Academic journal article Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management

Careers and Organisations: A Figure-Ground Problem

Academic journal article Journal of the Australian and New Zealand Academy of Management

Careers and Organisations: A Figure-Ground Problem

Article excerpt


This paper argues that people's careers have great personal significance for them and energise much organisational activity, but that in the context of organisations and management they often appear irrelevant. Contrasting career metaphors are used to show how careers develop through tensions between organisational and social structure, and individual agency. The findings of a New Zealand research study show how new flexibilities and ambiguities in economic and organisation structures result in people developing careers which, like the Australasian "Big O.E." institution, are mobile, improvisational, and learning-based. A reflexive model is used to show how careers can create organisations as well as vice versa. The implications of new career theories for workers, managers and management educators are indicated. Greater appreciation of career dynamics results in the subversion of some traditional management ideas and the development of new models of self- and organisational management.


He thought he was a traveller

Creating his own life-course;

He looked again, and saw he was

A company resource.

- after Lewis Carroll


From the personal point of view of many managers (and other workers), 'career' is a major preoccupation. Our careers are always with us, yet they seldom stay the same. Careers evolve. They develop over time. They are patterned, sequenced and cumulative, so that past, present, and future are intimately related. This gives careers an explanatory power beyond that of more micro-level, 'in-the-moment' concepts such as motivation and leadership.

An individual's 'career' - nowadays defined in management literature as 'the evolving sequence of a person's work experiences over time' (Arthur, Hall & Lawrence 1989, p. 8) represents his or her life at work, extended over half a lifetime or more. It is in our careers that we experience much of life's success and failure, its fulfilment and its emptiness. Year after year, decade after decade, the career remains and develops at the centre of our consciousness, a continuing and personal constellation of observable fact and subjective awareness. For each of us, our own career is a constant preoccupation, an ever-present lens through which we view our working activities. For most people, their career is figurai in their consciousness, and employing organisations are the background in which the career takes place.

But however important our careers may seem to us in our own, personal lives, they fade to the background of our consciousness when we consider organisations and their management. This is true even though organisations are made up of other people, like ourselves, who are also preoccupied with their careers. It is not careers but organisations that become figural in our consciousness: careers are an irrelevant detail. In contrast to the weighty business of organisations, and strategy, the achievement of communal purpose, career phenomena which appear fundamental to us as individual employees seem personal and trivial to us as managers and researchers. How can we resolve this paradox? How do careers truly relate to organisational functioning? What can organisational scholars and practicing managers gain from understanding careers?

There is a conventional understanding that organisation structure and functioning affect careers, and that many individual's careers are best understood in terms of their progress through the structures of employing organisations. Human resource management may involve concern for an employee's future career as well as his or her present job, as in 'career development', 'succession planning', and the more general encouragement of employees to have long-term commitment to the current employing organisation. The managerial view of careers is therefore as a kind of flexible human componentry which a good company can develop and use to its advantage. …

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