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9 Understanding organisational boundaries

While you might recognise that organisations have boundaries, it can be harder to understand where they lie and what they signify. As a consequence, if you are not careful you might end up ignoring the challenge of organisational boundaries and fall under the spell of the seductive appeal of universalism – the assumption that ideas, models or approaches apply universally in all settings.

Universally applicable methods of managing efficiently treat management as if it were a science and often seem to ignore context. The way in which employees are expected to behave is also reduced to universally applicable rules, which any suitably qualified person could follow.

Robert Solow, who won the 1987 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences lamented the lack of attention to context, observing that many of the best and brightest economists proceed as if ‘There is a single universally valid model of the world [that] only needs to be applied’ (Solow, 1985, p. 330). Universalism may sound simple but, if you want to imagine how particular people in a particular context might think and behave, it is important to develop your contextual intelligence.

Management guru Peter Drucker was determined to demonstrate that ‘there is no such thing as the one right organization’ (Drucker, 1999, p. 11). What works in one context might not work in another context. What works today might not work tomorrow. Contexts change. For example, before 1940, what is now known as Silicon Valley was mainly agricultural. It was a major producer of prunes and apricots, but the organisation that was ‘right’ for producing fruit might not be right for the high-technology start-ups that have come to symbolise today’s Silicon Valley.