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From "loose Coupling" To "tight Management"? Making Sense Of The Changing Landscape In Management And Organization Theory

From loose Coupling To tight Management? Making Sense Of The Changing Landscape In Management And Organization Theory by Heinz-Dieter Meyer
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Two decades ago, Allison (1984) wrote an article asking whether public administration and business administration were ‘‘fundamentally alike in all unimportant respects’’ (the answer was a qualified yes and no). This special issue of the Journal of Education Administration began with a similarly broad question concerning changes in organizational thought in the field of education organizations in general and the relationship between organizational thinking in the world of private enterprise and the world of education in particular. On closer inspection, it turned out that the question could usefully be broken down into three more specific ones pertaining to the theoretical, practical, and normative level of analysis.

Concerning the dominant theoretical models and assumptions in contemporary research in organization and administration there is evidence that education plays a different role than it did during the field’s early stages some 40 years ago. After all, many of today’s education scholars and policy makers were reared on intellectual fare replete with concepts like ‘‘organized anarchy’’, ‘‘ambiguity of leadership’’, ‘‘loose coupling’’, ‘‘institutionalization’’, and ‘‘organization culture’’, almost all of which were developed through a sustained analytical engagement with educational organizations. In many ways, schools and universities were the paradigm-generating organizations of an entire school of thought, associated with the work of scholars like James March, Karl Weick, John Meyer, and Brian Rowan. By contrast, educational organizations today seem a good deal less visible in organization theory and the discourse among the different groups of organization scholars appears more insular today than 30 or 40 years ago. For example, while the 1965 Handbook of Organizations (Bidwell, 1965) had a substantial chapter dedicated to the organization of schools, the recently published Handbook of Organizations Studies (Clegg et al., 1996) does not. Also, the leading organization studies journal, Administrative Science Quarterly, has published 12 full length articles on education (higher education and k12) during the 1980s, but only one during the 1990s.

On the practical level we notice a similar turn of events. During the 1970s and 1980s it seemed that organization theory was telling practitioners in education that they, literally, needed to ‘‘loosen up’’. They were asked to embrace (rather than fight or resist) ambiguity and loose coupling in their organizations; and they were exhorted to learn the art of symbolic leadership appropriate to a pervasively institutionalized organization, rather than using hierarchical, top-down management styles appropriate to more tightly coupled structures. Weick’s (1976) seminal paper on the ‘‘loose coupling of educational organizations’’ suggested that educational organizations were frequently managed with the wrong organizational model in mind – a model that represented these organizations as far more tightly coupled than they actually were. This was in line with a trend among organization scholars to see culture as more important than structure for the ultimate performance of an organization (Orton and Weick, 1990).

During the last decade, however, the tide seems to have turned. More conventional control- and command-oriented managerial thinking (frequently originating in the world of private enterprise) seems to be back, welcomed under labels such as ‘‘new managerialism’’, or ‘‘entrepreneurial management’’. We notice a stronger emphasis on organizational effectiveness, accountability, capacity building, and standardization – terms that do not mesh easily with the philosophy of loose coupling and symbolic leadership. Are we, then, witnessing a return to ‘‘tightly coupled’’ management models and corresponding styles in education administration? Are the economists right who view education as just another ‘‘industry’’ – one that is particularly deficient of ‘‘effective management’’?

Third, there is the normative question. If organization theory is viewing education as ‘‘just another kind of formal organization’’, and if the advice to administrators of schools and colleges is to watch and emulate their peers in the corporate world, is this development of organizational theorizing a good thing? Should students of education administration, in the interest of improving education, promote and favor the adoption of such management thinking? If there is hesitation, even rejection of these ideas and practices among educators, it is in part because many are reminded of the infamous period in the history of education administration when imitation of ‘‘scientific management’’ was the watchword of the day, much to the detriment of teaching and learning (Callahan, 1962).

Heinz-Dieter Meyer

Previously published in: Journal of Educational Administration, Volume 15, Number 6, 2002

Emerald Publishing Limited; Read online
Title: From "loose Coupling" To "tight Management"? Making Sense Of The Changing Landscape In Management And Organization Theory
Author: Heinz-Dieter Meyer

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