[This isn’t going to make much sense to folks who haven’t done an MBA or studied organizational behavior/organizational theory in, say, a sociology PhD, but here goes.]
Background: I’m visiting Bainbridge Graduate Institute, the Original American Sustainability-oriented MBA Program, and observed a class today in “Organizational Systems.” Then it hit me: conventional organizational analysis has a deep flaw and it has to do with a concealed individualistic assumption in the “new thinking” that is supposedly radical, yet presents an obstacle to more enlightened, sustainable modes of management.
This flaw was introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s when critical thinkers and post-modernists started to make their liberating methods known in management circles. Their central point was that organizations are not fully knowable physical objects you can tamper with and manipulate, but intangible complexities that can be looked at from many equally valid standpoints. Out of this came Gareth Morgan’s eight metaphors (Images of Organization) and, later, Lee Bolman’s and Terrence Deal’s four organizational frames. The latter’s work, Reframing the Organization, is probably the world’s most commonly used textbook for organizational behavior courses in undergrad and MBA programs, and has been ascendant for at least a decade.
To be sure, the approach these books introduced was a big improvement over what came before: brutally boring, mechanistic neo-Taylorism that trudged through organizational management looking for the “right answer” to help “fix things” as if every organization were nothing more than a box-filled diagram with order-following people in “functions”.
So now we were enlightened! Of course, it has taken a long time for even this insight to percolate through the flaccid axons of conventional thinkers – many businesspersons would still consider this old stuff “revolutionary” and “far out leftist woo woo” – but it’s the norm now. Get used to it.
Wait! DON’T get used to it! It is flawed! It’s transitional thinking from the last century – a positive step, but very much NOT where we want to relax and stop our forward march toward Understanding.
Think about it.
Each frame is a perspective that we construct, and then we forget we constructed it. If we don’t watch it, the frame becomes the reality. “The culture is re-asserting itself!” “Oh, you know, office politics…” “I can’t get anything done in this oppressive structure!”
The map starts looking like the territory.
But that’s not the worst of it.
The worst is that each of Bolman’s & Deal’s frames is based in an individualistic, ego-centric apprehension of reality. This is the curse of reductionism compounded by the curse of ego-centrism.
Consider: We REIFY (construct into false concreteness) one of a number of perspectives, FORGET that we have, and are then limited (rationally and emotionally) by the fact that each of these perspectives is deeply planted in concepts that relate to our own personal, individual context: my needs, my interests, my power, the rules I follow, my values and beliefs, the stories I tell, the meaning I assign, my victories, my defeats…
Look in Bolman & Deal: where is the sustainability piece? There isn’t one. They were too early. Their logic admits no entry for sustainability.
I assert that sustainable organizational leadership by definition transcends the individual, and anchors reality in the “we,” the collective, the community. You won’t find an easily navigated road from B&D’s frames to the modes where truly sustainable organizations appear to operate – the servant leaders, authentic community, the gift economy, employee ownership and workplace democracy, coops, and traditional tribal organizations. Practitioners of these have leapt beyond the ego-centric frames, into a wholly different radical place of analysis and action.
The book has not yet been written that brings sustainability into organizational analysis in a fashion that’s as powerful and complete as B&D’s approach. Theirs is a book for LAST century. There’s no sustainability in it. It’s a transitional form. How do we keep what’s valuable about framing without remaining trapped in its forgetful reductionism and heedless egocentrism?