THE ELUSIVE PHENOMENA OF ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR
written by Peter Vaill
This essay was published in the Journal of Management Education in 2005.
F. J. ROETHLISBERGER AND THE ELUSIVE PHENOMENA OF ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR
by Peter B. Vaill
University Professor of Management
Antioch University Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change
410 Groveland Ave., #902
Minneapolis, MN 55403
In 1961, Fritz Roethlisberger, co-author of the landmark Hawthorne studies, wrote a memorandum sketching his understanding of the nascent field of Organizational Behavior. The memo’s purpose was to discuss the relationships of theory and practice in the field, identifying in particular some of the tensions and contradictions that the field poses for the relations of theory and practice. This article reprints Roethlisberger’s memo in its entirety and comments point for point on the contemporary relevance of his assertions about the relations of theory and practice. Roethlisberger’s observations are even more relevant today than they were in 1961, given the growth of academic theory and research in Organizational Behavior and the explosion in organizations of evermore complex and intractable problems of managerial leadership. The article will be of interest to anyone interested in the relations of theory and practice, and particularly to younger scholars who are shaping their research programs and teaching philosophies.
F.J. Roethlisberger; theory-and-practice; Organizational Behavior, history of; conceptual schema; management challenges; organizational leadership; philosophy of social science.
The memorandum that constitutes the core of the following essay is something I have been carrying around with me for forty-five years. I have had numerous occasions to refer to it for one purpose or another. When I was invited to contribute to this Special Issue of JME, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about – this memo and its relevance for our work today. The resulting essay has been truly a labor of love. I remember vividly the day when Fritz Roethlisberger handed it out in his Doctoral Seminar. With considerable intensity he spoke of what it meant to him, of how important are the issues that the memo raises. I don’t recall that he ever talked about it again. I don’t know what its impact on his colleagues was. But mainly in the essay that follows, I hope I have honored his memory and succeeded in conveying the contemporary importance of the issues this memo raises.
No doubt Fritz Roethlisberger would have found it greatly amusing and a little ironic that one football season could have achieved something that he probably had to explain repeatedly throughout his life – how to pronounce and spell his name. But comparisons of Fritz and Ben Roethlisberger, quarterback of the 2006 Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers, beyond the name and the fame each achieved in his field, must end soon thereafter: the one a quintessential jock, and the other a career-long Cambridge intellectual; the one six foot five and the other probably not five foot six.
Fame indeed, though, for Fritz Roethlisberger was easily as famous in the social sciences as Ben Roethlisberger is in sports. Before the age of forty Fritz completed (with W.J. Dixon) Management and the Worker (1939). the book that details the Hawthorne researches, surely the most extensive field observations and experiments that have ever been performed in an ongoing organization. And more to the point, over the next twenty years Fritz went on from this book to play a major, perhaps the singular, role in the founding of the field of Organizational Behavior.
In this essay I undertake a brief review and reflection of an aspect of his work that is not as well-known outside the Organizational Behavior orbit of the Harvard Business School. I mean the question of the relations of theory and practice.1 One could not be in Fritz Roethlisberger’s presence very long, which it was my privilege to be from 1960 to 1964, without hearing him hold forth with great intensity and much characteristic forehead-smacking on the relations of theory and practice. The theme comes up repeatedly in his autobiography, The Elusive Phenomena (1977), and a whole chapter is devoted directly to it.
The question of the relations of theory and practice is as important today as it ever was, perhaps even more important as the need for effective managerial leaders from our nation’s schools and departments of management.2 grows ever more intense. The question goes directly to the question of what we teach, how we teach, and why we teach. We have a classroom filled with aspiring managerial leaders-to-be; the course is called Organizational Behavior or some related permutation; what do we think we are doing?
Reflections on a Founding Document of the Field
On January 13, 1961, Fritz Roethlisberger wrote a memo to his colleagues in what he called “The Committee of the Whole,” a collection of Harvard Business School faculty members who had been teaching the School’s first-year required MBA course in Human Relations, later called Administrative Practices, and later still, Human Behavior in Organizations. He also distributed his memo to the members of his Doctoral Reading Seminar in which I was enrolled. In retrospect, this memo is perhaps of even more significance to a doctoral student and a relatively young working scholar than to a seasoned professional, for it urges us to think about how we are framing the field to ourselves, our students, our colleagues, and our professional reference groups. As we shall see, Roethlisberger wants to keep the practitioner in the picture. But the import of his memo is how keeping the practitioner in the picture then affects the theory and research that we do, and vice versa..
His memo, he said on the “Subject” line, was “a more carefully prepared statement of what I tried to say at our last meeting of January 5, 1961, about our own definition of the field of organizational behavior and why its image to others is likely to be unclear.”***
Then followed the diagram, titled (in caps), “A DIAGRAM OF THE FIELD OF ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR,” reproduced below:
[Figure 1 about here]
Roethlisberger then annotated his diagram with a series of quite interesting comments about it. No doubt now, forty-five years later, there are many changes we might want to make in Roethlisberger’s rather simple portrayal of the field. He made many himself in the ensuing months and years. This present diagram is not in-valid, but it may not be complex enough for today’s scholars. I will have a lot more to say about the apparent simplicity of Roethlisberger’s diagram later on in this essay. We have a more complex view of the field today, but in fact the comments Roethlisberger makes about his diagram become even more pertinent as the field becomes more complex. For it is boxes 5 and 6 in the diagram that we shall see are his real concern. Here then are his annotations, in quotation marks, with some comments by me along the way in italics, and then my more extended commentary when we come to the issues of boxes 5 and 6.
“In talking to the diagram above [he begins] I tried to make the following points:
“1. The field of Organizational Behavior is concerned with the relations of persons at work in a formal organization.”
This basic statement is the foundation of the field for Roethlisberger. With regard to any other special focus, he would continually ask, “How does it show up in organizations? What is the organizational referent of your interest?” and so on. His phrase for describing the subject matter of the field was “man-in-organization.” There is a gender problem with that phrase which he would have corrected had he been writing even ten years later than he did; but “man-in-organization” was his basic, though elusive, phenomenon (see Roethlisberger, 1968).
“2. The field is also concerned with how boxes 1, 2, and 3 above are related to each other and to the behavior (box 4) of persons at work in a formal organization.”
This is Roethlisberger the empiricist speaking. Behavior is what can be seen, what has extensional meaning, as he would say. “Concreteness” was for him of enormous importance. “Stubborn facts” was another phrase he liked. He loved a wisecrack of the sociologist, George C. Homans: “Nature plays rough but not
dirty.”3 No science could proceed without a foundation of actual data. Roethlisberger could theorize and speculate with the best of us, but he never forgot that whatever it is he was talking about had to find empirical expression if it was to have any significance.
“3. The field is also concerned with the behavior of persons at work in an organization from the points of view of both (a) its determination (box 5) and (b) its improvement (box 6).”
Here Roethlisberger the scientist meets Roethlisberger the student of practice, of skill, of his mentor Elton Mayo’s phrase which he quoted constantly, “efficacy at the point of action.” The rest of his memo is really concerned with the tension between box 5 and box 6. This tension is as real today as it ever was and is independent of the complexity, subtlety, and elegance of whatever scholarly model of the field one prefers.
“4. Our inclusion of box 6 is what forces us to be interdisciplinary and makes of us a unique field.”
The reason, in my view, that the field must be interdisciplinary if it wants to improve practice is that we have no control over the kinds of issues a managerial leader (Roethlisberger would say an “administrator”) needs to understand and confront; nor over the bodies of knowledge at play in these issues; nor over the kinds of men and women who become managerial leaders; nor over the kinds of social systems within which they operate. In particular, today’s organizations are far different in structure from the pyramidal bureaucracies that Roethlisberger had in mind. At the time of his memo, Emery and Trist had not yet published “The Causal Texture of Organizational Environments,” (1965), nor had Bennis and Slater published The Temporary Society (1968), and Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity (1967) was still seven years in the future – three landmark calls to arms declaring that the age of the pyramidal bureaucracy had passed and a new age of turbulence, instability, and experimentation with organizational forms was upon us. These revolutionary trends, of course, have forced Organizational Behavior to become even more interdisciplinary than it was at the time of Roethlisberger’s memo.
“5. Our inclusion of box 6 is what makes our image to behavioral scientists ambiguous and difficult to communicate.”
I believe Roethlisberger thought Organizational Behavior could become as truly scientific as any of the behavioral sciences, but that it had ahead of it a long period of, as he loved to quote L.J. Henderson, “patient labor in the sickroom” (Roethlisberger, 1977, pp. 67-68) before it would have the structure of observations, lower-level propositions, and finally general theories to qualify it to stand beside the most disciplined of the behavioral sciences. Box 4, “Behavior,” was no casual notation for him; it was of central importance, certainly of more importance than boxes 1, 2, or 3, for they are abstract categories and therefore provisional. “The clinical problem is solved!” he was fond of saying, by which he meant that we know how and why a huge range of organizational behaviors occur, but that we are having trouble taking the next steps toward more general explanations and, equally important, valid predictions of patterns of organizational behavior.4 It is hard to say what Roethlisberger would make of the research progress of the succeeding forty-five years. In some areas we have doubtless moved a considerable distance toward propositions of greater predictive and explanatory power than existed in his day. But which areas these are, and which ones have not seen much progress would probably be highly debatable. It is a question that calls for the continued use of special issues of journals, and specially focused conferences to assess our progress.
“6. Our inclusion of box 5 is what makes our image to administrators ambiguous and difficult to communicate.”
The “administrator” had for many years been the Harvard Business School’s grand organizing principle, and principal! Today our term would be, depending on our taste, the manager, the executive, the leader, the practitioner, or my preference, the managerial leader. In any event, the more systematic and scientific we try to be, the more we risk being dubbed by these managerial leaders “not of the real world,” “airy-fairy academics,” “too abstract,” “off on cloud nine.” The practitioner has always been immersed in messiness and confusion. Our attempts to determine, predict, and explain this person will always seem too simple and oblivious to the crushing pressure and complexity the practitioner lives with (Vaill, 1992). Years ago, Dale Zand of NYU wrote about the “unstructured problems” of senior organizational leaders, that is, problems with incomplete, uncertain information; where goals are multiple and interdependent; where causes of problems are unknown and/or unclear, and interdependent; where solutions are unspecific and/or multiple and often equally attractive; where feedback on progress is ambiguous in many ways and indeterminate; and where the availability of experts to clarify these issues is either unknown and/or unavailable with many comstallized such problems as “messes”: “English does not contain a suitable word for ‘system of problems.’ Therefore, I have had to coin one. I choose to call such a system a mess. This concept is as central to this book as is that of a ‘system.’ This book is about messes. This chapter is about ‘mess management.’”(Ackoff, 1974, p. 21). The man or woman in the midst of a mess or of several messes may not be all that patient with our elegant models and carefully framed research findings with their “implications for management.” Mintzberg (2005) has recently delivered a stinging attack on the whole enterprise that purports to teach the fruits of box 5 directly to MBA students. These are the issues that arise as we pursue the scholarship of box 5.
“7. The difficulty of specifying clearly the relation of box 5 to box 6 and vice versa is what makes our image of ourselves to ourselves ambiguous and difficult to talk about.”
Herein lies the tale of what to then had been several decades’ worth of attempts to describe the relations of theory and practice. The question certainly existed well beyond the boundaries of the Harvard Business School, but it had a special tension there because of the Case Method of Instruction. As theory accumulated, why did we continue to rely on cases? Wouldn’t it be more effective, as they had been doing at Wharton and Chicago and Berkeley and UCLA and Carnegie-Mellon to supplement and even supplant cases with systematic theories showing how an executive should think about one situation or another, and what then the best course of action should be? Wasn’t practice, after all, deductive theory? Well, no, in the minds of those who believed that the case method and the growing number of other experiential methods were better ways to teach management and leadership. The case and/or the effective exercise immersed the learner in messiness, in contingency, in multiple points of view (both of case characters and of case discussants). The case and the exercise kept the fragile balance between theory and practice because, of course, the learner could read theory and make such use of it as possible. But the case or exercise, if honestly written and presented, transcended theory, which made them a reasonably good simulation of “real life.”6 No case is merely “just a case of…” A good case is always “more than…” These brief lines about cases and exercises, however, do not begin to do justice to the knottiness of the issue – of how to balance attention to theory and attention to practice. For the case and the experiential exercise, and indeed any discussion of how a managerial leader should act, depend on the quality of the dialogue as facilitated by an instructor and as participated in by student-discussants. If they (both instructor and participant) don’t read and reflect deeply on the case and participate in good faith in the exercise, the methods fail. If they merely wait for the school solution, the methods fail. If they confine themselves to formulaic clichés and emotive arguments, the methods fail. If they use theory according to the well-known Law of the Hammer, the methods fail. But by the same token if they just wallow in the data and refuse to make any more general interpretations and prescriptions, the methods fail. If the case writer and exercise designer have not combined the skills of anthropologist, organization analyst, learning theorist, and short story writer (even poet), the methods may not fail but they stagger. Cases and exercises can bore the learner and the facilitator; the case or exercise has to motivate analysis and reflection. Ultimately it may stimulate new theory itself. But these comments are all just judgments; so much debate is possible about all of them. Theory and practice do not “integrate”; they dance with each other, sometimes lustily, but just as often ploddingly or with one lording it over the other, or warily and with stony indifference. But it also must be said that in a school of administration /management/leadership/practice, if theory and practice do not dance with each other somehow, the learner will graduate not knowing much about practice, nor having gained any increment in concrete skill; nor remembering any of the theories that were intended to be relevant in the future.
“8. We can talk about the field from four points of view:
a) how we define the field to ourselves
b) how we and others perceive the relation of our field to the goals of the School
c) how we and others perceive the relation of our field to other fields in the School
d) how we and others perceive the relation of our field to the behavioral sciences
“a) Among ourselves the chief difficulty is point 7 above.”
I have attempted to characterize this difficulty with my comments above about theory and practice.
“b) From our point of view the relation to the goals of the School is only too clear, in fact to us it is so clear as to be embarrassing.”
I believe that Roethlisberger is suggesting here that OB faculty believe they understand the core idea of an “administrative (or managerial, or leaderly) point of view” more clearly and fully than do faculty members teaching in other areas.
“And [Roethlisberger continues] although Abe [Abraham Zaleznik] says that history has settled this question for us, it is still not completely agreed upon by many of our colleagues that ‘administration’ can be better taught and hence should be taught apart from production administration, marketing administration, and so forth.”
I don’t know if this debate still rages in quite the form that it once did. I should think that an OB group that had become very “disciplinary” might well be vulnerable to it – and properly so! But indeed, an OB group that had gotten out of balance over on the practice side – as, for example, by employing predominantly ex-practitioners – would also be vulnerable by being too atheoretic. I think the vulnerability, in other words, increases as an OB group ignores the problem of the relations of theory and practice.
“c) What is our relation to courses which are teaching the nonhuman aspects of administration and to courses which are teaching personnel and labor relations, executive development, and so forth?”
And, of course, the whole fields of Human Resource Management; Human Resource Development; increasingly, Cross-cultural Management; and possibly various forms of Ethics keep this question before OB faculties continually. And what about Organization Development? What is the relation of it to Organizational Behavior? Then there is the Internet. There is OB in cyberspace, a whole set of relations of theory and practice that even Roethlisberger might not ever have imagined. Here we have this complex and fragile set of balances between theory and practice that Roethlisberger is seeking to maintain, and we have bodies of theory expanding in all directions, and new forms and worlds of practice growing exponentially. I think he would say that this makes our ability to reflect fruitfully on the relations of theory and practice all the more important. He probably saw a lot of these trends coming; the explosive impact of the computer, and of OB in cyberspace, probably not.
“d) How do we communicate to behavioral scientists our concern for the relation between the improvement of knowledge on the one hand and the improvement of practice on the other?”
How do we, indeed? In the academic departments that are not concerned with effective practice, what if anything is being said about practice? A sociologist from Harvard College in Roethlisberger’s day referred to the practitioner as a “horny-handed son of the soil.” I think he was joking, but I am not sure.
“9. As can be seen from a, b, c, and d above it is box 6 that gets us into all of our troubles (a) with each other, (b) with the goals of the School, (c) with other fields at the School, and (d) with the behavioral scientists.”
Now, in the 21st century, there are still lots of ways that “box 6 gets us into trouble.”
(a) We don’t want to enforce an orthodoxy on each other, but I believe there are lots of OB faculties on which there are deep disagreements about course content, especially of MBA electives. We are diverse culturally and in our educational backgrounds, which compounds the difficulty of discussing the relations of theory and practice. Moreover, what norms about the relations of theory and practice are we communicating to new hires to our faculties and to younger scholars seeking reappointment and tenure? Routinely we are now checking for teaching competence for new hires, but to what extent does that concern extend to faculty development efforts with younger faculty? And what about their publications? To what extent are they being encouraged to seek a balance between theory and practice in their publications, as opposed to producing abstruse studies to be placed in “top” (i.e., unread by practitioners) journals? Some schools specifically say that publications in practice-oriented journals are discouraged for purposes of awarding tenure, and that textbooks are to be given less weight than monographs. What message do these criteria send about the relations of theory and practice?
(b) Many of our schools are, relatively, focused purely on business organizations, whereas OB never has focused purely on business organizations; and with tuition being what it is, we often hear students asking why there is this apparent divergence of emphasis;
(c) There are lots of experiments going on, I believe, in which OB faculty co-teach with other faculty, and/or find ways of linking an OB course to some other functional area, but these experiments inevitably collide with resource allocation priorities, and with the registrar’s categories. Furthermore, relative to other fields in the school, we often do not see any balance of theory and practice being sought, particularly among the fields that are highly quantitative.)
(d) Teaching values and styles continue to diverge frequently between professional school-oriented faculty and those from academic departments; and, inevitably, appointment, promotion, and tenure criteria and decisions become a locus of problems, and then feeding back on (a) above.
“10. Why, then, don’t we throw out box 6? [asks Roethlisberger] It’s the chief source of difficulty for ourselves. It is the chief cause for the ambiguous image we give to others. It makes any clear statement of our relation to the central purposes of the School most immodest to state…”
Immodest because OB, by its intrinsic nature as well as by its concern for the relations between theory and practice, leads it to know more than other faculty about the central purposes of a school that focuses on the effectiveness of any and every type of human organization; and tends to walk its talk in teaching and research more consistently than faculty in other fields. Moreover, and of great significance, I hypothesize that OB faculty members tend to occupy positions of both formal and informal leadership in our schools in greater numbers than any other academic specialties. If this research question has not been asked and answered already, it certainly should be. OB faculty practice themselves, even as they teach about it, and reflect on it. We can’t throw it out.
“11. And yet in terms of our classroom behavior we seem to be unwilling to throw box 6 out. We want it in some sense in as part of the definition of the field. …”
“[P]art of the definition of the field.” Isn’t that interesting – that our behavior in the classroom is part of the field of Organizational Behavior?! We know this though we do not always practice it. We certainly notice it when our non-OB colleagues are acting in ways in the classroom that are inconsistent with what we know about organizational behavior. Our belief in the importance of the classroom is testified to by the sheer existence and continuing vibrancy of the Organizational Behavior Teaching Society, which at the time of this memo of Roethlisberger’s would not be invented for yet another twelve years. The feeling about the importance of the classroom has been there from the beginning, however. Moreover, we have finally reached a point in recent years where we want the doctoral students of our schools to learn something about teaching, and it turns out that OB faculty know more about teaching qua teaching than most other faculty members…know more and care more about teaching qua teaching.
“12. Query: What is going on here (a) at the group process level and (b) at the nongroup [sic] process level?”
Here ends Roethlisberger’s memo. It is hard to say exactly what he means with this final observation. “What is going on here?” was a very common expression with Roethlisberger, which he made about all sorts of behavioral processes, both of the her- and-now as well as the there-and-then variety. It is also the classic question of the Case Method instructor, whether he or she is in front of a room full of eager management students or not. Yet Roethlisberger did not typically make interventions (as we would call them today), into the faculty. He did not seem to think of himself as a process consultant; a process observer, though, most definitely. To me it is more likely that he was trying to keep the conversation going within the group about why the field has the difficult quality of point 7 above – the relations of theory and practice. No doubt there were some psychodynamics involve, just as there are in all of our faculties. What interested Roethlisberger the most, though, was this elusive connection between box 5 and box 6.
The Elusive Phenomena
Some years after I graduated from the doctoral program, Roethlisberger published his autobiography (1977) and titled it, The Elusive Phenomena. Someone had the inspiration to create a dust jacket for the book in which the first and third words of the title are in bold black-on-white. Even so myopic a person as I can read them easily at a distance of twenty feet; whereas the word Elusive, in a shadowed gray, has faded to unreadability for me at the same distance.
At the time that I was a doctoral student, trying to understand these matters for the first time, I did not understand what was so elusive about human behavior in organizations. I heard Roethlisberger and other faculty members saying so. I thought it must be the fact that Organizational Behavior wasn’t purely Psychology, and it wasn’t purely Sociology, or even Social Psychology. We thought Roethlisberger himself had resolved the problem for us with his concept of man-in-organization: We-the-field are not so psychological as to be studying everything about man (and woman and child) everywhere, yet we are not so organizational as not to be studying individual persons at all. We are in between: studying persons in organizations. We are studying them as individuals (his box 2) and in their relations with each other (box 3), and we are studying them in the organizations where they work (box 1). Not just business organizations, by the way, for some of Roethlisberger’s favorite writers were what he called, “the bureaucratic sociologists,” Peter Blau, Alvin Gouldner, and Philip Selznick, who had all published major studies of government organizations. Also, in the years that I knew him he had several personal encounters with the health system and always returned to work full of thoughts about medical roles and norms and the impact of technology in hospitals and clinics.
In a way man-in-organization, or the person-in-organization did resolve the problem: We knew what we were talking about, and we were learning how to shape our psychological and our sociological statements to locate them within the context of a purposeful formal organization. But as he says, above, we can’t throw box 6 out. Our presence in a professional school and our interest in understanding and improving practice commit us to box 6. Having become committed to box 6, the phenomena become existentially elusive: If we ignore box 6, the phenomena quickly become matters of extremely abstract and complex research and theory. But because organizational behavior phenomena are about us, and about each other, our students, our practitioner colleagues and clients, these complex research findings and theories are continuously being challenged on our concrete experience of ourselves and each other. Thus, exclusive focus on box 5, the science building box, keeps being pulled back to concrete experience, leading us to ask continually, “what are we talking about?” This is one sense in which the phenomena are existentially elusive.
But the phenomena are elusive in the other direction, too; for if we ignore science building (box 5) and just focus on practice, we are immediately immersed in the concrete complexity, richness, turbulence, and alternately thrilling and vexing variety at the level of practice. As human beings, we naturally seek more order in all of this variety. We want to understand it, explain it, predict it – in short, we are drawn intuitively back to the concerns of box 5. nd once again we are moved to ask, “What are we talking about?” In the what-ness of that question lies the core of box 5!
In insisting on this balance problem between what his memo calls box 5 and box 6, Roethlisberger’s fascination with the elusive phenomena often made him an elusive phenomenon to us doctoral students. What was he talking about? What was the big deal? What, indeed!
Conceptual Schemes: A Theory about Theory-and-Practice
As Roethlisberger well knew, the relations of theory and practice are themselves matters of a great deal of theorizing. The problem abides, partly because every new theory of theory-and-practice creates its own new problems of practice: how is this theory to be used in understanding it and working with it (that is, practicing) to influence the world? (See for example Hondereich (1995), pp. 4 on action and 870 on theory; Natanson (1963) pp. 95-182 on “Theory and Practice;” and Kaplan (1964) pp. 294-298 on “Theory, Practice, Facts ands Laws.”) How does any new theory, any new idea about the relations of theory and practice help? How does practice then influence the evolution of this new theory?
Earlier I commented that today we might find Roethlisberger’s diagram of the field of OB too simple. As I noted, Roethlisberger himself could spin much more complex models of the field than this simple diagram. Yet he does offer it as a “diagram of the field” in a memo to his colleagues in the field and uses it as a basis for asking what he considers questions of the most profound importance. “What is going on here?” (as he was fond of asking), with this simple model and these profound questions?
Well, many things are going on, but these final comments in this essay intend to link the theory/practice problem to simple models like this diagram of Roethlisberger’s (Figure 1). Of the many Roethlisberger mantras which his colleagues and students will always remember, one of the most important ones for him was the idea of a conceptual scheme. He would try mightily to explain to his students what a conceptual scheme is, how it definitely is a set of abstractions but is not really a theory; how it is essential if one is going to do field research; how it is fashioned with the kind of research one intends to do in mind; how it is simple but fruitful (one of his favorite words). A conceptual scheme, he might say, is usually not elegant and systematic enough to generate hypotheses which could then be formally tested under controlled conditions. That, though, is not its purpose. It’s purpose is not to wrest knowledge from the phenomena, so much as to help one find one’s way into the phenomenon. A conceptual scheme is for inquiry, not for prediction and explanation. And inquiry is a form of practice! I never heard Roethlisberger say that inquiry is a form of practice, but it seems to follow naturally from his ideas about the role of a conceptual scheme. In the end, though, he always referred his ideas about conceptual schemes back to the words of his other mentor (besides Elton Mayo), the tyrannical physician, blood chemist, and relentless student of theory and practice, L.J. Henderson. In his autobiography, Roethlisberger wrote: “For understanding such complex phenomena [of sociology], Henderson said, both theory and practice were necessary conditions and the method of Hippocrates was the only method that had ever succeeded widely and generally” (1977, pp. 67-68). Roethlisberger then quotes Henderson’s one hundred and sixty-four word characterization of the method of Hippocrates, the third element of which is of most interest to us here together with Henderson’s pungent summary of the his entire discussion of the Hippocratic method :
The third element of that method is the judicious construction of a theory – not a philosophical theory, nor a grand effort of the imagination, nor a quasi-religious dogma, but a modest pedestrian affair or perhaps I had better say, a useful walking stick to help on the way – and the use thereof.
All this may be summed up in a word: The physician must have first, intimate, habitual, familiarity with things; secondly, systematic knowledge of things; and thirdly, an effective way of thinking about things.7
An effective way of thinking about things – this is what a conceptual scheme is. Roethlisberger’s diagram, (Figure 1), which this essay has been exploring in such detail, simple as it is, is a conceptual scheme of the field of Organizational Behavior. It places empirical behavior at the center. It suggests that there are three classes of abstractions that are most useful for studying organizational behavior: Box 1 – the ways that people are formally structured into roles, job definitions, reporting relationships, goals, and missions and purposes, and its connections to boxes 2, 3, and 4; Box 2 – that of the many things we can study about people in organizations, their motivations and the ways these play out in their work and their relationships is a useful place to start, and its connections to box 1, 3, and 4; Box 3 – the ways people are related to each other in twos and threes and small groups, and its connections to boxes 1, 2, and 4; and Box 4 – the concrete (another favorite word) behaviors that can be seen and inferred within the boundaries of the unit of analysis, that is, the organization or some subpart of it. Roethlisberger was a thoroughgoing empiricist. He always said that we cannot have too much data, too many patterns, too many phenomena—elusive as they are. When the four boxes are viewed this way, the diagram, is still pretty simple, but at the same time it leads one to enormously rich and complex phenomena.8 Furthermore, as his notes to the diagram make clear, boxes 5 and 6 are part of his conceptual scheme. That is, in using it one will be confronted continually with issues of theory and practice and their relationships. One is not just employing the conceptual scheme abstractly but concretely in the five kinds of thought and action named in boxes 5 and 6 each one of which is its own universe of complex action.
So here is a simple conceptual scheme that immerses an investigator in about as much complexity and contingency as a beginning doctoral student, or, in my view, a seasoned professional should try to handle. The conceptual scheme, for Roethlisberger, had as its great virtue its simplicity and its utility. This one he is talking about is certainly not the only conceptual scheme that is possible within the field. There are many others. There are conceptual schemes that will guide one into deeper understanding of phenomena within each box. Maslow’s (1954) Need Hierarchy, for example, is a very nice conceptual scheme for studying motivation in more detail. Lawrence and Lorsch’s Contingency Theory (1967) is a useful conceptual scheme for studying relationships between organizations and their environments. In a different way, Bolman and Deal’s four frame model (2003) is an extremely useful conceptual scheme for studying contemporary organizational behavior. It is no wonder that this model has lasted nearly twenty years as a dominant approach to the subject, especially for beginning students of organizational behavior.
At the time that Roethlisberger was writing, a leading conceptual scheme of the small group was George Homans’ (1950) model of an external and an internal system of the group, in which “activities, interactions and sentiments” are the primary phenomena. Homans’ model is instructive in another way: His model is powerful for investigating a given group, but it is not an explanatory theory. One cannot deduce hypotheses with it, because the five major concepts noted above are abstract categories, not empirical facts. They are also not clear-cut categories; interactions are forms of activities, for example. Neither the external system nor the internal system can be empirically isolated. Instead, the two ideas are the “useful way of thinking” that was so important to Roethlisberger: they direct an investigator’s attention to two different kinds of forces operating in a group – forces from the outside and forces from inside the group (see especially Chs. 4 & 5).
We may use Bolman and Deal’s model to make a further comment that goes to the heart of our situation today with the field of Organizational Behavior. Anyone who has used Bolman and Deal’s model has probably thought of other frames that can be used to study an organization besides their four of the Structural, Human Resources, Political, and Symbolic frames. The authors themselves are virtually employing other frames in their latest edition as they explore ways of reframing ethics and spirituality to understand organizations in those terms (Bolman & Deal, 2003, Chs. 17, 18, & 19). But why not a technological frame? How about an economic frame (since too many managers are unconsciously locked in one anyway)? Or a cyber-frame that understands an organization in terms of its internal and external electronic communication processes? An historical frame would be nice, and so would a legalistic one. Organizations being what they are, there is practically no limit to the variety of frames we could spin.9 And sooner or later someone is going to come up with a meta-frame that looks at the framing consciousness itself and considers more and less effective ways to go about the process. Yet Bolman and Deal steadfastly cling to their four frames as the basic analytical structure. Why would they do that?
I think the answer is that the four frames are a fruitful conceptual scheme. The more bells and whistles we put on it, the more powerful it is as a data generator, perhaps, but the more a practitioner’s head might start to spin with the sheer complexity of using it. Bolman and Deal urge the value of “multi-frame thinking” (pp, 433-434), in which combinations of frames are considered; but their suggestion comes at the end of their prodigious study, when a reader has presumably become comfortable with the whole framing notion. And they still quite clearly are not suggesting that a managerial leader practice a pinwheel of different frames on his or her organization. Fruitfulness is still their primary criterion.
Roethlisberger would agree. If he were on one of today’s promotion and tenure committees, he would not be impressed with theories and research conducted without regard to the needs and realities of the practitioner. He would be in the minority, of course, and being the kind of man he was, he would only push gently and good-humoredly for his point of view. But privately he might lament all the theories and research which are complicating endlessly on criteria of state-of-the art intellectual constructions that ignore the needs and realities of practice. The “useful walking sticks to help along the way” he might value most are the books and articles that are known somewhat dismissively as trade publications or textbooks. He might like Bolman and Deal (2003); Kouzes and Posner (2002) Collins and Porras (1994); Senge’s thoughts on the learning organization (1994); Shoshana Zuboff’s extraordinary piece of field work on computerized automation 1988; Jerry Harvey’s enormously fruitful allegory which he calls, “the Abilene Paradox,” or more straightforwardly, the “management of agreement” in groups when there are all kinds of reasons for members to mask their true feelings (1988); – books like these; maybe even some of the exploratory thoughts I have published about learning in “permanent white water” (Vaill, 1989, 1996). I hope so.
Significantly, all of the books just mentioned are by academics – academics with a strong commitment to the improvement of practice as well as to the development of theory, that is, boxes 5 and 6 kept together in some balance with each other. On Roethlisberger’s behalf, I would once again urge newer scholars in our field to seek this same kind of balance in their research and writing. Admittedly this balance can be elusive, especially if one is working within an environment that does not encourage attention to practice as well as theory. I think the pendulum is swinging back, though, and this balanced attention to both box 5 and box 6 may be evolving into a norm to be sought.
Perhaps, though, and with pleasant surprise, we may hypothesize that almost behind our backs there has developed this genre of high quality books and articles that do balance theory and practice by creating and using these conceptual schemes to which Roethlisberger was so committed. At the time of his memo, such books of the type I have mentioned tended not to exist. McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise (1960) had only been published in the year preceding Roethlisberger’s memo and was not yet the multi-decade bestseller and creator of the genre of scholarly books for the practitioner that it was destined to become. Peter Drucker was the other writer who had been saying powerful things to practitioners using relatively simple conceptual schemes – which were yet enormously fruitful in giving us insight into the challenges organizations and managerial leaders were facing.
Though full of holes, and highly debatable as a formal theory of managerial attitudes and behavior, McGregor’s conceptual scheme of Theory X and Theory Y has arguably had more influence on practitioners and scholars alike than any other conceptual scheme in the history of management studies. Perhaps it is wise that we have not thrown out box 6!
Of course, it must also be granted that if we are going argue for high quality books that enlighten the scholarly practitioner and the academic mind, there is the danger of opening the door for slick polemics written primarily for the marketplace. Those who believe wholeheartedly in the theories and research that arise in box 5 can be expected to warn of these dangers. We need always to keep before us the differences between a serious study for the practitioner and something that panders to the practitioner’s fears, frustrations, and fecklessness. Were he alive and thinking and writing today, F.J. Roethlisberger would be likely to be in the forefront of those discussing these differences.
Back in point 4 of his memo, Roethlisberger spoke almost off-handedly about how “our inclusion of Box 6 forces us to be interdisciplinary and makes of us a unique field “ [emphasis mine]. For I think, and I believe Roethlisberger would agree, that we are not just unique in the varieties of subject matter we have found to be relevant to our research (box 5) and the many ways we have created for the improvement of practice (box 6). It is that boxes 5 and 6 together that make us a unique field. Boxes 5 and 6 are indissoluble. The disciplines of box 5 and the disciplines of box 6 are also interdisciplinary. The best conceptual scheme is one that holds our work in box 6 accountable to our work in box 5, and our work in box 5 accountable to our work in box 6. This is the model of Fritz Roethlisberger’s work as an Organizational Behavior scholar-practitioner, and it his ultimate message for the younger scholar-practitioner of Organizational Behavior.
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