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This essay examines Gidden’s (1984; 1990, 1991) agency-structure theory and its importance to the study of organizations. The first part provides an overview of the structuration theory and the main premise of Gidden’s conceptual argument. The second part discusses the importance of the theory and its relevance to organizations. In particular, it discusses how organizational members are actively contributing to the creation and application of already existing organizational structures. This is done through the members’ the interpretation of policies and procedures as well as acceptance of those beliefs and values which are believed to be important for the performance of the organization.
The problem of agency and structure
Agency is identified as the people that are actively involved in the making of decisions through the transfer of information. Agents are identified as organizational members and comprise the social context. The members’ positive or/and negative actions is believed to generate some form of impact on the working environment and its conditions (Giddens, 1991, 1996). For example, within an organization a senior leader or manager can be identified as the agent who is seeking to champion some type of strategic vision. Such vision is situated so that it can influence other members in the organization. Even though the decisions by the individual leader might seek to advance the interests of the organization, at the same time, the leader can be though to remain restrictive by the organization as a an already existing system of operations that define what is acceptable or not. Hence, the structure of a social system is defined as the design of its formal and informal operations and the boundaries that regulate its behaviour over time (Hardy, 2001). For example, the structure of an organization might be influenced by already existing structures in the labour market where gender might be making a difference to how men and women are treated because of their gender and whether they have equal opportunities. For example, in some societies employers prefer men over women because of cultural factors that present women as not to be able to perform in the same optimal manner as men (Held and Thompson, 1989). In this way, the structure of the organization in terms of its recruitment and selection practices can be though to be situated by a wider set of structures that operate in the social context that eventually affect the organization’s decisions. The problem between ‘agency’ and ‘structure’, therefore, emerges out of a growing recognition that (a) structures are (b) human-developed systems carry a particular function that is affecting each other (Pozzebon, 2004). For example, the structure of a government political party is to identify with policies that concern the welfare of the citizens in a country. The government which happens to be in power operates within an already constitutional structure. Even though there is no a formal constitution in the UK, nevertheless, the House of Parliament and the Court of Justice are acting as institutions that support the spirit of the constitution. Hence, a structure is determined by people and yet the structure influences the types of behaviours that people produce within the structures. In this debate a key issue of discussion is the level of dominance that can be exerted between (a) the structure of the institution and (B) the members that reside within the institution (Staber and Sydow, 2002). In particular, it is argued that the power of the structure of an organization remains powerful in regulating what is believed to be acceptable or non-acceptable (Clark Modgil and Modgil, 1990; Pozzebon, 2004). Theorists like Carl Marx and Max Weber identified that the power of the structure carries a strong organizing function (Giddens, 1984, 1990; 1991; Giddens and Pierson, 1998). In other words, the structure of a system is exerting an inevitable effect in terms of how the system is being organized. Giddens (1996, 1998) sought to examine this issue by investigating the role of people or agents for understanding further about the application and interpretation of structures. Giddens (1990, 1991) developed a theory titled ‘structuration theory’ that is often titled as the structure-agency problem. In this theory Giddens (1984, 1990, 1991, 1996) suggests that members are playing a proactive role in the way they identify and customise elements of the structure within their own behaviours. Through this theory Giddens sought to identify the extent to which structures regulate human behaviours or whether people regulate structures within their own perceived boundaries of decision making. In an effort to demonstrate the process elements of structuration theory Giddens discusses three stages of interaction, namely, (a) signification, (b) legitimation and (c) domination. Through these different elements Giddens (1990, 1991, 1996) tries to show the behavioural interaction between members and the structural elements that comprise an organization. However, his wider contribution is in illustrating how the behaviour of the individuals is the crucial elements sustaining the structure (Callinicos, 1985). This is done through rule-acceptance and compliance. Hence, signification is the term used to describe the process in which members assign meaning and values onto the structural properties. Signification concerns the language with which values are encoded with meaning (Giddens, 1984). People develop different accounts of interpretation in the way they understand and apply procedures (Pozzebon, 2004). However, this is a human process of interpretation where meaning is reinforced by the members themselves (Giddens and Pierson, 1998). Hence, signification can differ in light of those accounts of meaning associated with the organization’s culture and other social conditions, like the availability of resources, access to new information and knowledge, implications of competition, the scarcity of skills and knowledge, etc (Bryant, 1992; Pozzebon, 2004). Legitimation is identified as the process in which members are seeking to demonstrate the necessity and value of the employed operations (Giddens, 1982). Procedures and policies come to be associated with different form of significance. Such significance is exerted by the individual members that accept and apply these procedures. Finally, domination has to do with the exercise of power and control often exerted by management over operations (Giddens, 1990, 1991). A strong or weak sense of control is often made evident on the aftermath consequences that emerge from the success or failure of the application of the desired norms and procedures (Barley and Tolbert, 1997). For example, in an organization domination can be exerted in the way that ‘customer satisfaction’ as a corporate value is interpreted in the organization (Pozzebon, 2004). In a retail sector customer satisfaction can concern the volume of complaints or the documentation of satisfied or/and dissatisfied customers. How this information is collected, controlled, and used by management comprises of some kind of domination in the organization. If employees do not have the opportunity to progress on their career because of their weak performance management result then this means that the management is exerting control on the conditions employee need to meet for gaining the recognition they need. Hence, even though ‘customer satisfaction’ might exist as a corporate value it is being applied through the control and power of those that might make use of resources.
Theory Application onto Organizations
Gidden’s structuration theory (Giddens, 1984, 1990, 1991) can be applied in several ways. For example, the structure of an organization can be viewed as a system of design (Barley and Tolbert, 1997). It has different layers and employed are charged with the task of carrying out operations for the fulfilment of a specific corporate goal. Performance goals remain part of an organization in terms of how it is achieving its targets or not (Bryant, 1992, Callinicos, 1985). The goals can be written out in corporate reports. Such documentation might remain formal and its aim is to capture the social context in which the activities of the organization need to be carried out. However, in applying Gidden’s structuration theory it can be suggested that employees are playing an important role with how they relate to the performance goals. For example, employees might consider that meeting the performance goals is an important prerequisite to building strong relationships with management. In this way they are associating the meeting of targets with their business relationship with other employees as well as management ( Giddens and Pierson, 1998; Staber and Sydow, 2002). Gidden’s (1996) notion of signification means that people attach particular properties and values onto an idea and they related to it through their experience. Such process depends on what type of needs employees have and what assumptions they are creating about the achievement of goals (Clark, Modgil and Modgil, 1990). In this way, the experience of signification depends on the employees and how they are creating important associations with the meaning of ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ (Staber and Sydow, 2002). However, it also depends on the management of the organization that influences how performance goals are communicated and interpreted. In furthering the above example, structuration theory can be applied with how management is creating the impression that the achievement of performance targets is necessary for the firm’s overall industry position and also competitive advantage (Pozzebon, 2004). By reinforcing the idea that the company needs to develop a strong market position, the organizational members can exert pressure on their colleagues in terms of how tasks and processes are completed. According to Giddens (1992, 1996; Giddens and Pierson, 1998) the new relationship ties that the members develop, as a result of seeking to enact the principle behind the performance objectives, is reinforcing the importance of the necessity of this activity. Hence, the relationship that employees develop concerns their mutual expectations. Such expectations might require from them to change how they think of their job role and how much commitment they need to put into their job. This social dimension, for Gidden (1984, 1991,) is an important characteristic because it has to do with how employees interpret their expectations with each other. Moreover, it can be assumed that the possibility of employees not achieving their performance targets might mean little for management. However, it can also mean something significant about their bonuses, salary, and other benefits. In this way, domination is the exercise of control and power with which possible repercussions come to identify successes and failures. For Gidden (1990, 1991) domination can take place in a formal and explicit way. For example, the management can suggest the reduction of the workforce because of the lack of resources for sustaining them. However, domination can be exercised in an informal way (Pozzebon, 2004). That is, how employees associated with the consequences of meeting or not meeting their work objectives. In this theory, Giddens identifies that signification, legitimation and domination work together as different processes that are conjoined and they all contribute to the same result, namely, the sustainability of the organizational structure (Staber and Sydow, 2002). In this way, Gidden’s theory remains relevant for understanding the role of those human actions that reinforce the embeddedness of procedures that sustain the organizational structures (Hardy, 2001).
The aim of this assignment has been to examine the case of Gidden’s structuration theory often identified as the agency-structure problem. The assignment examines the principles behind Giddens theory identifying that structure is the entity that provides a social space to the organization of the employees and management alike. Without structure there can be forms of control and decision-making power regulated between the organizational members. The assignment examined the relevance of Gidden’s work for organizations. It identified that three main themes of his theory include the case of (a) signification, (b) legitimation, and (c) domination. The paper identified that both of these elements work together for demonstrating how structuration works. Gidden’s theory suggests that people play an active role with supporting and sustaining the organizational structure by accepting the different mechanisms through their communications and actions. For example, if the importance of ‘safety’ and ‘control’ represent important qualities of an organization then their way of being interpreted by members is going to affect their implementation. Giddens emphasized the importance of human choice and the role of uncertainty for understanding how decisions are taking place in organizations. In particular, Giddens suggested that people exert power of control in order to uphold their own interests and in a way that such behaviour might not be expected by the organization. In this way, people are not passive recipients of the organizational structure but play an active role with reinforcing its properties in the way they understand, relate and support the underlying premises that lie behind it.
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