An organization, by its most basic definition, is an assembly of people working together to achieve common objectives through a division of labor. An organization provides a means of using individual strengths within a group to achieve more than can be accomplished by the aggregate efforts of group members working individually. Business organizations are formed to deliver goods or services to consumers in such a manner that they can realize a profit at the conclusion of the transaction. Over the years, business analysts, economists, and academic researchers have pondered several theories that attempt to explain the dynamics of business organizations, including the ways in which they make decisions, distribute power and control, resolve conflict, and promote or resist organizational change. As Jeffrey Pfeffer summarized in New Directions for Organization Theory, organizational theory studies provide "an interdisciplinary focus on a) the effect of social organizations on the behavior and attitudes of individuals within them, b) the effects of individual characteristics and action on organization, …c) the performance, success, and survival of organizations, d) the mutual effects of environments, including resource and task, political, and cultural environments on organizations and vice versa, and e) concerns with both the epistemology and methodology that undergird research on each of these topics."

Of the various organizational theories that have been studied in this realm, the open-systems theory has emerged as perhaps the most widely known, but others have their proponents as well. Indeed, some researchers into organizational theory propound a blending of various theories, arguing that an enterprise will embrace different organizational strategies in reaction to changes in its competitive circumstances, structural design, and experiences.


Modern organization theory is rooted in concepts developed during the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Of import during that period was the research of German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Weber believed that bureaucracies, staffed by bureaucrats, represented the ideal organizational form. Weber based his model bureaucracy on legal and absolute authority, logic, and order. In Weber's idealized organizational structure, responsibilities for workers are clearly defined and behavior is tightly controlled by rules, policies, and procedures.

Weber's theories of organizations, like others of the period, reflected an impersonal attitude toward the people in the organization. Indeed, the work force, with its personal frailties and imperfections, was regarded as a potential detriment to the efficiency of any system. Although his theories are now considered mechanistic and outdated, Weber's views on bureaucracy provided important insight into the era's conceptions of process efficiency, division of labor, and authority.

Another important contributor to organization theory in the early 1900s was Henri Fayol. He is credited with identifying strategic planning, staff recruitment, employee motivation, and employee guidance (via policies and procedures) as important management functions in creating and nourishing a successful organization.

Weber's and Fayol's theories found broad application in the early and mid-1900s, in part because of the influence of Frederick W. Taylor (1856-1915). In a 1911 book entitled Principles of Scientific Management, Taylor outlined his theories and eventually implemented them on American factory floors. He is credited with helping to define the role of training, wage incentives, employee selection, and work standards in organizational performance.

Researchers began to adopt a less mechanical view of organizations and to pay more attention to human influences in the 1930s. This development was motivated by several studies that shed light on the function of human fulfillment in organizations. The best known of these was probably the so-called Hawthorn Studies. These studies, conducted primarily under the direction of Harvard University researcher Elton Mayo, were conducted in the mid-1920s and 1930s at a Western Electric Company plant known as the Hawthorn Works. The company wanted to determine the degree to which working conditions affected output.

Surprisingly, the studies failed to show any significant positive correlations between workplace conditions and productivity. In one study, for example, worker productivity escalated when lighting was increased, but it also increased when illumination was decreased. The results of the studies demonstrated that innate forces of human behavior may have a greater influence on organizations than do mechanistic incentive systems. The legacy of the Hawthorn studies and other organizational research efforts of that period was an emphasis on the importance of individual and group interaction, humanistic management skills, and social relationships in the workplace.

The focus on human influences in organizations was reflected most noticeably by the integration of Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of human needs" into organization theory. Maslow's theories introduced two important implications into organization theory. The first was that people have different needs and therefore need to be motivated by different incentives to achieve organizational objectives. The second of Maslow's theories held that people's needs change over time, meaning that as the needs of people lower in the hierarchy are met, new needs arise. These assumptions led to the recognition, for example, that assembly-line workers could be more productive if more of their personal needs were met, whereas past theories suggested that monetary rewards were the sole, or primary, motivators.

Douglas McGregor contrasted the organization theory that emerged during the mid-1900s to previous views. In the 1950s, McGregor offered his renowned Theory X and Theory Y to explain the differences. Theory X encompassed the old view of workers, which held that employees preferred to be directed, wanted to avoid responsibility, and cherished financial security above all else.

McGregor believed that organizations that embraced Theory Y were generally more productive. This theory held that humans can learn to accept and seek responsibility; most people possess a high degree of imaginative and problem-solving ability; employees are capable of effective self-direction; and that self-actualization is among the most important rewards that organizations can provide its workers.


Traditional theories regarded organizations as closed systems that were autonomous and isolated from the outside world. In the 1960s, however, more holistic and humanistic ideologies emerged. Recognizing that traditional theory had failed to take into account many environmental influences that impacted the efficiency of organizations, most theorists and researchers embraced an open-systems view of organizations.

The term "open systems" reflected the newfound belief that all organizations are unique—in part because of the unique environment in which they operate—and that they should be structured to accommodate unique problems and opportunities. For example, research during the 1960s indicated that traditional bureaucratic organizations generally failed to succeed in environments where technologies or markets were rapidly changing. They also failed to realize the importance of regional cultural influences in motivating workers.

Environmental influences that affect open systems can be described as either specific or general. The specific environment refers to the network of suppliers, distributors, government agencies, and competitors with which a business enterprise inter-acts. The general environment encompasses four influences that emanate from the geographic area in which the organization operates. These are:

* Cultural values, which shape views about ethics and determine the relative importance of various issues.
* Economic conditions, which include economic upswings, recessions, regional unemployment, and many other regional factors that affect a company's ability to grow and prosper. Economic influences may also partially dictate an organization's role in the economy.
* Legal/political environment, which effectively helps to allocate power within a society and to enforce laws. The legal and political systems in which an open system operates can play a key role in determining the long-term stability and security of the organization's future. These systems are responsible for creating a fertile environment for the business community, but they are also responsible for ensuring—via regulations pertaining to operation and taxation—that the needs of the larger community are addressed.
* Quality of education, which is an important factor in high technology and other industries that require an educated work force. Businesses will be better able to fill such positions if they operate in geographic regions that feature a strong education system.

The open-systems theory also assumes that all large organizations are comprised of multiple subsystems, each of which receives inputs from other subsystems and turns them into outputs for use by other subsystems. The subsystems are not necessarily represented by departments in an organization, but might instead resemble patterns of activity.

An important distinction between open-systems theory and more traditional organization theories is that the former assumes a subsystem hierarchy, meaning that not all of the subsystems are equally essential. Furthermore, a failure in one subsystem will not necessarily thwart the entire system. By contrast, traditional mechanistic theories implied that a malfunction in any part of a system would have an equally debilitating impact.


Organizations differ greatly in size, function, and makeup. Nevertheless, the operations of nearly all organizations—from the multinational corporation to a a newly opened delicatessen—are based on a division of labor, a decision-making structure; and rules and policies. The degree of formality with which these aspects of business are approached vary tremendously within the business world, but these characteristics are inherent in any business enterprise that utilizes the talents of more than one person.

Organizations practice division of labor both vertically and horizontally. Vertical division includes three basic levels—top, middle, and bottom. The chief function of top managers, or executives, typically is to plan long-term strategy and oversee middle managers. Middle managers generally guide the day-to-day activities of the organization and administer top-level strategy. Low-level managers and laborers put strategy into action and perform the specific tasks necessary to keep the organization operating.

Organizations also divide labor horizontally by defining task groups, or departments, and assigning workers with applicable skills to those groups. Line units perform the basic functions of the business, while staff units support line units with expertise and services. In general, line units focus on supply, production, and distribution, while staff units deal mostly with internal operations and controls or public relations efforts.

Decision-making structures, the second basic organizational characteristic, are used to organize authority. These structures vary from operation to operation in their degree of centralization and decentralization. Centralized decision structures are referred to as "tall" organizations because important decisions usually emanate from a high level and are passed down through several channels until they reach the lower end of the hierarchy. Conversely, flat organizations, which have decentralized decision-making structures, employ only a few hierarchical levels. Such organizations are typically guided by a management philosophy that is favorably disposed toward some form of employee empowerment and individual autonomy.

A formalized system of rules and policies is the third standard organizational characteristic. Rules, policies, and procedures serve as templates of managerial guidance in all sectors of organizational production and behavior. They may document the most efficient means of accomplishing a task or provide standards for rewarding workers. Formalized rules provide managers with more time to spend on other problems and opportunities and help ensure that an organization's various subsystems are working in concert. Ill-conceived or poorly implemented rules, of course, can actually have a negative impact on business efforts to produce goods or services in a profitable or satisfactory manner.

Thus, organizations can be categorized as informal or formal, depending on the degree of formalization of rules within their structures. In formal organizations, say researchers, management has determined that a comparatively impersonal relationship between individuals and the company for which they work is viewed as the best environment for achieving organizational goals. Subordinates have less influence over the process in which they participate, with their duties more clearly defined.

Informal organizations, on the other hand, are less likely to adopt or adhere to a significant code of written rules or policies. Instead, individuals are more likely to adopt patterns of behavior that are influenced by a number of social and personal factors. Changes in the organization are less often the result of authoritative dictate and more often an outcome of collective agreement by members. Informal organizations tend to be more flexible and more reactive to outside influences. But some critics contend that such arrangements may also diminish the ability of top managers to effect rapid change.


By the 1980s several new organizational system theories received significant attention. These included Theory Z, a blending of American and Japanese management practices. This theory was a highly visible one, in part because of Japan's well-documented productivity improvements—and the United States' manufacturing difficulties—during that decade. Other theories, or adaptations of existing theories, emerged as well, which most observers saw as indicative of the ever-changing environment within business and industry.

The study of organizations and their management and production structures and philosophies continued to thrive throughout the the 1990s. Indeed, an understanding of various organizational principles continues to be seen as vital to the success of all kinds of organizations—from government agencies to business—of all shapes and sizes, from conglomerates to small businesses. "As we observe how different professionals working in different kinds of organizations and occupational communities make their case, we see we are still far from having a single 'theory' of organization development," wrote Jay R. Galbraith in Competing with Flexible Lateral Organizations. "Yet, a set of common assumptions is surfacing. We are beginning to see patterns in what works and what does not work, and we are becoming more articulate about these patterns. We are also seeing the field increasingly connected to other organizational sciences and disciplines," such as information technology and coordination theory.

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