The immediate context of HRM HR Management

Human resource management, however defined, concerns the management of the employment relationship: it is practised in organisations by managers. The nature of the organisation and the way it is managed therefore form the immediate context within which HRM is embedded, and generate the tensions that HRM policies and practices attempt to resolve.

The nature of organisations and the role of management

At its simplest, an organisation comes into existence when the efforts of two or more people are pooled to achieve an objective that one would be unable to complete alone. The achievement of this objective calls for the completion of a number of tasks.

Depending upon their complexity, the availability of appropriate technology and the skills of the people involved, these tasks may be subdivided into a number of subtasks and more people employed to help carry them out. This division of labour constitutes the lateral dimension of the structure of the organisation. Its vertical dimension is constructed from the generally hierarchical relationships of power and authority between the owner or owners, the staff employed to complete these tasks, and the managers employed to coordinate and control the staff and their working activities.

Working on behalf of the organisation’s owners or shareholders and with the authority derived from them, managers draw upon a number of resources to enable them to complete their task: raw materials; finance; technology; appropriately skilled people; legitimacy, support and goodwill from the organisation’s environment.

They manage the organisation by ensuring that there are sufficient people with appropriate skills; that they work to the same ends and timetable; that they have the authority, information and other resources needed to complete their tasks; and that their tasks dovetail and are performed to an acceptable standard and at the required pace.

The very nature of organisation therefore generates a number of significant tensions: between people with different stakes in the organisation, and therefore different perspectives upon and interests in it; between what owners and other members of the organisation might desire and what they can feasibly achieve; between the needs, capabilities and potentials of organisational members and what the environment demands of and permits them. Management (see Watson, 2000) is the process that keeps the organization from flying apart because of these tensions, that makes it work, secures its survival and, according to the type of organisation, its profitability or effectiveness.

Inevitably, however, as Chapter discusses, managerial control is a significant and often contentious issue. The need to manage people and relationships is inherent in the managing of an organisation, but the very nature of people and the way they constitute an organisation make management complex. Although the organisation of tasks packages people into organizational roles, individuals are larger and more organic than those roles have traditionally tended to be.

The organisation, writes Barnard (1938, in Schein, 1978) ‘pays people only for certain of their activities, but it is whole persons who come to work’ . Unlike other resources, people interact with those who manage them and among themselves; they have needs for autonomy and agency; they think and are creative; they have feelings; they need consideration for their emotional and their physical needs and protection. The management of people is therefore not only a more diffuse and complex activity than the management of other resources, but also an essentially moral one (again, see Watson, 2000).

This greatly complicates the tasks of managers, who can only work with and through people to ensure that the organisation survives and thrives in the face of increasing pressures from the environment. Owners and managers are confronted with choices about how to manage people and resolve organisational tensions. The next subsection examines some of these choices and the strategies adopted to handle them.

Before then, however, it must be noted that as organisations become larger and more complex, the division of managerial labour often leads to a specialist ‘people’ function to advise and support line managers in the complex and demanding tasks of managing their staff. This is the personnel function (sometimes now called ‘HRM’), which has developed a professional and highly skilled expertise in certain aspects of managing people, such as selection, training and industrial relations, which it offers in an advisory capacity to line managers, who nevertheless remain the prime managers of people.

However, this division of managerial labour has fragmented the management of people: the development of human resource management beyond the traditional personnel approach can be seen as a strategy to reintegrate the management of people into the management of the organisation as a whole.

The approaches adopted by managers to resolve the tensions in organisations

The previous subsection suggested that there are inherent tensions in organisations. In brief, these are generated by:

  • the existence of several stakeholders in the employment relationship;
  • their differing perspectives upon events, experiences and relationships;
  • their differing aims, interests and needs;
  • the interplay between formal organisation and individual potential.

These tensions have to be resolved through the process of management or, rather, continuously resolved, for these tensions are inherent in organisations. Thus Weick (1979) writes that organising is a continuous process of meaning-making: ‘organizations keep falling apart, require chronic rebuilding.’. A continuing issue, therefore, is that of managerial control: how to orchestrate organisational activities in a way that meets the needs of the various stakeholders.

The owners of organisations, or those who manage them on their behalf, have explored many ways to resolve these tensions: the emergence of HRM to develop alongside, subsume or replace personnel management is witness to this. The strategies they adopt are embodied in their employment policies and practices and the organisational systems they put in place . They are also manifested in the psychological contract they have with their employees, the often unstated set of expectations between organisation and individual that embroiders the legal employment contract.

(The notion of the psychological contract now in current use goes back to a much earlier literature – for example, Schein (1970) – and it is some of the earlier terminology that is used here.) This subsection will briefly outline some of the strategies that managers have adopted, while the next will discuss the interpretations by theorists and other commentators of those strategies. However, it must be kept in mind that managers are to some extent influenced by the concepts and language, if not the arguments, of these theorists.

In very crude terms, we can identify four strategies that managers have adopted to deal with these tensions. The first is represented by what is called scientific management, or the classical school of management theory. The second is the human relations approach, and the third is the human resource management approach. The fourth approach is perhaps more an ideal than a common reality. It must be emphasised that we cannot do justice here to the rich variety of approaches that can be found in organisations.

You can elaborate upon the material here by reading about these differing views in an organisational behaviour textbook, such as Huczynski and Buchanan (2002) or Clark et al(1994). The first approach addressed the tensions in the organisation by striving to control people and keep down their costs: the scientific management approach. It emphasized the need for rationality, clear objectives, the managerial prerogative – the right of managers to manage – and adopted work study and similar methods.

These led to the reduction of tasks to their basic elements and the grouping of similar elements together to produce low-skilled, low-paid jobs, epitomised by assembly-line working, with a large measure of interchangeability between workers. Workers tended to be treated relatively impersonally and collectively (‘management and labour’), and the nature of the psychological contract with them was calculative (Schein, 1970), with a focus on extrinsic rewards and incentives.

Such a strategy encouraged a collective response from workers, and hence the development of trade unions. These views of management evolved in North America, and provided a firm foundation for modern bureaucracies (Clegg, 1990). In Britain they overlaid the norms of a complex, though changing, social class system that framed the relationships between managers and other employees (Child, 1969; Mant, 1979).

This facilitated the acceptance of what Argyris (1960) saw were the negative outcomes of McGregor’s (1960) X-theory of management which were hierarchy; paternalism; the attribution to workers of childlike qualities, laziness, limited aspirations and time horizons. While this strategy epitomized particularly the management approach of the first half of the twentieth century, it has left its legacy in many management practices, such as organisation and method study, job analysis and description, selection methods, an overriding concern for efficiency and the ‘bottom line’, appraisal and performance management.

Moreover, it has not been completely abandoned (see Clegg, 1990; Ritzer, 1996 on ‘McDonaldization’; and ongoing debates about employment in call centres, for example Callaghan and Thompson, 2002; Hatchett, 2000; Taylor et al., 2002). The human relations approach to the tensions in organisations emerged during the middle years of the twentieth century, and developed in parallel with an increasingly prosperous society in which there were strong trade unions and (later) a growing acceptance of the right of individuals to self-fulfilment. Child (1969) identifies its emergence in British management thinking as a response to growing labour tensions.

It tempered scientific management by its recognition that people differed from other resources, that if they were treated as clock numbers rather than as human beings they would not be fully effective at work and could even fight back to the point of subverting management intentions. It also recognised the significance of social relationships at work – the informal organisation (Argyris, 1960). Managers therefore had to pay attention to the nature of supervision and the working of groups and teams, and to find ways of involving employees through job design , motivation, and a democratic, consultative or participative style of management. The nature of the psychological contract was cooperative (Schein, 1970).

The third and most recent major approach adopted by managers to address the tensions within the organisation has developed as major changes and threats have been experienced in the context of organisations (recession, international competition, and globalisation). It is a response to the need to achieve flexibility in the organisation and workforce and improved performance through devolving decision-making and empowerment . As notes, employees have had to become multi-skilled and to work across traditional boundaries.

Unlike the other two strategies, the third approaches the organisation holistically and often with greater attention to its culture, leadership and ‘vision’, the ‘soft’ Ss of McKinsey’s ‘Seven S’ framework (Pascale and Athos, 1982: 202–206). It attempts to integrate the needs of employees with those of the organisation in an explicit manner: the psychological contract embodies mutuality (Schein, 1970). It recognises that people should be invested in as assets so that they achieve their potential for the benefit of the organisation.

It also pays greater attention to the individual rather than the collective, so that these notions of developing the individual’s potential have been accompanied by individual contracts of employment, performance appraisal, and performance-related pay . The very title of human resource management suggests that this third approach to the management of organisational tensions is also an instrumental one. Although it differs greatly from the approaches that see labour as a ‘cost’, to be reduced or kept in check, it nevertheless construes the human being as a resource for the organisation to use.

The fourth, idealistic, humanistic approach aims to construct the organisation as an appropriate environment for autonomous individuals to work together collaboratively for their common good. This is the approach of many cooperatives. It informed the early philosophy of organisation development (see Huse, 1980), although the practice of that is now largely instrumental. It also underpins the notion of the learning organization.

Although we have identified here four different strategies for managing the inherent tensions in organisations, they might be less easy to distinguish in practice. Some managers adopt a hybrid version more appropriate to their particular organisation. They will always be seeking new approaches to deal more effectively with those tensions, or to deal with variations in them as circumstances change (for example, with globalisation). When we look more deeply into these four managerial strategies, we can recognise that they implicate some much deeper questions.

Underlying the management of people in organisations are some fundamental assumptions about the nature of people and reality itself, and hence about organising and managing. For example, managers make assumptions about the nature of the organisation, many interpreting it as having an objective reality that exists separately from themselves and other organisational members – they reify it (see Glossary). They make assumptions about the nature of their own and the organisation’s goals, which they interpret as rational and objective.

They make assumptions about the appropriate distribution of limited power throughout the organisation. However, these assumptions are rarely made explicit, and are therefore rarely challenged. Moreover, many other members of the organisation appear to accept these premises on which they are managed, even though such assumptions might conflict with their own experiences, or virtually disempower or disenfranchise them. For example, many might assert the need for equal opportunities to jobs, training and promotion, but do not necessarily challenge the process of managing itself despite its often gender-blind nature (Hearn et al., 1989; Hopfl and Atkinson, 2000).

Nevertheless, these assumptions inform the practices and policies of management, and hence define the organizational and conceptual space that HRM fills, and generate the multiple meanings of which HRM is constructed. In terms of the metaphor used by this chapter, they constitute some of the warp and weft threads in the tapestry/context of HRM. They will be examined in greater detail in a later section.

Competing interpretations of organisations and management

When we turn from the concrete world of managing to the theories about organizations and management, we find that not only have very different interpretations been made over time, but that several strongly competing interpretations coexist. Again, this chapter can only skim over this material, but you can pursue the issues by reading, for example, Child (1969), who traces the development of management thought in Britain, or Morgan (1997), who sets out eight different metaphors for organisations through which he examines in a very accessible way the various ways in which theorists and others have construed organisations.

Reed and Hughes (1992: 10–11) identify the changing focus of organisation theory over the past 30 years, from a concern with organisational stability, order and disorder, and then with organisational power and politics, to the present concern with the construction of organisational reality. The reification (see Glossary) of the organisation by managers and others, and the general acceptance of the need for it to have rational goals to drive it forward in an effective manner, have long been challenged.

Simon (see Pugh et al., 1983) recognized that rationality is ‘bounded’ – that managers make decisions on the basis of limited and imperfect knowledge. Cyert and March adopt a similar viewpoint: the many stakeholders in an organisation make it a ‘shifting multigoal coalition’ (see Pugh et al., 1983: 108) that has to be managed in a pragmatic manner. Others (see Pfeffer, 1981; Morgan, 1997) recognise the essentially conflictual and political nature of organisations: goals, structures and processes are defined, manipulated and managed in the interests of those holding the power in the organisation.

A range of different understandings of organizations has developed over time: the systems approach (Checkland, 1981), the learning organisation (Senge, 1990), transformational leadership and ‘excellence’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Kanter, 1983), the significance of rhetoric (Eccles and Nohria, 1992). This range is widening to include even more holistic approaches, with recent interest in the roles in the workplace of emotional intelligence (Cherniss and Goleman, 2001; Pickard, 1999), spirituality and love (Welch, 1998; Zohar and Marshall, 2001).

The influence of many of these new ideas can be seen in the recently developed concern for work – life balance (for example, People Management, 2002). The established views of managers are subject to further interpretations. Weick (1979) argues the need to focus upon the process of organising rather than its reified outcome, an organisation. As we noted earlier, he regards organising as a continuous process of meaning-making: ‘[p]rocesses continually need to be re-accomplished’. Cooper and Fox (1990) and Hosking and Fineman (1990) adopt a similar interpretation in their discussion of the ‘texture of organizing’.

Brunsson (1989) throws a different light on the nature and goals of organising, based on his research in Scandinavian municipal administrations. He suggests that the outputs of these kinds of organisations are ‘talk, decisions and physical products’. He proposes two ‘ideal types’ of organisation: the action organisation, which depends on action for its legitimacy (and hence essential resources) in the eyes of its environment, and the political organisation, which depends on its reflection of environmental inconsistencies for its legitimacy.

Talk and decisions in the action organisation (or an organisation in its action phase) lead to actions, whereas the outputs of the political organisation (or the organization in its political phase) are talk and decisions that may or may not lead to action. There are similarly competing views upon organisational culture, as we see in Aldrich (1992) and Frost et al. (1991). The established view interprets it as a subsystem of the organisation that managers need to create and maintain through the promulgation and manipulation of values, norms, rites and symbols.

The alternative view argues that culture is not something that an organisation has, but that it is. Just as many managers leave their assumptions unaddressed and unstated, taken for granted, so that their actions appear to themselves and others based upon reason and organisational necessity, so also do many theorists. Many traditional theorists leave unstated that the organisations of which they write exist within a capitalist economic system and have to meet the needs of capital.

They ignore the material and status needs of owners and managers, and their emotional (Fineman, 1993) and moral selves (Watson, 2000). Many also are gender-blind and take for granted a male world-view of organisations. These issues tend to be identified and discussed only by those writers who wish to persuade their readers to a different interpretation of organisations (for example, Braverman, 1974; Hearn et al., 1989; Calas and Smircich, 1992).

Human resource management, however defined, concerns the management of the employment relationship: it is practised in organisations by managers. The nature of the organisation and the way it is managed therefore form the immediate context within which HRM is embedded, and generate the tensions that HRM policies and practices attempt to resolve.

The nature of organisations and the role of management

At its simplest, an organisation comes into existence when the efforts of two or more people are pooled to achieve an objective that one would be unable to complete alone. The achievement of this objective calls for the completion of a number of tasks.

Depending upon their complexity, the availability of appropriate technology and the skills of the people involved, these tasks may be subdivided into a number of subtasks and more people employed to help carry them out. This division of labour constitutes the lateral dimension of the structure of the organisation. Its vertical dimension is constructed from the generally hierarchical relationships of power and authority between the owner or owners, the staff employed to complete these tasks, and the managers employed to coordinate and control the staff and their working activities.

Working on behalf of the organisation’s owners or shareholders and with the authority derived from them, managers draw upon a number of resources to enable them to complete their task: raw materials; finance; technology; appropriately skilled people; legitimacy, support and goodwill from the organisation’s environment.

They manage the organisation by ensuring that there are sufficient people with appropriate skills; that they work to the same ends and timetable; that they have the authority, information and other resources needed to complete their tasks; and that their tasks dovetail and are performed to an acceptable standard and at the required pace.

The very nature of organisation therefore generates a number of significant tensions: between people with different stakes in the organisation, and therefore different perspectives upon and interests in it; between what owners and other members of the organisation might desire and what they can feasibly achieve; between the needs, capabilities and potentials of organisational members and what the environment demands of and permits them. Management (see Watson, 2000) is the process that keeps the organization from flying apart because of these tensions, that makes it work, secures its survival and, according to the type of organisation, its profitability or effectiveness.

Inevitably, however, as Chapter discusses, managerial control is a significant and often contentious issue. The need to manage people and relationships is inherent in the managing of an organisation, but the very nature of people and the way they constitute an organisation make management complex. Although the organisation of tasks packages people into organizational roles, individuals are larger and more organic than those roles have traditionally tended to be.

The organisation, writes Barnard (1938, in Schein, 1978) ‘pays people only for certain of their activities, but it is whole persons who come to work’ . Unlike other resources, people interact with those who manage them and among themselves; they have needs for autonomy and agency; they think and are creative; they have feelings; they need consideration for their emotional and their physical needs and protection. The management of people is therefore not only a more diffuse and complex activity than the management of other resources, but also an essentially moral one (again, see Watson, 2000).

This greatly complicates the tasks of managers, who can only work with and through people to ensure that the organisation survives and thrives in the face of increasing pressures from the environment. Owners and managers are confronted with choices about how to manage people and resolve organisational tensions. The next subsection examines some of these choices and the strategies adopted to handle them.

Before then, however, it must be noted that as organisations become larger and more complex, the division of managerial labour often leads to a specialist ‘people’ function to advise and support line managers in the complex and demanding tasks of managing their staff. This is the personnel function (sometimes now called ‘HRM’), which has developed a professional and highly skilled expertise in certain aspects of managing people, such as selection, training and industrial relations, which it offers in an advisory capacity to line managers, who nevertheless remain the prime managers of people.

However, this division of managerial labour has fragmented the management of people: the development of human resource management beyond the traditional personnel approach can be seen as a strategy to reintegrate the management of people into the management of the organisation as a whole.

The approaches adopted by managers to resolve the tensions in organisations

The previous subsection suggested that there are inherent tensions in organisations. In brief, these are generated by:

  • the existence of several stakeholders in the employment relationship;
  • their differing perspectives upon events, experiences and relationships;
  • their differing aims, interests and needs;
  • the interplay between formal organisation and individual potential.

These tensions have to be resolved through the process of management or, rather, continuously resolved, for these tensions are inherent in organisations. Thus Weick (1979) writes that organising is a continuous process of meaning-making: ‘organizations keep falling apart, require chronic rebuilding.’. A continuing issue, therefore, is that of managerial control: how to orchestrate organisational activities in a way that meets the needs of the various stakeholders.

The owners of organisations, or those who manage them on their behalf, have explored many ways to resolve these tensions: the emergence of HRM to develop alongside, subsume or replace personnel management is witness to this. The strategies they adopt are embodied in their employment policies and practices and the organisational systems they put in place . They are also manifested in the psychological contract they have with their employees, the often unstated set of expectations between organisation and individual that embroiders the legal employment contract.

(The notion of the psychological contract now in current use goes back to a much earlier literature – for example, Schein (1970) – and it is some of the earlier terminology that is used here.) This subsection will briefly outline some of the strategies that managers have adopted, while the next will discuss the interpretations by theorists and other commentators of those strategies. However, it must be kept in mind that managers are to some extent influenced by the concepts and language, if not the arguments, of these theorists.

In very crude terms, we can identify four strategies that managers have adopted to deal with these tensions. The first is represented by what is called scientific management, or the classical school of management theory. The second is the human relations approach, and the third is the human resource management approach. The fourth approach is perhaps more an ideal than a common reality. It must be emphasised that we cannot do justice here to the rich variety of approaches that can be found in organisations.

You can elaborate upon the material here by reading about these differing views in an organisational behaviour textbook, such as Huczynski and Buchanan (2002) or Clark et al. (1994). The first approach addressed the tensions in the organisation by striving to control people and keep down their costs: the scientific management approach. It emphasized the need for rationality, clear objectives, the managerial prerogative – the right of managers to manage – and adopted work study and similar methods.

These led to the reduction of tasks to their basic elements and the grouping of similar elements together to produce low-skilled, low-paid jobs, epitomised by assembly-line working, with a large measure of interchangeability between workers. Workers tended to be treated relatively impersonally and collectively (‘management and labour’), and the nature of the psychological contract with them was calculative (Schein, 1970), with a focus on extrinsic rewards and incentives.

Such a strategy encouraged a collective response from workers, and hence the development of trade unions. These views of management evolved in North America, and provided a firm foundation for modern bureaucracies (Clegg, 1990). In Britain they overlaid the norms of a complex, though changing, social class system that framed the relationships between managers and other employees (Child, 1969; Mant, 1979).

This facilitated the acceptance of what Argyris (1960) saw were the negative outcomes of McGregor’s (1960) X-theory of management which were hierarchy; paternalism; the attribution to workers of childlike qualities, laziness, limited aspirations and time horizons. While this strategy epitomized particularly the management approach of the first half of the twentieth century, it has left its legacy in many management practices, such as organisation and method study, job analysis and description, selection methods, an overriding concern for efficiency and the ‘bottom line’, appraisal and performance management.

Moreover, it has not been completely abandoned (see Clegg, 1990; Ritzer, 1996 on ‘McDonaldization’; and ongoing debates about employment in call centres, for example Callaghan and Thompson, 2002; Hatchett, 2000; Taylor et al., 2002). The human relations approach to the tensions in organisations emerged during the middle years of the twentieth century, and developed in parallel with an increasingly prosperous society in which there were strong trade unions and (later) a growing acceptance of the right of individuals to self-fulfilment. Child (1969) identifies its emergence in British management thinking as a response to growing labour tensions.

It tempered scientific management by its recognition that people differed from other resources, that if they were treated as clock numbers rather than as human beings they would not be fully effective at work and could even fight back to the point of subverting management intentions. It also recognised the significance of social relationships at work – the informal organisation (Argyris, 1960). Managers therefore had to pay attention to the nature of supervision and the working of groups and teams, and to find ways of involving employees through job design , motivation, and a democratic, consultative or participative style of management. The nature of the psychological contract was cooperative (Schein, 1970).

The third and most recent major approach adopted by managers to address the tensions within the organisation has developed as major changes and threats have been experienced in the context of organisations (recession, international competition, and globalisation). It is a response to the need to achieve flexibility in the organisation and workforce and improved performance through devolving decision-making and empowerment . As notes, employees have had to become multi-skilled and to work across traditional boundaries.

Unlike the other two strategies, the third approaches the organisation holistically and often with greater attention to its culture, leadership and ‘vision’, the ‘soft’ Ss of McKinsey’s ‘Seven S’ framework (Pascale and Athos, 1982: 202–206). It attempts to integrate the needs of employees with those of the organisation in an explicit manner: the psychological contract embodies mutuality (Schein, 1970). It recognises that people should be invested in as assets so that they achieve their potential for the benefit of the organisation.

It also pays greater attention to the individual rather than the collective, so that these notions of developing the individual’s potential have been accompanied by individual contracts of employment, performance appraisal, and performance-related pay . The very title of human resource management suggests that this third approach to the management of organisational tensions is also an instrumental one. Although it differs greatly from the approaches that see labour as a ‘cost’, to be reduced or kept in check, it nevertheless construes the human being as a resource for the organisation to use.

The fourth, idealistic, humanistic approach aims to construct the organisation as an appropriate environment for autonomous individuals to work together collaboratively for their common good. This is the approach of many cooperatives. It informed the early philosophy of organisation development (see Huse, 1980), although the practice of that is now largely instrumental. It also underpins the notion of the learning organization.

Although we have identified here four different strategies for managing the inherent tensions in organisations, they might be less easy to distinguish in practice. Some managers adopt a hybrid version more appropriate to their particular organisation. They will always be seeking new approaches to deal more effectively with those tensions, or to deal with variations in them as circumstances change (for example, with globalisation). When we look more deeply into these four managerial strategies, we can recognise that they implicate some much deeper questions.

Underlying the management of people in organisations are some fundamental assumptions about the nature of people and reality itself, and hence about organising and managing. For example, managers make assumptions about the nature of the organisation, many interpreting it as having an objective reality that exists separately from themselves and other organisational members – they reify it (see Glossary). They make assumptions about the nature of their own and the organisation’s goals, which they interpret as rational and objective.

They make assumptions about the appropriate distribution of limited power throughout the organisation. However, these assumptions are rarely made explicit, and are therefore rarely challenged. Moreover, many other members of the organisation appear to accept these premises on which they are managed, even though such assumptions might conflict with their own experiences, or virtually disempower or disenfranchise them. For example, many might assert the need for equal opportunities to jobs, training and promotion, but do not necessarily challenge the process of managing itself despite its often gender-blind nature (Hearn et al., 1989; Hopfl and Atkinson, 2000).

Nevertheless, these assumptions inform the practices and policies of management, and hence define the organizational and conceptual space that HRM fills, and generate the multiple meanings of which HRM is constructed. In terms of the metaphor used by this chapter, they constitute some of the warp and weft threads in the tapestry/context of HRM. They will be examined in greater detail in a later section.

Competing interpretations of organisations and management

When we turn from the concrete world of managing to the theories about organizations and management, we find that not only have very different interpretations been made over time, but that several strongly competing interpretations coexist. Again, this chapter can only skim over this material, but you can pursue the issues by reading, for example, Child (1969), who traces the development of management thought in Britain, or Morgan (1997), who sets out eight different metaphors for organisations through which he examines in a very accessible way the various ways in which theorists and others have construed organisations.

Reed and Hughes (1992: 10–11) identify the changing focus of organisation theory over the past 30 years, from a concern with organisational stability, order and disorder, and then with organisational power and politics, to the present concern with the construction of organisational reality. The reification (see Glossary) of the organisation by managers and others, and the general acceptance of the need for it to have rational goals to drive it forward in an effective manner, have long been challenged.

Simon (see Pugh et al., 1983) recognized that rationality is ‘bounded’ – that managers make decisions on the basis of limited and imperfect knowledge. Cyert and March adopt a similar viewpoint: the many stakeholders in an organisation make it a ‘shifting multigoal coalition’ (see Pugh et al., 1983: 108) that has to be managed in a pragmatic manner. Others (see Pfeffer, 1981; Morgan, 1997) recognise the essentially conflictual and political nature of organisations: goals, structures and processes are defined, manipulated and managed in the interests of those holding the power in the organisation.

A range of different understandings of organizations has developed over time: the systems approach (Checkland, 1981), the learning organisation (Senge, 1990), transformational leadership and ‘excellence’ (Peters and Waterman, 1982; Kanter, 1983), the significance of rhetoric (Eccles and Nohria, 1992). This range is widening to include even more holistic approaches, with recent interest in the roles in the workplace of emotional intelligence (Cherniss and Goleman, 2001; Pickard, 1999), spirituality and love (Welch, 1998; Zohar and Marshall, 2001).

The influence of many of these new ideas can be seen in the recently developed concern for work–life balance (for example, People Management, 2002). The established views of managers are subject to further interpretations. Weick (1979) argues the need to focus upon the process of organising rather than its reified outcome, an organisation. As we noted earlier, he regards organising as a continuous process of meaning-making: ‘[p]rocesses continually need to be re-accomplished’. Cooper and Fox (1990) and Hosking and Fineman (1990) adopt a similar interpretation in their discussion of the ‘texture of organizing’.

Brunsson (1989) throws a different light on the nature and goals of organising, based on his research in Scandinavian municipal administrations. He suggests that the outputs of these kinds of organisations are ‘talk, decisions and physical products’. He proposes two ‘ideal types’ of organisation: the action organisation, which depends on action for its legitimacy (and hence essential resources) in the eyes of its environment, and the political organisation, which depends on its reflection of environmental inconsistencies for its legitimacy.

Talk and decisions in the action organisation (or an organisation in its action phase) lead to actions, whereas the outputs of the political organisation (or the organization in its political phase) are talk and decisions that may or may not lead to action. There are similarly competing views upon organisational culture, as we see in Aldrich (1992) and Frost et al. (1991). The established view interprets it as a subsystem of the organisation that managers need to create and maintain through the promulgation and manipulation of values, norms, rites and symbols.

The alternative view argues that culture is not something that an organisation has, but that it is. Just as many managers leave their assumptions unaddressed and unstated, taken for granted, so that their actions appear to themselves and others based upon reason and organisational necessity, so also do many theorists. Many traditional theorists leave unstated that the organisations of which they write exist within a capitalist economic system and have to meet the needs of capital.

They ignore the material and status needs of owners and managers, and their emotional (Fineman, 1993) and moral selves (Watson, 2000). Many also are gender-blind and take for granted a male world-view of organisations. These issues tend to be identified and discussed only by those writers who wish to persuade their readers to a different interpretation of organisations (for example, Braverman, 1974; Hearn et al., 1989; Calas and Smircich, 1992).


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