form and function

In the next few posts, I plan to look at some examples of how systems issues affect organizations, especially public sector ones – education, health and social care. I then want to explore how people’s theories about the content of education, health and social care interact with the form of public sector systems. My particular areas of interest are in education, the neurobiology of developmental disorders and conceptual modeling in scientific research, so later posts are likely to focus on those topics. In the meantime, I want to pay tribute to the pioneering work of an organizational researcher little known outside her field.

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In the 1950s Joan Woodward (later a professor at Imperial College) carried out a study of the structure of manufacturing firms. Manufacturing was of vital economic importance in the aftermath of WWII, and Woodward’s team was trying to find out what made efficient manufacturers efficient.

What they found didn’t make sense until they took into account the type of technology firms were using. Woodward identified three main types of production system; unit or small batch, mass/large batch, and continuous process. In essence, what she discovered was that whether a manufacturing process was efficient or not depended on the technology used, and the technology depended on the nature of inputs and outputs. It would be inefficient to manufacture packs of granulated sugar from sugar beet one at a time – continuous processing would be much more effective. Similarly, customized wedding dresses couldn’t be produced efficiently using an assembly line – a unit process would be more appropriate.

What Woodward also noted was that once you knew what technology is being used, you could accurately predict what the organization’s structure will look like. Unit/small batch organizations had ‘organic’ structures, with most workers reporting directly to CEOs, whereas mass production organizations tended to be run as bureaucratic hierarchies with many managers.

Woodward’s contribution to organizational and management theory was an important one, but she had stumbled on a principle already familiar to biologists; that organizations are as much subject to physical constraints and affordances as living organisms, and that both inhabit their own ecosystems.

Reading
Gibson, J.J (1979), The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Lawrence Erlbaum.
On my reading list.
Pugh, D.S. (Ed.) (1997), Organizational Theory, Penguin.
A good introduction to the history and development of organizational theory.