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Feb 12, 2018

What makes things move?

At one of our last “Troika” meetings (the two A-Deans and I), we were wondering why some of the processes seem to go on their own, and need no or little pushing. Yet other processes and projects require constant following, or else they peter out. Some have their own little engines, while others rely on the leadership pedaling power. You would think it is likely old versus new things? Well, not really. Website updates is an old process, and yet it is not moving at all. Curriculum revisions – we had to push these hard. Recruitment for some masters programs went nowhere for some time. Yet RTP goes on in mostly orderly fashion, almost on its own, and so are dozens of other important processes like scheduling, admissions, contracts, etc.

The explanation may be simple – when we have specific staff or faculty assigned certain duties with deadlines, it happens. If responsibility is not clear or distributed – no one takes the lead, and the process stalls. In other words, if we did not set it up correctly, a n organizational process will not advance. It is probably a large part of an explanation, but not all of it. Some of the fundamental processes happen even if no staff is currently responsible – other people around will notice, help, remind, and generally make it happen. Moreover, the opposite is sometimes true – someone may have a specific task and yet it slips away.

The institutional theory tells us that in larger social systems, some aspects are more resilient, and somehow more fundamental than others; they are called institutions. Some patterns of human behavior are grounded in more authority and legitimacy. It is not just that people get used to certain norms, they also view them as more important and more legitimate. By extension, other things are not institutionalized, and are viewed as non-essential, temporary.

Martinsons (1998) has developed an interesting theory of institutional deficiencies. When the rule of law does not work very well, a country will rely more on relationship-based commerce. The process is somewhat similar at a workplace. When I ask something to be done, it could be viewed as a fully legitimate, well-established, rule-government assignment. Or, it could be viewed as a personal favor I am asking someone to do on top of his or her responsibilities. Some people (like Trump) mistakenly believe that personal loyalty is a way to go. Which simply means that the authority lines are so strong that any worker will do anything she or he is asked to do with equal enthusiasm.

However, Martinson shows that in the end, institutions based on law are much more stable and efficient. There are only so many favors one can ask without returning a favor, which starts a cycle of the relationship-based organizational patters that will eventually undermine legitimacy. Or, to put it differently, a leader that is over-invested his resources in personal authority, can only do it by destroying the institutions. This is, by the way, the source of Putin’s increasing authoritarianism: he wanted to make the system governable and responsive so badly, that his personal authority eroded the weak democratic institutions in Russia.

More sensible managers will always try to institutionalize new or weak processes, make them a part of culture, of collectively held beliefs. It is not easy, because we do not really understand the mechanisms of institutionalization. What I do know, it is definitely not proportional to the volume of manual pushing things through. It looks like some things just take quickly, while others will not.

The problem with institutionalization is that any long-lived organization also collects some dead-weight routines that look legitimate, but have lost their original usefulness. I can give many examples, but so can you.

OK, I have been at Sac State for a year now. The project is still as fascinating as ever. Looking forward to the next chapter.

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