Organizational structure is the set of formally stipulated rules and regulations that regulate and legitimate the organization’s work processes, communication, and other activities. An organization’s structure constrains interaction processes and biases the style and content of interaction; also, since organizational structure is the framework of any organization, it is the focus of discourse about organizational change.
Organizational structure includes features such as an organization’s hierarchy, divisional and departmental pattern, arrangements for surveillance and record keeping, and explicit operating procedures and policies. It is generally spelled out in writing in a typical organization’s legal documents, personnel and payroll records, strategic plan, and operating procedures manuals. Explicit, planned structural features make organizations distinct from other social forms such as communities and families, and are in large part responsible for the power organizations have in our world today. Organizational structure has long been important to organizational communication, because it is a managerial tool establishing authority allocations, mandatory information flows, work allocation and workflow patterns, and grouping arrangements for employees. Early studies reflected this managerial perspective by identifying structural patterns useful for efficient communication. More recently, scholars have conceptualized an organization’s structure as itself created and conveyed in a communication process that reflects cultural norms and the organization’s environment and history.
Formal structure is focal in even the earliest writings about organizations, which involve records of resources and plans for personnel use in building cities and pyramids. Early analysis of organizational communication prescribed communication along lines of formally authorized relationships, within organizations viewed as containers of communication processes. Early analysts of bureaucracy and scientific management emphasized written communication, the regular flow of files from official to official, the importance of clear oral instructions about behavior, all supported by a formal managerial apparatus designed to maximize the efficiency of information flow. Bureaucracy, beyond its controlling tendencies, also manifested norms of transparency, fairness, and workplace justice, both to limit worker resistance and to harness worker loyalty and initiative. The tendency of human relations theorists was to take a managerial perspective emphasizing supervisor leadership through vertical communication to shape informal group norms. That tendency was echoed in the emphasis in early business communication literature on appropriate channel and style selection in vertical communication.
In the 1960s, strategic contingency and systems theories led researchers and consultants to pay more attention to communication issues. They reasoned that as organizations faced more complex, unclear, and dynamic environments, structures had to change to allow similarly complex information processing. Abstract structural syndromes such as centralization, formalization, and standardization were reconceived as variables; both concrete and abstract structural features were seen as potentially simplifying or helping to perform the vital functions of coordination and information processing. In complex environments, organizations were supposed to: (1) develop flatter, more decentralized structures, (2) create ways to facilitate interdepartmental communication by appointing liaison managers and setting up regular integrating relationships and task forces, (3) share information and power more fully, and (4) engage in collaborative decision-making.
The documents stipulating organizational structure automatically mandate and constrain other organizational communication processes; moreover, they serve as a foundation for a managerial and financial logic that could overpower other bases of organizational decision-making. In addition, these documents create a fundamental division or “distanciation” in the organization, between managers empowered to create or write structural documents and approve them, professionals who have access to and can influence implementation of the structure, and workers who rarely have access to the documents and can seldom understand them.
Differences among documents such as hierarchy charts, mission statements, and policies lead to important differences in the implementation of, or dissemination of information about, structural change. Some important changes may be subject to brief announcement only, while others involve extensive consultation during planning, elaborate announcement ceremonies, and extensive training or development programs to deal with cultural and other consequences of the structural changes.
Since the height of influence for contingency theory, attention of researchers has swung away from general issues of organizational structure, for several reasons. First, global competition, technological advances, and greater complexity of outputs have led organizations to adopt very flexible structural arrangements across the board; today’s “machine bureaucracy” is rarer and very different from that of old. Second, growing understanding of nonformal factors such as information channeling, organizational culture, and peer group pressure have led to increased concentration on their use for organizational control, replacing standard structural features. Third, communication technology has revolutionized organizations, facilitating the development of novel forms, and augmenting or substituting for standard structural features. As a result of these developments, research on organizational structure has turned to analysis of specific structural features and types.
Important Structural Features Today
Communication Technology (CT)
Though communication technology is not really a structural feature, its power as a communication and control medium has enabled it to supplant other structural features and change basic properties of organizations. CT has affected organizational structure foremost by allowing the creation of “new organizational forms,” discussed below. Other impacts include the fact that computerized communication replaces direct interaction for orders and standard rules as a coordination mechanism, allowing for more transparent coordination apart from control. CT also allows both synchronous and delayed communication, enabling coordinated work over global distances without regard to time differences. CT crosses traditional organizational boundaries and geographic distances easily, allowing the distancing effects of rank, occupation, and even organizational membership to be bypassed, so that organizations and their alliances can have truly global reach. CT allows the transition to knowledge management as an important value-adding process, with information and ideas rapidly disseminated and applied in new ways.
With these empowering changes come some constraints. CT replaces work rules with communication access rules: there are some databases and message threads that employees cannot read or affect. CT also allows greatly expanded surveillance of employee work and communication, in a way that can defeat decentralization. For instance, optimal empowerment of battlefield commanders is undermined if distant superiors use CT to micromanage combat decisions. Further, CT rules and surveillance are often less transparent than traditional structural features. Both these constraints and the empowering effects may depend on the structural context of the units using CT.
Policies created and implemented within organizations are material features of organizational structure. Policies both reflect and create structure by mediating between structure and action and by formally prescribing how activities and procedures transpire.
Developing policy research has made links among structure, policy, and action clearer. Critical approaches focus on ways that structure influences whether an issue becomes policy-relevant and how policies reproduce existing organizational power distributions. Interpretive approaches focus on how organizational caseworkers interpret and use policies to negotiate activities within contested contexts, often in ways that thwart the original intent involved in the policy. Decision-makers, implementers, and policy stakeholders engage in continuous negotiations of meaning and purpose throughout issue identification, policy construction, implementation, evaluation, and revision.
Because they are publicly available and subject to adjudication, policies – especially public policies – are often developed and disseminated in elaborate processes of investigation, publication, review, implementation, and staff training. Such processes help mediate between levels of organizational hierarchy.
Nonstandard Employment Relations
More organizations employ workers under nonstandard arrangements such as independent contracting, temporary firm placements, day-work, and at-home work. Implications of these new relations vary by contract type, with workers who desire temporary status having better work experiences, greater flexibility, and more benefits, while involuntarily nonstandard workers suffer economic disadvantage. Other sources of success for temporary workers are the socio-emotional and informational supports from the client organization. Workers from “temp” firms often fall under a dual-control system, by both temporary agency and client organization, and experience looser control.
Organizations receive economic and knowledge benefits from nonstandard workers. Contingent workers also learn (so organizations risk proprietary knowledge), especially if they are successfully integrated with the core workforce. But integration can be challenging. Presence of temporary workers can lead core workers to be more conscious of the threat (and benefits) of greater insecurity in their own job arrangements, and also of (perceived) injustice, overwork, and reduced promotion opportunities for core workers.
Important Structural Types Today
“New Organizational Forms”
These are also called network organizations and post-Fordist organizations. Noteworthy features include: (1) flexible production, with skilled workers using computerized technology to do intelligent work responding to differentiated markets; (2) team organization; (3) dense CT nets within and between teams; (4) flat vertical structure with little middle management but dynamic self-organization of team alliances; (5) control by top management through surveillance, peer pressure, and result-based allocation of capital; and (6) technology allowing global distribution of such teams and networks. This complex of features is strikingly different from the “machine bureaucracy” that characterized many organizations a half-century ago; it is closer to the “organic community” form of craft shops and research labs, but lacks the social stability and worker power of those institutions.
New organizational forms have proliferated due to low-cost communication technology and more educated workforces; they are encouraged by hypercompetition and mobile global capital. They allow invisible, dynamic control, making worker organization and resistance harder. They also present communication challenges to workers: problems of successful team self-management in an externally controlled environment, problems of surveillance and autonomy, and difficulties in developing trust and team commitment.
Another research focus, going beyond decentralization aimed at interactive coordination, is democratic participation by stakeholders in the resolution of basic structural issues for organizations. Democratic organizations develop due to top-level corporate desires to motivate workers, as well as from worker efforts inspired by democratic ideals. They are facilitated by an educated, empowered workforce valuing democratic initiative and voice, but constrained by post-Fordist developments, such as politically powerful free-flowing capital and new surveillance or control media.
Organizational democracy is a mixed structural type, with varied arrangements for member voice through ownership, voice, and representation, about varying issue types. Democratic organizations face special challenges, stemming both from the need for bureaucratic elements in performance-oriented social systems, and from today’s hypercapitalistic environment.
As new media of control, nontraditional work forms, and global workforces proliferate, research must explore how management and work design, in conjunction with new structuring practices, lead to organizational control and/or emancipation. Future studies of structure and policy will benefit by focusing on micro-processual connections to macro-organizational and broader societal structures, using structuration and activity theory. Investigations also will benefit from longitudinal studies and qualitative data reflecting critical, interpretive, and practice theory approaches.
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