Selznick's Institutional Approach

Philip Selznick was a student of Merton's at Columbia and was a founder of institutional theory.

Selnick notes that "the most important thing about organizations is that, though they are tools, each nevertheless has a life of its own". (Selznick 1949 p. 10 in Scott p. 64). While he acknowledges rational view that organizations are designed to attain goals, he notes that the formal structures can never conquer the non-rational dimenstions of organizational behavior. Individuals do not act purely based on their formal roles. Organizations do not act purely based on formal structures.

Selznick notes that individuals bring other commitments to the organization that can restrict rational decision-making. Organizational procedures become valued as ends in themselves. The organization strikes bargains with the environment that can restrict it's current goals or limit future possibilities (in Scott p. 64). Organizational structures adapt based on individual actions and environmental pressures.

He states that the overriding need for systems "is the maintenance of the integrity and continuity of the system itself" (Scott p. 65). He defines "derived imperatives":
* security of organization within it's environment
* stability of informal relations within the organization
* homogeneity of outlook toward meaning and role of the organization

He suggests focusing on the irregular actions to meet unmet needs within organizations as a more interesting area of study. He recommends studying an organization over time and focusing on the critical decisions that change its structure. He defines institutionalization as "the process by which an organization develops a distinctive character structure". (Scott p. 66). Leaders are supposed to define the mission and protect it's distinctive character.

"Institutional commitments develop over time as the organization confronts external constaints and pressures from its environment as well as changes in the composition of its personnel, their interests, and their informal relations". (Scott p. 66). Selznick proposes to study the natural history of organizations.

His famous study of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) showed how the US government put decentralized leaders on-site in the rural South to "gain access to a suspicious and conservative area". Agency officials co-opted local officials into the decision-making process, which backfired as the local officials changed agency goals to serve private interests.

Later Studies Based on Selznick
Messinger looked at the Townsend movement and showed how the radical goals of the organization (to support the elderly) evolved into non-controversial recreation programs. (Messinger, 1955). Zald and Denton trace the evolution of the YMCA from a relgious organization supporting the urban poor to a social and recreational center supporting middle-class youth (Zald and Denton, 1963). This uses a case study methodology and takes on an "expose" approach exposing the undercurrents that subvert and change stated organizational goals and missions. Like clinical psychologists, they focused on pathology and abnormality.

Note that the Selznick's demonstration of subverting organizational goals for survival is similar to Michels views on oligarchy.

Selnick's work not only spawned the institutional school, his view that leaders need to define and defend organizational distinctive character led to focus on strategic decision-making and creating organizational cultures. (Scott p. 68).