Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Organizations and Organizing (and the Muppets, of course)

People ask me, "How's grad school going?" and I wonder how to reply.  As I'm only two days in as of this writing, that's somewhat like asking someone how a cake tastes when they've only begun to cook it (assuming the cake itself is not a lie to begin with).  I'm not really sure what to say.  I'm tired, but it's a good tired.  I'm learning, and it's a good learning.  I'm spending far too much money on vastly overpriced textbooks, and wishing I could get away with selling BD for $90, since it's about as many pages as some of these hundred dollar books.  Mostly I'm just listening. Asking questions, and listening.  So in a big way, it's not that different from normal life for me.

I find myself curious as to how much effort I'll put into having good grades, as opposed to the effort I put into research, concept-building, and general learning (because yes, there can be a difference between good grades and real learning, especially at this level).  I've been told repeatedly that grades don't really matter in the slightest as far as getting a post-doctoral job: what matters is your published research and, to a lesser extent, teaching bonafides. I had very respectable grades in high school and college, but that was a long, long time ago.  And back then, to be honest, I was mostly just concerned with getting good grades and getting out. Here I'm more concerned about learning.  Will different priorities result in a different GPA?

Still, I've found the best way to learn is by doing, and by having fun while you're doing it.  For instance, I recently finished the first chapter of what I'm told is a seminal text in the world of Organizational Behavior: Organizations and Organizing by Scott and Davis.  Unfortunately, it's not written from the most exciting perspective, and it's a bit short on real-world examples to make the content come alive.  In fact, I was having a bit of trouble wrapping my head around some of the key concepts presented until I thought to compare them to (you knew this was coming, didn't you?) the Muppet Show.

Bear with me, now... let's learn together, shall we?

Organizations are ubiquitous, diverse, and important.  What this means in a nutshell: organizations are everywhere, simple, complicated, different, alike, essential, and interesting.  There are organizations for virtually every function you could possibly imagine, kind of like iPhone apps.  Raising kids? There's an org for that (families).  Feeling sick? There's an org for that (hospitals). Getting invaded? There's an org for that (the Army).  And these organizations may seem to have nothing in common at first, but there are basic principals that are similar for all of them.  If you get a good handle on what makes the hospital work efficiently, you may have a better idea of what would make the army would efficiently.  Organizations are where pretty much everything happens in modern society: socialization, communication, goal setting and attainment, learning, living, and so on and so forth.  We tend to overestimate the importance of "great people" and forget that most changes in society, both for good and bad, are caused by the organizations that surround us.  And all of us are members of multiple organizations, with few exceptions.

Simple enough, right?  So let's dig in a bit and look at what organizations are and how they can be studied.  I'm a backwards kind of guy, so let's start with the latter.

When I tell people that I'm studying organizational behavior, most assume that I'm talking about a branch of social psychology... and they're not altogether wrong.  They're assuming I'm studying the people in organizations, how they work, what they do, and what affects them.  They assume I'm studying things like leadership and self-monitoring (which you, dear reader, know I am in fact studying).  However, that social psychology level is only one of three ways the subject of organizations can be approached. They can also be researched from an organizational level, where we focus on the processes and features of the organization itself, or on an ecological level, where we see what impact the organization has on its environment and surroundings.

Or, in Muppet-speak, if you wanted to do research on the social psychology level, you'd look at the effect of constant heckling on Fozzie Bear's performance (does it make him funnier, more boring, or does it have no effect?), or the relationship between Miss Piggy's ego and the morale and motivation of those around her, or what effect all those explosions and poisons have on poor Beaker's ability to do his job (which might be very small, come to think of it, given that his job seems to be getting exploded and poisoned).  If you wanted to research at the organizational level, we might look at the Muppet Show's hiring practices and determine whether the apparent pro-puppet hiring bias originates from the HR department or somewhere more nefarious, or what impact the poor sanitation training in the cafeteria has on the musical numbers created by the show's orchestral department.  And finally, to research at the ecological level we might examine Carol Burnett and the effect dressing as a giant asparagus during her Muppet Show appearance had on her career, or what effect the Muppet's apparent bias toward country over rock-and-roll had on music culture as a whole, or how badly Kenny Chesney might feel as he was constantly rejected for a guest shot on the show (because he sucks).

There are also three different accepted definitions... or perhaps more accurately, perspectives... on what an organization actually is.  The Rational system says that the organization is a highly formalized group aimed at attaining a certain goal.  The Natural system says that organization members often go their own way, so an organization is more of a group whose participants are pursuing many different interests and goals, but see the value in maintaining and perpetuating the organization itself.  And the Open system says that both the Rational and Natural systems leave out the impacts of the outside environment on the organization's members.  Members work within the organization for their own goals and advantages, often dependent upon each other, in fluxing and shifting coalitions.

Muppet-speak makes this a bit simpler:
  • Someone looking at the Muppet Show from a Rational perspective would state that the organization is a band of like-minded entertainers brought under formal contract by Kermit T. Frog for the express purpose of entertaining the audience.  It has a formalized social structure (they're all under contract, they all have duties within the show, and they all answer to Kermit) and a set goal (entertain the masses). 
  • Someone looking at the Muppet Show from a Natural perspective, though, would point out that it's not as simple as that.  Some cast members don't really respect Kermit's authority (Piggy, for instance, or Animal), some ignore their duties for various reasons, and some don't even really care that much about the goal of entertaining the audience (Gonzo, for instance, is more interested in high art and large artillery than any form of rational showmanship, while Sam the American Eagle prioritizes culture and boredom well above amusing pleasure).  The only thing they do agree on, the Natural Organizational Researcher observes, is that the Muppet Show itself is something worth perpetuating.  And they do all work, in one way or another, toward that end.
  • And finally, someone looking at the Muppet Show from an Open perspective would argue that the Muppets have other individual goals that transcend the show itself, are connected with other organizations, and can be more important than the safety of the Show.  For instance, Kermit has to keep the lease on the theater, which means keeping the landlord happy... even if that means giving the untalented landlord a prominent spot in a musical number with Julie Andrews.  Piggy has her own agent and other theatrical opportunities (or at least, so she claims), and her career and larger position within the organization of Hollywood is much more important to her than the Muppet Show.  Piggy and Kermit's relationship is another example of this - Piggy would probably leave show business behind for a shot at the not-so-amorous amphibian.  There are countless more examples I could bore you with, but they all come down to this: the organization, the Muppet Show, is an activity where ever-shifting coalitions of team members interact and compete to accomplish other goals within their environment and other organizations.
Note that none of these definitions are actually false and none of them are 100% true.  What are they?  Different perspectives, different paradigms, different ways to explore this organization and compare it to others.

Introductory doctoral organizational behavior in an understandable nutshell?  I hope so....

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