The Processes of Organization and Management

Managers today are enamored of processes. It’s easy to see why. Many modern organizations are functional and hierarchical; they suffer from isolated departments, poor coordination, and limited lateral communication. All too often, work is fragmented and compartmentalized, and managers find it difficult to get things done. Scholars have faced similar problems in their research, struggling to describe organizational functioning in other than static, highly aggregated terms. For real progress to be made, the “proverbial ‘black box,’ the firm, has to be opened and studied from within.”1

Processes provide a likely solution. In the broadest sense, they can be defined as collections of tasks and activities that together — and only together — transform inputs into outputs. Within organizations, these inputs and outputs can be as varied as materials, information, and people. Common examples of processes include new product development, order fulfillment, and customer service; less obvious but equally legitimate candidates are resource allocation and decision making.

Over the years, there have been a number of process theories in the academic literature, but seldom has anyone reviewed them systematically or in an integrated way. Process theories have appeared in organization theory, strategic management, operations management, group dynamics, and studies of managerial behavior. The few scholarly efforts to tackle processes as a collective phenomenon either have been tightly focused theoretical or methodological statements or have focused primarily on a single type of process theory.2

Yet when the theories are taken together, they provide a powerful lens for understanding organizations and management:

First, processes provide a convenient, intermediate level of analysis. Because they consist of diverse, interlinked tasks, they open up the black box of the firm without exposing analysts to the “part-whole” problems that have plagued earlier research.3 Past studies have tended to focus on either the trees (individual tasks or activities) or the forest (the organization as a whole); they have not combined the two. A process perspective gives the needed integration, ensuring that the realities of work practice are linked explicitly to the firm’s overall functioning.4

Second, a process lens provides new insights into managerial behavior. Most studies have been straightforward descriptions of time allocation, roles, and activity streams, with few attempts to integrate activities into a coherent whole.5 In fact, most past research has highlighted the fragmented quality of managers’ jobs rather than their coherence.

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References

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H. Mintzberg, The Nature of Managerial Work (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).

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H.J. Harrington, Business Process Improvement (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1991);

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T.H. Davenport, Process Innovation (Boston: Harvar Business School Press, 1993);

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54. For studies on creation, see:

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R.I. Sutton, “Organizational Decline Processes: A Social Psychological Perspective,” in B.M. Staw and L.L. Cummings, eds., Research in Organizational Behavior, volume 12 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1990), pp. 205–253; and

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55. Gersick (1991), p. 10.

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K. Lewin, Field Theory in Social Science (New York: Harper, 1951);

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Monge (1990);

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63. C. Perrow, “A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Organizations,” American Sociological Review, volume 32, number 2, 1967, pp. 194–208, quote from p. 195.

64. D.A. Garvin, “Leveraging Processes for Strategic Advantage, Harvard Business Review, volume 73, September–October 1995, pp. 76–90.

65. See, for example:

Galbraith (1977); and

Schlesinger, Sathe, Schlesinger, and Kotter (1992).

66. W.G. Astley and A.H. Van de Ven, “Central Perspectives and Debates in Organization Theory,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 28, June 1983, pp. 245–273, quote from p. 263.

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68. Hales (1986);

Mintzberg (1973);

Sayles (1989); and

L.R. Sayles, Managerial Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964).

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Sayles (1989); and

M.L. Tushman, “A Political Approach to Organizations: A Review and Rationale,” Academy of Management Review, volume 2, April 1977, pp. 206–216.

71. Hales (1986);

J.P. Kotter, The General Managers (New York: Free Press, 1982);

Mintzberg (1973); and

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72. E.M. Leifer and H.C. White, “Wheeling and Annealing: Federal and Multidivisional Control,” in J.F. Short, Jr., ed., The Social Fabric (Beverly Hills, California: Sage, 1986), pp. 223–242.

73. Hill (1992); and

Kotter (1982).

74. W. Skinner and W.E. Sasser, “Managers with Impact: Versatile and Inconsistent,” Harvard Business Review, volume 55, November–December 1977, pp. 140–148.

75. Examples include The Soul of a New Machine, featuring Tom West, the leader of a project to build a new minicomputer at Data General Corporation, and My Years with General Motors, written by Alfred Sloan, who resurrected General Motors in the more than twenty years that he served as the company’s chief executive and chairman. See:

J.T. Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981); and

A.P. Sloan, Jr., My Years with General Motors (New York: Doubleday, 1963).

76. Mintzberg (1973), p. 92;

Sayles (1964), chapter 9; and

Hales (1986).

77. Kotter (1982).

78. J.J. Gabarro, The Dynamics of Taking Charge (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1987); and

R. Simons, “How New Top Managers Use Control Systems as Levers of Strategic Renewal,” Strategic Management Journal, volume 15, number 3, 1994, pp. 169–189.

79. Sayles (1964).

80. Hill (1992);

Kotter (1982);

F. Luthans, R.M. Hodgetts, and S.A. Rosenkrantz, Real Managers (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Ballinger, 1988); and

Mintzberg (1973).

81. D.J. Isenberg, “How Senior Managers Think,” Harvard Business Review, volume 62, November–December 1984, pp. 80–90, quote from p. 84.

82. Sayles (1964).

83. J.E. Dutton and S.J. Ashford, “Selling Issues to Top Management,” Academy of Management Review, volume 18, number 3, 1993, pp. 397–428; and

I.C. MacMillan and W.D. Guth, “Strategy Implementation and Middle Management Coalitions,” in R. Lamb and P. Shrivastava, eds., Advances in Strategic Management, volume 3 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1985), pp. 233–254.

84. D.C. Hambrick and A.A. Cannella, “Strategy Implementation as Substance and Selling,” Academy of Management Executive, volume 3, number 4, 1989, pp. 278–285.

85. Mintzberg (1973), pp. 67–71; and

Sayles (1964).

86. Isenberg (1984); and M.A. Lyles and I.I. Mitroff, “Organizational Problem Formulation: An Empirical Study,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 25, March 1980, pp. 102–119.

87. Sayles (1964), pp. 170.

88. Mintzberg (1973), pp. 67–71.

89. D.A. Schön, The Reflective Practitioner (New York: Basic Books, 1983), chapters 1, 2, and 8.

90. MacMillan and Guth (1985); and

Bower and Doz (1979), pp.152–153.

91. Mohr (1982), p. 43.

92. E.D. Chapple and L.R. Sayles, The Measure of Management (New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 49–50.

93. Garvin (1995).

94. E.H. Schein, Process Consultation: Lessons for Managers and Consultants (Reading, Massachusetts:

Addison-Wesley, 1987); and

Schein (1988).

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Christopher Bartlett, Joseph Bower, Robert Burgelman, Roland Christensen, Michael Cusumano, Alison Davis-Blake, Lynn Garvin, Donald Hambrick, Carl Kaysen, Ashish Nanda, Philip Rosenzweig, Malcolm Salter, Leonard Sayles, Leonard Schlesinger, David Upton, Richard Walton, Gerry Zaltman, and two anonymous referees for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article, and the Division of Research, Harvard Business School, for financial support.