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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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2.2 What is an organisation?

Let’s begin with a brief exercise.

Stop and reflect

Think about an organisation with which you are familiar. What are the features that make you call it an organisation? If someone interested in your organisation was visiting it tomorrow – what would you show them? Would someone in a different role than yours show people the same things?

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Unless your organisation is very small, we suspect that you would find this quite challenging. If you work in an organisation that has separate departments then perhaps you notice that as a manager you may relate to the other departments but your workers often do not relate to them in the same way. Similarly, if your organisation has operations across the country or internationally, then these problems of what is the organisation become even more pronounced. Where do you stop? Equally, it may be that your organisation is part of a network of organisations seeking to achieve similar ends. This is particularly common in non-profit organisations working with government and inter-governmental organisations, for example. In such cases drawing the boundary between the internal and external environment may be problematic as well. Figure 4 shows some of the key elements of a distance learning university as an organisation (for example, The Open University in the UK), from the perspective of the business school.

Even with this relatively oversimplified diagram (it does not show the wider aspects of the university, such as other faculties), you can see first of all that the university is complex, and that, depending on where someone sits in this environment, the organisation might look quite different. One feature of organisations is that they mean different things to different people even within the same organisation. The perspective of the individual defines her or his perspective on an organisation’s identity and boundaries, and there are many such perspectives. The point here is that how we conventionally depict and describe the organisations we work for is just that – a convention – but that it has a very powerful and constraining hold on our thinking and stops us constructing our view of the organisation in different ways.

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Figure 4 A view of a distance learning university from the perspective of the Business school

Organisations enable objectives to be achieved that could not be achieved by the efforts of individuals on their own. Organisations come in all shapes and sizes but have three factors in common: people, objectives and structure. It is the interaction of people to achieve objectives that forms the basis of an organisation, and some form of structure is needed within which people’s interactions and efforts are focused. The direction and control of the interactions is the role of management. This sounds straightforward: organisations exist to achieve objectives and provide satisfaction to their members. However, we have already identified that those who come together to form organisations, those who work in them and those who manage them may have different objectives and needs, and different understandings of the organisation. There is a delicate balance to strike between coordinating activities in the most rational way and at the same time maintaining employees’ and others’ involvement and commitment to the organisation.