A coordination theory approach to organizational process design

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Citation: Kevin Crowston (1997) A coordination theory approach to organizational process design. Organization Science (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): A coordination theory approach to organizational process design
Tagged: Business (RSS) knowledge management (RSS), coordination (RSS), coordination theory (RSS)


Kevin Crowston's article provides a description of how to apply coordination theory to the design of organizational processes. Crowston shows how a focus on coordination can help provide a way to understand organizational processes or routines, break them down into pieces, and understand where support can be used or where new forms of organizations or processes might be useful.

The paper reviews coordination theory before presenting a detailed example from a software development division of a large computer manufacturer. Crowston presents data from that manufacturer and then uses coordination theory to identify dependencies and coordination mechanisms and then to suggest possible alternative mechanisms and processes or routines that the organization might follow.

Using 16 interviews of 12 individuals, Crowston presents a detailed model of the process around a change process (presumably the process that the team uses to the change the software on their products or devices). It is a complicated process with a large number of dependencies and is shown on a two page flow-chart. Crowston then uses a set of three techniques to identify dependencies and coordination mechanisms in the process. These involve (1) look for known coordination mechanisms like duplicated tasks or task assignment, (2) identify possible dependencies between resources, and (3) look for problems that suggest unmanaged or unspecified dependencies.

After identify these coordination points, Crowston suggests a series of alternative coordination mechanisms that might be used to better manage these dependencies and then evaluates these in interviews and based on the firms actual later actions. Crowston concludes arguing that, "coordination theory is a success if those attempting to understand or redesign a process find it useful to consider how various dependencies are managed and the implications of alternative mechanisms."

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

For a background on coordination theory, although one aimed at the CSCW community, refer to Malone and Crowston's (1990) What is coordination theory and how can it help design cooperative work systems?.

Crowston's article is based on his dissertation work. It has been cited more than 270 times since it was published 13 years ago, primary by those in the knowledge-management literature.