Tackling Design Anew: Getting Back to the Heart of Organizational Theory by Royston Greenwood and Danny Miller

Executive Overview We propose that the study of organization design has been unduly neglected in recent years despite its critical importance for organizational performance. We point to the daunting complexity of the subject matter as a pivotal reason why researchers have turned to other questions. In this paper, we argue that the complexity of design can be successfully approached through the conjoint application of theories from strategic management and organization theory to types of organizations. We elaborate on this approach using transnational professional service firms as an illustrative example.

T here is a growing recognition that, over the past several decades, we have neglected a vital challenge that should be a core, perhaps even

the core, concern of organizational theory: under- standing the management of collective effort through organization design. In this paper, we restate the importance of organization design, highlighting the relatively recent emergence of highly complex organizational forms and the in- timidating challenges confronting the would-be researcher. Our central purpose is to show how these challenges might best be approached.

Overcoming the Intimidating Complexity of Design

F ollowing Galbraith (1995, 1999) and Burton, Eriksen, Håkonsson, and Snow (2006), we use the term “organizational design” as a more con-

ventional designation for what Nadler and Tush- man (2003, p. 4) referred to as “organizational architecture.” In doing so, we are emphasizing the “configuration” approach, defining organizational

design as the structures of accountability and re- sponsibility used to develop and implement strat- egies, and the human resource practices and in- formation and business processes that activate those structures (Miller & Friesen, 1984).

Our starting position, then, is that organization theory is by definition about insights into the orchestration of collective cooperation. We ac- cept that the particular ends pursued will vary across organizations as they appeal to and are accountable to different stakeholders, and that possible design permutations will be driven by a host of rational, behavioral, economic, and insti- tutional factors. We also accept that design is not the only challenge confronting organizations. But that challenge is fundamental and universal, and our assumption is that a focal interest of organi- zation theory must inevitably be the understand- ing of how to organize people and resources in order to collectively accomplish desired ends.

The next section briefly juxtaposes the height- ened importance of organizational design with its

* Royston Greenwood ([email protected]) is Associate Dean, Research, and Telus Professor of Strategic Management, School of Business, University of Alberta. Danny Miller ([email protected]) is Research Professor at HEC Montreal and the School of Business, University of Alberta.

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