What is an organization?

A friend sent an enquiry to me and a couple of others yesterday which set me thinking. Here's what she asked:

I'm trying to think of an article or book chapter to give to a group of Arts students that would provide the "classic" background on what an organization is – the basic theory piece.

I'm hoping to give them something that will help frame a discussion around what an organization really is – sort of the classic thinking. There must be a chapter or article – perhaps from an org. textbook. What would you give a group of "beginners" about how to think about organizations?

What I liked about the question (apart from the opportunity to delve into my folder "Articles" on my computer and wonder why I had the same article under different titles in more than one case) was that it's a challenging one to answer. Like her I have hundreds of articles on various aspects of organization theory, design, psychology, behavior, and so on but none that tackled head on the discussion of 'what is an organization?'

So my response back to her read "I haven't got anything that defines what an organisation "is". When I start off an organization design program I do an exercise with the group that runs as follows.

There are five questions (below). I reveal the questions one at a time asking the group, (or small groups) to answer them. This enables the participants to work out what an organization is. Usually, in answer to question 1 they come up with lists that include: a group of people, common purpose, delivering a product or service, sets of systems, and so on. Then you ask question 2 and generally they come up with rules, policies, governance structures, codes of ethics, regulatory frameworks, and so on.

Putting the answers of questions 1 and 2 together you get a good feel for what an organization 'is' and can arrive at a common understanding for all practical purposes. I then go into the next three questions to start the design thinking.

1. What is an organisation?
2. What is an organised organisation?
3. What is design?
4. What is an organisation design model?
5. How useful is a model?

However, I have combed through what I have in the way of articles and think that these might be useful.

Anand, N. and Daft, R. (2007) What is the right organization design? Organizational Dynamics, Vol 36. No. 4.

Osterwalder, A. (2006). How to Describe and Improve Your Business Model to Compete Better. Arvetica (see the overview on slideshare )

Child, J. and McGrath, R. (2001) Organizations Unfettered: Organizational Form in an Information Intensive Economy. Academy of Management Journal. Vol 44. No. 6.

Additionally Mary Jo Hatch is co-author of a book used on the Capella program on organization theory that I teach on Organization Theory: Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives and she writes extensively on organizations. For the most part it is very readable and gives a good insight into various aspects of organization/organizing."

The others chipped in with various suggestions – only one of which (the Gareth Morgan) I knew about. So this whole exchange was very productive in terms of my own learning. Here are their suggestions:

Wertheim, Edward, G. (undated) A Historical Background of Organization Behavior
Kurshner, T. (2007) Angels in America. Nick Hern Books.
Wilson, E. (1998). Back From Chaos. The Atlantic Monthly, Part 1 March pp. 41-62 and Part 2
McNamara, C. (undated) Basic Definition of Organization. Free management library.
Kleiner. A. (2008) The Age of Heretics: a history of the radical thinkers who reinvented corporate management. Jossey Bass
Morgan, G. (2006). Images of Organization. Sage Publications

Yesterday I also came across a quote "Whatever you learn it is never enough" amply proved in the email exchange above!