Who Says That Organization Theory is Boring?
by Kai-Lit Phua

Love it or loath it, nod in agreement or dismiss it with a wave of the hand, feminist, radical and other unorthodox versions of organization theory are never dry and boring. Here is a brief introduction to alternative organization theory.

Mention the word "Organization Theory" to graduates of programs in business administration or public administration and you are likely to be greeted with rolling eyeballs and responses like "Boring", "Dry" or worse. These responses may apply to conventional, mainstream theory. However, in my opinion, they definitely do not apply to unconventional, non-mainstream versions such as feminist, radical and postmodern Organization Theory. Here's why:

Feminist Organization Theory

This version of Organization Theory (versions actually, since they range from moderate to truly radical) argues that the vast majority of organizations are male-dominated and benefit males at the expense of females who work in them. "The higher up the organization one goes, the fewer the number of females" is a common observation. There is also the "glass ceiling" that upwardly mobile women are likely to bang their heads into and which make further ascent difficult. Feminist organization theory also notes the existence of "pink collar ghettoes" in the job world, i.e., stereotyped "women's work" that are low-paying, low prestige, temporary, unstable or dead end.

According to feminists, to succeed in the male-dominated organization, the female executive has to behave more and more like a man (i.e. behave like "one of the boys"). She needs to be assertive, ambitious, highly competitive and has to neglect her family life by working long hours, working on weekends, flying all over the place on business trips and so on. She may even need to forego marriage and kids since she is already married to her job!

Radical feminists argue that if you can't beat them at their game, you don't even have to join them. You should simply walk away from them and create your own set of new games with new rules. This can be done by setting up women-only organizations that eschew supposedly "male values" like competition and domination for "female values" like cooperation and close relationships. Women-only organizations will also eliminate the problem of sexual harassment of female staff members by male colleagues and supervisors. (Now what about sexual harassment of a female by another female?)

Radical Organization Theory

This version of organization theory focuses on the dark side, i.e., abuse of power, large differentials in prestige and compensation, unsafe working conditions for low-level workers and so on. Marxist organization theory concentrates on ferreting out examples of "exploitation" arising from the quest of the organization to maximize its profits. Marxists argue that bosses in organizations play on ethnic group, gender, citizenship and other divisions among workers in order to "divide and rule" and prevent unified resistance to exploitation. The pioneering radical organization theorist Harry Braverman viewed Taylorism as a quest to "deskill" work so as to better control the work force, i.e., breaking down complex work that requires thinking (done by skilled workers) into fragmented, highly simplified work that does not require thinking (done by unskilled workers).

Furthermore, in the eyes of radical organization theorists, efforts to humanize the workplace are nothing more than schemes to placate the workforce and make them produce more, i.e., they agree with the premise of the Human Relations school that "A Happy Worker is a More Productive Worker" but with the following rewrite - "A Brainwashed Worker is a More Easily Exploited Worker"!

Radical organization theorists argue that the state tends to ally itself with the bosses at the expense of the workers. Thus, the process of organizing trade unions is made difficult or even illegal in some of the developing nations. The American Government supports the "Washington Consensus" of globalization and encouragement of international trade and capital flows, liberalization of the economy, privatization of public services etc. All these are alleged to weaken Big Labour and reduce its bargaining power vis--vis Big Capital.

Postmodern Organization Theory

There is also Michel Foucault and postmodern organization theory. These theorists concentrate on how workers are influenced to "internalize" ideas favoured by management, i.e., how workers control themselves to the benefit of management by working hard, being efficient and productive in their work without being forced to do so. Theorists influenced by Foucault want to investigate how workers are persuaded to accept ideas such as the need for continuous "self-improvement", "service excellence" or even "working hard for the glory of the nation" (as in South Korea).

Postmodern theorists see organizations as an amalgam of different or even clashing cultures, e.g. the culture of the financial people whose primary emphasis is on the bottom line, the culture of the engineering and production people whose primary emphasis is on building a better mousetrap/widget and so on.

Besides the idea of worker self-control through the internalization of managerial norms and value, Foucault also talked about "surveillance" within organizations. Surveillance or close monitoring of the activities of workers also helps management to keep workers in line. Surveillance can be done through reporting requirements, regular performance audits and through high tech methods such as electronic monitoring. The latter includes computerized monitoring of workers, e.g., computer programs that can monitor the number of keystrokes per hour, log on and log off times, websites visited and so on.

Thus, although conventional, mainstream theory may indeed be dry and boring, this is definitely not the case for alternative organization theory!

Dr. Phua is a sociologist who received his PhD from Johns Hopkins. He also holds professional qualifications in insurance. He has worked in both the public sector in America (with a state health department) and the private sector in Singapore. He currently teaches public health at the International Medical University in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His personal website is at: http://phuakl.tripod.com/index.html .

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Copyright 2001 by Dr. Kai-Lit Phua. All rights reserved.

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