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Modernist View on Organisation Culture

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Organisational structure can be perceived in various angles that projects a new way of thinking in regards to building structure in the organisation. There are three perspectives mainly the modern, symbolic interpretive and postmodern that has varying view of theories in regards to the social structure in organisations. Each provides a distinctive scope on how the social structure should be constructed.

In this essay we are going to explore the three different perspectives and how each perspective serves to help us in understanding and analysing structure in an organisation through their relative theoretical arguments. In the first section of the essay, we are going to explore the basic ontology, epistemology and methods of the three different perspectives in general. The second part of the essay will demonstrate the relative perception of organisational structure for the three perspectives and explains how these three perspectives advocate their views of organisational structure that will help us gain insight on understanding and analysing it.

Ontology and Epistemology

The modern, symbolic interpretive and post-modern perspective consists of two aspects, the ontology which is what defines the reality we know and epistemology which is the process of gathering and analysing information that leads to the definition of our perceived reality (Hatch & Cunliffe 2006).

For ontology, the modernist believes that in objectivity things has an objective, external reality that exists independent of our knowledge. Modernists view organisations as real entities and also a system of decisions and actions driven by norms of efficiency, effectiveness and rationality. The symbolic interpretive perspective however believes in subjectivism where an objective existence of things cannot exist without any subjective awareness of them or acknowledgement of their existence that is agreeable by people (Nonaka & Tomoka 2005).

Symbolic interpretivists view organisations as an entity constructed mutually by members through symbolic interaction. Lastly, postmodernists claims that there is no such a thing as an objective reality and that reality is just an ‘illusion’. The language and discourse people use will shape what they see and feel, providing us the understanding that we use to make sense of the world and creating a multiplicity of ways to look at things.

For epistemology, the modernist perspective states that objective reality can be measured through hard science or technical measurements where ‘truth’ can be empirically tested to confirm its validity. For example air exists independently of us even if we can’t see it but it can be measured through our other senses of smell and touch and also scientific measures like pressure and volume. The symbolic interpretivists however suggests that ‘truth’ can only be understood in the point of view of only involved individuals, such that their shared truth is socially constructed via multiple interpretations which can change over time (Hatch & Cunliffe 2006).

An example would be that an impression of the organisation by one employee might relate to another employee supposing that both employees had good and bad experiences together. Postmodernists on the other hand suggest that the world is constituted by our shared language and that we can only know the ‘truth’ through the particular forms of discourse our language creates. Postmodernists seek to shun exclusions and repressions underpinning the modernists’ claims to singular objective representation (Boisot & Mckelvey 2010). Deconstruction as a method also helps to remove the grasp that language and discourses has over the ‘truth’ and paves the way for new thinking.

Differences in the three perspectives on organisational social structure To the modernist, organisations have a clear structure, a rational sense of order, stability, clear lines of authority and accountability that allows them to be efficient and effective. Mintzberg (1980) identified five types of organisation structures consisting of the simple, machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy, divisional form and adhocracy structures. Simple structures coordinate through top down direct supervision and have a simple management structure.

Machine bureaucracy applies to large hierarchical organisations that are mass production oriented and inflexible such as a steel factory. Professional bureaucracy pertains to large bureaucratic organisations relying on highly skilled labour. Divisional forms are highly complex organisations containing relatively autonomous divisions but overseen by an executive structure. And lastly adhocracy are highly flexible and devolved organisations where innovation is seen as a condition for survival.

Burns and Stalkers (1961) also identified two types of organisational structure, mechanistic structures and organic structures. Mechanistic structures consist of a hierarchal structure of control, authority and communication. Tasks are highly fractionated and specialized where little regard is paid to distinguish the relationship between tasks and organisational objectives.

They also tend to remain rigidly fixed unless altered formally by top management. Important organisational information relevant to situations and operations are also formally only made known to top management and not disseminated down to the lower hierarchy of the organisation. Communication is primarily vertical between subordinate and superior, and they take the form of instructions and decisions issued by superiors. There is also specific role definition such as rights, obligations and methods prescribed to each member for their respective positions in the organisation.

Organic structures on the other hand rely on a network structure when it comes to control, authority and communication. Tasks are more independent and emphasizes on the relevance of tasks and organisational objectives.

They are continually changed and redefined through interaction between organisational members. In terms of information sharing, top management is not assumed to be omniscient as knowledge centers are located throughout the organisation. Communication is also both vertical and horizontal depending on where the needed information resides and they primarily take the form of information and advice. Role definition is generalized where members take on general responsibility for task accomplishment that is beyond individual role definition (Slack & Parent 2006).

Symbolic interpretivists perceive that organisation social structure is enacted by people developing particular work routines and through communities of practices. In this perspective, organisations are socially constructed meaning that the social structure and reality is not constructed by a fixed set of boundaries. It is instead constructed by permeable boundaries and such realities can therefore change their meanings over time.

Routines are customary structures set in place to organise work and they are regular and predictable patterns of behaviour in organisations. Like for example the usual nine to five working schedule with a one hour lunch break in between. Routines are formed by organisational members in the organisation to improve work practices and they are constantly in the process of creating new routines as they perform the same tasks in different ways.

Thus, as routines change, organisational structures and procedures adapt and change as well (Becker 2005). For instance, traditional organisations have always had their members work in the office. But with technological advancements, a growing trend of working from home is rising steadily that is slowly breaking the routine of going to work in the office. This phenomenon can also be described more clearly in organisational improvisations.

Organisational improvisations happen when people perform routines differently in order to make up for structural deficiencies in existing routines. Improvisations may take place in responses to either threats or opportunities, hence temporarily or permanently altering the established routine. An example of improvisations happening can be seen in how movie tickets can now be bought at stand alone machines situated in shopping complex, reducing the inconvenience caused during peak hours. Thus in the future movie ticket personnel might not be required and instead is completely replaced by automated machines, thus changing the entire structure of the organisation.

The concept of communities of practice was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1990) who by focusing on the practices of individuals, identified groups of people engaged in the same practices. Members of a community of practice essentially seek to develop their competencies in the practice considered by communicating regularly with one another about their activities.

Communities of practice are built around activities commonly understood and continually renegotiated by its members. A community member adds to the practice with his or her experience and in turn, relies on the knowledge capitalized by the community to carry out his or her activity. The community is able to articulate the practices into a shared knowledge of its own. For example, they develop a jargon such as nicknames for a particular person that only members in that particular community could understand (Lave & Wenger 1990).

Communities of practice can also be regarded as a means to enhance individual competencies by being member-oriented. This is achieved through the social construction, exchange and the sharing of a common pool of resources by members within the organisation.

The postmodernist perspective rejects the modernist organisation as a central mode for decision making for the organisational structure. The structure of the postmodern organisation is portrayed to be less hierarchical and less functionally differentiated than that of a conventionally depicted modernist organisation. Postmodernists understand organisations as an emergent, linguistically constructed phenomenon consisting of an evolved network of actors. They also view organisational members as de-centered subjects in contradiction to the modernist’s view that conceptualize managers and employees as autonomous and where they have the power of authority. This is achieved through de-differentiating and deconstruction.

The idea of de-differentiating is birthed by Clegg (1990) whose idea involves getting rid of status differences between people like for example privileged parking and separate dining and washrooms for executives while normal employees have to wait for parking slots and other amenities. It also means re-balancing the power between employee and leader by moving the employee closer to the leader. The employee should be allowed to plan, organise and lead while lessening the leader’s authoritarian monopoly. Therefore, the concept of de-differentiation is basically to reverse the process of differentiation. De-differentiation proposes greater decision-making responsibility given to lower-level employees, fulfilling postmodernist objectives of deconstructing the ideologies behind managerial control organisational structures (Hatch & Cunliffe 2006).

Lastly, the process of deconstruction thus starts with identifying the dualities in the situation such as good or bad and right or wrong, followed by reinterpreting the situation from another point of view. It denies the authority of one voice and seeks to find out those who are underrepresented and whose voice is being marginalized. For instance, the feminist critique on bureaucracy directly challenges the notion of hierarchy and seeks to restructure bureaucracies as flat decentralized organisations that behave via norms of consensus to deconstruct the modernist ideology that men are superior to women in organisations (Ferlie & Lynn & Pollitt 2005).


In summary, having understood the viewpoints of the three perspectives which are the modern, symbolic interpretive and postmodern, it is important to know that there is a myriad of means to achieve what is best for organisations today. Each of these perspectives has offered their stands and justifications on how to run organisations in the best and most effective and efficient ways to achieve success. Although these perspectives are differential in terms of their logic and processes, it does not take away their viability in running organisations in the best way. To surmise it all, given these three perspectives, it has no doubt given leaders and managers today a wider scope of better understanding and analysing to achieve desirable success in their organisations.

(1800 Words)


Becker, MC 2005, ‘The concept of routines: some clarifications’, Cambridge Journal of Economics, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 249-262, viewed 15th August 2010, Ebscohost Database.

Boisot, M & Mckelvey, B 2010, ‘Integrating modernist and postmodernist perspectives on organisations: a complexity science bridge’, Academy of Management Review, vol. 35 no. 3, pp. 415-433, viewed 12 August 2010,
Ebscohost Database.

Burns, T & Stalker, GM 1961, The management of innovation, Tavistock Publications, London.

Clegg, S 1990, Modern organizations: organization studies in the postmodern world, Sage Publications Ltd, Britain.
Ferlie, E, Lynn, LE & Pollitt, C 2005, The oxford handbook of public management, Oxford University Press, USA.

Hatch, MJ & Cunliffe, AL 2006, Organization theory, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lave, J & Wenger, EC 1990, Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Mintzberg, H 1980, ‘Structure in 5’s: a synthesis of the research on organization design’, Management Science, vol. 26, no. 3, pp. 322-341, viewed 13 August 2010, Ebscohost Database.

Nonaka, I, Toyama, R 2005, ‘The theory of the knowledge-creating firm: subjectivity, objectivity and synthesis’, Industrial & corporate change, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 419-436, viewed 15th August 2010, Ebscohost Database.

Slack, T & Parent, MM 2006, Understanding sport organizations: the application of organization theory, 2nd edition, Sheriden Books, USA.

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