The Lid on the Garbage Can: Institutional Constraints on Decision Making in the Technical Core of College-Text Publishers

Article excerpt

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. …