Organizational Control Research Paper

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1. Mainstream Approaches: Ambiguities And Absences

As Pfeffer notes, ‘control is at once the essential problem of management and organization and the implicit focus of much of organization studies’ (1997, p. 100). Yet there are wide disagreements as to its significance and substance. In mainstream models of organization behavior control is, at best, treated ambiguously. Some standard textbooks simply don’t have chapters on the issue. Systems theory is based on equilibrium and interdependence, therefore tends to assume goal consensus and downplays systematic conflicts of interest or identity in the employment relationship.

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When control is discussed it is often alongside coordination. Any complex division of labor requires mechanisms to set goals, allocate responsibilities, and evaluate the effectiveness of performance. Coordination is a more neutral term than control and more compatible with an assumption of goal consensus. In this context, control tends to be treated as a monitoring device, with management’s role to check progress, and ensure that actions occur as planned and to correct any deviation. The emphasis is on technical inputs and outputs in a self-adjusting system, performance standards and feedback mechanisms.

Such emphases can, however, be misleading. Control often is present in mainstream approaches, it’s just hiding in the shadows of something else. The key term used by Pfeffer is implicit. Texts that do have chapters with control in the title often pass over quickly into other issues such as job design, organizational structure, or leadership. In the first instance, debate is focused on designing structures which facilitate levels of control and coordination appropriate to types of work that require different levels of discretion and standardization. In the second, discussion of leadership styles such as the classic polarity of authoritarian vs. democratic, are ways of discussing control, but through the language of influence and motivation.

1.1 A Break From Command And Control?

Reinforcing this ambiguity about whether control is necessary, the more practical management theorists have continually tried to abolish it or proclaim its imminent disappearance. From the human relation’s writers of the 1950s, with their distinctions between (bad) theory X and (good) theory Y, to the advocates of 1970s-style job enrichment and contemporary empowerment, control has been presented as destructive and out of date. The idea that a high degree of autonomy over their own work was a precondition for job satisfaction and high productivity has been a cornerstone of organizational psychology. From the mid-1980s onwards necessity was added to desirability. Influential articles such as Walton (1985) argued that new competitive pressures and the enhanced demands of a service-oriented, knowledge-based economy meant that ‘command and control’ was no longer an option for successful business. We were moving from control to commitment and from rules to values as means of coordination. The future was empowered employees in self-directing teams, participating in and sharing responsibility for a wider range of decisions— more voice and choice at work.

A problem with such approaches is their aspirational nature and the subsequent tendency to conflate prescription and description. It is accepted across different perspectives that changes have taken place with respect to controls. In particular there has been, through team working, increased involvement of employees in microlevel decision-making about how to do their work—a form of democratized Taylorism (Adler 1993). However, studies are consistent in showing that most organizations, at least in Britain and North America, remain traditionally managed and continue to take a low trust, low skill path to competitiveness (Milkman 1997, Thompson and Warhurst 1998). In the context of generally tougher times, marked by downsizing and delayering, many employees experience empowerment largely as a form of work intensification. Firms are finding it harder to deliver on the kind of ‘package’ envisaged by Walton, where increased commitment and responsibilities would be offset by greater job security and other enhancements to the employment relationship.

While companies are indeed seeking to enhance service quality and efficiency, they are also investing in new control systems to monitor the consistency and characteristics of those outputs. In services generally there is ample evidence that organizations are scripting employee–customer interactions (Ritzer 1993), or specifying feelings rules for the mobilization of emotional labor (Hochschild 1983).

What the above discussion suggests is that mainstream conceptual frameworks are not robust enough to deal with changes in the types and levels of control. For example, it is perfectly possible to have increased operational autonomy for ‘empowered’ managers, existing alongside much tighter financial controls through targets and budgets.

2. Control: The Basic Building Block Of Radical Organizational Theory

As Pfeffer (1997, p. 135) notes, those ambiguities towards the idea of control are in part responsible for the development of more critical perspectives on organizations. For a variety of radical theories, control is the core concept. Whereas mainstream perspectives treat control and coordination together, radical theorists argue that management performs a dual function in the enterprise. Managerial practices are a necessary means of coordinating diverse activities, however, they also bear the imprint of conflicting interests in the labor process, a conflict which reflects the unique nature of labor as a commodity. When capital purchases labor it has only a potential or capacity to work. To ensure profitable production, capital must organize the conditions under which labor operates to its own advantage. But workers pursue their own interests for job security, higher rewards, and satisfying work, developing their own counterorganization through informal job controls and output norms.

To resolve this problem and because they are under competitive pressure from other firms to cut costs and raise productivity, employers seek to control the conditions under which work takes place. Control is not an end in itself, but a means to transform the capacity to work established by the wage relation into profitable production. This idea of the transformation of labor power into labor is taken from Marx and is the starting point of what has become known as labor process theory (LPT). Its adherents describe control as a set of mechanisms and practices that regulate the labor process. Richard Edwards (1979) distinguishes three elements in any system of control:

(a) direction and specification of work tasks,

(b) evaluation, monitoring, and assessment of performance,

(c) the apparatus of discipline and reward to elicit cooperation and compliance.

Such elements may, however, be best described as detailed control, in that they are normally connected to immediate work processes, whereas general control refers to management’s capacity to subordinate labor to their direction of the production process as a whole. This allows for recognition of tremendous variations in how detailed control is exercised. Such a model can even allow for employers giving workers significant discretion over tasks, as in semiautonomous work groups, if it maintains their overall control. Control is also not absolute but at least at the microlevel, a contested relationship.

2.1 Strategies Of Control: Debates And Disagreements

Radical perspectives have been conditioned by Braverman’s (1974) argument that the twentieth century has seen the tightening of managerial control, primarily through the application of Taylorist and scientific management strategies. He provided an important corrective to the widespread view that Taylorism was a failed system, superseded by more sophisticated behavioral theories to be used for motivational and job design tools. But it is widely recognized that Braverman overestimated the dominance of Taylorist strategies and practices, and underestimated the varied and uneven implementation.

Nevertheless, because Braverman confused a particular system of control with management control in general, the question of alternative strategies was put firmly on the agenda. The best known is Richard Edward’s (1979) model that is based on historically successive dominant modes of control, which reflect worker resistance and changing socioeconomic conditions. A nineteenth century system of simple or personal control by employers exercising direct authority gave way to more complex structural forms with the transition from small business, competitive capitalism, to corporate monopolies. The first of these forms was technical control, typified by the use of the assembly line, which can pace and direct the labor process. The contradiction for management is that it created a common work experience and basis for unified shop floor opposition. In contrast, a system of bureaucratic control embedded in the social and organizational structure of the firm rather than in personal authority offers management a means of redividing the workforce and tying it to impersonal rules and regulations.

In contrast, the other most influential model from Friedman (1977) eschews the notion of stages, preferring to set out ideal types or strategic poles of responsible autonomy and direct control which run parallel throughout the history of capitalism. Paralleling mainstream notions of mechanistic and organic structures, or low and high trust employment relations, each strategy is said to generates its own inflexibilities in areas such as hiring and firing and task specification. The choice of strategy is governed by variations in the stability of labor and product markets, mediated by the interplay of worker resistance and managerial pressure.

While the emphasis on alternative strategies was welcome, they were criticized for the ‘panacea fallacy’: the idea that capital always seeks and finds definitive and comprehensive modes of control as the solution to its problems. What has happened in practice is that researchers influenced by LPT have largely ignored such overarching frameworks and used the particular concepts such as technical or bureaucratic control to explain particular trends in new technology, recruitment practices, or internal labor markets. Alongside such usage, other researchers have opened up the empirical and theoretical terrain by demonstrating how control processes inside work or shaped by the broader social divisions of labor are connected to gender and family relations.

3. Challenges, Critiques, And Responses

While a degree of common ground emerged both about the varied influences on control strategies and the variations in combination and context through which control is exercised, critics developed deeper objections to the whole approach.

3.1 Questioning The Centrality Of Control

One strand concerns modern versions of long-standing issues about the relations between ownership and management. Capital’s interests are not given and management practices cannot be ‘read-off ’ from them. Assumptions of a ‘tight-coupling’ underestimate the diversity and complexity of such practices, and the significance for decision-making processes within the enterprise. In addition, there are conflicts within management reflecting contending interest groups and the difficulty of carrying out integrative functions.

A second strand of critique questions whether the centrality given to control of labor is actually reflective of managerial behavior. It is argued that we cannot view management strategies and tactics primarily from the vantage point of the labor process. If anything, managers are dominated by problems of the outcomes of that process, including sales, marketing, supply, and cash flow. The concept of the full circuit of capital is used to argue that we must be concerned not only with the extraction of surplus value through controlling the labor process, but its realization through the sale of commodities, as well as the prior purchase of labor.

It was widely accepted within LPT that some of these objections were a necessary corrective to a debate that had often lost sight of the role of the broader political economy because of the emphasis on management control. However, it was argued that the management of workers and work remains at the heart of the enterprise and indeed of economic reproduction as a whole. In addition, while management strategies and practices are not always developed with labor’s role in mind, it is ultimately difficult to separate a concern with ‘outcomes’ such as product quality or financial targets from acting on labor in some way.

LPT has also attempted to develop a more complex framework that can deal with the tensions between different management levels, functions, and ideologies in framing and exercising control. The most innovative is associated with Armstrong’s work on interprofessional competition (1989). Management functions for capital are mediated by competition between occupational groups to become the trusted agency to carry out control functions. Armstrong charts the historical and contemporary forms of competition between engineers, personnel, accounting, and other professions within the business enterprise. Who comes out on top is a function not just of their power resources, but the societally specific constitution of managerial expertise.

3.2 Beyond External Control: The Final Frontier?

The other significant challenge to established control theories wishes less to deny the concept and more to shift its locus. What was discussed earlier as a move from control to commitment can be seen instead as a form of internal control that does not rely on external rewards and sanctions, or rule-following. Outside the largely consensual corporate culture literature, theorists within a labor process tradition had already gone some way down this route. Burawoy (1979) had shown how employee participation in production games and workplace rituals generated consent to existing social relations, constituting workers as individuals rather than as members of class. In other words they ‘helped’ to control themselves. Later, Ray (1986) argued that control by corporate culture was the last frontier, in that it had enabled organizations to generate sentiment and emotion, simultaneously internalizing control and linking personal with corporate identity.

A further twist to such arguments has come through more recent influences from Foucault and post-structuralism. In an influential article, Sewell (1998) claims to have identified a new model of labor process control that counters the optimistic gloss of the empowerment and teamwork literatures, while moving beyond the confines of traditional LPT. ‘Panoptic’ forms of control augment existing practices through the interaction of ‘vertical’ electronic surveillance and the ‘horizontal’ dimension of peer group scrutiny within teams. Sewell makes much of the enhanced capacity of management to collect, display, and attribute performance data. With respect to teams, he relies on the well-known case studies of Barker (1993) and to a lesser extent McKinlay and Taylor (1996) to make a case for horizontal control. Here, team members create the intersubjective conditions for compliance by creating disciplinary rules within delegated authority, thus collaborating with management to identify and reward the ‘good worker.’ The implication of Sewell’s argument is that such a combination solves the ‘control-engage’ dilemma identified by LPT and suffered in different ways by generations of managers. The new techniques allow management to rationalize knowledge and work, but not through obtrusive Taylorist and bureaucratic means, while mobilizing and manipulating the subjectivity of employees.

A range of objections can and have been made to this latest twist to accounts of organizational control (Thompson and Ackroyd 1995). Changes in the terrain and frontier of control take place continually and it would be difficult to deny that some shift towards electronic and self-surveillance has taken place in some industries. However, few of its enthusiasts adequately consider issues of time, place, and people—in other words, the generalizability of such controls outside of the high-tech, strong culture firms from which the evidence largely comes. The central problem, however, is confusion of the formal capacities of technological and managerial systems with their actual usage and effectiveness. This is compounded by a tendency to draw evidence primarily from managerial sources, underestimating the capacity of labor to find individual and collective spaces to dissent or resist. Where these problems are considered more fully, as in the McKinlay and Taylor case study of an electronics plant in Scotland, a more rounded and complex picture of the gap between intent and outcome is revealed. Finally, it is not only debatable how internalized the new controls are, but also how internal. Normative rules in strong culture companies may be different from traditional task-based control, but they are still rules. Management’s sources and use of information may have increased, but there is little evidence that is unobtrusive or regarded by employees as objective and unconnected to visible authority relations. In other words, it may be too early to proclaim the death of traditional controls in a post-bureaucratic era.

4. Conclusion

Management may always be looking for the final frontier, but like the crew of Star Trek, they never really find it. This is hardly surprising. Conflicts of interest and constraints of circumstance run too deep. A close examination of contemporary organizational trends and their analysis reveals considerable continuity in theory and practice. Electronic surveillance can look remarkably like Edward’s concept of technical control; the exaggerated claims for empowerment strongly resemble those made for work humanization in the 1970s. Sometimes theorists are describing the same practices in a different conceptual language. Willing internalization in one framework can be imposed normative controls in another. It would be foolish, of course, to claim that nothing changes. For example, changes in the labor force and broader cultural norms can bring new problems such as the rising tide of sexual misbehavior at work. In turn this creates the conditions for new controls such as codes of conduct that specify appropriate boundaries of behavior and what sanctions might follow if they are transgressed. While work remains a contested terrain there will be a frontier of control. It is the task of organizational analysis to explain the character, combination, and circumstances of that changing frontier.


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