Sociology of Organizations
In recent years a lot of the best sociological works have been devoted to the study of an organization. Sociology of organizations as a science aims at informing the society of how social relations are established and can be modified, though it does not intend to give direct instructions on how to act or intervene in these relations. This research meets the same purposes. In this study I will try to examine sociological processes involved in building a social group within an organization and understand how social life forms in different conditions. On the example of informal organizations I will try to explain how these sociological processes can lead to a certain organizational outcome.
According to Antonio Marin (2012): “The main activity of sociologists in an organizational society is not to give norms of conduct, prescriptions for specific problems, but to spread rationality, offer knowledge, make the processes in social groups (as a whole, with their subgroups and related groups) more comprehensible.” As an organization can be structured in many different ways, sociology’s main objective is to determine the types of an organizational structure and to analyze sociological processes within every structure. Organizational structure allows the distribution of responsibilities among members of this structure, and thus, creates prerequisites for establishment of certain social groups.
Sociologists divide organizations into formal and informal. A formal organization is a fixed set of rules of inner organizational procedures and structures. Main features of formal organizations are:
· determined objectives and policies
· arbitrary structure
· well defined rules and regulation
· status symbol
· strict observance of the principle of coordination
· limitation on an individual`s activities
· messages are communicated through scalar chain
What are the differences between a formal and informal organization then? First of all, let’s try to define what an informal organization is. An informal organization is an interconnected social structure which specifies the ability of people to work together in practice. In other words, an informal organization indicates how relationships among people with common organizational affiliation are established. An informal organization is a set of social networks and communities with specific characteristics such as:
· grass roots
· dynamic and responsive
· evolving constantly
· cohered by trust and reciprocity
· difficult to pin down
· treats people as individuals
· requires insider knowledge to be seen
· flat and fluid
· excellent at motivation
· collective decision making
· essential for situations that change quickly or not fully understood
The nature of an informal organization becomes more distinct when these key features are compared to features of a formal organization. As we see from these characteristics, formal organization has more strict order of distribution of functions and has a hierarchic structure. On the other hand, an informal organization relies rather on a tight connection within a group and relations among its members than on a set of rules and direct instructions.
In order to understand sociological processes within formal and informal organizations, we must examine their functions at first. It should be noted that both formal and informal organizations are tightly interconnected and informal organizations are often formed within a formal organization as its rules are adapted to subjective interests. Personal goals, sympathies, aspirations and behaviors of individual workers influence everyday life of an organization and it becomes informal. In practice we see that all real organizations represent a mix of formal and informal organizations. Sometimes there is a conflict between them; however most organizations successfully combine formal and informal characteristics. In order to create workable structure it is highly recommendable to recognize an informal organization within a formal one on the stage of its establishment. An informal organization can perform very important functions that may help to create a good working space within a formal organization. The major functions of an informal organization are:
· perpetuation of cultural and social values
· providing a social status and satisfaction
· promoting communication among members
· providing social control
What exactly do these functions mean? Perpetuation of cultural and social values means that certain values already held in common among group members perpetuate a particular lifestyle and retain group integrity and unity. In other words, the existent values become reinforced among the group members.
Informal organizations provide satisfaction and a social status that cannot be received from a formal organization. A person often feels more like a part of a featureless crowd rather than a unique individual in large organizations. However, an informal organization helps people to reveal their individuality while being a part of a small social group members of which share common interests. It makes people feel valuable and raises their self-esteem. An informal group promotes communication among its members by developing a communication channel that helps members to stay informed about management’s actions and their influence on workers. This communication system may be also used by the management to convey information about company’s actions and rumors.
Informal organizations provide internal and external social control by administering behavior both outside and inside the social group. Internal control intends to convince the members of a group to follow its lifestyle. External control is oriented to groups like union leadership, management, and other informal organizations.
As I said earlier, these sociological processes within an informal group can intensively affect the performance of a formal organization. What is the organizational outcome of such influence then? As any structure, informal groups have their advantages and disadvantages. However, informal groups are formed within formal organizations in most of the cases; thus, the management has to deal with it anyway. In this perspective it is important to learn the possible outcome of such coalition in order to provide the most efficient performance of an organization. The major advantages of an informal group include:
· blending with formal system
· lightened management workload
· filling the gaps in management abilities
· encouraging the improved management practice
By blending with formal system I mean that informal groups must integrate with a formal organization in order to make its plans, policies and procedures work. It is hard to imagine a structure where every rule is strictly followed and workers are absolutely obedient to the management. This kind of situation looks more like slavery than a healthy stable organization. That is why establishment of a formal group is necessary and may help to solve a lot of problems.
Informal collectives also help to lighten the managers’ workload. When a manager knows that an informal group is ready to cooperate, he/she needs less time to check up on his workers, as he/she is convinced that they are doing their job. This kind of approach encourages decentralization, which results in improvement of productivity and overall performance of the organization.
In addition to this, an informal group can improve manager’s work too. For example, if a manager has difficulties solving some particular problem, his/her employees may informally assist him by making suggestions or by direct involvement. As a result, the tension between managers and employees loses and thus, productivity increases.
Another advantage of an informal organization is influence that it has on manager’s professional attitude. Knowing that an informal group can reject a poorly planned project, a manager will tend to introduce new projects or changes with more careful consideration and planning. A more organized approach to presentation will result in the increase of manager’s authority among members of the informal group and thus, will consolidate the collective in general.
However, there are disadvantages along with advantages. Informal organizations can cause serious obstacles to management. There are four major problems that appear within an informal group that can cause troubles:
· resistance to change
· role conflict
On the example of many informal groups we see that they are pretty resistant to changes. It happens as a result of overprotection of group’s values and lifestyle. For example, informal regulations must stay the way they were accepted in a group, even if an administrative decision is about to change it. This kind of resistance to innovations may slow down an organization’s development and cause conflicts between formal and informal groups and their members.
Another problem of an informal organization is the role conflict. Sometimes a desire to fulfill informal needs and obtain satisfaction may distract employees’ attention from a formal organization`s objectives. Not everything that is good for an informal group is as good for the company. This conflict can be eliminated by an attempt to integrate interests, methods, values and goals of both formal and informal organizations. This would result in higher productivity and satisfaction of both sides.
Rumors are inevitable consequences of any communication system and informal groups are not exceptional in this matter. Uninformed employees may spread unverified information or disinformation that can create serious issues among the group members. This can create background for bad attitudes and harm the group’s morale. The atmosphere of distrust among the community members can decrease not only productivity, but even lead to violent behavior. That is why this issue is worth of paying intensive attention.
As an informal organization performs a function of social control, it encourages conformity among its members. It lowers people’s creativity and initiative as it makes them stay out of line, which is not welcomed in a conformist community. There were even cases of aggressive behavior towards the excessively independent group members who were trying to take the initiative. Of course, this kind of attitude may force a good worker to leave the organization, which harms its performance and reputation.
Now, when we analyzed all advantages and disadvantages of an informal organization and understood its functions, we may estimate the organizational outcome of the sociological processes involved in development of an informal group.
As we know, informal groups are inevitably formed within a formal organization. Therefore, it is necessary to understand what it may bring to the company and how to deal with it. The possible outcome is variable, though there are some major general features. The organizational outcome can be divided into several dimensions:
· changes in organizational structure
· shifts in authority and informal leadership
· general performance of the collective
· working conditions and employees’ satisfaction
· consistency of employees` acts
Changes in an organizational structure mean that due to influence of an informal group on a formal organization, its structure may be changed in accordance with group’s needs. This kind of change highly depends on the structure of a group itself. For example, if relations among group members have a hierarchical character, and the structure of a formal organization is closer to flat, it may result in a conflict between the authorities of formal and informal groups. The strong authority of informal group can influence decisions made by the management and thus, it is able to incline it to apply more hierarchical approach to the company’s employees.
Shifts in authority are a serious matter in any organization, especially with hierarchical and bureaucratic structures. Informal groups often have their concealed leader, who has a wide influence on the rest of the group members. Sometimes this influence goes beyond the informal group and spreads on the management. This may cause serious shifts in authority and affect the company’s decision-making process. Outcome of such changes may vary from simple weakening of management’s power to significant revision of organization’s structure and replacement of governing body.
The sociological processes in an informal group can affect the general performance of the company’s collective. For example, if the informal group meets the requirements of its members and brings satisfaction to a collective, it can increase productivity of the employees in general. On the other hand, bad atmosphere in the informal group may cause additional stress at work, which leads to lower performance of the collective. Informal groups help management understand employees' needs and coordinate company's objectives with aspirations of the workers. A well-structured informal group provides a better coordination of acts among workers and thus, improves the performance of the organization.
Relations among employees in a friendly informal group help them deal with stress and obtain social satisfaction. Common interests, goals, and desires motivate people to form a strong social bound that helps in dealing with professional difficulties and feel socially secured. It supports cooperation and mutual understanding between members of a group and develops a trusty atmosphere. All these factors make a major contribution to overall performance of the organization.
Due to intense connection between members of an informal group, coordination among them reaches a high level, which makes it easier for management to cooperate with subordinates. A high level of cooperation makes a work process smoother and rises productivity. It also lowers the level of inequality among employees, as everyone is equally involved in the work process, and everyone has its role in the common deal. A communication channel formed in an informal community provides a faster reaction to managerial decisions and indicates how these decisions are accepted. Therefore, it is very useful for a good manager to be in touch with an informal group within a formal organization.
Let’s examine the organizational outcome of sociological processes in an informal organization on the example of the Starbucks Corporation. The structure of Starbucks is not an uncommon one. It’s a divisional structure with centralized headquarters in Seattle. Starbucks does not operate under a franchise system; however, it licenses storefronts. The distinction of Starbucks is its attitude to employees. The Starbucks Corporation often refers to its workers as “partners”, whether a barista or regional manager. This term shows how integrated the Starbucks’ structure is. The corporation tends to treat every worker equally, supporting the establishment of informal groups within the organization. This kind of approach leads to comfortable working conditions for everyone and favors the atmosphere of trust among the company’s members. It results in rise of a popularity of Starbucks and therefore, increases its profit. In Starbucks we see good service, great performance of the team, and tolerant attitude of the management to its subordinates. The example of the Starbucks Corporation shows us a great combination of formal and informal organizations that satisfy everyone’s needs and work in everyone’s behalf.
In conclusion, I would like to say that sociological processes in an organization do not dictate its policy or play a critical role in its decision-making process. However, these processes make a significant contribution to organization’s performance, as they determine employees’ behavior. It is a fact that comfortable working conditions play fundamental role in an organization’s overall performance. In this perspective it seems very important to create a friendly atmosphere among a company`s members. Informal organizations help in forming a well-structured community within a firm and perform a lot of functions that can help employees deal with stress at work and find their personal interest in it. Satisfied workers show the best results and it sure should count in a good company. That is why it is important to know your employees’ needs especially when you want to create a good-working organization that brings profit and remains stable in any situation.
Marin, A. (2012). Sociology of organizations. Madrid, Google Books, 2012.
Schreiner, E. Starbucks & its organizational design. Chron website. Retrieved from http://smallbusiness.chron.com/starbucks-its-organizational-design-12857.html
Starbucks’ official site. Retrieved from http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/community