You are here


'Organization' refers to something made up of elements, or members, with varied functions and characteristics, organized into a whole with a collective function, purpose, and causality. It is a group of elements that is both complex and organized, structured in some meaningful manner. Organization is a phenomenon.

Note: Look over the definitionsnew of organization, organizations, organize, organizing, organization design, etc. to capture a more robust picture of ""things organized"".

John Roberts' (2004, pp 16-17) definition --
The organization is the means through which the activities of the strategy are to be carries out and the strategy is to be implemented. Any firm's organization is multifaceted, and the range of organization variables is mind-boggling. See organization design for an organization taxonomy that identifies its variables.

Change and stability in organizations --
Organization of any kind, whether in nature or in human action, can be thought of as the interplay of stability and change. In the case of business organizations, the basic concerns are with continuity and innovation. This dynamic interplay can be described as paradoxical, being between --

  • stability and change
  • replication and novelty
  • continuity and transformation
  • decay and generation
  • sameness of identity and difference of changes in that identity
  • exploitation and exploration

Given this dynamic interplay, the fundamental question about organization then follows - what are the sources of both the stability and change, the continuity and novelty, the decay and generation, of both the identity and the difference? This is a question that has to do with causality -- why organizations become what they become. There has been a centuries old debate about stability and change - one side emphasizes the stability and the predictable nature of change, the other side emphasizes change and its unpredictable nature. See causality, teleology, and history of causality for notions about the cause of change and stability in organizations and the classification of these causes. (Stacey, 2000, 12 - 13)

Organization vs. organizations --
Contrast organization with organizations. See organizational theory for the different natural science views of organization.

Organization vs. system --
Also, contrast organization with system. A system is an abstraction used to explain organization. As such, system is a perspective of organization that seeks to explain that organization. A particular organization -- with its characteristics, behaviors, and functions -- may or may not fit a system perspective. Complexity science offers alternative perspectives of organization than those of systems science. See science for explanations of science, sciences, and branches of science.

Causality - ways of thinking about organization (Stacey, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2007) --
Causality refers to the relationship between cause and effect. In the context of organization, causality refers to how organization comes about and how an organization becomes what it becomes. Organization causality and ways of thinking about organization are two sides of the same coin. When one is explicitly examined it sheds light on the other and bringing them both to the forefront of management thinking enables better judgment in application of management techniques.

Below are three causal perspectives of organization that dominate management discourse, rationalist, efficient, formative, and a fourth, transformative, that answers the question of causality radically differently from the other three. Though not yet a significant part of the dominant management discourse, transformative causality is included not just because of its sound philosophical, psychological, and complexity science basis, but also because it is consistent with the self-organization found in all complex organizations, offering an insightful explanation for organization evolution -- how 'things get done anyway' without command and control, following predefined processes, and executive decisions --

  • rationalist causality, rational choice thinking -- this type of thinking originates with Kant's explanations of human autonomy and freedom to choose regulated by universal ethics. This type of thinking does not pertain to organization itself, as in a causality within the organization itself, but it pertains to the outside objective observer designer who determines what the organization will be, makes decisions, and takes actions to form, or transform, an organization.

    With rationalist causality, the nature of organization movement is towards rationally chosen goals for the future in order to realize a designed, desired state. The cause of the movement is human reason. (Stacey 2007, pp 246). Novelty, and thus innovation, is possible, because human freedom means the never-existing-before can be chosen. Thus novel forms of organizations can be chosen by those empowered to do so.

    This type of thinking is strongly embedded in the consciousness of all members of business organizations, where all members look to management to define a better and more competitive future for the organization. The intuition of the managers to predict the future, to one degree or another, and then design the organization to thrive in that future, is central to this type of thinking. This type of thinking of organization rarely reaches the level of consciousness, being regarded as a universal truth.

    Complementary causalities -- The next two organization causalities, efficient causality with its part-whole thinking and formative causality with its system-environment thinking, do not have the capability, on their own, to generate novelty and transform an existing organization into a new form. In those two cases, the managers of the organization are the rational autonomous thinkers who must choose the new forms and guide the organization transformation to the new form.

  • efficient causality, part-whole thinking -- this is mechanistic thinking associated with Newton's explanations of organization in nature as being like a machine. Understanding of the whole comes from understanding the nature of the parts added together. Part-whole thinking is more commonly referred to as analytical thinking and is often contrasted with systems thinking. Efficient causality refers to universal linear cause and effect links, an ""if-then"" type of causality. The nature of movement is a corrective repetition of the past in order to realize an optimal future state. The cause of this movement is universal timeless laws of an 'if-then' kind. (Stacey 2007, pp 246). This kind of organization is deterministic; stability and change are both of an entirely predictable kind. Organization, or form, is equated with continuity and repetition without the possibility of novelty.

    Fredric Taylor's time and motion studies, to find and repeat the one best way, the optimal way, for every task is characteristic of this type of thinking. Henry Ford put this thinking to good work in producing the Model T.

  • formative causality, system-environment thinking -- is also referred to as systems thinking, systemic process, or systemic thinking. Understanding of the whole comes from understanding the interrelationships of the parts. Parts relate to each other in different ways to produce the end state, with variations possible in the path toward the end state but only in pre-given limits. The parts are functional, the relationship between them functions to perform the whole, which is a final, mature form. The nature of movement into the future is the unfolding of an enfolded mature form in order to realize that form on the future. The cause of this movement is self-organizing systemic process of unfolding in developmental stages (see self-organization). (Stacey 2007, pp 246). Organization is continuity of form with small variations, all enfolded so that genuine novelty is not possible.

    The systems view of organization is deterministic as well. The notion of organization as a system originated with Kant's causal explanation of organisms, i.e. living things. Kant made it clear that this causality does not apply to humans and human organizations, which is where rationalist causality applies. Kant also stressed that organisms could be viewed 'as if' they were systems, not as though they truly 'are' systems. Nevertheless, systems thinkers, starting in the mid-1900s, applied systems thinking to explanations humans and human organizations, crossing the 'as if'-'are' line as well. Management tools and approaches such as planning and budgeting, management by objectives, learning organizations, knowledge management, strategic planning, values based management, cultural approaches, etc. are all systemic thinking based.

    The causality in this case is 'formative' -- the system's movement into the future is an unfolding of an enfolded form. This implies a final state, a mature state, can be known in advance.

  • transformative causality, identity-difference thinking -- is also referred to as responsive processes or complex responsive processes thinking The philosophical basis for this type of thinking comes from Hegel's notion of paradoxical thinking and human interaction. In this view of organization there is no distinguishing between parts and wholes, there is no concept of a system, there is no distinguishing between individuals and groups.

    With identity-difference thinking, organizations are population-wide patterns of responsive processes that form a collective identity. Organizational identity co-evolves with individual identity, emerging from continually iterated responsive processes that are essentially local in nature and occurring in the living present. The nature of movement into the future is iterated interaction perpetually constructing the future in the present in order to express continuity and potential for transformation in identity at the same time. The cause of this movement is responsive processes of local interaction between entities in the present. (Stacey 2007, pp 246). Organizations are thus conceptualized as ongoing patterning in the interactions between people and denies that it constitutes a system or even that it is useful to think of the organization 'as if' it were a system.

    The causality associated with this type of thinking is 'transformative', where self-organization results in true novelty. The engine of transformative causality is micro-diversity, where micro-interpretations, result in variation, which results in novelty, and ultimately in a global transformation. The iterative interactive process sustains continuity with potential transformation at the same time. Variation arises in micro-diversity of interaction, resulting in transformation. In iteration, the continuity of identity is always open to change. Self-organization is transformative; the organization's movement is towards an unknown future, a future under perpetual construction by the movement itself. There is no mature or final state, only perpetual iteration of identity and difference. Identity is continuously evolving and changing -- there is both the possibility of sameness, or continuity, and the potential for transformation at the same time --
    • ongoing gesture-response iterations result in self-organization of either continuity or transform
    • perpetual iteration of identity and difference, resulting in continuity with the potential for transformation
    • individuals expressing identity with continuity and difference at the same time
    • variation arises in microdiversity in iterative interactions, generating novelty, variations that have never been before
    • processes of micro interactions in the living present forming and being formed by themselves. The iterative process sustains continuity with potential transformation at the same time
    • both freedom and constraint arise in spontaneity and diversity of micro interactions as conflicting constraints

    This mode of thinking about organization is not prevalent in management discourse at the current time. On the other hand, this perspective fits with the notion of how work gets done, in spite of the formal systems, processes, and procedures. It can also explain the creation of novelty, which none of the other ways of thinking can. It appears to be a power self-organizing force that has heretofore not been explicitly identified and considered, but probable taken advantage of for years in successfully evolving organizations that rely upon diversity in thinking and dynamic internal discussion and debate to clarify issues, set direction, and make decisions.

Reflections on the four causalities -- Rational choice requires an organizational object, with either efficient or formative causality, about which to make choices, and those two types of organization, mechanistic, or systemic, need the rational chooser to bring about novelty. The only causality that is complete, in and of itself, accounting for both continuity and the potential for transformation, is the identity-difference thinking. If the identity-difference thinking with its transformative causality is closer to the truth of how human organizations really organize, or have the potential to organize, or self-organize, the role of the rational choosing manager requires serious rethinking. One possibility is to free the organization leadership from having to predict and unpredictable future, placing bets with the organization, to unleashing an organization's inherent self-organizing capabilities to drive the evolution of the organization to new forms.

End notes --

More on causality -- See causality, teleology, history of causality, organizational theory, and management science for notions about the cause of change and stability in organizations and the classification of these causes.

Strategy and organization evolution --
Organization evolution is at the heart of strategy. Organization advantage comes as a result of an organization's evolutionary capability. Guiding organizational development requires understanding organizational dynamics, how the organization moves into the future.

Natural science --
Natural science provides explanations of organization. These natural science perspectives of organization serve as source domains for the social sciences, with natural and social science serving as a source domain for management science and organizational theory. Management understanding and behavior often has its roots in the natural science views of organization, whether consciously or unknowingly.

'Organization' refers to something made up of elements, or members, with varied functions and characteristics, organized into a whole with a collective function, purpose, and causality. It is a group of elements that is both complex and organized, structured in some meaningful manner. Organization is a phenomenon.