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The term ‘informal organization’ has been used in varying ways within organization theory, industrial sociology, and managerial writing. What the various usages have in common is reference to aspects of patterned activity in work organizations that are not part of the formally or officially designed rules, relationships, and procedures that constitute the ‘formal’ dimension of the organization. Informal organization is seen variously as something that works, or might be made to work, in conjunction with the formal organization, something that can exist with a degree of independence from it or something that can work against the formal aspects of the organization— especially when it takes the form of deviant behavior that resists or deﬁes managerial authority. In spite of these differences of emphasis, all of the usages attend to the fact that one can neither understand nor intervene in what ‘actually happens’ in organizational settings without looking beyond what the official blueprint, organizational chart, or corporate rule book suggests happens, or should happen.
1. The Two-Sidedness Of Organizational Life: The Basic Issue
Since its ﬁrst appearance in the 1930s the concept of ‘informal organization’ has played an important part in the history of both the primarily analytical social scientiﬁc study of work organization and more ‘applied’ writing intended to guide the practices of managers. The basic issue that the concept tackles remains of central importance to organizational analysis in spite of the fact that the notion of informal organization is not always used explicitly.
The basic issue that the distinction between formal and informal organization was devised to tackle is that of what might be called the fundamental ‘two- sidedness’ of the modern work organization. On the one hand, the work organization is a set of rules, roles, and procedures based upon the legal-rational principles of bureaucracy which is given formal and official expression through such devices as procedural manuals, rule books, and organization charts. This aspect of the organization can be seen as existing separately from the human beings who are employed to operate what amounts to a scheme for an organizational machine. In this respect, the organization can be said to continue in existence regardless of the personalities who come and go as occupiers of organizational positions. However, this ‘machine’ can do no work until it employs human beings. Yet employees cannot simply be built into the social machine drawn up in the organizational blue- print as human cogs or injected into the system as a living fuel to power the device. Employees will inevitably bring to the organization their own wants, interests, values, assumptions, understandings, and sentiments. And they will seek to organize certain aspects of their working lives for themselves.
Individuals’ acceptance of employment in the organization entails a willingness to follow instructions and fulﬁll tasks that are constitutive of the organizational blueprint. But this acceptance is strictly bounded and engagement in the fulﬁlling of corporate tasks is unlikely to satisfy all the wants and needs of every individual or to engage every aspect of their energy and humanity. A second side of organizational life thus comes into being the moment living human beings are engaged to put the ﬁrst side into action. A new facet of organizational existence appears as people develop relationships, practices, pecking orders, games, languages, jokes, and stories to express or defend their ‘humanness’ and to pursue projects and purposes of their own—ones which sometimes ﬁt with the priorities of the ﬁrst side of organizational existence and sometimes do not.
The ﬁrst academic attempt to deal systematically with this two-sidedness of work organizations, in the light of empirical social science investigation, was made by researchers at Harvard University in the USA in the 1930s. And the ﬁrst attempt to do the same thing, in the light of social-science informed reﬂection upon executive experience, was done more or less at the same time by an individual associated with the same institution. Both attempts involved the conceptual device of informal organization. These will now be looked at.
2. The Discovery Of Informal Organization: Understanding Factory Life
The study Management and the Worker written by Roethlisberger and Dickson (1939) was not the ﬁrst account of the studies carried out by academics from Harvard University and members of the Western Electrical Company at that company’s Hawthorne plant. But it is the most systematic report and analysis of these studies and has become a classic work in both industrial sociology and organizational analysis. It has also been drawn upon massively in management writing and continues to play a part in the education of managers. In their analysis of the Hawthorne plant, Roethlisberger and Dickson ﬁrst distinguish its social organization from its technical organization. But they then make the key distinction we are concerned with here, within this notion of the factory’s social organization. The social organization of the industrial plant, they say, is ‘in part formally organized.’
This formal part of the social organization includes the systems, policies, rules, and regulations of the plant which express what the relations of one person to another are supposed to be in order to achieve effectively the task of technical production (Roethlisberger and Dickson 1939).
‘In short,’ say Roethlisberger and Dickson, ‘the patterns of human interactions, as deﬁned by the systems, rules, policies, and regulations of the company, constitute the formal organization.’ These are the patterns which are ‘supposed to be’ the ones which prevail. But their factory studies taught the researchers to challenge what they argue is a common assumption: that the ‘organization of a company corresponds to a blueprint plan or organization chart.’ ‘Actually,’ they say, ‘it never does.’ The study revealed what Roethlisberger later referred to as ‘the emergent patterns of behavior that evolved within this formal organization’ (Roethlisberger 1968). This informal organization was made up of:
the practices, values, norms, beliefs, unofficial rules, as well as the complex network of social relations, membership patterns and centers of inﬂuence and communication that developed within and between the constituent groups of the organization under the formal arrangements but that were not speciﬁed by them (Roethlisberger 1968).
It is explicitly recognized in Management and the Worker that the informal organization can have positive as well as negative implications for the working of the formal organization and can be said to ‘be a necessary prerequisite for effective cooperation’ (Roethlisberger and Dickson 1939). The famous ‘bank wiring observation room’ study highlighted in the book’s discussion of informal organization, however, is an example of where an informal organization developed ‘in opposition to the formal organization.’ The norms and practices developed by the observed group of workers effectively undermined the incentive system that was central to the formal organization of the workshop. Just what the relationship is between the formal and informal organization in any particular case, is ‘an empirical question to be decided by the results of the investigation and not before it’ (Roethlisberger 1968). But this is not to treat formal and informal organization as ‘two separable things’ within a plant’s social structure. ‘Formal’ and ‘informal’ were developed in the study, Roethlisberger points out, ‘as analytical concepts to refer to two different dimensions of the territory.’
3. The Discovery Of Informal Organization: Understanding The Executive Process
Barnard’s (1938) study The Function of the Executive included his development of a concept of informal organization inﬂuenced by the same intellectual environment which shaped the thinking of the Hawthorne researchers. The inﬂuence of the social theories of the European thinkers Durkheim and Pareto, mediated in part by the biologist Henderson and the sociologist Parsons, is apparent in both of these intellectual engagements with the practical problems of work organization and executive processes. Barnard pointed to the work carried out at Hawthorne as the only work he was aware of which looked at informal organization. This, however, was ‘at the production level of industrial organizations’ (Barnard 1938). Barnard himself was concerned to look at its functioning at the level of the organization as a whole and, especially, to put the shaping of it at the center of the executive’s responsibilities. He noted the paradox that although executives tend to speak of their work primarily with reference to the ‘ﬁrst side’ of organizing—the formal scheme of work tasks—and, indeed, deny the importance of the second, informal side, they nevertheless intuitively recognize its vital signiﬁcance. ‘Learning the organizational ropes in most organizations,’ he points out, ‘is chieﬂy learning who’s who, what’s what, why’s why, of its informal society.’ It is consequently on this side of the organization that the executive needs to focus their attention.
Barnard can be read as arguing that the executive’s job is primarily to shape the informal organization, in spite of the fact that the interactions of which it consists ‘are based on personal rather than on joint or common purposes.’ The executive shapes the informal organization so that it carries out three major functions necessary for the enterprise’s continuation: communication; the maintenance of cohesiveness ‘through regulating the willingness to serve and the stability of objective authority’; the retaining of feelings of ‘personal integrity, of self respect, of independent choice.’ In effect, then, executives work to bring the two sides of organizational existence together by attending to the ‘hearts and minds’ of employees. Conﬂict, dissent, and misunderstandings are thus overcome as they work to achieve ‘synthesis in concrete action of contradictory forces, to reconcile conﬂicting forces, instincts, interests, conditions, positions, and ideals.’
4. The Development Of Systems Thinking And An Engagement With Weber
As we shall see below, the type of thinking about executive or managerial work emerging from Harvard in the 1930s has immense relevance to later managerial writing. But it also opened up the possibility for more academic students of organizations to analyze work organizations in ‘systems’ terms. Roethlisberger was explicit, for example, in saying that the ‘notion of a natural social system’ should be understood as ‘underlying’ the ‘way of thinking’ which distinguishes between formal and informal organization (Roethlisberger 1968). Subsequent theorists built upon this early foundation of a systems view of organizations. And a further inﬂuence on moves in the systems direction was the parallel recognition of the importance of the ‘second side’ of organizational life made by researchers concerned to counter-balance the emphasis on formalization in Weber’s seminal sociological analysis of bureaucratic organization. Merton (1940), for example, identiﬁed the emergence of the ‘bureaucratic personality’ whose activities tended to undermine the functioning of the formal organization. Gouldner (1954) showed in his study of an industrial plant how an ‘indulgency pattern’ tends to emerge whereby supervisors gain the cooperation of subordinates on certain matters by selectively ignoring the breaking of formal rules by those workers with regard to other matters. And Blau (1955) demonstrated how officials make ‘procedural adjustments’ to counter potentially ‘dysfunctional’ aspects of the functioning of the formal bureaucracy.
5. Continuing Attention To The Two-Sideness Of Organization Life In Empirical Research
The writers who set out to produce a corrective to Weber’s alleged overemphasis on the ﬁrst or ‘formal’ side of organizational life tended not to give the formal informal distinction a central role in their analyzes, at least in an explicit way. This was not the case, however, with the British researchers who, led by Scott, were dominant in British industrial sociology in the 1950s and early 1960s. The concept of the informal structure’ of the plant was used to refer mainly to patterned relations ‘based on congeniality and friendship’ (Scott et al. 1956). The use of the concept of informal structure to analyze how relationships between employees outside of work inﬂuenced this and could compromise the functioning of the formal structure made a signiﬁcant contribution to industrial sociology.
The notion of informal organization, it would seem, was becoming vital to social science analyzes of work organizations and the activities that went on in them, whether or not it was used explicitly. As ethnographic and, especially, participant observation studies of organizational activities began to appear, increasing attention was drawn to facets of organization life which could not be accounted for in terms of formal administrative systems. Roy’s (1960) participation in shop-ﬂoor work drew attention to how his colleagues used games and rituals to shape their day and overcome the monotony that the straightforward compliance with formal procedures would create. And later research by Burawoy (1979) in the same plant showed how workplace practices which might, at ﬁrst sight, seem to challenge the dominant interests which the formal arrangements of the factory were designed to serve in practice accommodated workers into the dominant patterns of interest. At the managerial level, Dalton’s (1959) participative observation study showed the considerable extent to which senior organizational members organized themselves and behaved in ways which would be quite unexpected from a reading of their formal roles and duties. And Mangham and Pye’s (1991) interview-based study of senior executives shows how close much of the thinking of these individuals was to Barnard’s conception of the executive role and its focus on informal activities. This includes their relationships with other senior managers: ‘Many stressed that informal organizing, the structuring of the top team, was as important as, if not more than, the articulation of a formal organization.’
New empirical studies of work organizations continue to show the existence of patterned behaviors and relationships which have no place in the formally designed arrangements of which organizations are still frequently said to consist. These phenomena range from ones at the top of organizations to ones at the bottom and cover such diverse activities as name calling, joking, and ﬁddling expenses at the one end of the spectrum to coalition-building and career competition at the other. And any of these phenomena can be found, in speciﬁc circumstances, to support, undermine, or have little direct effect on the formal aspects of the organization. Such phenomena need to be conceptualized somehow. Why not therefore bring the concepts of formal and informal organization back to the center of the stage?
6. From Informal Organization To Unofficial Aspects Of Organizing?
One of the main reasons that the concept of informal organization has been used less directly and explicitly since the 1960s is that social scientists have tended to associate it with the Harvard publications which ﬁrst presented it to the world. As was pointed out earlier, this work provided much of the foundation of systems thinking—an approach which has since been rejected by many organizational researchers. It is seen as representing work enterprises in too ‘unitary’ a manner, as failing to recognize the multiplicity of meanings and interests existing within the organization and as underplaying the relationships between organizations and wider patterns of political economy and social inequality. Further, the engagement of these writers with the problems faced by managers of work organizations has often been seen as an inappropriate ‘taking of sides’ on the part of social scientists.
Part of the reluctance to use the concept of ‘informal organization,’ then, has been as a result of its associations. There is, however, a stronger reason for questioning the continuing usefulness of the concept. This is one which, ironically, suggests that the Harvard work which established the importance of looking at informal organization might have so successfully inﬂuenced subsequent understanding of the two-sidedness of organizational existence that their formal informal distinction is now too unsubtle an analytical tool. The Harvard message that the managing of work organizations must take into account both the official blueprint of the organization and nonblueprint practices has been so well received (or, equally likely, discovered through the normal processes of intuitive management learning) that managerial practices are now incorporating much of what was once ‘informal’ into the ‘formal’ aspects of their activities.
With the managers of organizations now setting out to manipulate ‘corporate cultures,’ publish ‘mission statements,’ facilitate ‘team-working,’ and ‘empower’ workers, there is such a blurring of the formal and the informal aspects of managerial initiative that the distinction is difficult to use when setting out to analyze the organizations in which this occurs. Managers have incorporated into the ‘formal’ aspect of their organizations’ activities that were once ‘informal.’ But this does not mean that the essential two-sidedness of organizational life to which the formal informal distinction attends is something that can be forgotten about. One useful way forward would be to adopt the alternative (but closely related) distinction between official and unofficial aspects of organizing and identify the part that each of these plays in the negotiated orders of particular organizational settings. One no longer distinguishes between what the formal documentary ‘blueprint’ says about the organization and observable patterns that differ from this. Instead, one distinguishes—and examines the interplay—between the managerial aspirations represented in a whole range of official documents, claims, cultural, and mission statements and the observable patterns of belief and behavior which do not accord with what is officially claimed to ‘be the case.’ A classic concept in organizational and managerial research is thus built upon and revised for the effective study of contemporary organizational trends.
- Barnard C I 1938 The Functions of the Executive. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
- Blau P M 1955 The Dynamics of Bureaucracy. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
- Burawoy M 1979 Manufacturing Consent. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
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- Merton R K 1940 Bureaucratic structure and personality. Social Forces 174: 560–8
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