Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

In Search of Rationality: The Purposes Behind the Use of Formal Analysis in Organizations

Academic journal article Administrative Science Quarterly

In Search of Rationality: The Purposes Behind the Use of Formal Analysis in Organizations

Article excerpt

In Search of Rationality: The Purposes behind the Use of Formal Analysis in Organizations

This paper describes the results of a study that examines how formal analysis is actually used in practice in three different organizations. Four main groups of purposes for formal analysis--information, communication, direction and control, and symbolic purposes--are identified and related to the nature of the social and hierarchical relationships between those who initiate analysis, those who do it, and those who receive it. It is concluded that, far from being antithetical as often assumed, formal analysis and social interaction are inextricably linked in organizational decision making and that different structural configurations may generate different patterns of use of analysis.

INTRODUCTION Management teachers, writers, and researchers spend a good deal of time advocating more formal, more systematic, more logical, and more analytical approaches to decision making. However, in spite of all this normative emphasis on the use of formal analysis, surprisingly little is actually known about how it is used in practice in organizations, especially at the top-management level. Is it in fact used at all? And if so, when and why? Much of the management writing and teaching aimed at practitioners emphasizes the use of formal analysis for informational purposes. Yet, anyone who has ever worked in a complex organization knows that other types of motivations for doing analysis are also common. Many have in fact been noted in the scholarly literature. For example, Dalton (1959) suggested that staff people in the firm he studied often served a control function. Others (e.g., Bower, 1970; Kerr, 1982; Meyer, 1984) have noted that a great deal of formal analysis is more concerned with the justification of decisions already made than with a need to know. Quinn (1980) suggested that formal analysis and planning may have an important role to play in focusing the attention of others on issues, raising comfort levels, and gaining commitment. Lindblom and Cohen (1979), Porter, Zemsky, and Oedel (1979), Prince (1979), and Wildavsky (1979) have suggested that formal analysis is often used as a tool in adversarial debate. Brewer (1981) and Meltsner (1976) described how analysis may be used to deflect attention away from issues by giving the impression of action. Edelman (1985), Feldman and March (1981), Meyer and Rowan (1977), and Pfeffer (1981) drew attention to the symbolic and ritualistic uses of language and information in conveying messages of rationality and thus legitimizing organizational actions. However, these contributions are fragmented. There has, in fact, been very little empirical research that has examined the purposes behind formal analysis in any systematic way. This paper describes some of the results of an exploratory empirical study in which the purposes behind the use of formal analysis in three organizations were systematically identified and a typology was developed. Biases in favor of considering formal analysis mainly as a source of information have also led to another frequent conception: that an organization in which formal analysis is very common is also an organization that has adopted a "rational/comprehensive" mode of decision making and one in which political and social interactive modes of decision making are relatively less important. For example, this assumption partly underlies Fredrickson's (1984) definition of the "comprehensiveness" construct. And Mintzberg (1979b) explicitly associated formal analysis with the "machine bureaucracy" structural type, in which political modes of decision making are relatively unimportant as compared with other structures. In the study described here, it is noted that, far from being antithetical, formal analysis and social interaction are inextricably linked in organizational decision making. Several propositions concerning the relationships between the use of formal analysis and its social interactive context are offered. …

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