More on The Org

by Henry Farrell on April 11, 2013

Tim Sullivan responds to my post at _OrgTheory._

bq. The point of the AA story, though, was not that organizations are perfectly efficient but that organizations face tradeoffs, and it can be useful to acknowledge those tradeoffs explicitly and to understand the economic architecture of organizations because it makes the situation of the average employee, manager, executive more comprehensible. In the AA case, they had a terrible website (which reflected plenty of other dysfunction within the company), and yet to do the job that AA aspired to (that is, flying people and stuff all over the world), you have to build a big, complicated organization that does lots of things all at once – managing fuel contracts, negotiating with pilots and flight attendants, setting prices, and so on. And organizing all of this involves a lot of tradeoffs. … Ray and I aren’t suggesting that orgs can’t be full of politics, power plays, bad managers, ridiculous HR departments, and so forth. They clearly are — but you have to accept these realities when you decide that there’s something that you want to do that will be best accomplished as a group of bosses and employees. The trick is not to ignore them or pretend they don’t exist, but to understand how and why they are produced, to recognize that sometimes apparent inefficiencies are the result of being organized, and understand the difference between tradeoffs and the _truly_ ridiculous and pointless aspects of organizational life.

I think that the nub of the disagreement is best summed up in one half-sentence here, where Tim suggests that “you have to accept these realities when you decide that there’s something that you want to do that will be best accomplished as a group of bosses and employees.” The point of the alternative perspective I set out is that there _isn’t_ any moment when a collective ‘you’ of bosses and employees, with a common interest in getting something done, decides this. The actual ‘you’ who makes the decisions is a very specific ‘you’ with a very specific set of interests. It is the ‘you’ who is in charge (or, if you want to get all old-style, the ‘you’ who is a capitalist). There is a literature of course in organizational economics, which talks about ‘team production functions,’ and how teams might rationally, if they wanted to get stuff done and minimize shirking, assign oversight to a hierarchically empowered actor. But in an economy which is not organized around cooperatives, very few private enterprises will originate in this way. Instead, they will originate with decisions by owners of capital, who will empower managers (a group which may, or may not, overlap with the owners of capital) to hire workers. The logic will be different, obviously, in non-profits and the government sector, but less different than you might imagine, as both these sectors become more and more like private enterprise.
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