes tasks, work processes, and the knowledge required for their realization. While technologies may translate input into output, their influence is far-reaching, extending to the social structure, among other aspects.

  • Culture: Organizations possess an organizational culture, including subcultures within groups. Notably, in mergers, acquisitions, and global companies, internal organizational cultural differences are pronounced and stem from the diverse cultures of the countries involved. Per Shine's model, organizational culture is perceptually based on objects created by the organization, norms, values, beliefs, basic assumptions, and physical language and behavior symbols. Understanding culture is a management tool, and engagement in this field enhances organizational performance.

  • Physical Structure: Despite its seeming secondary nature, physical structure significantly impacts organizational conduct. Factors such as location, proximity to critical functionaries, open or closed spaces, and symbols accompanying the structure influence an individual's feelings, perception of their role in the social structure, and performance. The physical structure also shapes the company's image to competitors, partners, and the entire external network. Formal and informal clues within the physical structure provide insights into the organization's values, helping to understand organizational identity and social structure, including power dynamics and hierarchy. Influencing the physical structure can, in turn, affect the behavior of individuals within the organization.

In examining organizational theories with a focus on each of the mentioned components, Hatch identifies three primary perspectives that characterize various movements:

  1. Modern Perspective:

    a. Adopts a realistic approach, analyzing each subject objectively.

    b. According to this perspective, organization theory involves studying and controlling universal laws, methods, and techniques within organizations.

    c. This method favors rational schemes, laws, work procedures, and orderly guidelines.

    d. Prominent among theorists in the 1960s and 1970s.

  2. Symbolic Perspective:

    a. Describes how individuals give meaning and order to their experiences in different contexts through symbolic and interpretive behaviors, processes, and methods.

    b. Sometimes referred to as symbolic-interpretive, this perspective is almost the opposite of modern objectivity due to its definition of organizational conduct as subjective.

    c. Gained acceptance among theorists in the 1980s.

  3. Postmodern Perspective:

    a. Advocates for abolishing and dismantling existing organizational content and modern conceptions of organizational theories.

    b. Embraces a fluid framework with multiple points of view, rejecting the idea of a single truth.

    c. Encourages reflection and comprehensive methods for organizing processes and modeling theories.

    d. Gained acceptance among theorists in the 1990s.

These perspectives offer distinct lenses through which organizational theories are viewed, reflecting shifts in thoughts and approaches across different periods.

Addressing the plethora of theories spanning various axes in knowledge management, particularly lessons learned, necessitates a thoughtful approach. Here's a refined version of the text:

How do we navigate the myriad theories in knowledge management, covering general principles and the specific domain of lessons learned?

Firstly, it's crucial to recognize that, similar to the absence of a singular theory for success, there is no universally triumphant "knowledge management" solution. Similarly, no single methodology reigns supreme. As with organizational theories, various tools and methods exist. The key lies in carefully examining the context, selecting the one that aligns best with specific circumstances, and then fine-tuning and adapting the solution to maximize its fit within the operational group.

Focusing specifically on lessons learned, Hatch lays the groundwork for organizations to refrain from contenting themselves with a solitary learning method. Defining multiple methods and strategically deciding which to activate and when is imperative. With this nuanced approach, fully leveraging the learning process becomes easier.

Secondly, it's essential to recognize that every lessons learned process is akin to formulating a small theory about the appropriate future organizational conduct, whether related to technological processes, culture, or any other organizational aspect. However, in organizational theories, heightened levels of abstraction often result in relatively comprehensive theories. The peril in such theories lies in an excess of generalization, creating a detachment from reality and a theory that fails to represent real-world conditions accurately. This danger is mirrored in the inherent risk of overgeneralization in lessons learned. While generalization is essential for broad applicability (identifying where else the lesson holds), an excessive inclination toward generalization limits reuse and hampers achieving performance improvement potential. Careful consideration is needed, as Hatch describes, to avoid falling into this trap at both the organizational theory and lessons learned levels.

Thirdly, as Hatch approaches the conclusion of her book, she delves into new organizational theories, including social network theories. Here, the emphasis lies on the potency of multiple weak connections. The more networks individuals share, and the lower the coupling (with no dominant connection), the more substantial the exchange and development of knowledge between partners. Weak connections are facilitative in accommodating change and projection, while multiple connections incorporate diverse perspectives and additional knowledge, forming the foundation for developing novel aggregate understanding. This is a significant point to ponder when establishing organizational knowledge communities.

In her book's concluding statement, Hatch imparts a powerful message: "If you want to take one thing from my book, I hope it will be this: appreciate how others understand their world, even as you construct your world by observing them."

Concluding with a series of poignant quotes, I'd like to share the wisdom of John of Salisbury, whose analogy from 1159 remains remarkably relevant today: "We usually know more, not because we have advanced our more natural abilities, but because we have relied on the strengths and wealth of others, the same knowledge we inherited from our ancestors before us." Bernard Charter likened us to little dwarves seated on the shoulders of giants, emphasizing that our ability to see farther and comprehend more is not due to the sharpness of our vision or our great height but rather our ascent to greater heights, propelled by the stature and accomplishments of those who came before us. If this isn't the very essence of knowledge management, then what is?

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