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
"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
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
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).