Concept Of Autonomy: Definition And Interpretation

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To understand the meaning of the word ‘autonomy’ one may first refer to the Greek roots of the term, which suggest a combination of ‘autos’ and ‘nomos’, meaning respectively self and rule or law. Originally, the Greeks applied the term with respect to the relationship between states and their right to own laws and decision power. In the eighteenth century, political philosophers broaden the applicability of the term in their observations regarding the relationship between the individual and the state, making it a key component in the philosophic and political discourses of the state’s impact on personal freedom. Despite differences in opinions, the general census suggest that autonomy on an individual level thereby implies the freedom to make own choices independent of other individuals or institutions. In organizational studies, individual autonomy has therefore been measured for example with regards to control over own time, right to choose collaborating partners, deciding own approach to tasks, feeling of being one’s own boss etc. (van Gelderen & Jansen, 2006)

Beyond this individualistic perspective autonomy, Verhoest et al. (2004) studied a conceptual view of organisational autonomy through the focus on smaller political entities’ autonomy from bigger political organisations, similarly to this research’s investigation of innovation units’ autonomy from core business. They suggested that “the level of organisational autonomy is determined by the scope and the extent of the agency’s decision-making competence” (Verhoest et al., 2004, p.9). Hereby, implies a contrast to classical bureaucracies where organisational units are controlled by hierarchical superiors exterior to the agency itself, setting instructions and regulations for task prioritization, performance, reporting and so on. On such agency level, decision making competence could then be mapped by conceptually distinguishing two kinds of autonomy: a) autonomy reflected in the agency’s level of decision making, implying whether the agency may define its own policy even when contradicting management, b) autonomy reflected in the agency’s actual possibility to act on own decision making competence, implying an exemption from constraints such as legal, structural or financial constraints which could limit the agency’s use of decision-making competence. Thereby, the managerial autonomy of an agency implies decision-making competencies concerning the choice and use of inputs. This may, for example, vary with respect to human resources (e.g. implying the right to choose own employees), financial management (e.g. rights to prioritise resource allocation), or management of other production factors such as logistics. (Verhoest et al., 2004)

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The diversity of structural constraints also leads to a diversity of definitions and aspects of ‘autonomisation’, implying the process by which decision-making competencies are shifted from external actors to the agency itself by reducing controls, regulations and approval requirements. For example, one may highlight ‘legal autonomisation’ implying the creation of a separate legal identity; ‘financial autonomisation’ if the agency becomes independent of exterior funding and can rely on its own revenues; or ‘structural autonomisation’ by which the agency shields it itself from the influence of hierarchy and accountability of classical bureaucracy (Verhoest et al., 2004). Each of these aspects of autonomisation can be viewed as elements that prevent the core business from altering the unit’s decision making competencies, and surely will these distinguishments become particularly relevant in this comparison of innovation units as ISS Corporate Garage and Space10 differ by their legal, financial and structural relations to their respective core businesses.

Yet, Verhoest et al. (2004) highlighted the multidimensional aspect of organisational autonomy, as they observed substantial heterogeneity of autonomy among organisational units with similar legal-formal status. Similarly, they observed that agencies may be heavily controlled by externally defined explicit norms despite a legal-formal status of high autonomy, leading to the agency acting less autonomously than rightfully entitled to. This suggested that legal-formal statuses are not the only determinants of autonomy, sparking this study’s interest for observing ‘perceived autonomy’ in order to capture the innovation units’ own impression of freedom to act on their decision-making competencies.


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