Symposium on organizational scepticism

Journal of Management History (Archive)

ISSN: 1355-252X

Article publication date: 1 December 1998


Stever, J.A. (1998), "Symposium on organizational scepticism", Journal of Management History (Archive), Vol. 4 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited

Symposium on organizational scepticism

James A. SteverDepartment of Political Science, University of Cincinnati, USA

Sceptical thought routinely appears as an integral component of political theory and philosophy. Since ancient times sceptics, negative thinkers, critics, and cynics routinely appeared on the stage of history and added their anti positive thought to the corpus of literature in these venerable fields. Hence, the complete political theorist or philosopher must understand both the positive and the negative thought of their fields.

In contrast, organizational theory, as a comparatively new field, has been dominated by positive thought. Those who indulge in negative thought are marginalized. Until recently, the complete organizational theorist was excused from understanding and integrating scepticism into organizational thought. However, things have changed. Scepticism about organizations is now a growth industry ­ particularly since William F. Whyte popularized scepticism in 1956 by publishing The Organization Man. Since then, a steady parade of sceptical theorists have railed at the modern organization. Now, under constant sceptical attack, the modern organization bears many similarities to the medieval catholic church.

This symposium aspires to introduced scepticism to the fields of management history and organization theory. Present, but scarcely detected, scepticism directed at organization deserves serious consideration by scholars who aspire to understand both the history of management and organization as well as the prospects of this remarkable institution.

To accomplish this introduction, this symposium will employ a straightforward methodology. In early 1996, I produced an article that sought to identify the major kinds of organizational scepticism. Examining the history of scepticism prompted the realization that the most dependable basis for categorization was to consider the philosophical premises of the sceptic used to attack the organization. The resulting taxonomy contained three categories of scepticism:

(1) premodern organizational scepticism ­ based on premodern philosophical thought;

(2) modern organizational scepticism ­ based on thinking unique to the modern era; and

(3) postmodern organizational scepticism that relied on theoretical premises assuming modern society to be in decline.

The second methodological phase involved contacting leading management and organizational theorists representative of the above three categories. I asked them to critique the arguments and assumptions supporting this taxonomy. Predictably, there was an array of reactions. I invited those who responded to submit articles. After various referees kindly reviewed the submissions, the ensuring symposium resulted.

Throughout each of the five critical articles, there was one common reaction. Each theorist steadfastly insisted that scepticism could improve as well as erode and destroy the modern organization. Hence, the premodern, modern, and postmodern sceptics, who present their ideas in this symposium defend their scepticism on the basis of its positive outcomes. Beyond this commonality, though, their actual criticisms of modern organization and the basis for their criticisms vary significantly.

Premodern scepticism

Larry Terry, working within a premodern philosophical frame, argues that modern organizations have become so preoccupied with technology that the brand of organizational leadership they promote is based on fraudulent, even dangerous theoretical premises. He point out the troublesome preoccupation with the "new" in modern management thought,to the extent that these theorists reinvent the technological basis of management with distressing regularity. Terry shares with other premoderns respect for tradition, character, and virtue as the basis for leadership.

Fellow premoderns Norman S. Wright and David K. Hart extend this premodern logic to the emerging global environment. Sceptical about the capacity of modern organizations and their supporting modern managerial theory to sustain humankind in the emerging global age, they argue that modern organizational theory cannot provide a full ethical and moral life for the individual. As a corrective, Wright and Hart examine the moral philosophy proposed by Adam Smith who fused moral discourse and economic interaction. They distill Smith's moral and economic logic into the "No-harm proviso." This premodern principle would transform the new global organizations into a "self-perpetuating system of kindness."

Modern scepticism

Modern organizational sceptics approach the modern organization from within the modern philosophical frame. Thus Gerald Gabris, Stephen Maclin, and Douglas Ihrke define their scepticism as a method for bringing the modern tools of reason and science to bear on the deficiencies of the modern organization. Viewing themselves as moderate organizational sceptics in the neo-classical tradition these authors propose a model of "organizational optimism" consistent with Theory Y. This article which directly engages Larry Terry's premodern theory of leadership develops fascinating contrasts and thought-provoking arguments about the future of the modern organization.

Postmodern scepticism

Deena Weinstein and Michael Weinstein approach the modern from a postmodern frame, but resist my claim that postmodern organizational theory is inevitably sceptical. Whereas my taxonomy builds the postmodern category based on the scholarship of Alvin Toffler, Michael Foucault and Francois Lyotard, Weinstein and Weinstein argue that other postmodern scholarship exists that I had not consulted, namely that produced by John Hassard, Stewart Clegg, and Kenneth Gergen. On one hand Weinstein and Weinstein defend the thinking of Hassard, Clegg, and Gergen as a legitimate decentering response to the rationalist, often dehumanizing hierarchies that emerged within modernity. On the other, they candidly acknowledge the flaws of these postmodern responses to modernity.

Concluding comments

Quite often, the dominating mood in the final stages of an intellectual project is weariness. This is not the case with this project. Instead, it is exhilaration. I deliberately resisted the urge to submit my introduction to this symposium to the five respondents, aware that another round of dialogue one these issues would swell this symposium beyond manageable proportions. Yet, my comments here hardly constitute the last word. What follows is my interim and grateful response to the five authors who generously responded.

There is a good deal left to be said about organizational scepticism. The one dominant emergent question from this symposium, I think, revolves around the question of the cumulative effects of the various forms of scepticism discussed by the five respondents. It remains to be seen whether premodern, modern, or postmodern scepticism will exert significant influence on the organization. Moreover, it is also an open question as to whether their singular or combined influence will be positive or negative.