Organizations as Systems

Organizations as Systems

Communications and Organizational Behavior

A. Patterns of Communication B. Communication Roles C. Dysfunctions in Communication

IV. Summary


V. Roles, Role Networks, and Groups A. Formal and Informal Roles

We need to develop some basic terminology as we begin our examination of organizational

dynamics. The first term we need to define is role. A role may be defined as a set of reciprocal expectations. A key element in this definition is that expectations are reciprocal–that is, we define our role in terms of others, not just ourselves. Let’s use the role of “teacher” for example. It is virtually impossible to define the role of a teacher without addressing the role of a student. Students have certain expectations of a teacher, even if they don’t know anything about her/him. By the same token, teachers have certain expectations of students, even if they’ve not met them yet. These expectations are determined through formal means–job descriptions, etc., and are therefore called formal roles. Behavior is prescribed by the organization. These roles, defined by the organization, seldom if ever really describe the reciprocal set of expectations that develop once interaction occurs. Informal roles, therefore, are a set of reciprocal expectations determined through interaction of the players involved.

B. Informal Roles Each of us plays numerous roles. I am a administrator, advisor, professor (in inverted order of priority, by the way) etc. You are a student, perhaps a spouse, sibling, employee, member of a church group, and so on. The totality of the roles we play comprises our role network. I listed three roles I play within my organization, VSU. But these roles cannot be totally separated from all the other roles I play. At times, they may conflict. At those times, I must choose which role has immediacy over the other(s). One key factor determining this is my utility ordering (back to Downs again). Look at the roles Lije plays—are they always in tune? From an organizational perspective, our role network must be harmonious enough for us to be effective within the organization, or significant problems emerge. Role conflict is a major source of stress for individuals as well as for organizations. Organizations run using both formal and informal role networks, but the more these networks get unsynchronized, the more likely the organization enters a state of disequilibrium and problems occur. The system is in trouble.

C. Groupies Roles are played out in groups. By their very definition, both formal and informal roles require interaction with others. Even the role of “hermit” involves the conscious decision to avoid interaction with others. Cartwright and Zander’s piece does an excellent job on the origins of “group dynamics” as an approach to studying organizations, and I won’t repeat what they tell you. I do, however, want you to be aware of the work of Thomatsu Shibutani, who played a key role in developing the concept of static and dynamic groups. A static group is defined by a shared

characteristic. Redheads would be a static group, as are you as members of this class (you’re shared characteristic being class membership). Static groups are often referred to as formal groups, but I prefer Shibutani’s classification. Thus you can identify the members of an organization by looking at the organizational roster. Yet just as formal roles are inadequate to fully explain organizational behavior, formal/static groups cannot tell you all you need to know about the organization. Individuals not appearing on the roster may play extremely crucial roles in the organization. We are all familiar with situations where our boss’ spouse may have been more instrumental in a decision than our boss, for example. He/she isn’t listed on the roster, but is nonetheless a key player. The only way to determine who really is part of the group is through observing members’ behaviors. Thus dynamic groups are much harder to study than static groups. It should be obvious that formal roles and static groups are linked, as are informal roles and dynamic groups. And these groups behave in organizational settings. One approach to understanding this complex mess of interactions is through systems theory, which we’ll look at now.

II. Systems Again We all talk–sometimes rant and rave–about “the system.” In the social sciences, we use the term in a fairly specific sense, as we saw in the first unit. We need to apply this to organizations.

A. Organizations as Systems

An organization—any organization—may itself be examined in systems terms. Kast and Rosenzweig developed one of the better-known systems models of an organization, as shown on the next page. No organization exists in a vacuum. All organizations are affected by their environment; Kast & Rosenzweig’s environmental suprasystem. We’ll use our common organization, Valdosta State University, as an example. VSU is, in many ways, hostage to its environmental suprasystem. We rely on our environment for the inputs (demands and supports) we need, including students. Our budget is based upon student enrollment, the largesse of the state legislature, and external funds we obtain through grants, etc. These elements in our environment are inter-related. Both legislative largesse and grant income are likely to drop during bad economic times. At the same time, we may actually see an increase in enrollment and thus in tuition revenue, as more students enter college to enhance their job prospects. Tuition, however, pays for only about a forth of the cost of educating a student, so the increased revenue doesn’t begin to offset the increased cost–all occurring, remember, when the state legislature, foundations, etc. are likely to be cutting back their support. Thus VSU must cut funds at the same time it has increased student demand. The management subsystem has a difficult time explaining that to faculty (although the economists should–but don’t always, understand it). Figure 5.2: Organizations as Systems
Organizations as Systems



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