The rational and the irrational in organisational life

I came across two recent stories from organisational life which reminded me of how attempts to rationalise it can often bring about irrational consequences, and how schemes to systematise and order can disrupt even as they try to make things cohere.

One educational institution I know has decided to streamline and control its purchasing with the noble intention of cutting costs. This means that any member of staff wanting to buy something has to fill in a form justifying the purchase and explaining why they are using the particular provider they have chosen. The form designed by purchasing colleagues clearly has in mind those members of staff ordering stationery or perhaps chairs, since there are questions to be answered about which catalogue and which page the item is on, which colour you are ordering, and where you want the item delivered. Be that as it may, all members of staff have to fill in the same form.

In anticipation of next year’s centenary commemoration of the start of WWI staff in the History department encouraged students to undertake a creative project and make a short film about the war. They found a historian locally who had turned his garden into a mock-up of a WWI trench. In return for the use of his facility and in order to maintain it, the man asked for a fee of £500. In order to get the man paid, staff in the History department had to convince purchasing colleagues by filling in the form explaining why they had not used the institution’s ‘preferred suppliers’ of WWI trenches and why they had not sought competitive bids.

In another organisation a recent restructuring was used as a way of both centralising and decentralising control. In terms of centralisation, all financial responsibility was pulled upwards to the rank of directors of departments, so members of staff who previously had had financial responsibility for, say, signing off their teams’ expenses no longer could. And as for decentralisation, colleagues at the newly configured ‘centre’ of the organisation were told that they couldn’t speak to colleagues in the region, because now the organisation was devolved requests for help should come from the periphery to the centre, rather than the other way round. Otherwise it would seem as though the centre was dictating terms to the regions, rather than strategy emerging responsively and ‘bottom up’.

In this second example the managers I was working with had responded in a variety of ways to the new conditions. For some, the inability to spend money had completely stymied them. Others developed work-arounds with the co-operation of their new directors so that under certain agreed conditions (usually the conditions which pertained before the reorganisation) they could use his e-mail address as though they were the director signing off expenses claims and permitted amounts of money. In terms of the injunction for colleagues at the centre not to communicate with the regions, some had felt bound by it, and others had simply ignored it, phoning up old and new colleagues as a way of establishing or re-establishing relationships in order to further the work. What was being negotiated here was the ability to break the rules collectively and selectively when the rules were getting in the way of the work. This involves a good deal of practical judgement about when it is both ethical and sensible to be subversive for the general good of the shared undertaking.

Both the examples above are relatively trivial, and perhaps humorous instances of every day organisational life. Of course, managers do sometimes need to systematise, and every organisation needs to pay attention to where the money goes to ensure there is as little waste as possible. What interests me, however, is the way that the rational and irrational are two sides of the same coin, and how well intentioned plans for organisational improvement can often bring about the opposite of what they intend. Sometimes the grander the scheme the more irrational the consequences can be, particularly when there are quite despotic attempts to engineer ‘culture change’, which I wrote about here. These sometimes involve prescriptions not just for the way employees behave, but also for what values they should have. This is an example of what Habermas referred to as the tendency in contemporary western society for rational schemes of improvement to attempt colonise the life-world[1]. However, as in my examples above, they are likely to call out a variety of responses in staff, from obedience, to outward conformity, through to more or less public subversion, which may or may not be for the good of the collective undertaking.

In a deliberation on Reason in the Age of Science[2] the hermeneutic philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer reflected on what is unique about modernity in terms of scientific thinking and the pervasiveness of technology, which, he argues, leads to attempts to technologise social relations. For Gadamer, this massive expansion of technology, and instrumental ways of thinking, which produce it and derive from it, have resulted in both the maturity and the crisis of contemporary civilisation. Abstract, scientific thinking has brought about a very comfortable life for us in terms of our increased control of nature. But the ubiquity of technology has also caused a reversal of the way it is used. Previously technology was always subordinated to the command of the user – now ‘what has been artificially produced sets the new terms’[3]. We are stimulated and provoked into desires that we didn’t know we had. Secondly, according to Gadamer, we also lose flexibility in our exchanges with the world, particularly when the same techniques which are used to manipulate nature are applied to engineer social relations. ‘Whoever makes use of technology – and who does not? – entrusts himself (sic) to its functioning.[4]’. We are constantly adapting and responding, rather than creating, and we are much more exposed to manipulation, both through the media and through technologised forms of relating.

Gadamer is not arguing that our society has become completely determined by social technologists, but he does think that an expectation has become pervasive that we can master society by means of intentional planning. The expert, (in organisational terms, the leader or manager) who is an indispensable figure in the technical mastery of processes has replaced the old-time craftsman, and is also supposed to substitute for practical and political experience. This, according to Gadamer, is an expectation that s/he will never fulfil.

I think both of the instances I give above are good examples of the ways in which well-intentioned schemes to systematise and rationalise also bring about the irrational in terms of work process. They do so because they decrease the flexibility of employees to act and to exercise practical judgement, unless they do so subversively and in contravention of what was originally intended.

[1] Habermas, J. (1986) Theory of Communicative Action, Vol 1: Reason and Rationalization of Society, Cambridge: Polity Press.

[2] Gadamer, H-G. (1993) Reason in the Age of Science, Cambridge, Mass., the MIT Press.

[3] Op. cit.: 71.

[4] Ibid.


2 thoughts on “The rational and the irrational in organisational life

  1. Omer Bahamdoon

    Hi Dr Mowles
    Please allow me to quote you

    ‘What interests me, however, is the way that the rational and irrational are two sides of the same coin, and how a well intentioned plan for organisational improvement can often bring about the opposite of what they intend’

    and also quote you again

    ‘We are constantly adapting and responding, rather than creating, and we are much more exposed to manipulation, both through the media and through technologised forms of relating’

    And bringing the Arab Spring under the lens, of the above assumptions on what is yet a very fluid situation, in both of Tunisia and Egypt which could be considered as two sides of the same coin i.e the Arab spring. And also as I ( we ) see how the media is manipulating the same masses who overthrew the first leader, threw out the second and most probable the third is about to be ejected, not by the ballot but by the ” the ability to break the rules collectively and selectively”

    Has complexity as a lens studied any revolutions before ?

  2. Pingback: Politics, impartiality, reflexivity – reflections on the 2015 Complexity and Management Conference | Complexity & Management Centre

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