Belated Recognition for Work Flow Entrepreneurs: A Case of Selective Perception and Amnesia in Management Thought

Article excerpt

Managers at a U.S. manufacturer learn, through trial and error, how to improve horizontal work flows. They find they must ensure that someone is clearly responsible for all important processes. Productivity significantly improves; the hierarchy flattens. Despite these results, management pushes hard for further, continuous improvements.

Reengineering activities such as these receive celebration in the current business press (e.g., Byrne, 1993). In this article, we make two sets of claims about these efforts. We hold that these efforts are a type of working leadership (Sayles, 1993), that this working leadership is work flow entrepreneurship, and that work-flow entrepreneurship is an important dimension of firm-level entrepreneurship. Next, we demonstrate that within the anthropological fieldwork tradition these ideas are rather old. For example, the site in our opening vignette is Plant No. 1 of the IBM Corporation; the date is half a century ago (Richardson & Walker, 1949).

If reengineering is important, why would the earlier ideas have been forgotten? We argue that amnesia in management thought resulted both from the psychologizing of issues that properly require attention to work flow process and technology. "Attention" is too weak a word; understanding work flow process requires research of a kind that became increasingly rare: up-close, in the field, in close collaboration with people on the floor. This is a lens, a methodological and disciplinary perspective that is needed to understand organizations. In Part II, we suggest that the lens a researcher uses affects not only the perspective on the same "real" object under study, it provides access to distinct realities. To demonstrate this point, we view the social network of the same entrepreneurial organization from a psychological, a cognitive, a political, and a work/economic perspective. These four views prove to be meaningfully and structurally distinct.


Work flow working leadership is a form of firm-level entrepreneurship; this is our central thesis. What, then, do we mean by "entrepreneurship" at the level of the firm? Our definition of "entrepreneurship" in this context has three components. First, it is activity that seizes profit opportunities without regard to resources currently controlled (Stevenson & Jarillo, 1990). Second, it expands existing resource bundles through enhanced learning, synergies, or factor input completion (e.g., bootstrapping) (Burgelman, 1983; Leibenstein, 1968; Stewart, 1989; Venkataraman, MacMillan, & McGrath, 1992). These resource expansions result in rent.(1) Third, it promotes change and innovation leading to new combinations of resources, including new process technologies and new work systems (Burgelman, 1983; Schumpeter, 1943, p. 132). The managerial activity that creates new combinations typically takes place in organizational contexts characterized by teamwork, empowered operating level employees, organic structures, and fluid, informal networking (Covin & Slevin, 1991; Zahra, 1993).

New Resource Combinations and Organizational Entropy

On the face of it, all three components of our definition, as well as the attendant managerial activities, are fairly well developed in the literature. We believe, however, that the nature of input completion in the work system is not well understood. The work system has a ceaseless need for enhancements, due to the fundamental, profound problem of coordination. Again, on the face of it, the concept of coordination is unproblematic. Often, however, it is barely understood, and more often it is misconstrued, because it tends to be seen as the concern of planning, organizational structure, and hierarchical politics. These lenses are those of Generally Approved Management Principles, or GAMP (Sayles, 1993, pp. 25-26). GAMP, the widely accepted scientific management, command, motivate and control model, fails to recognize the persistent need for everyday initiatives by middle managers for "continuous mutual adaptation and retrofitting" of work flows (Sayles, 1993, p. …