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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1. B.S. Chakravarthy and Y. Doz, “Strategy Process Research: Focusing on Corporate Self-Renewal,” Strategic Management Journal, volume 13, special issue, Summer 1992, pp. 5–14, quote from p. 6.

2. L.B. Mohr, Explaining Organizational Behavior (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1982);

P.R. Monge, “Theoretical and Analytical Issues in Studying Organizational Processes,” Organization Science, volume 1, number 4, 1990, pp. 406–430;

A.H. Van de Ven, “Suggestions for Studying Strategy Process: A Research Note,” Strategic Management Journal, volume 13, special issue, Summer 1992, pp. 169–188; and

A.H. Van de Ven and G. Huber, “Longitudinal Field Research Methods for Studying Processes of Organizational Change,” Organization Science, volume 1, number 3, 1990, pp. 213–219.

3. A.H. Van de Ven, “Central Problems in the Management of Innovation,” Management Science, volume 32, number 5, 1986, pp. 590–606.

4. L.R. Sayles, Leadership: Managing in Real Organizations, second edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989).

5. C.P. Hales, “What Do Managers Do?,” Journal of Management Studies, volume 23, number 1, 1986, pp. 88–115; and

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

6. For discussions of processes in the quality literature, see:

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

E.J. Kane, “IBM’s Quality Focus on the Business Process,” Quality Progress, volume 19, April 1986, pp. 24–33;

E.H. Melan, “Process Management: A Unifying Framework,” National Productivity Review, volume 8, 1989, number 4, pp. 395–406;

R.D. Moen and T.W. Nolan, “Process Improvement,” Quality Progress, volume 20, September 1987, pp. 62–68; and

G.D. Robson, Continuous Process Improvemen (New York: Free Press, 1991).

For discussions of processes in the reengineering literature, see:

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

M. Hammer and J. Champy, Reengineering the Corporation (New York: Harper Business, 1993); and

T.A. Stewart,”Reengineeering: The Hot New Managing Tool,” Fortune, 23 August 1993, pp. 40–48.

7. M. Hammer, “Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate,” Harvard Business Review, volume 68, July–August 1990, pp. 104–112.

8. J.D. Blackburn, “Time-Based Competition: White-Collar Activities,” Business Horizons, volume 35, July–August 1992, pp. 96–101.

9. E.H. Melan, “Process Management in Service and Administrative Operations,” Quality Progress, volume 18, June 1985, pp. 52–59.

10. Davenport (1993), chapter 7;

Hammer and Champy (1993), chapter 3;

Harrington (1991), chapter 6;

and Kane (1986).

11. Hammer and Champy (1993), pp. 108–109;

Kane (1986); and

Melan (1989), p. 398.

12. Moen and Nolan (1987); and

Robson (1991).

13. Davenport (1993), pp. 10–15; and

Hammer and Champy (1993), pp. 32–34.

14. T.H. Davenport and N. Nohria, “Case Management and the Integration of Labor,” Sloan Management Review, volume 35, Winter 1994, pp. 11–23, quote from p. 11.

15. I. Price, “Aligning People and Processes during Business-Focused Change in BP Exploration,” Prism, fourth quarter, 1993, pp. 19–31.

16. Kane (1986); and

Melan (1985) and (1989).

17. H. Gitlow, S. Gitlow, A. Oppenheim, and R. Oppenheim, Tools and Methods for the Improvement of Quality (Homewood, Illinois: Irwin, 1989), chapter 8.

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19. J. Browning, “The Power of Process Redesign,” McKinsey Quarterly, volume 1, number 1, 1993, pp. 47–58;

J.R. Galbraith, Organization Design (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1977), pp. 118–119; and

B.P. Shapiro, K. Rangan and J.J. Sviokla, “Staple Yourself to an Order,” Harvard Business Review, volume 70, July–August 1992, pp. 113–122.

20. For example, see:

A. March and D.A. Garvin, “Arthur D. Little, Inc.” (Boston: Harvard Business School, case no. 9-396-060, 1995).

21. K.E. Weick, The Social Psychology of Organizing, second edition (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1979), p. 34.

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23. C.I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938), pp. 185–189, 205–206; and

H.A. Simon, Administrative Behavior, third edition (New York: Free Press, 1976), pp. 96–109, 220–228.

24. L.A. Hill, Becoming a Manager ( Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992), pp. 20–21.

25. For reviews, see:

J.L. Bower and Y. Doz, “Strategy Formulation: A Social and Political Process,” in D.H. Schendel and C.H. Hofer, eds., Strategic Management (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 152–166; and

A.S. Huff and R.K. Reger, “A Review of Strategic Process Research,” Journal of Management, volume 13, number 2, 1987, pp. 211–236.

26. H. Mintzberg, D. Raisinghani, and A. Théorêt, “The Structure of Unstructured Decision Processes,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 21, June 1976, pp. 246–275;

P.C. Nutt, “Types of Organizational Decision Processes,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 29, September 1984, pp. 414–450; and

E. Witte, “Field Research on Complex Decision-Making Processes — The Phase Theorem,” International Studies of Management and Organization, volume 2, Summer 1972, pp. 156–182.

27. Witte (1972), p. 179.

28. Mintzberg et al. (1976); and Nutt (1984).

29. For studies on capital budgeting, see: R.W. Ackerman, “Influence of Integration and Diversity on the Investment Process,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 15, September 1970, pp. 341–351; and

J.L. Bower, Managing the Resource Allocation Process (Boston: Harvard Business School, Division of Research, 1970).

For studies on foreign investments, see:

Y. Aharoni, The Foreign Investment Decision Process (Boston: Harvard Business School, Division of Research, 1966).

For studies on strategic planning, see:

P. Haspeslagh, “Portfolio Planning: Uses and Limits,” Harvard Business Review, volume 60, January–February 1982, pp. 58–74; and

R. Simons, “Planning, Control, and Uncertainty: A Process View,” in W.J. Bruns, Jr. and R.S. Kaplan, eds., Accounting and Management: Field Study Perspectives (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1987), pp. 339–367.

For studies on internal corporate venturing, see: R.A. Burgelman, “A Process Model of Internal Corporate Venturing in the Diversified Major Firm,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 28, June 1983, pp. 223–244; and

R.A. Burgelman, “Strategy Making as a Social Learning Process: The Case of Internal Corporate Venturing,” Interfaces, volume 18, number 3, 1988, pp. 74–85.

For studies on business exit, see:

R.A. Burgelman, “Fading Memories: A Process Theory of Strategic Business Exit in Dynamic Environments,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 39, March 1994, pp. 24–56.

30. Bower (1970).

31. G.T. Allison, Essence of Decision (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971);

I.L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972);

L.J. Bourgeois, III and K.M. Eisenhardt, “Strategic Decision Processes in High-Velocity Environments: Four Cases in the Microcomputer Industry,” Management Science, volume 34, number 7, 1988, pp. 816–835;

K.M. Eisenhardt, “Speed and Strategic Choice: How Managers Accelerate Decision Making,” California Management Review, volume 32, Spring 1990, pp. 39–54;

J.W. Fredrickson and T.R. Mitchell, “Strategic Decision Processes: Comprehensiveness and Performance in an Industry with an Unstable Environment,” Academy of Management Journal, volume 27, number 2, 1984, pp. 399–423;

J.W. Fredrickson, “The Comprehensiveness of Strategic Decision Processes: Extension, Observations, Future Directions,” Academy of Management Journal, volume 27, number 4, 1984, pp. 445–466; and

I. Nonaka and J.K. Johansson, “Organizational Learning in Japanese Companies,” in R. Lamb and P. Shrivastava, eds., Advances in Strategic Management, volume 3 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1985), pp. 277–296.

32. Janis (1972).

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D.M. Schweiger, W.R. Sandberg, and J.W. Ragan, “Group Approaches for Improving Strategic Decision Making,” Academy of Management Journal, volume 29, number 1, 1986, pp. 51–71; and

D.M. Schweiger, W.R. Sandberg, and P.L. Rechner, “Experimental Effects of Dialectical Inquiry, Devil’s Advocacy, and Consensus Approaches to Strategic Decision Making,” Academy of Management Journal, volume 32, number 4, 1989, pp. 745–772.

34. Janis (1972), pp. 146–149.

35. Bourgeois and Eisenhardt (1988).

36. E.H. Schein, Process Consultation: Its Role in Organization Development, second edition (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1988), pp. 17–19.

37. D.G. Ancona and D.A. Nadler, “Top Hats and Executive Tales: Designing the Senior Team,” Sloan Management Review, volume 31, Fall 1989, pp. 19–28; and

D.C. Hambrick, “Top Management Groups: A Conceptual Integration and Reconsideration of the ‘Team’ Label,” in B.M. Staw and L.L. Cummings, eds., Research in Organizational Behavior, volume 16 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1994), pp. 171–214.

38. Schein (1988), p. 21.

39. Ibid., pp. 22–39.

40. O. Hauptman, “Making Communication Work,” Prism, second quarter, 1992, pp. 71–81; and

D. Krackhardt and J.R. Hanson, “Informal Networks: The Company behind the Chart,” Harvard Business Review, volume 71, July–August 1993, pp. 104–111.

41. Ancona and Nadler (1989), p. 24; Schein (1988), p. 50.

42. D. McGregor, The Professional Manager (New York: McGraw-Hill. 1967), pp. 173–174; and

Schein (1988), pp. 57–58, 81–82.

43. R.L. Daft and G.P. Huber, “How Organizations Learn: A Communication Framework,” in S.B. Bacharach and N. DiTomaso, eds., Research in the Sociology of Organizations, volume 5 (Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, 1987), pp. 1–36;

C.M. Fiol and M.A. Lyles, “Organizational Learning,” Academy of Management Review, volume 10, number 4, 1985, pp. 803–813;

G.P. Huber, “Organizational Learning: The Contributing Processes and the Literatures,” Organization Science, volume 2, number 1,1991, pp. 88–115;

B. Levitt and J.G. March, “Organizational Learning,” Annual Review of Sociology, volume 14, 1988, pp. 319–340; and

P. Shrivastava, “A Typology of Organizational Learning Systems,” Journal of Management Studies, volume 20, number 1, 1983, pp. 7–28.

44. P.M. Brenner, “Assessing the Learning Capabilities of an Organization” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Sloan School of Management, unpublished master’s thesis, 1994);

Daft and Huber (1987), pp. 24–28;

D.A. Garvin, “Building a Learning Organization,” Harvard Business Review, volume 71, July–August 1993, pp. 78–91;

Levitt and March (1988), p. 320; and

E.C. Nevis, A.J. DiBella, and J.M. Gould, “Understanding Organizations as Learning Systems,” Sloan Management Review, volume 37, Winter 1995, pp. 73–85.

45. Nevis et al. (1995), p. 76.

46. T. Kiely, “The Idea Makers,” Technology Review, 96, January 1993, pp. 32–40;

M.A. Cusumano and R.W. Selby, Microsoft Secrets (New York: Free Press, 1995);

Garvin (1993);

J. Simpson, L. Field, and D.A. Garvin, “The Boeing 767: From Concept to Production (A)” (Boston: Harvard Business School, case 9-688-040, 1988);

R.C. Camp, Benchmarking (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: ASQC Quality Press, 1989); and

R.E. Mittelstaedt, Jr., “Benchmarking: How to Learn from Best-in-Class Practices,” National Productivity Review, volume 11, Summer 1992, pp. 301–315;

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Huber (1991), pp. 105–107;

Levitt and March (1988), pp. 326–329; and

J.P. Walsh and G.R. Ungson, “Organizational Memory,” Academy of Management Review, volume 16, number 1, 1991, pp. 57–91.

47. Shrivastava (1983), p. 16.

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51. Van de Ven (1992), p. 80.

52. Van de Ven and Huber (1990).

53. C.J.G. Gersick, “Revolutionary Change Theories: A Multilevel Exploration of the Punctuated Equilibrium Paradigm,” Academy of Management Review, volume 16, number 1, 1991, pp. 10–36.

54. For studies on creation, see:

D.N.T. Perkins, V.F. Nieva, and E.E. Lawler III, Managing Creation: The Challenge of Building a New Organization (New York: Wiley, 1983);

S.B. Sarason, The Creation of Settings and the Future Societies (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1972); and

A.H. Van de Ven, “Early Planning, Implementation, and Performance of New Organizations,” in J.R. Kimberly, R.H. Miles, and associates, The Organizational Life Cycle (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1980), pp. 83–134.

For studies on growth, see:

W.H. Starbuck, ed., Organizational Growth and Development: Selected Readings (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1971).

For studies on transformation, see:

J.R. Kimberly and R.E. Quinn, eds., New Futures: The Challenge of Managing Corporate Transitions (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1984);

A.M. Mohrman, Jr., S.A. Mohrman, G.E. Ledford, Jr., T.G. Cummings, E.E. Lawler III, and associates, Large-Scale Organizational Change (San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989).

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D.C. Hambrick and R.A. D’Aveni, “Large Corporate Failures as Downward Spirals,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 33, March 1988, pp. 1–23;

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

S. Venkataraman, A.H. Van de Ven, J. Buckeye, and R. Hudson, “Starting Up in a Turbulent Environment,” Journal of Business Venturing, volume 5, number 5, 1990, pp. 277–295.

55. Gersick (1991), p. 10.

56. M. Crozier, The Bureaucratic Phenomenon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), p. 196;

Gersick (1991);

H. Mintzberg, “Patterns in Strategy Formation,” Management Science, volume 24, number 9, 1978, pp. 934–948;

Starbuck (1971), p. 68; and

Van de Ven (1992).

57. L.E. Greiner, “Evolution and Revolution as Organizations Grow,” Harvard Business Review, volume 50, July–August 1972, pp. 37–46; and

M.L. Tushman and P. Anderson, “Technological Discontinuities and Organizational Environments,” Administrative Science Quarterly, volume 31, September 1986, pp. 439–465.

58. P. Selznick, Leadership in Administration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957), pp. 103–104.

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61. R. Beckhard and R.T. Harris, Organizational Transitions, second edition (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1987);

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

E.H. Schein, Professional Education (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1972), pp. 76–84; and

N. Tichy and M. Devanna, The Transformational Leader (New York: Wiley, 1986).

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Monge (1990);

A. Strauss and J. Corbin, Basics of Qualitative Research (Newbury Park, California: Sage, 1990: chapter 9; and

Witte (1972).

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.

67. C.A. Bartlett and S. Ghoshal, “Beyond the M-Form: Toward a Managerial Theory of the Firm,” Strategic Management Journal, volume 14, special issue, Winter 1993, pp. 23–46.

68. Hales (1986);

Mintzberg (1973);

Sayles (1989); and

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

69. J. Pfeffer, “Understanding Power in Organizations,” California Management Review, volume 34, Winter 1992, pp. 29–50, quote from p. 29.

70. Crozier (1964); J.G. March, “The Business Firm as a Political Coalition,” Journal of Politics, volume 24, number 4, 1962, pp. 662–678;

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

H.E. Wrapp, “Good Managers Don’t Make Policy Decisions,” Harvard Business Review, volume 45, September–October 1967, pp. 91–99.

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).


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.