Networks and their tentacles

Corporate Realities
November 24, 1995

There has recently been much nonsense talked by organisation analysts who really should know better, about the impending death of organisations. Networks, clusters, matrices and delayered bureaucracies decomposing before our very eyes into value chains and value networks are apparently the thing of the future. Much of this apocalyptic posturing is spread by excitable Americans who have clearly never survived one eight-hour shift in a regular place of work.

Robert Goffee and Richard Scase come to more cautious conclusions. "Among the world's largest and most powerful organisations the predominate corporate reality continues to be bureaucratic." They point out correctly (and it will be no surprise to those who have studied the historical antecedents of British industrial success) that networks are not new. Indeed, subcontracting, personalised relations and face-to-face decision making have characterised all fast growing industrial situations from the iron founders of the West Midlands to the great Japanese trading houses.

In the Arab world high personalisation, family based structures of ownership and personalised decision making live comfortably alongside high levels of public bureaucracy and strongly structured officially sanctioned devices for systematic timewasting.

Goffee and Scase recognise that the organisations which will survive the millennium must find answers to the old questions as well as visions of new ones. The enduring need is to balance the centripetal and centrifugal forces within organisations to the attainment of corporate coordinations and integration.

Some of these successful organisations will tend to be more centralised and less participative than decisive. The authors quote the Hewlett Packard experience in which a key to corporate transformation turned out to be the ruthless elimination of "decision overhead". "A web of committees originally decided to foster communication between HP's desperate operating groups had pushed up costs and slowed down developmentsI but the committees kept multiplying like a virusIno one could make a decision".

Goffee and Scase's book is really an American-style text and they do not restrict themselves to business organisations. Their coverage of public sector and public service organisations is exemplary. They reference a wide range of material from both sides of the Atlantic and if their material is squarely in the Anglo-American tradition, they will none the less extend the range of knowledge of most organisations' analysis professionals. An interesting mental experiment would be to transpose the conclusion to the two chapters on "Administrative organisations" and "Trends in the consumer service enterprise". The case of Service Master, a company which provides house cleaning services to health, commercial and industrial organisations, could well form part of a module on public service administration.

This book is cautious, relevant and judicious and has its feet squarely, and sometimes messily in the realities of the workplace stuff. General managers will read it with profit and a growing awareness of the complexity of the matter and the availability of potential solutions to managerial problems of structuring and decision making. Organisational behaviour specialists may make it the core of their teaching.

David Weir is professor of management, University of Bradford.

Corporate Realities: The Dynamics of Large and Small Organisations

Author - Robert Goffee and Richard Scase
ISBN - 0 415 05351 X and 05352 8
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £37.50 and £11.99
Pages - 185

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