Organizational Contexts

Organizational Contexts

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-2836-6.ch003


All leaders are embedded in a community context. In this book, the authors consider leaders in organizational contexts. This chapter provides a historical literature review of key developments with regard to academic and practitioner theorizing about organizational contexts of business leaders, the main body of the chapter being structured around organizational mission, strategy, structure, culture, and organizational lifecycle. This chapter provides an outline of the growth of the strategic planning area within organizations which typically emphasized rationality and employed analysis rather than synthesis. The key schools of thought that have evolved over the past six decades or more range from the informal design school which gradually ceded ground to the emergent and more formalized strategic planning school. There have since been a number of others such as the cognitive school, the learning school, the political school, the cultural school, the environmental school, and the configuration school.
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The current and future organizational context(s) in which your leadership is exercised have a profound influence on the leadership results that will be achieved. Organizational context normally includes the organization’s mission, strategy, structure, and culture. Each leadership role is typically set relevant to a given context, and this is the norm against which an individual’s leadership abilities are measured, and forms the foundation for the continuous improvement leadership process described in Chapter 2 – this role is your leadership ‘scoreboard’, but the ‘plays’ are set out in Steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 in that chapter. Even if a person’s role is flexible, or they have the opportunity to change it, that role will still be governed by the mission, strategy, structure and culture of the organization. Clearly it will be to your advantage to have a thorough understanding of the foundations of your current and potential future organizational contexts, the associated pros and cons, and an appreciation of the potential alternatives, if you are to support or negotiate a change in your current leadership role. This chapter is designed to provide such a picture of the typical current and emerging organizational contexts and their rationale.

It will be very helpful for each individual to first consider their organizational context from a simplified ‘image’ or ‘metaphor’ point of view (Morgan, 2006). When we describe a person as “brave as a lion” or “strong as an ox” we immediately have a distinct sense of that individual, even though our perception is partial and may be distorted. Reading organizations in this same way as a first step is very effective in promoting reflection, insight, and new perspectives, and forms a practical basis for action learning or other learning-oriented sessions that may be held as part of the leadership process described in Chapter 2.

Morgan (2006) uses metaphor to divide organizations into seven types. These are organizations as machines; organisms; brains; cultures; “psychic prisons”; flux and transformation; and instruments of domination. The ideas and analysis developed for these seven types are then used by Morgan to develop a new transformative approach to organization.

Seeing organizations as machines shows how this kind of thinking leads to development of a bureaucratic organization. The organization is envisaged as made up of interlocking parts where each part has a critical role to play in the performance of the whole. This way of thinking has become so ingrained from our historical roots that it is still today very difficult to organize in any other way. It is not that organizations are seen to be like machines, but that there exists a widespread belief (a mindset) that they are machines, and people are parts of that machine

Visualizing organizations as organisms focuses on seeing them as belonging to a given ‘species’, where for example the ‘bureaucratic’ species is just one of many. Different species are suited to different environments, and their adaption to changing environments may be theorized. Inter-species dynamics and relationships may also be considered using this metaphor.

When organizations are likened to brains, the metaphor highlights the critical importance of learning, knowledge, and the classic IT and emerging digital technologies that support these endeavors. Attention is focused on design to enhance these capabilities, and emphasis is placed on the importance of self-organization, innovation and flexibility.

In organization considered as culture, organization is regarded as located in the ideas, values, norms, emotions, rituals and beliefs that are socially constructed by its stakeholders. Cultural aspects of organizations have, in face of the typical mechanistic metaphor, been underplayed in everyday organizational life; however, cultural people-factors have profound influence for good or bad with respect to organizational life, change, and capability achievement (Smith & Sharma, 2001; Smith, 2011a).

The sense that organizations may be considered as “psychic prisons” originates from seeing people ensnared by their own beliefs, ideas, and affective factors (Smith & Sharma, 2001). Consideration of such conscious or unconscious patterns of thought and emotion help reflection and development of insights regarding the psychodynamic and ideological features of organizations (Gabriel, 1999).

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