The Lid on the Garbage Can: Institutional Constraints on Decision Making in the Technical Core of College-Text Publishers In a study of college physics and sociology textbook publishers, coercive, mimetic, and normative forces in the institutional environment are shown to order the decision and access structures of garbage can systems and to account for a uniformity of outcomes that is unexpected from garbage can decision models. Interviews with editors established that decision making in textbook publishing conforms with the garbage can model and helped us determine the ten best-selling introductory texts in each field. Optimal matching, a quantitative technique for content analysis, was used to demonstrate that differences in the homogeneity of contents and sequencing of material in these textbooks are determined by the degree of development of paradigms in the academic discipline. We show that, in contrast to Thompson's (1967) model, organizations with ambiguous core technologies can benefit from opening their technical cores to be shaped by the institutional environment.
The garbage can model of organizational choice (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972) has been a mainstay of the literature on organizational decision making for over fifteen years. According to this model, many decision processes within organizations do not operate according to rational choice models. Rather, confounding situational elements further limit the cognitive capacities of organizational participants (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972; March and Olsen, 1986). Streams of loosely coupled problems, solutions, participants, and choice opportunities flow into the organization at different rates and connect or decouple elements according to a temporal rather than a causal logic. Garbage can processes "depend on a relatively complex intermeshing of elements, [including] the mix of problems that have access to the organization, the mix of solutions looking for problems, and the outside demands on the decision makers" (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972: 16). Thus, solutions may seek problems, both problems and solutions may await opportunities for decisions, and participant energy is likely to be distributed according to the overall load and arrival time of the various streams rather than by any "objective" criteria determining the relative importance of a particular issue. In garbage can systems, decisions are often made by flight or oversight rather than by calculation.
Two aspects of organizational structure are elaborated in the garbage can model. The first is the decision structure, the mapping of choices onto decision makers. The second is the access structure, the mapping of problems onto choices. This paper integrates the garbage can model with institutional theory to explain how different aspects of the institutional environment lead to different consequences for the decision and access structures of college-textbook publishers than might be expected from the garbage can decision world they inhabit.
The garbage can model of organizational choice implies that random or heterogeneous outcomes should be expected, because the connections between decisions and outcomes are determined by temporal factors, such as time of arrival or overall load on the system, rather than by causal connections between decisions and outcomes. In this paper, however, we show that garbage can decision processes in the technical core (Thompson, 1967) of organizations--the structures that process the "products" of the organization (Scott, 1981: 97)--may result in homogeneous outputs. We demonstrate that the institutional environment, which surrounds the garbage can decision processes of the technical core and limits the range of problems, solutions, and choice opportunities flowing into the core, is a key source of this ordering of the technical core and its outputs. The institutional environment thereby constrains--or puts the lid on--the garbage can processes.
This notion that external institutional contraints homogenize the outputs of the technical core extends research following Meyer and Rowan (1977) and DiMaggio and Powell (1983), which suggests that the institutional environment can homogenize the institutional and administrative structures of organizations, respectively (see Scott, 1987, and Zucker, 1987, for reviews). This paper demonstrates that the institutional environment can also homogenize the outputs of the technical core when that technical core is characterized by garbage can processes. Thus, in the case of organizations in which the core technology is ambiguous, the logic of Thompson's (1967) model should be reversed: By not sealing off the technical core from the perturbations and influences of the external environment, organizations derive orderliness in the outputs of the technical core from the constraints imposed by the institutional parts of that environment.
We explore the relationship between the institutional environment and garbage can processes in the technical core in a study of editorial decision making, a key feature of the technical core of the college textbook-publishing industry (Powell, 1985). It is generally accepted that college textbooks in the various disciplines are relatively homogeneous with respect to topics and the order in which topics are presented. We show that the institutional environment, particularly the level of development of paradigms in the academic disciplines, shapes the organization and content of introductory textbooks in physics and sociology.
THE GARBAGE CAN MODEL AND
Garbage can models "describe a portion of almost any organization's activities, but not all" (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972: 1). The garbage can model has been successfully applied to educational (Clark et al., 1980), public (Sproull, Weiner, and Wolf, 1978), and military (Bromiley, 1985) organizations, as well as other "organized anarchies" (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972) with chaotic, theater-of-the-absurd decision worlds. Our study of college-textbook publishing showed that the garbage can model is also applicable there.
In performing structured, open-ended interviews with editors of the ten best-selling introductory textbooks in physics and sociology, we were struck by the way the editors consistently described their work in gambling terms, such as "a lottery with bad odds," "an attempt to hedge one's bets," or "a crapshoot." We were particularly surprised to hear this from college-text editors, because we expected college-text publishing to be the most rationalized segment of the publishing industry (Coser, Kadushin, and Powell, 1982; Powell, 1985). We were informed however, that college-text publishing simply represents "the poker game with the highest ante because of the high costs of production" and that the procedures for decision making are best described as "guesswork, intuition, and opinion." The sense of confusion experienced by participants inhabiting this haphazard and unpredictable universe is captured in the following comment from a sociology editor: "Editors can become schizophrenic. You think a manuscript is good and it doesn't make money. Then you get a manuscript that you think is bad, and it makes money--but not always."
Because postindustrial Western culture places such a high value on rationality, which implies theories of cause and effect, participants in ambiguous organizational environments find themselves in the position of having to make sense of a world that is not eminently sensible. Editors are surprisingly willing to admit the bewilderment and the lack of control that accompanies the interpretation and evaluation of outcomes in their business:
This is a high-risk business, and it's also a demoralizing business. You think a book is solid and well-written, and it doesn't do well. It never got a chance, …