Unlearning the Fifth Discipline: Power, Politics and Control in Organizations

Article excerpt

Unlearning the Fifth Discipline: Power, Politics and Control in Organizations By Devi Akella Response Books, New Delhi, 2003; Pages 273, Rs.295.

Written in a simple narrative style the book attempts to generate a new perspective on work environments and the kind of relationship that may exist between employers and employees in learning organizations. This book, based on the author's doctoral dissertation, presents rich and qualitative data collected from several Indian organizations and is a contribution towards understanding of the changing workplace.

The author starts off with explaining learning organizations as "ideal workplaces that ensure employee autonomy and empowerment." It traces the origin of the concept to late 1970s when Japanese companies were taking over global markets.

The central part of the work consists of the author's study of two modern accounting firms (chapters 4 to 7). The study emphasizes on the nature of teamwork among high-skilled individuals and to examine whether the managerial function of coordination is a hidden form of control which "guides" employees, through an array of subtle ways, into falling in line with the purposes of those in command.

Given that an organization brings together a number of people with varied capabilities, motivations and objectives, the question that arises is 'what holds it together and directs it towards a common goal'. The conventional answer to this question has been that it is power that does the job. Power as the controlling factor could be seen, or so it was claimed, if one looked into early organizations: A group of bandits, an army or a guild. Work in all these forms was assigned and supervised by a leader who exercised authority and under whose command each member of the group performed his task. When factories became the typical organizations after the Industrial Revolution, the role of power in organizations became more explicit. It was the provider of capital or the owner who brought the workers together and defined the tasks and terms of work. The owner also decided what the workers should get. The best the workers could do was to resist, and in doing so, they were able to affect some changes in the conditions of work. Consequently, organizations came to be viewed as exercise of power on the one hand and resistance on the other.

With the passage of time, some element of delegation of power to supervisors was incorporated into this basic model of the capitalist organization. Further down, ownership became somewhat diffused and owners tended to become sleeping partners. This led to a strengthening of the role of supervisors who effectively became managers. Some analysts and writers glorified this as "the managerial revolution". However, the revolution was limited to the manner of exercising power, leaving the role of workers largely unaffected.

Who are workers? Are workers merely passive, except when they become active as resistors? Whatever the supervisors and managers do, is it also work? If there is a difference between what workers do and what managers do, can it be confined to the colour of the collar? Once these questions became live issues, it appeared that the basic model of organizations as locales of power and resistance was inadequate to depict their true nature. …