On the Work Itself: Task and Organizational Reality

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In classic organization theory, ‘purpose’ and ‘task’ were key concepts. In order to understand the situation of a particular organization and to assess the form and necessity of managerial action it was considered crucial to address the organization’s basic purpose or core task. Without this, an organization could not realistically assess the strengths and weakness of its inner arrangements and the threats and opportunities posed by its ’environment’. In contemporary organization theory, ‘task’ or ‘purpose’ is no longer a natural point of departure and figures only as one among many ‘aspects’ of organizational life. A widespread argument for this decreased significance holds that it is no longer relevant to speak in terms of overarching purposes as organizations manoeuvre in rapidly changing environments where tasks and purposes are multiple, ambiguous and in flux. Another is that the definition of ‘tasks’ by management is ultimately a ‘political’ or ‘instrumentalist’ reduction of the creativity and multiplicity of an organization. Thus it has been suggested that organizations are no longer relevant to understand as total entities, but only as ‘partial organizations’ (Ahrne & Brunsson, 2011). In the paper, I revisit Barnard’s concept of ‘organizational purpose’, and Miller and Rice’s concept of ‘the primary task’, which share a number of family resemblances. I argue that the authors were aware of the challenges in sorting out the core tasks of an organization, but that they also explain and illustrate the problems of bewilderment and fragmentation arising from neglecting the issue. A bewilderment and fragmentation that also characterises contemporary organization theory as a discipline, I argue. Employing the notion of ‘reality device’ I conclude that understanding the core tasks of an organization is an indispensable means to register and evaluate the empirical reality of organizations and the work to be done in order to accomplish those tasks.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2014
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventXVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology 2014: Facing an Unequal World: Challenges for Global Sociology - Yokohama, Japan
Duration: 13 Jul 201419 Jul 2014
Conference number: 18


ConferenceXVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology 2014
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