Rational, Natural, & Open System Perspectives of Organizations
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Rational, Natural, & Open System Perspectives of Organizations
Organizations are fundamentally human entities. Swanson lamented the conception and study of organizations “in ways that do not anthropomorphize [them] and do not reduce [them] to the behavior of individuals or of human aggregates.” As human entities, organizations share certain commonalities with one another and exhibit diversity in many respects, just like humans do. Organizations differ in their sizes, structures, purposes, and any number of other characteristics. They also differ in the ways people analyze, study, and otherwise consider them. Scott and Davis describe organizations from three unique perspectives—as rational systems, natural systems, or open systems. Examining organizations from any of these three perspectives offers certain benefits and limitations.
Rational System of Organizations
Scott and Davis described the rational perspective as one which purports that “Organizations are collectivities oriented to the pursuit of relatively specific goals and exhibiting relatively highly formalized social structures.” In rational terms, one can best understand organizations by knowing what they intend to accomplish and how they intend to accomplish it.
Within the rational perspective, the organization’s efficiency is greatly important. Consequently, the specificity of the goals and the formalization of the organizational structure are defining characteristics of this perspective.
Major theoretical viewpoints within the rational approach to organizations include Taylor’s scientific management, Fayol’s administrative theory, Weber’s theory of bureaucracy, and Simon’s theory of administrative behavior.
Taylor’s Scientific Management
Taylor built upon the practice of standardization begun by engineers near the turn of the 20th century. He believed “that it was possible to analyze tasks… …to discover those procedures that would produce the maximum output with the minimum input of energies and resources.” Gilkerson et al. studied maturity models and found a similar desire to ascertain peak efficiency. They noted that “maturity models describe the development of an entity over time” and questioned “whether the concept promotes an idea of progression toward a final, perfect or “complete” ideal, or if it conveys a continuous and never finished process.” Taylor applied his approach throughout organizational hierarchies and it generated a great deal of resistance from workers and managers alike. His approach remains residually present in our modern organizations “more in the guise of a set of technical procedures that as an overarching managerial ideology.”
Fayol’s Administrative Theory
Fayol suggested organizations use a top-down formalization approach which focused on coordination and specialization. This is reminiscent of King Solomon’s approach to leading Israel. Merida stated, “We see evidence of Solomon’s structure, organization, and diplomacy that led to such happiness. Religious, political, and economic leaders are mentioned here. The first four are possibly the inner cabinet. Next, we read of a second level of leaders.”
Weber’s Theory of Bureaucracy
Weber’s theory rests on his typology of three types of authority—traditional, rational-legal, and charismatic. Although much of his work was initially misunderstood, Weber “viewed each bureaucratic element as a solution to a problem… …within the earlier administrative systems.”
Scott and Davis also noted that Weber saw the danger of bureaucracies “growing with an inexorable logic of their own, concentrating great power in the hands of their masters… …and having the potential to imprison humanity in an “iron cage.”” Merida also pointed out the potential harm in excessive structure, stating that “The goal of organization in a church is for disciple making, community building, and mission. Organization alone will not change anyone’s life. The purpose is to facilitate growth in the best possible way. It’s possible to spend all of one’s time in structure and forget that ministry is about people.”
Simon’s Theory of Administrative Behavior
Simon further developed the rational approach’s two defining characteristics—goals and structure. He suggested using vague organizational goals “as the starting point for the construction of means-end chains” and turning these into a “hierarchy of goals in which each level is considered as an end relative to the levels below it and as a means relative to the levels above it.” Simon also advocated structural support for participants in making decisions within the organization. Given Simon’s advocacy for decentralizing decision-making authority where appropriate, it is surprising that so many businesses insist on such tight control over decision making. Sweeney et al. found that “[public-sector managers] use more participative leadership, while managers in [commercial organizations] use more directive leadership. This is consistent with… ….[claims] that ‘private management proceeds much more by direction or the issuance of orders to subordinates by superior managers.’”
There are numerous accounts of organizations as rational systems. One biblical example is when Jesus sent out the twelve disciples. Mark 6:7 (NKJV) stated that Jesus divided them into pairs. Matthew 10:1 described the power with which Jesus equipped them. Matthew 10:9-10 and Mark 6:8-9 detailed the packing list for this expedition. Jesus told them where to go in Matthew 10:5-6, where they were to lodge in Mark 6:10, and explained their assignment in detail in Matthew 10:7-8. This group was formally structured, received detailed orders from their leader, operated efficiently, and was ultimately effective because of their adherence to Jesus’ plan (Mark 6:12-13).
Natural System of Organizations
Scott and Davis explained that those holding the natural perspective believe that “Organizations are collectivities whose participants are pursuing multiple interests, both disparate and common, but who recognize the value of perpetuating the organization as an important resource.” They emphasize the organization’s importance and acknowledge that it may not only be the means to an end, but an end within itself. Örtenblad, in his study on organizational learning, found that “The organizational aspect may take the form of… …being a facilitator, supporter and/or arranger of the learning…; …being an additional, actual learning unit; and… …being the end process that is dependent on learning and rests upon continuous learning to exist. The organization being the end process means that everyone can “perform the work tasks that normally are performed by the other team members so that team performance is not dependent on any single team member. Thus, any team member can take care of and deal with any… …issue.””
The natural perspective examines organizations based on what they are and do beyond their stated goals and formal structures. De Waal noted this distinction when analyzing high-performing organizations (HPOs), stating that many definitions “are drafted in terms of what an HPO does, not so much what it is.”
While the natural perspective is not a true opposite of the rational perspective, its defining characteristics—complex goals and informal structure—are indeed the opposites of those of the rational perspective. The natural perspective states that organizational goals are usually more complex than stated and that there is an underlying goal of organizational preservation which impacts all the other goals. Laraswati et al. observed this trend, commenting on non-governmental organizations’ attempts to “maintain self-sustenance” and act “in their own self-interests/”
This natural point of view also considers an organization’s informal structures—those interpersonal dynamics which change from group to group—to be vital to the organization’s identity and complementary of its formal structures. One example of this is Snyder and Cistulli’s research on in-group affiliation, which found that, “In their work lives, employees can take on any of a number of different identities. For example, they may categorize themselves as members of their organizations, members of their work groups, or members of their professions, among other identities. Self-investment refers to individuals’ psychological investment in the in-group. People with high levels of self-investment care about their affiliation with their in-group, derive a sense of satisfaction from that affiliation, and are emotionally invested in belonging. People with high-self care about their affiliation with their organization.”
There are at least four dominant theoretical viewpoints within the natural perspective. One viewpoint is the Human Relations approach, which is based on Mayo’s interpretation of the Hawthorne studies. Another is Barnard’s Cooperative System, in which the leader must induce the participant’s cooperation by forming a morally binding collective purpose. A third perspective, Selznick’s Institutional Approach, views the organization as a unique organism with its own “special character…, …distinctive competence…, …[or] value beyond the technical requirements at hand.” Finally, there is Parson’s AGIL Schema, which states that social systems need adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency if they are to survive.”
Laraswati et al. provided a strong natural perspective of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), looking at the differences between organizations’ plans and activities, examining organizations concerned with self-preservation, and noting how organizations shift their focus over time. They studied NGOs, “comparing and contrasting what NGOs formally promise to perform, with the actual activities they undertake” and found that “many NGOs have failed to live out their high public expectations.” Laraswati et al. also found examples of “NGOs acting in their own self-interests…, …[being] driven by the accumulation of profits, repurposing for fundraising goals or imposing certain values and norms, pursuing high political positions, and using the organization to promote individual personal careers.” Finally, they noted that “although some [non-governmental organizations] may begin as a reflection of their idealistic definitional characteristics, many transform and shift away from these classical static models.”
Open System of Organizations
Scott and Davis stated that the open perspective views organizations as “congeries of interdependent flows and activities linking shifting coalitions of participants embedded in wider material-resource and institutional environments/” Essentially, this perspective views organizations as systems with varying levels of interdependence.
One of the defining characteristics of the open system perspective of organizations is its viewpoint that an organization has the components and interdependence of a system and operates within a particular environment. Beyond this, the approach ranks types of systems based on the complexity of their components and the complexity of their structure. The open system perspective categorizes organizations as either cybernetic systems, which self-regulate based on programming; or as open systems, which self-regulate based on environmental throughput.
There are several predominant theoretical viewpoints within the open system perspective. Proponents of the systems design approach “seek to change and improve organizations…, not simply to describe and understand them.” The contingency theory, found within the systems design approach, emphasizes design’s reliance on environmental conditions. A third approach is Wieck’s model of organizing, which operates with the goal of “organizing… …toward… …a workable level of certainty.”
Several examples of the open system perspective exist within the literature. De Waal highlighted the importance of the environment when he stated that “Managers were looking for techniques to strengthen their organization in a way that it could not only cope with these developments and threats, but could also quickly take advantage of opportunities, and thus, grow and thrive.”
Laraswati et al. also emphasized the role of the environment on organizational self-regulation, stating that, “Both international and domestic [NGOs] increasingly mirror ordinary political actors, mobilizing resources to maintain self-sustenance and coordinating their interests under a heterogeneity of other actor interests. NGOs are often perceived or proclaim themselves as independent from other entities, distancing themselves from political standpoints…, …[but] the increasing boundedness of NGOs to broader political processes and interests also distinctly affects their independence.”
Laraswati et al. continued, noting that, “More and more NGOs exhibit decreasing autonomy. They are heavily influenced by other entities, notably donors or at least some trickle down of the new arrangements imposed by international counterparts. The local smaller NGOs express that they have increasingly become entrepreneurial entities having to be more opportunistic to access funding and financial aid in order to survive [and] NGOs are pressurized to produce certain outcomes.”
The rational, natural, and open system perspectives offer those who are interested in understanding organizations unique ways of doing so. Through these approaches, one can observe what organizations intend to accomplish, how they intend to do it, other forces at work within the organization, and the impact of these competing forces. With the knowledge gained from these approaches, leaders can build upon the work of those in generations past to develop better organizations with better outcomes for a better world.
De Waal, A. (in press). The high performance organization: Proposed definition and measurement of its performance. Measuring Business Excellence, 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1108/MBE/04-2020-0064
Gilkerson, N. D., Swenson, R., & Likely, F. (2019). Maturity as a way forward for improving organizations’ communication evaluation and measurement practices: A definition and concept explication. Journal of Communication Management, 23(3), 246-264. https://doi.org/10.1108/JCOM-12-2018-0130
Laraswati, D., Rahaya, S., Sahide, M. A. K., Soraya, E., Pratama, A. A., Fisher, M., & Maryudi, A. (2020). The anachronistic category of non-government organisations: Moving from normative to empirical-based definitions for identifying organized interest groups in forest policymaking. Forest Policy and Economics, 112, 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.forpol.2020.102106
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
Örtenblad, A. (2018). What does “learning organization” mean? The Learning Organization, 25(3), 150-158. https://doi.org/10.1108/TLO-02-2018-0016
Scott, W. R. & Davis, G. F. (2016). Organizations and organizing: Rational, natural, and open system perspectives (6th ed.). Routledge.
Snyder, J. L. & Cistulli, M. D. (2018). Application of in-group identification to organizations: A study of the impact of self-investment and self-definition on key organizational outcomes. International Journal of Business Communication, 23(3), 1-20. https://doi.10.1177/2329488418777039
Sweeney, A., Clarke, N., & Higgs, M. (2019). Shared leadership in commercial organizations: A systematic review of definitions, theoretical frameworks and organizational outcomes. International Journal of Management Reviews, 21(1), 115-136). https://doi.org/10.1111/ijmr.12181
The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Thomas Nelson, Inc.