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The Multifunctional Organization: Two cases for a critical update for
research programs in management and organization
• JOYCE GOGGIN
Steffen Roth ESC Rennes School of Business, France
Organizational identity Organization and functional differentiation are considered key principles of modern societies. Yet, within organizational studies little research has been conducted on the Social differentiation interplay of function systems, organizations, and society. The few existing studies suppose Function systems trends to more functional polyphony. The cases presented in this article, however, support the idea that organizational multifunctionality is the standard case rather than a special case Polyphony of organization. It is furthermore shown that organizations can change their function Computer program system preference and that the translation between function systems can be an organization’s main function. A Google Ngram view on functional differentiation finally furthers the idea that changes of function system preferences are not only a matter of individual organizations, but also a matter of entire societies.
The organization of organization: an introduction When asked about their identity, organizations start to shimmer, which is fascinating as long as we do not want to better understand why this gleam occurs. If this understanding, however, is our intention, then we find our visions blurred by the ‘semantic tricks’ of the oscillating organization (Andersen & Born, 2000). It is therefore often the most intriguing approaches that lead to the most unpleasant questions, such as how much organization a given organization needs (Baecker, 1999). Kept in mind, a short question of this type constantly makes us switch not only between two sides of the same distinction, but also between two different distinctions that more or less accidently share the same token. In such a way, a few words are quite enough to open up an ample scope of observation in which observation itself must keep on the move in order to come across identity.
Initially, modernity enabled, enforced, or essentially was the token of this observational mobility. Henceforth, identity was no longer based on (e)state, but rather unfolded as a history of movements in the social realm. Since movement involves encounter with the unknown, mobility expanded the horizon of alternatives and thus created a growing observation of decision systems and criteria. It is therefore not for nothing that, together with functional differentiation,
organizations are considered key features of modern societies (Beck, Bonss, & Lau, 2003; Berger, 2003; Bergthaller & Schinko, 2011; Kjaer, 2010; Martens, 2006).
Given their immense significance, the relation of organization and functional differentiation is underexplored. Though a considerable part of Earth’s population will find it easy to fix the bug in the subsequent classification (cf. Table 1), we still do not know much about how and why persons and organizations refer to function systems.
Table 1: Bugs in a Black Box Relationship (source: own table) Function System Organization Political System Party Economy Business Science Laboratory Art Atelier Religion Church Legal System School Sport Sports Club Health Court Education Hospital Mass Media Publisher While organizational diversity is routinely cross-tabled against any kind of segmental or strata variables, an organization’s function system reference is most often treated as constant. In this sense, a court is considered an organization of the legal system, a hospital an organization of the health system, and a school an organization of education. Thus contained in the progressively solid boxes of functional differentiation, the erratic organization found rest again.
Nonetheless, since the turn of the millennium, the idea that organizations can be embedded in function systems has been challenged by an emerging body of concept and case studies on the functional multi-referent, polyphonic or heterophonic nature of organization (Andersen, 2000, 2003; Andersen & Born, 2007; Lieckweg & Wehrsig, 2001; Tacke, 1997, 2001a; Tacke, 2001b; Thygesen & Andersen, 2007; Wehrsig & Tacke, 1992). Yet, while the concept of multi-reference supposes that organizations increasingly refer to more function systems still only through the lens of their primary function system, the latter two concepts assume a general trend to organizations without a primary function system reference. Despite the differences, all concepts have in common that they point to the fact that banks organize private views, hospitals keep budgets, and universities are now overcoded with third missions (Jemielniak & Greenwood, 2013;
Slaughter & Leslie, 1997). A growing number of case studies hence suppose a change to increasingly multifunctional organizational structures. The problem with the counter-concepts of functional monophony, then again, is that they start from theoretical assumptions that can hardly be brought in line with empirical evidence: On the one hand, the concept of organizational multi-reference is based on the assumption that organizations necessarily feature one ineluctable primary function system reference, which consequently cannot be subject to change. On the other hand, the idea of polyphonic or heterophonic organizations without any function system preference at all, i.e., of an organization that unbiasedly refers to more than one or even all function systems, refers to a rather improbable ideal case of functional polyphony resulting from snapshots rather than from long-term observations of organization. Both approaches hence considerably limit a systematic exploration of the relationship of two of the most relevant aspects of modern societies: organization and functional differentiation. The key question of the present article therefore is how to open up the concept of functional polyphony to research in organizational diversity and change management.
In the following, we suggest complementing existing research programs on organizational change with a particular focus on the differences made by organizational function system references. Unlike the existing approaches in the field, we consider functional polyphony neither a desired outcome of change management nor a recent trend in organization.
Rather, organizations will be introduced as programmable and thus inevitably multifunctional decision machines. This claim is supported by the discussion of the case of the New Zealand cooperative Fonterra as an example of the conversion of agricultural cooperatives from political to economic ventures, where we will demonstrate that organizations can be Page 38 The Multifunctional Organization reprogrammed in terms of changes of their main function system references. Furthermore, a brief Google Ngram view of trends in functional differentiation will give circumstantial evidence that fundamental changes of function system preferences are not limited to individual organization, but also apply to the organization of society. The second case of the Contergan Foundation for People with Disabilities will complement these asynchronous cases for multifunctionality by a case of synchronous multifunctionality. In other words, we will show that we cannot only observe the conversion of an organization’s main functions, but also the conversion of functions as an organization’s main function, which is why we finally suggest considering multifunctionality the standard rather than exotic case of organization.
Organization and functional differentiation: a research gap In the mid of the 20th century, Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) introduced the originally musicological metaphor of polyphony to literature studies in order to better satisfy and capture the complexity of Fjodr Dostojevski’s oeuvre. The concept was later transferred from literature to linguistics (Allemann-Ghionda, 2003), political sciences (Harney, 1996), and religious studies (Sterkens, 2001) and also progressively applied to organizational research (Hazen, 1993, 1994, 2006; Kronberger, Clegg, & Carter, 2006, 2007), where it complemented or framed extended diversity discourses (Sullivan & McCarthy,
2008) as well as approaches to narrative consulting (Boje, 1995; Boje, 2008; Westwood & Clegg, 2003).
Polyphony in terms of diversity resulting from an encounter of both segments and strata is quite familiar to organizational research. Be it cities or nations, cultures or milieus, age cohorts, or genders, the preferably comparative analyses usually take segments for nominal data with an inherent need for stratification in terms of performance indicators, eco balances, income distributions, or satisfaction indices. ‘Polyphony versus hegemony operates as a central trope of critical management and organizational studies’ (Letiche, 2010, p. 262) or ‘is characteristic to the modern political history of communication’ (Eriksson, 2008, p. 283) and promotes critical approaches to the monologues of the privileged (Barry & Elmes, 1997; Gardiner, 1992) and a deliberate focus on those voices that under normal circumstances are silenced out (Höpfl, 1995). This approach expressively involves the active intervention in organizational systems that eliminate diversity, equality, and participation.
„Managing the polyphonic organization means listening carefully to the voices of others and mediating between different language games. (…) Speaking managerially, polyphonic organization has many advantages. Arguably, employees will be more empowered, motivated, and committed. The organization can position itself differently and realize a competitive advantage through reputation management by marketing itself as democratic, open, and multicultural. (…) Drawing on a wider range of perspectives and heterogeneous resources can improve decision-making processes (…) Finally, a polyphonic organization is less standardized and hierarchical, which provides the necessary flexibility to cope in a fastchanging environment” (Clegg, Kronberger, & Pitsis, 2005, p. 335).
Sometimes, one seems to actually assume the existence of some type of organizational subconscious, which is constantly suspect of self-alienation and other forms of deformation. Exactly the most silent patients are therefore quickly
taken for particularly ill:
„(S)ilences and silencing can exact a terrible toll in depression, severed relationships, derailed careers, and missed opportunities for learning and growth. Silences impact not only the individual (...), but also work group relationships and the organization’s effective accompliment of its mission” (Hazen, 2006, p. 245).
The main criticism of the mainstreams of research in organizational polyphony, however, is not the omnipresence of psychological metaphors for essentially social phenomena (Belova, King, & Sliwa, 2008), but rather the neglect of functional differentiation as both a category of variables and a key feature of modern societies. In fact, a systematic approach to functional differentiation is hardly considered relevant even if the research interest is, just for example, on science centers (read: not parties, churches, or hospitals) and their need to realize ‘a balance between the multiple functions that are mainstreamed in the ‘parent’ institutions (science, formal education, the leisure industry and the museum)’ (Tlili, 2008, p. 320).