The value-rational organizational form as the context for distributed ambidexterity By

THe value-rational organizational form

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THe value-rational organizational form

While ambidexterity poses deep organizational paradoxes in the values, norms, authority, and capabilities subsystems, it is, we argue, possible for an organization to resolve these paradoxes via synthesis if it adopts a value-rational organizational form. In this section, we first explicate value-rationality as a type of social action and explain its essential role in distributed ambidexterity, and then explain how value-rationality can constitute the basis of an organizational form. The following section will discuss how this value-rational form can be operationalized and thereby synthesize each of the four organizational paradoxes of DA.

Value-rational action and DA

Value-rationality is one of the four basic types of social action postulated by Weber, alongside traditional, affectual, and instrumentally-rational action (Weber, 1978, Vol 1, pp. 25 ff.). Action is traditional (traditionalistic would be a less ambiguous translation) when it is oriented by habit and/or reverence for established patterns. It is affectual when it is oriented by emotional attachments. It is instrumentally-rational when it is oriented to selecting the most efficient means for achieving a given end of individual self-interest. It is value-rational when it is oriented toward an “ultimate” end-value, some higher purpose (Wallace, 1990). Both instrumentally-rational and value-rational forms of action are rational in their selection of means, whereas the other two are not. Both value-rational and affectual forms are consciously oriented towards desired end-values, whereas in the other two the end-values are taken-for-granted givens. (Note that the taken-for-granted end-value of instrumental-rationality is not always presented in the scholarly literature as individual material self-interest; but Wallace (1990) quoting Weber (1978: p. 30, 331) makes a convincing case that this is the logical implication of positing instrumental-rationality as a type unto itself, rather than merely as a contingent feature of the other three types.)

We argue that the value-rational type of action is essential for DA. Exploration and exploitation are, as March and others explain, essentially incommensurable: there is no common metric (such as expected net present value) to which they could both be reduced and along which proposed courses of action could then be compared. This incommensurability means that individuals and teams aiming for ambidextrous behavior in pursuit of some ultimate value, some higher purpose, need to make non-routine, situation-specific judgments about how, in the given circumstances, exploration and exploitation goals relate to that ultimate value. Actors therefore can never take the end-value of their actions as given, nor merely follow established roles and procedures: they must continually orient their action by explicit reference to this ultimate purpose—which puts them squarely in the category of value-rational action.

None of Weber’s three other types of social action fit the demands of DA. Traditionalistic action is based on commitment to the status group and the status quo: as such, it can foster stability, but not rigorous exploitation nor creative exploration, let alone the combination that defines ambidexterity (Weber, 1978: vol. 1, p. 226 ff). Affectual action may inspire radical exploration through emotional commitment, but it does not foster the sustained disciplined action required for systematic exploitation (Pillai & Meindl, 1998; Weber, 1978: Vol. 2, Ch. III). Instrumental rationality emerges where end-value can be taken-for-granted and attention devoted entirely to the rational choice of means and intermediate goals, but ambidexterity requires that end-values and their situation-specific meaning be constantly in view. Value-rationality, by providing a context within which people can confidently engage a constant renegotiation of the relation of multiple incommensurable priorities, appears best suited to the behavioral challenges of DA.

Value-rationality as an organizational form

If distributed ambidexterity requires the value-rational type of action, then an organization aiming for DA must find a way to institutionalize value-rationality—that is, it must make value-rational action the type that is taken for granted and seen as normal and appropriate. Indeed, each of Weber’s four types of action can function as the modal type of action in—and thus as the grounding for—a distinctive form of organization. Traditional action grounds the traditionalistic form of organization. Affectual action grounds the charismatic form. Instrumentally-rational actions grounds two complementary types—the legal-rational bureaucracy and the competitive market (Weber, 1978: Vol. I, p. 36). Value-rationality, according to Weber, grounds the “collegial” form (Delanty, 2003: p. 33). In other research currently underway, we are exploring the distinctive performance potential of each of these forms; the present paper focuses on the role of the value-rational organizational form (we characterize this form now) in assuring DA (we explain this link in the following section).

Reasoning deductively from Weber’s discussion of value-rational action and collegiality, we can begin to identify the criteria that would qualify an organization as fitting the value-rational organizational form. In the following section, we will discuss the specific mechanisms that would allow an organization to meet these criteria. In presenting the criteria, we build on the Parsonian framework introduced above and identify the defining features in each of the four subsystems taken in turn. The following section offers more detail, but here we can summarize the basic features succinctly.

Values: The values subsystem of the value-rational organizational form is characterized by an ethic of contribution. This is the product of several features. First, value-rational action is oriented to ultimate values, rather than to the instrumental goal of material gain. Thus, the value-rational organizational form is distinctive both in the salience of these ultimate values as superordinate goals (Sherif, 1958) and in the content of these goals. Second, value-rational action is rational—here, both end-goals and means for achieving them are subject to discussion based on public standards of validity. This implies that the value-rational organizational form is quite different from the charismatic form, where both ultimate values and the paths for achieving them are shaped by affectual commitments rather than by rational dialogue. Third, if value-rational action is to be institutionalized, ultimate values must guide every member’s actions, not only the top executives’. The value-rational organization form is therefore one in which the organization’s ultimate purposes are at the center of organizational life and in which all members share an understanding of those purposes. Members identify with these purposes as their own: the purposes are personally meaningful, and each member’s choices are guided by their own commitment to these purposes. Fourth, value-rational action means that members use those ultimate values to choose appropriate actions when faced with new and unforeseen circumstances. The value-rational organizational form therefore formulates its ultimate values in such a way that members can connect them to daily decision-making in contexts of change and innovation. Finally, a foundation in value-rationality imparts a distinctive “values-driven” quality to the other three Parsonian subsystems: they are shaped by the values subsystem more than vice-versa.

Norms: As Kalberg (2003) points out, for value-rationality to prevail, norms of “substantive rationality” are necessary: that is, means must be evaluated constantly for both their efficiency and their appropriateness to the ultimate end-goals. In the value-rational form, norms might be more or less formalized as procedures, but whatever the extent of formalization, these procedures would need to be designed and implemented with the organizations’ ultimate purposes constantly in view. This substantive type of rationality contrasts with what Weber (1978: p. 85) called “formal” rationality, which is operative when the course of action is decided in light of its conformance with formalized rules and with clear calculations for assessing the most efficient way to achieve a given goal. Substantive rationality does not preclude instrumental calculation, but it subordinates the latter to the actors’ ultimate values (Biggart & Delbridge, 2004). (In the classic case of legal reasoning, the distinction between formal and substantive rationality is between decisions based on consistency with established canons of legal reasoning and decisions based on whether the outcome is considered just.)

Authority: The concept of value-rationality does not preclude a role for authority in this organizational form, but it requires a distinctive foundation for the legitimacy of that authority, namely, the leader’s recognized ability to contribute to the end-goal. Authority in any stable system needs legitimacy in the eyes of “followers” rather than being merely bestowed on leaders from leaders further above them (Dornbusch & Scott, 1975); the value-rational form is distinctive in locating the grounds for this endorsement in members’ recognition of the leader’s ability to advance the organization’s ultimate purposes.

Capabilities: The value-rational organization is distinctive in deliberately fostering the development of the capabilities required by the organization’s end-goals. Instead of leaving it to employees to develop skills in whatever direction appears to them as instrumentally rational in pursuit of their individual labor-market goals, the value-rational organization deliberately plans their skill development to support their ability to contribute to the organization’s ultimate purposes.

We have deduced these features of the value-rational form from theory, and the question is therefore posed as to whether they can be operationalized. Weber himself doubted it. He saw value-rationality as the key feature of some small-scale “collegial” groups (Weber, 1978: Vol. I, p. 272 ff.), but he was doubtful that value-rationality could be scaled up from such groups to large-scale, purposive organizations under pressure to make “precise, clear, and above all, rapid decisions” (Weber, 1978: Vol. I, p. 277). In his view, value-rationality lacked a feature essential for such scale, namely “legitimate domination” and the associated capacity for imperative command. Indeed, as we have just seen, under value-rationality, actors’ behavior is oriented above all by their personal commitment to ultimate end-values; in a social order based on value-rationality, action is coordinated among actors not by commands but by their shared commitment those end-values. Such a social order is, therefore, a poor instrument for Herrschaft—for implementing the dominating will of a master. More recent scholarship has often concurred (Mommsen, 1974; Waters, 1989). The scale issue is not a major concern in the other, separation-based approaches to ambidexterity, since there ambidextrous behavior is located within a top-management team: such teams may indeed function as collegial groups. But Weber’s skepticism must somehow be met if ambidextrous behavior is to be distributed widely across a larger organization’s levels and functions.

Other sociologists have been more optimistic about the possibility of scaling up the value-rational form, thinking of it not as a form of administration sustaining Herrschaft, but as the form of self-government by a collectivity. Although he did not use this term, Durkheim argued in effect that value-rationality could function as the foundation of professional or occupational communities (Durkheim, 1933 [1893]: second Preface). Later authors have claimed that value-rationality functions as the central organizing principle of such large-scale collectivities as ideologically driven political parties (Willer, 1967), constitutional states (Spencer, 1970), autonomous professional organizations (Satow, 1975), and some “alternative” cooperatives (Rothschild-Whitt, 1979). Heckscher and Adler (2006) extend this more optimistic account with a set of case studies that highlight the emergence of the value-rational type in the contemporary corporate sector. Skeptics counter that in these cases, true value-rationality is typically precarious: parties often succumb to the “iron law of oligarchy” (Michels, 1966); constitutional states often become authoritarian when their dominant powers are challenged (Schmitt, 1988); professions often become self-interested monopolies (Brint, 1994; Waters, 1989); and collaborative enterprises often revert to hierarchical domination (Freeman, 1970).

The key to overcoming this precariousness and to surmounting Weber’s skepticism is, we submit, a series of innovations in “organizational technology”—new managerial techniques—that have emerged since Weber’s time through a process of social innovation, and that operationalize value-rationality and give considerably greater robustness to the value-rational organizational form today. These techniques mitigate the scale constraints that concerned Weber, and thereby enable DA. In the following section, we identify some of these innovations and show how they help resolve the organizational paradoxes of DA. As will become obvious, some of these techniques have proven useful beyond the context of DA: our contention, however, is that these techniques, implemented in a sufficiently systematic manner, effectively operationalize value-rationality as an organizational principle and thus enable DA. In the Conclusion, we discuss the boundary conditions for the applicability of this value-rational form.

Before turning to the core of the paper, we should explain why we refer to the value-rational organization as an organizational “form.” The term form is often used loosely to designate any of a range of basic organizational features (e.g. Child & McGrath, 2001). Used more rigorously, it has been taken to refer to the “core,” less changeable features of an organization. Hannan and Freeman (1984) use the term to refer to the features of an organization least amenable to adaptation and therefore more pertinent to defining a “species” in their ecological-evolutionary models. We embrace this idea, and the result is that our characterization of the value-rational form leaves numerous features of organizations unspecified: the specific structural arrangements, for example, as they differ between functional and structural approaches to ambidexterity, are better addressed at a less abstract level of analysis. We differ from Hannan and Freeman, however, in how to characterize form. Like us, they refer to Parsons: they focus on Parsons’ (1960) distinction between technical, managerial, and institutional levels within organization, and then identify four aspects of form. These are, from the innermost and least changeable aspects and going outward the more peripheral and somewhat more changeable aspects, the organization’s goals, authority structures, technologies, and market strategies. However, Hannan and Freeman make an untheorized conceptual leap when they go from Parsons’ three levels to these four aspects of form. We propose to give our characterization of organizational form a stronger theoretical foundation by building more directly on Parsons’ structural-functional theory of social systems.

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