Organizations in action: Social science bases of administrative theory

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Citation: James D Thompson (1967) Organizations in action: Social science bases of administrative theory.
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Organizations in action: Social science bases of administrative theory
Tagged: Sociology (RSS) organization theory (RSS), contingency theory (RSS)


Thompson work is a classic of contingency theory in organizational theory and essentially suggests that, for organizations attempting to act rationally, the optimal structure will be highly contingent a large number of factors. Thompson's book tries to offer a "conceptual inventory" or a way of tying together a vast amount of work on organizations. He suggests nearly 100 different propositions throughout the text that suggest how organizations may adopt different structures based on conditions around uncertainty surrounding particular tasks and environment..

Most previous classic work from organization theory -- including work from the Carnegie School like Simon and March's work -- had focused on the role of individual behavior within organizations. Thompson sets organizations (and their structure) as the unit of analysis.

Two key ideas are fundamental to Thompson's work:

  • Uncertainty is a major factor that determines an organization structure and that organizations will go to extreme lengths to adopt structures which will minimize uncertainty.
  • Simple rational models cannot work for large organizations who, due to their complexity, will need more contingent stories. That said, organizations can be "broken down" into small subunits and components which can be analyzed and theorized. Most of Thompson's analysis is about the relationship between components with an an organization and about how organizations will be structured to minimize uncertainty between these components.

Organizations are analyzed in terms of the technologies (broadly defined, as in the economic sense) and in terms of their environments. Thompson argues that organizations aim to shield or insulate a technical "core" from uncertainty in the environment by managing contingencies by instituting systems to control resources. When these contingencies are controlled, organizations can then exploit their technologies optimally.

The second part of Thompson's book focuses on human factors and management of employees but follows a similar tact.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

Thompson's book is often cited as the (or at least a) seminal work in the creation of contingency theory. It has been influential in framing a large number of subsequent approaches to organizations and is a common book on any organizational behavior, organizational theory, or organizational sociology reading list.

The basic model of thinking an organizational structure as contigent, and the central role of uncertainty, have been lasting contributions to the field of organizational theory. The second part of the book on human factors has been less influential.