The structuring of organizational structures

12 April 2004

This is a brief summary of:

Ranson, S., Hinings, C. R., & Greenwood, R. (1980). The structuring of organizational structures. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25, 1 -17.

One of the most enduring “problems’ in organizational theory is the question of “How do organizations change?” In particular, how can we incorporate both the structuralist perspective, with its emphasis on constraints and the integrationist perspective with focuses on the agency of organisational actors and their ability to shape their context.

The idea of organisational structure can be understood in two different and competing ways. Firstly, and classically, it can be seen to simply a configuration of activities that is characteristically enduring and persistent? (p.1) which is manifested as a formal roles –for me this is a succinct conflation of the ideas such as specialisation (aka division of labour), and administration. It is this view that emphasises constraint. The other way in which structure can be understood is as “the patterned regularities and processes of interaction” (p. 2), with its emphasis on agency. Whilst there has been some research and discussion on this approach, much of the undergraduate study of OT (Organisation Theory), a has been ground in the structuratlist rather than the integrationist literature. Now it is important not to through the baby out with the bathwater. The classical notion of organisational structure has important (and well researched) consequences when it comes to explaining the effectiveness of the organisation. Nevertheless, structure as the patterns of interaction –what people actually do –might provide a much deeper understanding. Alas, for some people see them as “incompatible” (p. 3).

This has not deterred the article’s authors (or others) from working with this problem. The approach they adopt is to focus mainly on the analytical level1 of meaning and causality.

At this level (of meaning) makes “explicit the way reality is experienced from the pot of view of the action and, by dissolving “factual reality’ as the skilled accomplishment of members, sustains the agency behind much organizational working: actors reflexively monitor their experiences and thus remake and recreate that experience” (p. 4, my emphasis).

One of the interesting comments the authors make, is that that studies of the “micro’, because of the research methods they employ are necessarily going to privilege the agency of actors, over the constraints of the context (aka macro). So we should not be surprised, when research into agency says that agency is important. Thus, in order to test/understand this we need to look for a solution that incorporates the issue of time –and by doing so, we can look at the issue of causality.

At this point, they bring it altogether and saying:

Three abstract and interdependent conceptual categories are integral to a theoretical model that seeks to articulate the way in which the process of structuring itself defines and mediates organizational structures: (1) Organizational members create provinces of meaning which incorporate interpretive schemes, intermittently articulated as values and interests, that form the basis of their orientation and strategic purposes within organizations. (2) Since interpretive schemes can be the basis of cleavage as much as of consensus, it is often appropriate to consider an organization as composed of alternative interpretive schemes, value preferences, and sectional interests, the resolution of which is determined by dependencies of power and domination. (3) Such constitutive structuring by organizational members has, in turn, always to accommodate contextual constraints inherent in the characteristics of the organization and the environment, with organizational members differentially responding to and enacting their contextual conditions according to the opportunities provided by the infrastructure and time. (p.4)

And there we have it. Provinces of meaning. Dependencies of power. Contextual constraints. This is the genesis of their (Hinings and Greenwood) later work on archetypes –where they put forward the idea of the archetype as an organisational configuration (as in the classical concept of organisational structure) plus the interpretive schema of organisational actors2. Here are a few key points on these three categories:

  • Provinces of meaning
  • They are “on the one hand, interpretive schemes that enable us to constitute and understand our organizational worlds as meaningful; on the other hand, the intermittent articulating of elements of interpretive schemes as purposive values and interests that lie behind the strategic implementing or warranting of structural frameworks” (p. 5). I’d link this back to my interest in Kelly’s Personal construct psychology this is really about how people construe things.
  • “Such frames [provinces of meaning] typically remain taken for granted and incorporate both evaluative sentiments about the relative worth of things, as well as implicit “stocks of knowledge’ and systems of belief “which serve as the reference schema for my explication of the world’” (citing Shutz and Luhmann, p. 5). For me, here we have a direct link to the work of Argyris and Schön’s single and double look leaning. I’m also reminded that David Siedl is keen on Luhmann and uses his work a lot in his work on strategy-as-practice. That our “provinces of meaning’ are taken for granted, should be no surprise. They are embodied in our assumptions about the world, and our assumption are, all too often, unspoken. But the big link here is to values, which the authors place closer to the surface, whereas, I think, Argyris and Schön would say they were less accessible than that.
  • Citing Cicourel, “they enable the actor to generate appropriate (usually innovative) responses in changing situated settings – to sustain a sense of social structure over the course of changing social settings” (p. 5). Again, for me there are links back to psychodrama; after all, the idea of spontaneity –creating new responses like this – is at the heart of Moreno’s psychodrama.
  • This is the juicy part, the link to RBV; “[provinces of meaning] embody a conception of the organization and therefore a view of the appropriate allocations of scare resources. The notion of interests is an “incorrigibly evaluative’ on –in that it refers to both the distribution of scare resources and to the ineluctable3 orientation and motivation of members to maintain and enhance their sectional claims” (p.7). We’ve know for sometime that, as one moves up the organisational hierarchy, managers see things differently, in terms of threats and opportunities –they must also see things differently in terms of the resources they feel they have at their command.
  • Dependencies of power
    • It has to be said, that structuring the organisation, is necessarily an exercise in power by a few actors in the organisation. In this way, we should consider those actors to be privileged. This back to the earlier comment that “Since interpretive schemes can be the basis of cleavage as much as of consensus” (p. 4). This results in the production of interests that can be seen as sectional.
    • It’s good to remember here, that organisations themselves can be seen as the exercise of power. Citing Perrow, the authors say: “Organizations must be seen as tools –A tool is something you can get something done with. It is a resource if you control it. It gives you power others do not have. Organizations are multi-purpose tools for shaping the world as one wishes it to be shaped. They provide the means for imposing one’s definition of the proper affairs of men on men” (p.7).
    • Of course, I would argue that this is not limitless power, and we can’t shape the world endlessly. But, nevertheless, we can shape to the extent of the power we wield. The rub is that it depends on “the skill which actors bring to bear using these resources [power] and in mobilizing support of their claims” (p. 8).
    • Now for some, this skilful application of power is manifest in strategic decision making. But, it must be remembered that those in power not only get to exercise their decision making fiat, but also they “can suppress or thwart challenges to their values and interests by confining the scope of decision making to relative “safe’ issues” (p. 8). This is done by shaping the basis on which “making decisions” is understood. (Note to self: Big idea).
  • Contextual constraints
    • I’m a big fan of the social construction of reality, but the authors warn against giving it too much credence. They, via Luhmann, suggest that currently organisational actors “more than in any previous historical period [are] entrapped by his [sic] institutional and organizational systems in that they are less open to social reconstruction” (p.9). Indeed, this limited choice - - the reliance on contextual determinants is the basis of Contingency theory–whereby the circumstances presented by the environment, technology, etc, necessitate the organization adapting in order that it remains efficient.
    • But the contextual constraints facing the organization are not just a function of environmental characteristics. They are also a function of organizational characteristics too (e.g. scale of operation –size; and the type of technology employed in production –more generally, the resources the organisation has at its command).
    • The larger environmental characteristics, cf Emry and Trist, etc, have been well documented and explored. – But organisations also exist within an institutional environment –see Neo-institutionalism?
    • There is a link here back to the provinces of meaning, as these shape the type of organisational responses to the situation presented by the environment.

Anyway, there are some important implications of all of this; namely, the five ways in which structural change can come about:

there will be a change in structuring if organizational members revise the provinces of meaning, the interpretive schemes, which underpin their constitutive structuring of organizations” (p.12).

structural change can result from inconsistencies and contradictions between the purposive values and interests that lie behind the strategic implementing and warranting of structural features” (p. 12).

change may occur through organizational revolution resulting from significant changes in the organizations resources - - undermining the “dominant coalitions and permit the creation of new power dependencies” (p. 13).

Likewise, significant changes in the “situational exigencies’ (the contingency factors) can have a similar effect.

Finally, “contradiction imperatives of situational constraints”, will lead to structural change.

Thus, structural change can arise out of changes or contradictions of any of the big three; provinces of meaning, dependencies of power, or contextual constraints (internal or external). A brief note about causality. It terms of time we can think about it as three temporal modes:

evenements,” the events, incidents and episodes, the contemporaneous pieces of flotsam which “blind the eyes’ and dominate the present; “conjunctures,” the medium-term movements of population, trade cyles, transitions in political domination and “structures,” long-term durations of geographical and cultural patterns (p. 13).

In short, the closer the “horizon,” the more visible the actor but constrained by his [sic] context; in the longer time perspective, actors become less “visible’ but their frames of meaning, the product of their structuring more determinate: constituted structures have become constitutive (p. 12). And there we have it. I would say, that somewhat counter-intuitively, the more visible the actor (in the short term) the more they are constrained. In the long term, the actor is less visible (as time goes by) but the meaning they have made has an impact of the structures of the organization.


Overall this is an important article and I’m surprised I didn’t find (!) it earlier. Thanks to John Gray (and his PhD) for alerting me to it.

  1. Levels of analysis ? this is something I need to remember. Too often the debate on levels of analysis in strategy-as-practice retreats to the ephemeral micro or macro without too much to hang one?s hat on.

  2. Alas, in they later work, the are less concerned about the multiplicity of interpretive schemes in any one organisation.

  3. in-ih-LUCK-tuh-buhl, adjective: Impossible to avoid or evade; inevitable; irresistible; “inescapable conclusion”; “an unavoidable accident”