The Org

by Henry on April 5, 2013

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan (who I know a little and like) are blogging about their recent book on organization management, _The Org_ (“Powells”:http://www.powells.com/partner/29956/biblio/9780446571593?p_ti, “Amazon”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0446571598/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0446571598&linkCode=as2&tag=henryfarrell-20) over at “OrgTheory.net”:http://www.orgtheory.net at the moment. It’s both a very good book and an excellent introduction to a particular style of thinking about organizations. The book starts with Ronald Coase’s insights about the relative benefits of contract and hierarchy, and goes from there. Much of the book is devoted to showing how these insights travel across a wide variety of different contexts – Baltimore policing (building on “Peter Moskos’ sociology”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/07/21/discretion-and-arrest-power/), Christian preaching and the like. Much of the book is also devoted to explaining why apparently frustrating aspects of organizations have a rationale, and may even be the best way of accomplishing something or somethings, given the complex and multiple needs, internal incentive problems and so on. More succinctly, the book sets out to show how the world that Dilbert inhabits may not be the best of all possible worlds, but is better than we realize at first glance, and actually less dysfunctional than the obvious alternatives. It provides a lot of detail and case study to back up this basic claim. And it is in an entirely different league of intelligent argument from other books aimed at business readers.

All this said, I tend to view organizations from a different perspective than the authors, one which didn’t really get any sustained attention in the book. Fisman and Sullivan build on two major traditions in organization and management – one stemming from Frederick Taylor, and the other from Chester Barnard. Taylor emphasized the value of overt incentives, monitoring and information in achieving organizational efficiencies. Barnard emphasized the benefits of fuzzier notions of corporate culture, in creating a more diffuse, but likely valuable set of benefits in interactions between workers and management. Fisman and Sullivan start off with a Coaseian version of Taylor’s arguments, but weave in some Barnardian arguments about the benefits of corporate culture as the book progresses. A good organization is one with clear, well designed incentives, _and_ with a culture of trust.

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