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The translational diamond: robust translation of magic concept in public organizations

Tina Ollgaard Bentzen (Roskilde School of Governance, Institute of Social Sciences and Business, Roskilde University, Roskilde, Denmark)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 14 March 2019

Issue publication date: 2 May 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Public organizations are constantly offered new ideas and concepts that involve a substantial investment of resources when it comes to translating them into organizational practice. An especially powerful group of such concepts in the discourse of organizations comprises so-called “magic concepts” that both pose opportunities and challenges for public leaders trying to translate them. Although critical discussion about the value of popular concepts has been intense in existing research, there is still little knowledge about the factors that determine why some magic concepts have a pervasive influence, while others quickly go out of fashion and leave little trace in organizational practice. The paper aims to discuss these issues.

Design/methodology/approach

By combining insights from public leadership theory, implementation theory, institutional theory and organizational psychology, this paper outlines four dimensions that are central to the robustness of the organizational translation of magic concepts. The paper develops a conceptual model labeled “The Translational Diamond,” which suggests that the robust translation of organizational concepts depends on the level of both strategic and local anchoring, as well as the interplay between reflection and experimentation in the translation process. The Translational Diamond is applied in two embedded case studies, which offer insight into the variance between two organizational departments attempting to translate the same magic concept.

Findings

A central argument in the “translational diamond” is that bigger, balanced diamonds reflect more robust translations than smaller, warped diamonds. The results support this assumption. Although the translation of trust involves challenges in both departments, there are much more severe difficulties in the social department, which is characterized by a notably smaller and much more warped diamond than the health and care department.

Research limitations/implications

While this paper argues that strategic and local anchoring and the interplay between reflection and experimentation play a crucial role in the translation of magic concepts, there may be other factors at stake in the process. For example, Røvik argues that the skill of the individual translators engaged in the process is important for creating a robust translation (Røvik, 2007). In addition, magic concepts are potentially involved in a power battle with other magic concepts that are constantly competing for organizational attention (Hood, 2005). Such power dynamics may substantially influence actors’ engagement in translation, but are not within the scope of this paper.

Practical implications

For public leaders, the translational diamond may serve as a conceptual framework that can spur their understanding of, and reflection about, how to support the translation of magic concepts in their organization. For example, archetypically warped diamonds can illustrate the problems that might occur if translation is not sufficiently anchored in all four dimensions. Translating organizational concepts involves respect for the inherent dilemmas of securing a balance between strategic and local perspectives, as well as the strengths of securing feedback loops between reflection and experimentation. These dimensions will not necessarily be equally balanced at all times in the process of translating magic concepts. The conceptual model of the translational diamond may help leaders to understand the current status of a translation and guide them in their endeavor to support a better balance.

Originality/value

While symbolic change may serve other organizational purposes than effectiveness, this paper addresses the under-studied question of how organizational concepts are translated robustly into practice. The originality of the “translational diamond” is its focus on “how” rather than “whether” the translation of magic concepts should be attempted. In addition, the diamond’s integration of theoretical constructs from leadership theory, implementation theory, institutional theory and organizational theory offers a more nuanced understanding of central dimensions impacting organizational translation at a practical level.

Keywords

Citation

Bentzen, T.O. (2019), "The translational diamond: robust translation of magic concept in public organizations", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 15 No. 2, pp. 94-112. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPL-11-2018-0056

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

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