Organisation under scrutiny

Group Relations Management and Organisations - Organisations Evolving
March 24, 2000

The old adage of the "past being prologue" is appropriate to both of these books. Robert French and Russ Vince's book is an edited volume, attempting to show how the group-relations movement of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, particularly "the Tavistock paradigm" of W. R. Bion, experiential-based learning and the social-technical systems approach, made and can make a significant contribution to understanding and influencing the process of management and organisational behaviour today.

Most of the contributors are steeped in the Tavistock tradition, with chapter titles displaying the quasi-psychoanalytic orientation of Bion and his colleagues, for example "Systems psychodynamics in the service of political organisational change" or "Managing the unconscious at work" or "Dependency, alienation, or partnership: the changing relatedness of the individual to the enterprise".

The book is divided into two sections, one on theorising practice in group relations (comprising nine chapters) and one on practising theory in group relations (eight chapters), all attempting to make contemporary the Tavistock concepts of 50 years ago.

I enjoyed dipping into the past and seeing how the contributors tried, and in many cases succeeded, in making relevant these psycho-dynamic concepts. This is not an easy read by any means, given the different writing styles of the various authors, and the academically orientated approach in what is supposed to be a book about management and organisations for managers, consultants and the like. It is not bedside reading for managers or even for most consultants, but it is worthwhile for academics interested in organisational theory and the implications of this theory for practice.

In terms of the latter, there are some good case-study examples of how the Tavistock-based theory can translate into practice, particularly in some of the chapters in the second section of the book.

Organisations Evolving is written by an international scholar in the field of organisational sociology, or as it is now known, organisational studies.

It is an update after 20 years of his classic book Organisations and Environments , but his overall objective is similar, to "seek an overarching framework that organizes an inquiry into the issues surrounding organisational change", but in the context of today's changing economic, business and people environment. This book is different from the 1979 volume in three respects.

First, Aldrich explores not just organisational theory but organisations of all sizes, structures and character. He feels that the study of organisational behaviour has focused too much on the large firms and not enough on the small and medium-sized business sector, populations and communities. Second, he emphasises the genesis or development of organisations, not just their current reality. And finally, he is interested in the evolution or "process through which new organisations, populations, and communities emerge". By focusing on an evolutionary approach, he feels he can better understand the unremitting organisational change intrinsic to corporate and organisational life today.

Although this is a scholarly piece of organisational sociology, highlighting the evolutionary approach and how it is related to other approaches, it goes beyond the organisation to communities, populations and culture. Aldrich brings into the arena of organisational change the issues of biotechnology, the internet and other contemporary developments that have begun to affect the evolution of organisations, cultures and the community. His examples from industry and the wider community are legion and illuminating, whether about the American wine industry, the fifth wave of mergers and acquisitions, or the role of venture capitalists in the new industries (such as biotechnology).

This is a high-level, wholly integrated volume for postgraduates and academics in the field. It has enormous potential as well for management strategists and consultants exploring the macro-issues in organisational and cultural change. Understanding the nature of organisational and societal change is essential to the success of any industry or firm, whether big or small. This can only be done if we are able to explore the deeper-rooted psycho-dynamics of this change (which French and Vince's book attempts to do), and also the evolutionary trends that tell us how we arrived at our current position and where this is likely to lead us (which Aldrich's book amply does).

We then have another major hurdle to overcome, which is the management of, and resistance to, change. This is best illustrated by Niccolo Machiavelli in his classic book, The Prince : "It should be borne in mind that there is nothing more difficult to arrange, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes. The innovator makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old order, and only luke-warm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new." Perhaps we need a new edition of this book too, as we confront the challenges of introducing change in evolving organisations.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, UMIST.

Group Relations Management and Organisations

Editor - Robert French and Russ Vince
ISBN - 0 198293674 and 0 19 8293666
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00 and £18.99
Pages - 284

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