Technology and Organization: Essays in Honour of Joan Woodward: Volume 29


Table of contents

(24 chapters)
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Pages xiii-xiv
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When Joan Woodward died in 1971 at the age of 54, she left behind an enormous professional and personal legacy. This volume is a tribute to her work and life, to the profound effect she had on those she worked with, and to the important impact her work has had on how we think about organizations. It is also a tribute to a woman who succeeded in what was, at the time, overwhelmingly a man's world. That she was only the second woman appointed as a full professor at Imperial College London provides ample evidence of her success in the unlikely and very masculine setting of post-war Britain.

Joan undertook the ground-breaking project originally reported in the 1958 pamphlet, Management and Technology, not at one of Britain's great universities, but at the unfashionable address of the South East Essex Technical College (then in the county of Essex but now part of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham). The Human Relations Research Unit had been set up at the college, which is now part of the University of East London, in 1953 with support from a number of agencies including funding ultimately derived from the Marshall Plan. Its express purpose was to enhance the performance of industry and commerce through the application of social science. Those readers familiar with the area will know that, at the time, it was economically and culturally dominated by the Ford assembly plant in nearby Dagenham, but it was also home to a diverse range of small- and medium-sized industrial workshops that were typical of the pre-war Greater London economy (Woodward, 1965; Massey & Meegan, 1982). It was into this diverse industrial milieu that Joan and her research team ventured (Fig. 1), completing their main study in 1958.

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Joan interviewed me for my first job in 1969. Little did I realize what an opportunity I was about to be given. I was about to be offered a post with one of – if not the – United Kingdom's most eminent industrial sociologist (as we were called then) and to join the most exciting and dynamic group of young researchers in the subject at the time; a group that have all gone on to make their mark in various ways. I was recruited because I was interested in the organization and management of industrial research and development, and Joan wanted to test her ideas outside traditional manufacturing environments.

I may get my account of Joan Woodward wrong because I am relying on my memory of decades-old events, and others may be more accurate. Joan was, I believe, teaching at a technical university when she was asked to do a survey of a number of Midland firms in terms of industrial policy. It was an odd choice for a female professor with an Oxford degree in medieval history, with no background in industrial policy let alone organizational theory. This may have been her advantage. She came to the task without the medieval theories of organizations that reigned. She looked at these firms in a way that no one in organizational theory had before. She wrote a preliminary report that said that because they use different technologies, they had different structures; the most successful matched their structures to their technologies – routine processes allowed centralized control, nonroutine ones required decentralization, to put it crudely.

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Imperial College in 1969 looked like a man's world; it was certainly difficult to locate a ladies’ room which was not apparently hastily constructed in a tight space as an afterthought to a great design. Yet I joined a powerhouse of women. Joan Woodward had already tempted Dorothy Wedderburn from Cambridge and together they had secured large sums of research monies from the Research Councils, Fords, Pilkingtons, ICI, the Post Office, the Coal Board, government departments, and other supporters who were each captivated by the promise of the work and rare combination of intellectual strength and practical concerns of its leader. With research funds flowing in abundance, driving passions to explore further the relationship between structure, technology, and performance, and very few specific commitments, Joan and Dorothy set about recruiting what was to be one of the largest groups of young researchers in the United Kingdom in the late 1960s.

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To understand what goes on in the social sciences, you need to look at where the funding is coming from. The 1950s were the time of the Marshall Plan. As part of the Marshall Plan, under the so-called Conditional Aid Scheme, funds were made available for industrial social research, and there began the first major broad-based program of industrial social science in this country. The essential feature of the scheme was that the problems being tackled should have some bearing on productivity and that the research carried out should produce practical results.

I first met Joan Woodward in 1962 when she visited the “Aston” group as we were working on our theoretical and methodological approach to understanding organizational structure and context. We were a brash, young group (the oldest member of the team was 30) working at what was then the Birmingham College of Advanced Technology (CAT). The Birmingham CAT did not have university status and it was not until 1966 that it became the University of Aston. Both what we were doing and where we were located were intriguing to Joan; after all, her famous book on technology and organization had been carried out at the South-East Essex Technical College, another nonuniversity, and, in the status order of the times, “below” Birmingham CAT! Both Joan's work and that of the Aston group illustrate how innovation often comes from the margins of the academic world!

Past research has highlighted multiple interrelations between technology and social cognition. In this chapter, building on past studies, as well as on our own research, we advance propositions about the conditions under which technological features are likely to serve as cues for the construction of organizational identity and about the consequences of this fact for the enduringness of these features. In doing so, our emerging framework may contribute to increase more general understanding of how organizational features come to be perceived as part of organizational identity.

It has been well established that organizations often need to restructure themselves to meet new technological challenges. We review the organizational impact of a recent technological development, sometimes referred to as Web 2.0 that enables users to leverage the Internet and generate “user-generated content” by acting as a supplier, co-producer, or even innovator of products and services. We draw on the social studies of technology, including actor-network theory to develop a conceptual understanding of how this phenomenon is challenging deeply entrenched mental models among managers and management theorists as well as problematizing the way organizational boundaries are conventionally drawn.

By taking conventionalist view of the evolution of biotechnology, we suggest that the process by which entrepreneurs determined what made biotechnology valuable and figured out how to organize around such an economic logic was contested. The shape that biotechnology has ultimately taken emerged from the resolution of these contests. Convention theory – as elaborated in Boltanski and Thévenot's (2006) On Justification 1 – argues that our economy is shaped by participants affecting the rules of economic action. Whereas most economists would argue that the assignment of value underpins any system of exchange, conventionalists suggest that this value is not only given by the principles of optimization but instead can be derived from many possible spheres such as civic duty, attainment of fame, proof of technologic performance, and demonstration of creativity. More specifically, Boltanski and Thévenot (2006, p. 43) claim that the establishment of a particular logic “comes about as a part of a coordinated process that relies on two supports: a common identification of market goods, whose exchange defines the course of action, and a common evaluation of these objects in terms of prices that make it possible to adjust various actions.” Simply put, economic logics embody principles of economic coordination or conventions that guide interpretation of the technology and its value.

Although the cottage industry of neoinstitutional research gained its momentum through a conceptual architecture that was centred on a bifurcation of technological/material forces and cultural dynamics, current research in this genre has begun to re-examine the utility of such distinctions. One of the downsides of such a conceptual distinction is that the institutional approach to technology is anachronistic, treating it as an exogenous force. Even though early work by Woodward and others usefully contributed to our understanding of organizations by highlighting how different technologies correlate with various organizational forms, recent scholarship has enhanced our more functional understanding of technology by highlighting processes of coevolution and structuration. In this chapter, we draw on such social constructionist developments in the study of technology to reanimate institutional analysis. More specifically, drawing on the case of the development of nanotube intellectual property, we focus on how technological knowledge production is embedded in community cultures. Our arguments and evidence suggest that there are distinctive community cultures around intensive versus extensive knowledge-generating patents, highlighting how an approach that appreciates the interactive dynamics of technology and culture can yield important insights into the institutional dynamics of technology development.

This chapter develops a conceptual framework to help us position and understand the increasing importance of project-based innovation for industrial organization in the 21st century. It builds on and extends Joan Woodward's (1958 and 1965) pioneering research, which classifies industrial organizations according to the complexity of production technology and volume of output. We suggest that a radical revision of Woodward's framework is required to account for the extensive use of project-based organizations to gain competitive advantage through accelerated innovation and growth in new technologies and markets.

Dynamic relationships between technologies and organizations are investigated through research on digital visualization technologies and their use in the construction sector. Theoretical work highlights mutual adaptation between technologies and organizations but does not explain instances of sustained, sudden, or increasing maladaptation. By focusing on the technological field, I draw attention to hierarchical structuring around inter-dependent levels of technology; technological priorities of diverse groups; power asymmetries and disjunctures between contexts of development and use. For complex technologies, such as digital technologies, I argue these field-level features explain why organizations peripheral to the field may experience difficulty using emerging technology.

In her research studies, Woodward (1958) found that those firms that were organized according to the logic of their production technologies were more successful (on a set of economic measures) than those that did not. On the conceptual front, this acknowledgment of contingency in organizational life was particularly valuable in helping management scholars shift away from assumptions and expectations of “one best way to organize.”1 It also helped to counter reductionist claims of technological determinism, the view that technology is an independent force that has determinant and universal social impacts.

One common view of technology is as knowledge. “Defining technology as knowledge has important implications for how we comprehend technology in the making because it conceivably includes not only what exists, but what individuals believe is possible” (Garud & Rappa, 1994, p. 346). If “all knowledge and all knowledge-claims are to be treated as being socially constructed” (Pinch & Bijker, 1984, p. 401), the importance of discourse to such a view of technology is clear.

As we write this chapter, in the autumn of 2008, the US financial sector is in crisis – major investment banks have gone bankrupt, others have lost most of their market value, and the US Congress is considering a bailout of some 700 million US dollars (The Economist, 2008). The situation represents a clear case of the extraordinary potential for breakdown in social systems that depend on complex layers of technology and institutionalized practice – a “logistical nightmare of fixing a market whose complexity is central to the crisis” (The Economist, 2008, p. 81). More generally, we argue that it challenges prevailing images of technology and institutions as stabilizing forces and points to the fundamentally important, but often neglected, work of maintaining technology and institutions.

Despite a rich extant literature, it is unclear what business models are. We assess three dominant conceptions of business models in the academic literature: as transactional structures, value extracting devices, and mechanisms for structuring the organization. To overcome the shortcomings of these approaches, we draw on theories of performativity, social typecasting, and managerial cognition. We propose an alternative conception of business models as performative representations that work in three ways: as narratives that convince, typifications that legitimate, and recipes that guide social action. Rather than actual features of firms, business models are representations that allow managers to articulate and instantiate the value of new technologies.

Woodward's seminal research linking technology to optimal organizational form presented a contingent theory of managerial structure that, in effect, presented the organizational version of scientific management. Taylorism addressed individual work processes; Woodward's theory addressed organizational structural processes; deviations from optimized processes or systems reduced effectiveness. The very nature of contingency theory, however, relies on the implicit assumption that the production technology of the organization is the primary mechanism by which the firm generates value. In the case of the biotechnology and social networking firms, the underlying production technology and organizational structure are intermediaries to value creation, not production technologies per se.

Industry platforms are technological building blocks (that can be technologies, products, or services) that act as a foundation on top of which an array of firms, organized in a set of interdependent firms (sometimes called an industry “ecosystem”), develop a set of inter-related products, technologies and services (Gawer, 2009b, 2009c).

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Book series
Research in the Sociology of Organizations
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
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