Ideas and Perspective of Modernists and Postmodernists in Today’s Modern-day Management

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This essay will be focusing on how practically relevant organisation theory is in contemporary organisations. It will look at two of the main paradigms in organisation theory which are the modernist approach and the postmodernist approach. An organisation “is the planned coordination of the activities of a number of people for the achievement of some common, explicit purpose or goal, through division of labour and function” (Schein, 1994). Organisations impact so many different aspects of our lives as we are all members of them for most of our lives therefore it is an extremely important matter. Everyone is affected by the existence of, and what goes on in organisations as whatever happens in organisations is traceable to human behaviour. Organisation theory “helps us to reflect upon and understand who we are and why we are who we are” as well as focusing on the sociological understanding of organisations (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p.11).The first paradigm that the essay will focus on is modernism. Modernists prescribe how managers are able to adopt effective cultures, improve performance and efficiency. The second paradigm that the essay will look at is postmodernism. Postmodernists criticize and destabilise managerial ideologies and expose power relations. The essay will look into the paradigms and analyse the extent of practical relevance in contemporary organisations.

Modernism is a mainstream perspective that describes a world of order and rationality. Modernists’ aim is to optimise efficiency and rationality, they do this by finding efficient and effective ways of working by using science and technology. The modernist perspective gives theories that offer causal explanations that require defining the past. They also “rely heavily on quantitative methods”, quantitative methods are used to test theories. “Quantitative researchers strive for mathematical precision” however they may often face problems, one being “the danger of confusing correlation with causality”(Hatch, M, 2018 p.11), just because things may be correlated it does not mean that their relationship is causal. Modernists’ approach is based on a belief that if we adopt a rational and scientific approach to organisational life, organisations will be successful.

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A way that modernists believe will make an organisation effective and efficient is through a bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a concept Max Weber formulated in the early 20th century and “is derived from the legitimacy of normative rules”. (Luhrman, J, T, Cunliffe, A, L. 2013). Bureaucratic organisations are becoming the most dominant approach to design in many societies during the 20th century, this will continue in new forms into the future. Bureaucracy refers to the core structure of the organisation, modernists believe that through a clear sense of hierarchy and authority the organisation will run efficiently (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p. 61). Modernists believe that in a bureaucratic organisation everyone is aware of their role and position they hold; they know the tasks that are associated with their role and what is expected of them. People in the organisation are aware of their status, from the most junior to the most senior individuals who hold authority (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p. 47.). This is relevant to today’s modern society and organisations because a large proportion of organisations have a sense of hierarchy and structure. A practical example of this is in the retail industry. There is a solid hierarchal matrix structure in most retail jobs, there is a managerial hierarchy where employees answer to their superiors. Often there are different supervisors for different departments who have workers beneath them that they delegate jobs too to ensure they all get done within the time constraints and target aims. Bureaucracy enables large organisations to respond rapidly to changing external environments.

Weber defined bureaucracy as having many key dimensions. The journal article written by Clegg, S states, “Communication, coordination and control are centralized in the organisation” and “different positions in the hierarchy are differentially paid and otherwise stratified” (Clegg, S, 2012, p.61). Different positions in the hierarchy vary in pay because some positions may require more or less skill, time and effort. The higher paid employees may have more experience which will mean they have a clearer sense of the business ensuring purposes are fulfilled. Henri Fayol (1841-1925) focused on the unity of command, this means that he thought that each subordinate should report to one boss. This is relevant in today’s organisations because unity of command is used in a large proportion of organisations. Employees are often meant to report back to their manager at the end of each task they have been give or at the end of each day.

However, there are some criticisms as Clegg believes that we may already be beyond bureaucracy, he says “what they seem to be changing to is use of more indirect techniques, … command and a great deal of more dialogue and discussion.” (Clegg, S, 2012, p.76). Also, at times modernism is used to describe a world that is ‘over controlled’, often it is also seen as a world in which “many are oppressed, and elites are able to exercise power”. (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p.49). They argue that as the modernist form of organisation, it has become ‘pervasive’, our lives become controlled by the organisation. This has happened through the forces of bureaucracy and by the imposition of managers whose primary role is to control. A common idea that organisations are places where we have to act in a disciplined way is heightened though systems and processes. Disciplinary power is often used in schools by teachers on pupils especially during Ofsted periods (Perryman, J, 2006). As written by (McKinley A, Starkey, K, 1997, p.31,32) disciplinary power is a “distinctive conception of power”. This may occur in schools, workplaces and other organisations as an employee may change their behaviour if they suspect they are being watched by a superior. This is a similar concept to Michael Foucault’s Panopticon theory; his theory was based around surveillance and how changes in behaviour may occur if individuals are being watched (McKinley A, Starkey, K, 1997, p.31,32). This is often used as an example to compare how employees or people in organisations behave whilst being watched. Many of the key dimensions Max Weber outlined are still practically relevant in today’s modern-day organisations and bureaucracy will continue to be a huge part of modernists organisation theory. Bureaucracies “can rise to new challenges that make the work of members more purposive” (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p. 77), this shows that bureaucracies are relevant in todays organisations as they can be used to make work “more interesting” and can be used to develop and improve organisations, the modern age is able to respond to the issues of constant change.

Scientific Management is a theory Frederick Taylor came up with, it is a theory of management that analyses and synthesises workflows. The main aim is to improve and maximise efficiency and productivity. F. Taylor “theoretically proposing and practically implementing the qualitatively new approach to management and work organization” (Grachev, M, Rakitsky, B, 2013) was done fulfil the aim of the maximising profits for businesses and organisation. It suggests that there is no “one-best way”, as what works best is contingent upon factors such as goals, technology, environment and also the individuals involved.

A contingency theory is a theory that claims there is no one best way to organise a business (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p.83). When looking at the traditional modernist approach to contingency theory, they suggest it is to find general rules that would explain what was happening in particular organisations. By looking at this journal article by Betts, S, it is often debated whether contingency theory is a science. “Contingency theory clearly is science. Science can be considered as either a process of inquiry or an organized body of knowledge. Contingency theory involves both”. (Betts, SC, 2003, p.4)

Taylor’s theory introduced systematic selection and other procedures that provided an efficient workplace, it often encouraged the idea of systematic organisational design. This theory is relevant in modern day organisations as organisations need tasks to be completed on time and to a high standard. Science and technology are heavily relied on in many modern-day organisations as they have many practical advantages.

Postmodernism is a period of time that comes after modernism from 1980s onwards, it is a philosophical perspective. It is another main paradigm that has practical relevance in today’s organisations as post modernists criticise and destabilise managerial ideologies and expose power relationships. One of postmodernists main focus’ is “the constructed nature of people and reality, emphasize language as a system of distinctions that are central to the construction process” (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p.261). One of the main views of postmodernists is that they believe there is no universal truth and that we are subject to constant change.

Postmodernism does not search for grand theories and metanarratives, but they focus on gaining an understanding of a situation at a particular point in time, postmodernists understand that there are a number of possible reasons and not just one. They understand that organisations are real but adopt interpretivist and subjective methods by using qualitative methods to explore it. Looking at this journal article many theorists argue that postmodernism is not an entirely separate paradigm, “we argue for thinking of them as moments, essentially related to each other, rather than movements that literally have historical specificity” (Clegg, S.R, Kornberger, M, 2003). Postmodernism complements modernism and does not oppose it as it is not a totally different paradigm, therefore we are bound to see similarities between both paradigms.

Written in a journal article, the author suggests that “postmodernism is no longer a theory or a philosophical stance but a reality which impacts upon many facets of life”. She suggests that organisations in western modern societies “will have to develop an understanding of their markets and employees under the conditions of postmodernity” (Firat, A. Fuat, 1992). The ideas of postmodernism have influenced and encouraged organisations to be diverse which will lead into them promoting equality, not only will this practically benefit the employees but also the organisation itself.

Unlike modernists, postmodernists believe there is no necessary connection between words and the concepts of things as to which they refer to whereas modernists believe that language mirrors reality and that there is a link between words and meanings. Jacques Derrida’s focused on deconstruction and the ‘linguistic turn’. Deconstruction “is not used to abolish truth, science, logic and philosophy but to question how they are employed to systematically exclude certain categories of thought and communication” (Kilduff, 1993, pp.14-15). Knowledge is constantly evolving and changing therefore organisations are always able to expand and grow. This is able to be linked to contemporary organisations as employees in organisations often think and behave in a pre-constructed way. Deconstruction is also becoming a more popular method for analysing organisational texts and “show their true meaning” (McAuley, J et al, 2013, p.273). Critics and deconstructionists would argue that it does not find “it’s true meaning” as there is more than one valid interpretation.

Another idea postmodernism looks at is organisational design. Organisations come in many different structures such as tall, flat and matrix structures. Postmodernists focus on human consequences of organisational design. This is practically relevant to contemporary organisations as they can work on the way they design their organisation; it is something that can be improved on over time (Xhetani, E, 2019)

To conclude, as the essay and theories given above explain, organisation theory does have practical relevance in today’s contemporary organisations. The majority of people will be part of an organisation at some point in their lives therefore it is extremely important that people are made aware of organisation theory and what it consists of. As the essay discusses postmodernists have similar views to modernists so it is not an entirely new paradigm. The ideas and perspective both modernists and postmodernists put forward are practically relevant in today’s modern-day world.


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