Institutional theorists present a dramaturgical retake on rational imagery. Organizations, particularly those with vague goals and weak technologies, cannot seal themselves off from external events and pressures. They are constantly buffeted by larger social, political, and economic trends. The challenge is sustaining isomorphism—that is, schools need to look like schools “ought to” and churches need to look like churches “should” in order to project
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legitimacy and engender belief, support, faith, and hope among a variety of constituents. Structure and processes must re!ect widely held myths and expectations. When production and results are hard to measure, correct appearance and dramatic presentation become the principal gauge of an organization’s effectiveness.
Greatest Hits from Organization Studies Hit Number 1: Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell, “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review, April 1983, 48, 147–160
At the top of our list of greatest hits is an article by Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter Powell that parallels our view of organization as theater. Isomorphism, as DiMaggio and Powell use the word, refers to processes that cause organizations to become more like other organizations, particularly members of the same “organizational !eld.” The authors de!ne an organizational !eld as a set of organizations that “constitute a recognized area of institutional life: key suppliers, resource and product consumers, regulatory agencies, and other organizations that produce similar services or products” (p. 148). This is similar to the concept of an organizational ecosystem, discussed in Chapter 11. As an example, think about public schools. They are like each other but unlike most other kinds of organization. They have similar buildings, classrooms, curricula, staf!ng patterns, gyms, and parent-teacher organizations. The structural frame explains these similarities as resulting from the need to align structure with goals, task, and technology. DiMaggio and Powell counter that isomorphism occurs for reasons unrelated to ef!ciency or effectiveness.
They describe three kinds of isomorphism: coercive, mimetic, and normative. Coercive isomorphism occurs when organizations become more similar in response to outside pressures or requirements. For example, MBA programs tend to have similar admission requirements, curricula, and faculty credentials because so many of them are accredited by the same body using the same standards. Mimetic isomorphism occurs when one organization simply copies another, as when a university of modest reputation adopts a set of freshman requirements borrowed from those at Harvard or Yale. To DiMaggio and Powell, imitation is particularly likely in the presence of fuzzy goals and uncertain technology. When uncertainty makes it hard to prove one approach better than another, imitation saves time and may buy legitimacy.
Normative isomorphism, the third type, occurs because professionals (such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers) bring shared ideas, values, and norms from their training to the workplace. DiMaggio and Powell argue that professionally trained individuals are becoming more numerous and predominant. Managers with MBAs from accredited business schools carry shared values, beliefs, and practices wherever they go. New ideas from business schools may or may not produce better results, but they spread rapidly because the newly minted professionals believe in them.
The primary bene!t of isomorphism is to improve an organization’s image rather than its products and services: “Each of the institutional isomorphic processes can be expected to proceed in the absence of evidence that they increase internal organizational ef!ciency. To the
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extent that organizational effectiveness is enhanced, the reason will often be that organizations are rewarded for being similar to other organizations in their !elds. This similarity can make it easier for organizations to transact with other organizations, to attract career-minded staff, to be acknowledged as legitimate and reputable, and to !t into administrative categories that de!ne eligibility for public and private grants and contracts” (p. 153).
The idea that appearance can be more important than tangible outcomes may seem heretical. Such heresy can easily lead to cynicism, undercutting con”dence in organizations and undermining faith and morale for those struggling to make a difference. Skepticism is also spawned by rationalists who champion a tidy cause-and-effect world where concrete outcomes matter most.
The symbolic frame offers a more hopeful interpretation. Institutionalized structures, activities, and events become expressive components of organizational theater. They create ongoing drama that entertains, creates meaning, and portrays the organization to itself and outsiders. They undergird life’s meaning. Geertz observed this phenomenon in Balinese pageants, where “the carefully crafted and scripted, assiduously enacted ritualism of court culture was . . . ‘not merely the drapery of political order but its substance’” (Mangham and Overington, 1987, p. 39).
ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE AS THEATER Recall that the structural frame depicts a workplace as a formalized network of inter- dependent roles and units coordinated through a variety of horizontal and vertical linkages. Structural patterns align with purpose and are determined by goals, technologies, and environment (Lawrence and Lorsch, 1967; Perrow, 1979; Woodward, 1970). In contrast, a symbolic view approaches structure as stage design: an arrangement of space, lighting, props, and costumes that make the drama vivid and credible to its audience.
One dramaturgical role of structure is re!ecting and conveying prevailing social values and myths. Settings and costumes should be appropriate: a church should have a suitable building, religious artifacts, and a properly attired member of the clergy. A clinic should have examination rooms, uniformed nurses, and licensed physicians, with diplomas prominently featured on the wall. Meyer and Rowan (1978) depict the structure of public schools as largely symbolic. A school has dif”culty sustaining public support unless it offers fashionable answers to three questions: Does it offer appropriate topics (for example, third- grade mathematics or world history)? Are topics taught to age-graded students by certi”ed
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teachers? Does it look like a school (with classrooms, a gymnasium, a library, and a !ag near the front door)?
An institution of higher education is judged by the age, size, and beauty of the campus, the amount of its endowment, its faculty-student ratio, and the number of professors who received doctorates from prestigious institutions. Kamens (1977) suggests that the major function of a college or university is to rede”ne novice students as graduates who possess special qualities or skills. The value of the status transformation is negotiated with important constituencies through constant references to the quality and rigor of educational programs. The signi”cance of the conversion from novice to graduate is validated by structural characteristics, reputation of faculty, success of former students, or appearance of the institution.
A valid structural con”guration, in Kamens’s view, depends on whether an institution is elite or not and whether it allocates graduates to a speci”c social or corporate group. Each type of institution espouses its own myth and dramatizes its own aspects of structure. Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are known for producing graduates who occupy elite roles in society. Elite schools dramatize selectivity, maintain an attractive residential campus, advertise a favorable ratio of faculty to students, and develop a core curriculum that restrains specialization in favor of a uni”ed core of knowledge.
If an institution or its environment changes, theatrical refurbishing is needed. Audiences call for revisions in actors, scripts, or settings. Because legitimacy and worth are anchored in the match between structural characteristics and prevailing myths, organizations alter appearances to mirror changes in social expectations. For example, if total quality management, reengineering, or Six Sigma becomes the fashionable addition to the screen- play for progressive companies, corresponding programs and consultants spread like “re in a parched forest.
New structures re!ect legal and social expectations and represent a bid for legitimacy and support from the attending audience. An organization without an af”rmative action program, for example, is suspiciously out of step with prevailing concerns for diversity and equity. Nonconformity invites questions, criticism, and inspection. It is easier to appoint a diversity of”cer than to change hiring practices deeply embedded in both individual and institutional beliefs and practices. Because the presence of a diversity of”cer is more visible than revisions in hiring priorities, the addition of a new role may signal to external constituencies that there has been a new development in the drama even if the appointment is “window dressing” and no real change has occurred.