What is an organisation?

Consider the Sociology Department of Warwick University. What is itThe department is not just the individuals within it. If you took all the staff and students from the department and plonked them down in a field in the middle of nowhere, you’d no longer have a sociology department, you’d have a gaggle of confused academics, support staff and students in a field. If this was not a random act of God but instead some sort of collective journey to the countryside, it might be possible to enact organisational roles in the field: meetings could be had, lectures could be taught, administrative work done. Or could it? Certainly there are some functions which coud be sustained, albeit fallibly, however others clearly require a material infrastructure drawn upon by individuals in enacting their roles within an organisation e.g. there would be no computers in the field.

But what if everyone bought their own laptops, tablets etc? it depends on the people who are enacting the roles and the relationships between them. It would be easier  for people who’ve worked together for years to go and pretend to be an academic department in a field than it would be for a collection of strangers. Furthermore, there’s more material infrastructure than computers. Over and above this though, the individualised allocation of resources and the organisational allocation of resources are unlikely to be coterminous over time: people might be able to meet the functional needs of their roles sometimes (and for some time) but the pattern of the distribution, as well as the capacity to meet it, isn’t homologous with that of an organisation allocating resources more or less rationally on the basis of financial capacity and functional need (as much as this often limits activity in practice).

So what if everyone in the department packed up all the stuff that’s in there, trucked it over to the field and worked hard to build a passible facsimile of the department there? It might work, possibly, up until the point where some function requires interaction with other elements of the university or anything in the wider world i.e. there’s no IT services, no payroll, no library and, well, it’s a building in a field… no students are going to want to enroll.

Obviously it’s a silly example. But I think this kind of counter-factual approach is useful to understand the composition of organisations. It helps delineate different dimensions to what an organisation is and how it works:

  • The individuals who populate the organisation
  • The lived trajectory of interactions between these individuals and their personal & social meanings
  • The roles individuals enact within the organisation (and the causal relationships between the enactment of these roles by individuals)
  • The material infrastructure they draw upon in their enactment of those roles
  • The department as an emergent entity able to exercise powers of constraint and enablement over the individuals and networks within it
  • The broader organisational structures into which that department, as emergent entity, is causally interlocked: enactment of roles at the individual level, sustaining action at the collective level, presupposes all sorts of causal relations with other entities within the university and with the university itself as a much larger emergent.

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