Society Magazine

Are Organizations Emergent?

Posted on the 15 August 2023 by Dlittle30 @dlittle30
Are organizations emergent?
Do organizations have properties that are in some recognizable way independent from the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit them? In A New Social Ontology of Government I emphasized the ways in which organizations fail because of actor-level features: principal-agent problems, inconsistent priorities and goals across different working groups, strategic manipulation of information by some actors to gain advantage over other actors, and the like. With a nod to Fligstein and McAdam's theory of strategic action fields (link), I took an actor-centered approach to the workings (and dysfunctions) of organizations. I continue to believe that these are accurate observations about the workings of organizations and government agencies, but now that I've reoriented my thinking away from a strictly actor-centered approach to the social world (link), I'm interested in asking the questions about meso-level causes I did not ask in A New Social Ontology.

For example: 

(a) Are there relatively stable meso-level features of organizations that constrain and influence individual behavior in consistent ways that produce relatively stable meso-level outcomes? 

(b) Are there routine behaviors that are reproduced within the organization by training programs and performance audits that give rise to consistent patterns of organizational workings? 

(c) Are there external structural constraints (legal, environmental, locational) that work to preserve certain features of the organization's scheme of operations? 

It seems that the answer to each of these questions is "yes"; but this in turn seems to imply that organizations have properties that persist over time and through changes of personnel. They are not simply the result of the sum of the behaviors and mental states of the participants. These meso-level properties are subject to change, of course, depending on the behaviors and intentions of the individuals who inhabit the organization; but they are sometimes stable across extended periods of time and individual personnel. Or in other words, there seem to be meso-level features of organizations that are emergent in some moderate sense.

Here are possible illustrations of each kind of "emergent" property.

(a) Imagine two chemical plants Alpha and Beta making similar products with similar industrial processes and owned by different parent corporations. Alpha has a history of occasional fires, small explosions, and defective equipment, and it was also the site of a major chemical fire that harmed dozens of workers and neighbors. Beta has a much better safety record; fires and explosions are rare, equipment rarely fails in use, and no major fires have occurred for ten years. We might then say that Alpha and Beta have different meso-level safety characteristics, with Alpha lying in the moderate risk range and Beta in the low risk range. Now suppose that we ask an all-star team of industrial safety investigators to examine both plants, and their report indicates that Alpha has a long history of cost reduction plans, staff reductions, and ineffective training programs, whereas Beta (owned by a different parent company) has been well funded for staffing, training, and equipment maintenance. This is another meso-level property of the two plants -- production decisions guided by profitability and cost reduction at Alpha, and production decisions guided by both profitability and a commitment to system safety at Beta. Finally, suppose that our team of investigators conducts interviews and focus groups with staff and supervisors in the two plants, and finds that there are consistent differences between the two plants about the importance of maintaining safety as experienced by plant workers and supervisors. Supervisors at Alpha make it clear that they disagree strongly with the statement, "interrupting the production process to clarify anomalous temperature readings would be encouraged by the executives", whereas their counterparts at Beta indicate that they agree with the statement. This implies that there is a significant difference in the safety culture of the two plants -- another meso-level feature of the two organizations. All of these meso-level properties persist over decades and through major turnover of staff. Supervisors and workers come and go, but the safety culture, procedures, training, and production pressure persist, and new staff are introduced to these practices in ways that reproduce them. And -- this is the key point -- these meso-level properties lead to different rates of failure at the two plants over time, even though none of the actors at Alpha intend for accidents to occur. 

(b) This example comparing industrial plants with different safety rates also serves to answer the second question posed above about training and oversight. The directors and staff who conduct training in an industrial organization can have high commitment or low commitment to their work -- energetic and focused training programs or perfunctory and forgettable training programs -- and the difference will be notable in the performance of new staff as they take on their responsibilities. For example, training for control room directors may always emphasize the importance of careful annotation of the day's events for the incoming director on the next shift. But the training may be highly effective, resulting in informative documentation across shift changes; or it may be ineffective and largely disregarded. In most cases poor documentation does not lead to a serious accident; but sometimes it does. So organizations with effective training on procedures and operations will have a better chance of avoiding serious accidents. Alpha has weak training programs, while Beta has strong training programs (and each dedicates commensurate resources to training). Routine behaviors at Alpha lead to careless implementation of procedures, whereas routine behaviors at Beta result in attentive implementation, and as a result, Beta has a better safety performance record.

(c) What about the external influences that have an effect on the overall safety performance of an industrial plant? The corporate governance and ownership of the plant is plainly relevant to safety performance through the priorities it establishes for production, profitability, and safety. If the corporation's highest priority is profitability, then safety procedures and investments take the back seat. Local budget managers are pressed to find cost reductions, and staff positions and equipment devoted to safety are often the easiest category of budget reduction to achieve. On the other hand, if the corporation's guidance to plant executives is a nuanced set of priorities within which both production goals and safety goals are given importance, there is a better chance of preserving the investments in process inspectors, better measurement instruments, and on-site experts who can be called on to offer advice during a plant emergency. This differentiating feature of corporate priority-setting too is a meso-level property that contributes to the level of safety performance in a chemical plant, independent of the knowledge and intentions of local plant managers, directors, and workers.

These brief hypothetical examples seem to establish a fairly mundane form of "emergence" for organizational properties. They provide examples of causal independence of meso-level properties of organizations. And significantly, each of these meso-level features can be identified in case studies of important industrial failures -- the Boeing 737 Max (link), the Deepwater Horizon disaster (link), or the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion (link).

It may be noted that there are two related ideas here: the idea that a higher-level property is emergent from the properties of the constituent entities; and the idea that a higher-level feature may be causally persistent over time and over change of the particular actors who make up the social entity. The connection is this: we might argue that the causally persistent property at the meso-level is different in nature and effect from the causal properties (actions, behaviors, intentions) of the individuals who make up the organization. So causal persistence of meso-level properties demonstrates emergence of a sort.

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