In addition to some other roles in life, I am a doctoral student in Human and Organization Development at The Fielding Institute. What follows is a brief paper on the topics of organization design and power, intentionally written for display in this forum. I am posting this document for two reasons: academic requirements and a keen interest in your ideas on this topic. This posting is an indicator of learning progress and again, I would be most happy for discussion and comment. Thanks for your consideration and enjoy reading. (P.S.: There may be some style errors because of the way the forum formats the text).
Power and Organization Design
Michael Horne (email@example.com)
Student, The Fielding Institute
Santa Barbara, California
The accelerating pace of change, the emerging world-wide economy, and fierce regional competition are three factors contributing to an increased interest in organizational strategy. The survival and prosperity of organizations in today's fast economies attracts the attention of many social scientists, and is the particular interest of organizational development scholars. Three factors are contributing to the advancing interest in organizational strategies and theories: quality, cost structures, and customer focus. The renewed interest in quality is driven by the increasing ease of product or service substitution, thereby affecting real and potential revenue streams of corporations. Next, the significant alterations of cost-structures is grounded in a belief system that organizations should focus on "core" competencies and distribute necessary but non-core work outside of traditional boundaries. Finally, a new emphasis on customers has shifted the energy of leaders from a focus on internal operations to external cares and concerns. These factors -- quality, cost, and customers -- are at the center of new organization designs that emphasize alliances and consolidations, networks, process management improvements, cross- functional teams, and the overall flattening of hierarchies. New organizational forms and structures required to meet the emerging demands of quality, cost, and customer focus, need, however, to contend with an ancient social relationship, power, the subject of this brief paper (Mohrman, 1997).
Power has been described as "one of the most palpable facts of human existence" (Dahl, 1957, p. 201) and as the "the fundamental concept in social science" (Russell cited in Rahim, 1989, p. 545). Because of its ubiquity in social relations, many different labels and meanings are associated with power resulting in a concept that is difficult to describe and to discuss. For students and researchers studying power, Dahl (1957) likened the whole study to a "bottomless swamp" (p. 201) and Perrow (cited in Mintzberg, 1983) called it the "messiest problem of all" (p. x). While a universally coherent theory of power is probably out of reach, research and theory that considers power from differing frontiers advances social understanding. As such, it is a critical concept in understanding how organizations work and how they can be improved (Dahl, 1957; Kanter, 1977; Kearins, 1996; Mintzberg, 1983; Peters, 1994; Pfeffer, 1981).
The reader should note that the study of power in organizations despite its antiquity in social relations. While power has been described by "an endless parade of great names from Plato and Aristotle through Machiavelli and Hobbes to Pareto and Weber" (Dahl, 1957, p. 201), it did not surface as serious topic for organization development until about 1975. Before the mid-1970s, power was treated almost exclusively as an interpersonal phenomenon and research was primarily based on French and Raven's social relations theory of power. Since 1975, the field has been enriched by many points of view and continues to have a promising research agenda (Dahl, 1957; French & Raven, 1968; Hardy & Clegg, 1996; Pfeffer, 1981; Roberts, 1986).
Dualistic Views of Power in Organization Theory
Among many conceptualizations of power, two concepts seem firmly rooted in organization theories: power over and power to. This dualistic perspective, according to Clegg (cited in Fingham, 1992), derived from the original thinking of Machiavelli and Hobbes and was formed by debates in sociology. Machiavelli was preoccupied with the attainment of power and its strategic and practical concerns and viewed power as distinct from any established state order. Consequently, his logic naturally entered the spheres of organizations and persists today, evidenced by the titles of popular business books, including: Machiavelli on Management: Playing and Winning the Corporate Power Game and Modern Management and Machiavelli. Hobbes' thinking stressed "sovereign" power, or in other words, established authority over subjects. Hobbesian views of power paved the way for a structured and positivist research framework (Buskirk, 1974; Fingham, 1992; Griffin, 1991).
The definition of power over was clearly expressed by Dahl (1957): "A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do" (p. 202-3). This type of power is predicated on the probability that another's behavior can be changed. Power over suggests relations that are "competitive, controlling, directive, and adversarial" (Roberts, 1986, p. 444). Conceptually, power over signals attention to issues of structural inequality (e.g., gender, race, class), calling to mind how dominant groups establish power.
Power to has a less precise definition. It has been described as the ability to do (Kanter, 1977); the ability to affect outcomes (Mintzberg, 1983); the ability to make things happen (Pfeffer, 1993); the ability to get things done (Stewart, 1989). Power over emphasizes the use of self and relationships to generate change by accessing whatever resources are necessary. This definition implies adeptness to create change. Power to relationships are not conceived as asymmetrical or resting on the ability of an individual to reward, to withhold rewards, or to punish (Fingham, 1992; Mintzberg, 1983).
In conclusion, the power over view is normative and predominant in research and inquiry. As Pfeffer (1981) observed, most studies focus on hierarchical power, with an emphasis on interpersonal power, rather than on power as a structural phenomenon. Today, the debate on power is influenced by voices marginalized in the dominant white-male-heterosexual-United States culture. The voices of gays, lesbians, people of color and others bring the promise of an enriched discourse and broader research agenda for understanding power in organizations.
Power in Organization Theory and Practice
The case for studying power in organization theory is based on the social and relational nature of behavior in collectives that is especially pronounced in coordinated activities typical of individuals in organizations. It is stability, rather than change that is typical of the distribution of power in most organizations. Further, power is frequently conceptualized and interpreted as a fixed commodity. Unfortunately, the prevailing view of power as stable and fixed, leads to a view that hierarchy is a normal and inevitable part of the formal design of organizations (Burkhardt & Brass, 1990; Randolph & Posner, 1988).
Power lies at the core of hierarchical organizations. Typically, organizations are structured so that some jobs are supervisory and others are not; that simple division structures a power relationship into the organization. In the ideal world of hierarchy, any superordinate member of an organization is one link in a complex flow of power up, down, across, and outside of an organization. This century generated and featured an organizational paradigm with power at the top of the pyramid. Operationally, the paradigm is characterized by clear lines of authority, specialization, and standard operating procedures. Its models are railroads, the military, and the Catholic Church. This paradigm was challenged by the onset of the human relations school, which featured an emphasis on people and provided a rationale for "confusion, disorganization, scrambling, and stress" (Perrow, 1973, p. x).
The human relations paradigm affirmed the informal reality of the organization — the organization chart did not tell the whole story, particularly with respect to power. From the human relations school, both formal power (based on structure) and informal power (based on factors important to an organization) are considered to exist and to be legitimate. The bases for informal power in organizations are as varied as organizations themselves, but might include access to high echelon members of an organization, control of financial resources, and specialized expertise. The possession of resources though does not guarantee informal power; power actors must know how to use the resources within the context of the organization. This context transforms power into politics and thus sets up the positive and negative connotations for power outside of hierarchy (Clegg, 1989; Jenner, 1994; Randolph & Posner, 1988) .
Because of the contemporary economic environment, many organizations are experimenting with structures that emphasize characteristics emergent from the human relations school: collaboration, group-orientation, and the absence of bureaucracy. Today's structural alternatives to bureaucracy are considered by some to reduce employee alienation and to make organizations more "human".
Mohrman (1997) identified some of the "out of the box" thinking occurring in organization design, observing that we are moving from a time when people occupied boxes on an organization chart to a time when people are considered team members. Cost structures are altered by this movement because the "value" of a person's work depends more on contribution than on positions. The structure of mediated, boss-oriented, relationships is also evolving to a stage where individuals and teams establish direct relationships with others. As Handy (1994) observed, the more people experience organizational structures that emphasize power in new ways, the gap between human relations theory and organization design principles will narrow.
Power, organizationally speaking, is a function of both internal structure and environment. As organizational forms evolve, the trend is towards increasing personalization. Planners and participants in organizations will be continually challenged to create structures and social systems that support a positive connection between human endeavor and organization behavior. Hopefully, the positive connection will exist within a framework that values power constructively (Handy, 1992; McNeil, 1995; Swanson, 1996).
As hierarchical organizational forms begin to fade, members of organizations will be required to exercise more leadership. Some leaders in organizations will feel that power is slipping away as hierarchy erodes and others will discover that changing and evolving organizational forms will offer everyone a greater opportunity to use power to. How organization development practitioners consider power in designs will demonstrate the ability and effectiveness of the field's ability to provide leadership in the next century. By demonstrating the ability to lead in design, the historical criticisms leveled against organization development's failure to consider power as an important element in organization design will someday be a remnant of a distant past.
Burkhardt, M. E., & Brass, D. J. (1990). Changing patterns or patterns of change: the effects of a change technology on social network structure and power. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36(1), 104-127.
Handy, C. (1992). Balancing corporate power: a new federalist paper. Harvard Business Review, 70(6), 59-72.
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