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RolfA. Lundina,*, Run !olfur S. Steinth !orssonb a International Business School, J .onk.oping University, SE-551 11 J.onk.oping, Sweden b Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, University of Iceland, IS-101 Reykjav!ık, Iceland Received 1 November 1999; received in revised form 1 February 2001 This article reflects upon the methodological pessimism that sometimes plagues students of organizations. In particular pessimism seems to strike us when we try to get to grips with theincessant transformations of organizations—transformations that seem to occur at such greatspeed. Our immediate reaction to Heraclitus’ statement that: ‘‘You cannot step twice into thesame river’’ is that it has considerable methodological relevance. However, we contend that hismetaphor in its orthodox version leads to too narrow a view. An elaboration ofthe metaphorcould perhaps reduce the pessimism regarding organizational studies by promoting a focus oncontextual aspects. Moreover, changes and transformations in themselves do not necessarilyrepresent a stumbling block for the researcher. Rather studying crucial projects provides ameans for studying the mechanisms at work in the host organization. The resultingapproach—contextualization in a broad sense—relieves researchers ofsome oftheirpessimism, maybe even inspires optimism, by raising new questions: not only ‘‘what can besaid?’’ (about the organization), but also ‘‘in what contexts?’’ and ‘‘about what manifestationsin those contexts?’’ The article concludes with some remarks on the scarcity ofthecontextualization approach for studying organizations as temporary phenomena.
r 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Researching the temporary; The extended river metaphor; Contextualization; Focusingprojects; Micmac methodology Since the beginning oftime consultants, ref claimed that the world is changing and that organizations have to adapt to thechange or go under. This scenario ofchange (this social construction ofchange) as E-mail addresses: (R.A. Lundin), (R.S. Steinth !orsson).
0956-5221/03/$ - see front matter r 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
PII: S 0 9 5 6 - 5 2 2 1 ( 0 2 ) 0 0 0 0 6 - 4 R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 the only stable aspect characterizing organizational life comes as a reminder ofthe ever-present urgency to understand organizations and organizational action. Theentire organizational field appears to be on the move, when it comes to theorganizations themselves and to the environments in which they live and act. Forany student oforganization this outlook represents a challenge. The focus ofthepresent article is to reflect upon this challenge, to address the apparentmethodological pessimism and to share with the reader our views and ideas forfurther discussion about how to handle the situation.
For organizations the constant changing or even the accelerating movement ofthe field, has had implications for the ways business or ‘‘activity’’, and related structuralconfigurations, have been defined. Practitioners suggest that new rules are emerging,sometimes talking of environmental forces ten times as powerful as those that haveobtained before, and concluding that these challenges call for an understanding ofthe ‘‘strategic inflection points’’ that organizations have to cope with (Grove, 1996).
Strategic inflection points can be said to represent paradigm portals and a shift in therules or in the interpretations ofhow organizations should be organized andmanaged.
Organizations appear to be dealing increasingly with this development and with the related challenges by way ofa special form ofstructural configuration, namelyprojects. In an empirical study of22 organizations Bryde (2000) states that ‘‘the needto survive and prosper in ever-changing external environments’’ is the mostimportant driver behind the growth in project management (Bryde, 2000, p. 232).
This trend could be referred to as projectivization, a process that has paved the wayfor study and discussion of projects. We thus contend that the way forward instudying organizations calls for a stronger focus on the manifestations of the actualactivities concerned, the time-limited projects, and what they have to tell us. Withreference to present developments in the business world we suggest that almost allorganizations today can or should be regarded as ‘‘temporary’’ or at least as beingsubject to profound and incessant changes.
As Morgan (1997) has pointed out, it is difficult if not impossible to study organizations that are in a state offlux and transformation, at least ifwe accept hisintroduction ofthe river metaphor (Morgan, 1997, p. 251). However, elaboratingupon the river metaphor (originally ascribed to Heraclitus around 500 BC) it isargued here that remedies do exist for the deep pessimism that otherwise occurs. Theremedies may be found by highlighting the ontological stance or assumptions of thestudy and by applying a micmac approach, studying the main organization and itscontexts simultaneously. This leaves the student with more work to do but thisprocedure has the desirable effect that macro-level ontological stance and micro-levelapproach and results come together. In this respect, the approach appears to be wellin tune with contemporary notions ofreflexive modernity (Beck, 1992).
The article is designed as follows. Reasons for the methodological pessimism and the optimism claimed as a result ofregarding organization, as temporary phenomenawill be discussed in the next section. The underlying theme here is that temporality isattributed to virtually all organizations, at least as regards business organizations.
For illustrative purposes this discussion is then related to a physical metaphor—the R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 river metaphor that according to Morgan (1997) leads to a very pessimistic view ofthe prospects for making any kind of plausible statements about organizations. Abasis is then provided for an extended version of the river metaphor whereby abroader view including sources ofrivers, riverbanks, surroundings, etc. is adoptedrather than an exclusive focus on the flowing water. This refinement and extension ofthe metaphor helps to open up another set ofavenues for studying organizations.
The metaphor allows for a broad contextual approach that demonstrates therelevance ofstudying organizations as temporary phenomena, and indicates theessence ofthe methodological aspects that bear the seeds ofpotential optimismabout the study oforganizations.
2. Understanding contemporary organizations Organizations are man-made, as are most manifestations of organizations in the world in which we live. And since they are man-made they are also remade by man,and are focused in many change endeavours. Thus, according to the popular ways ofdescribing present developments, it seems to be changes rather than stability thatcharacterizes the business world as a whole. Not everybody—researchers for one—may agree with such a contention. However, most important on a generic level is thatpeople tend to think that the business world is changing at an unprecedented pace.
This is how business people in general tend to talk about their field. One mightspeculate both about the background to the ongoing social construction with itscentral tenet that the world of business is moving faster and faster, and about itsresults. However, people tend to act in accordance with the way they talk, and thuscontribute to making their statements come true.
This is all the easier because there is so much current evidence ofthe claims about speed. Rather than attempting to go into details on this question, we prefer topresent a few examples of the way in which ideas about companies and companyactivities appear to have changed recently.
(a) ‘‘Disposable organizations’’ is a concept that arose from the empirical observation that in recent years young entrepreneurs in computing and IThave often formed new companies with a view to promoting some invention oftheir own, with the explicit intention ofselling them offagain very soon (March,1995). This observation appears to be at odds with the traditional view ofentrepreneurs cherishing their companies almost like their own offspring. Theobservation of‘‘disposable organization’’ can thus be seen as an indication thatcompanies are no longer expected to last forever.
(b) For many ofus, internet companies embody our ideas about business moving faster. Few of us have even the faintest idea about how they are expected tomake money, at least not in the long run. Nevertheless the prices ofshares ininternet companies tend to soar to unbelievable heights, and to drop to virtuallynothing like yoyos (to the despair offinancial researchers) thus contributing tothe impression we have ofrelentless pace. Managing internet companies appears R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 to be less about managing tangible assets for profit-seeking activities, than aboutmanaging virtual assets ofa less conspicuous kind. Managerial roles in thissector are not the same as those we are used to in traditional industry. Thetypical guru in this section ofthe economy is o30 years old, which seems toindicate that for some reason traditional managerial recipes do not work.
(c) ‘‘Outsourcing’’ could be seen as a manifestation of speed. The tendency for companies to ‘‘outsource’’ activities that are not regarded as core to theiroperation has certainly been very strong in recent years. As demonstrated byPettigrew and Fenton (2000) changing organizational boundaries was the mostevident and most profound structural change in industry in the US, Japan andWestern Europe in the 1990s. Most ofthe boundary changes concernedoutsourcing, and the process seems to be continuing. Even tradition-boundcompanies in heavy industry appear to be changing into something they havenever been before. It should be noted that outsourcing (or something like it) wasnot even among the managerial options proposed by the classical writers in thefield oforganization studies. Thus, in a chapter on ‘‘organizational design’’Thompson (1967) only offers instances of company growth. His recommenda-tions refer exclusively to growth, not outsourcing.
(d) Projectivization, i.e. an increasing tendency to create projects (or temporary organizational entities) in order to focus the work on issues important to theorganization concerned is another confirmation ofthe speed contention.
Projects appear to be far more prevalent today than a decade ago. Oneparticularly interesting point about projects is that taken together they can beregarded as a sign ofspeed, while they can also be regarded as organizationalresponses.
All in all, perceptions ofthe trend towards temporality and speedy change are relevant to the organizational scene today. The often-repeated cry ‘‘Business ismoving faster and faster!’’ has been nursed in so many minds and acted upon in away that makes it difficult to ignore the idea of temporality altogether in almost anycurrent organizational study design. At least it would seem unwise for a researchernot to include the ‘‘fast change’’ worldview as one option in a study. In practice,setting up projects is a common way for organizations to participate in change andto be in on shaping it. The corollary ofthis statement in research terms is simple:projects should be included in a study ofthe organization.
As pointed out above projectivization is a distinctive phenomenon, and it has important side effects. For one thing, it entails change in the business ventures thatare subject to it. However, creating and emerging projects involves temporality forthe project itselfas well as for the parent or host organization. This theme willreappear below.
The methodological implications ofthe above are quite straightforward: studying projects and temporary organizations is a way ofcapturing temporal aspects oftheorganization, an approach that owes something to the old adage, ‘‘Tell me who yourfriends are and I will tell you who you are!’’ However, the organization is more thanits projects. What else is there, and how can that ‘‘something else’’ be studied? R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 Studying the projects could in fact be very useful in answering that question too.
Since projects are decoupled from the regular activities of the organization, definingthe project implicitly also defines the ‘‘regular’’ activities ofits host (cf. Johansson,L .ofstr .om, & Ohlsson, 2000, p. 126). In other words, the actor describing the projecthas to make a contrast to what is not the project. To sum up: projects are the key tothe inner workings ofan organization. Next, we look briefly into the nature ofwhatcould be called the original pessimism as regards the study oforganizations, with aview to indicating a further way of averting it.
3. A physical metaphor on organizational phenomena Metaphor has been proposed as a useful tool in studying organizations (Morgan, 1986; Tsoukas, 1991), although its status is controversial. The generative quality ofmetaphor is not questioned, but its fruitfulness is. Those in favour of usingmetaphors are often the promoters of a constructivist approach, while those forwhom science is about exactitude are more critical (Grant & Oswick, 1996). Webelieve that physical and non-physical metaphors can both be useful in studyingorganizations, particularly because they both invite researchers to see organizationalphenomena in a new light.
Metaphors are images that can help us to see some aspects, while leading us to ignore others. Metaphors are thus mind-stretchers on the one hand and mind-closerson the other. As Morgan (1997, p. 4) points out metaphors imply ‘‘a way ofthinkingand a way ofseeing that pervade how we understand our world generally’’.
The metaphor that Morgan calls ‘‘flux and transformation’’ appears promising for the study oforganizations as temporary phenomena. The value claimed for thismetaphor lies in that it can cast light on the logic ofchange and the functioning oforganizations and organizational activities. Morgan (p. 251) opens his discussion ofthe ‘‘flux and transformation’’ metaphor with the following quotation from theGreek philosopher Heraclitus: You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowingon.
To researchers concerned with the temporality oforganizations, this seems an apt observation, since their research concept implies just this sort ofcontinualorganizational movement. So one wonders what meaning can be assigned to thisparticular observation in the study oforganizations in general? Can the variousorganizational attributes and activities be envisaged as floating along in a stream ofwater on a seemingly endless journey, as different episodes, events, attributes anddevelopments appear and vanish again? Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing staysfixed. Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, theparched becomes moist. It is in the changing that things find repose (quotedfrom Morgan, 1997, p. 251).
R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 This statement (that everything flows and nothing remains) supports the adoption ofa flowing river as a metaphor for organizations and organizational activities intimes ofconstant change. So, is the study oforganizations like stepping into a river?If so, what then are the chances for the researcher to understand the forces,structures and functioning of a particular organization? Heraclitus’ metaphor powerfully invokes the possibility that all organizational activity is dynamic and constantly in motion. It affirms that time is short and changeis fast, which seems relevant. As Pettigrew (1997, p. 338) has put it, ‘‘social reality isnot a steady statey it occurs rather than merely exists’’. Every action, configurationand constellation is changing and changing fast, and—still according to Pettigrew—the aim ofthe researcher should therefore be to catch this reality in flight, as it flows.
But that is not easy, since every time the researcher steps into the river oforganizational action he is in a sense too late. The particular activity has vanishedand the moment has passed. And ifthe researcher nonetheless finds part ofa story, itis already history. The manifestation that the researcher can reveal and discuss is notaround any more—its embodiment is no longer within his reach and is not likely toreappear.
The researcher can ofcourse adapt the research design and try to capture aspects and elements like collecting water in a bucket, or he can follow the river and step intoit in more than one place, or he can take a boat to increase the prospects forgathering interesting empirical data. Whatever design is used, the chances ofgettinga useful picture do not seem promising, because the relevant field of action vanishes.
Steps into the water seem at best like static snapshots that fail to reveal the wholepicture, while a full bucket of water simply represents a product, the storing ofactivities already undertaken, but does not in itselfindicate anything about theprocess. It is an output revealing part ofthe content only. The opportunity to followthe river in a boat might seem the most promising, but it may be very difficult tocomplete the research due to the intensity ofthe change inherent in Heraclitus’ rivermetaphor.
The statement ‘‘You cannot step twice into the same river’’ can be read in several ways. Up to now we have been stressing (and so, we are convinced have our readers)the word ‘‘twice’’, indicating the difficulty inherent in repeating organizationalobservations and experiences. But there is an alternative. Ifinstead the first word,‘‘you’’, is stressed, the sentence then reads, ‘‘You cannot step twice into the sameriver’’, which gives a completely different meaning to the statement. We are beingreminded that, as researchers, we also change as a result ofour experiences. As wesee it, this works to the advantage ofthe researcher. It reinforces the abductionaspects ofresearch endeavours (Alvesson & Sk .oldberg, 1994). Ifwe subscribe to thecommon assumption that wisdom is additive, the experience effect makes us morecapable as researchers, even though we still cannot step twice into the same river. Butwe may be able to evaluate our own experiences as researchers in an appropriate wayin order to compensate for some ofthe loss of‘‘twiceness’’.
If‘‘water flowing in a river’’ can be justified as a reasonable metaphor f organizations as a field ofstudy, then it also exposes a kind ofpessimism within thepractice ofstudying organizations. This goes beyond the critical attitude to R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 metaphor as a tool oforganizational science adopted by the adherents ofthe non-constructivist approach (Ortony, 1993). Rather, the pessimism pervading the studyoforganizations is related not to the use ofthe metaphor as such but to what can beattained by studying organizations at all; a metaphor that emphasizes the state ofconstant or accelerating change in the study oforganizations is simultaneouslyemphasizing just how difficult such a study must be.
But, like all metaphors, this one too highlights some aspects and hides others—in this case, it is the time dimension oforganizational activities that is emphasized,reminding researchers that the pace oforganizational activities, may well be very fastindeed. This insight certainly seems important, but for the researcher it is not enoughsimply to be made aware ofthe apparent speed ofchange. This metaphor fails toprovide sufficient guidance for the study of organizations, nor does it help us tounderstand the sequence ofactivities that occurs. It omits—or closes our minds to—the embeddedness or context ofthe organization concerned and ofthe change it isundergoing.
What is promising as well as a source ofoptimism, is that this focus on the river’s flow actually implies rather a limited interpretation ofthe physical metaphor inquestion. Looking at the flow of a river isolated from its environment and from oneposition only does not provide an adequate description ofa river. The physicalmetaphor becomes richer and more useful once a broader view is adopted. Thus wecall for an extension of the metaphor to include both a river and its context.
Essentially a river is a copious stream ofwater flowing through the landscape and ultimately into the sea. The actual time span for the flow of a river issurprisingly short, calculated in terms ofthe speed ofthe flow and the length oftheriver. ‘‘The answer turns out to be hours, or even minutes at least, and a matter ofdays at the most’’ (Dury, 1981, p. 65). As a result of that fast and forcefulmovement, rivers actively shape the landscape. They also differ in size, in terms ofthe quantity ofthe water in the flow. In some rivers, such as all Russian riversrunning from south to north, there is a danger of spring floods; in others the flow ismore or less stable.
There are several types ofriver depending on various characteristics ofthe water that reflect its source for instance, or the geographical context. This point can beillustrated by the current classification ofIcelandic rivers: one type is a river whosemain source is a melt from a glacier (a j .okul !a, in Icelandic); another is a riveroriginating from water that collects under lava fields (a lind !a); a third type is a riverresulting from the confluence of many small streams (a drag !a). These three types ofriver all have different characteristics (Rist, 1974).
The river itselfassumes a different appearance, depending on the roughness and stability ofthe riverbed. Does this consist ofrocks, gravel or soil? Huge waterfallsare more eye-catching than the steady flow of a quiet river. Some rivers offer avariety ofwhirlpools or other features ofa strong current, while others are veryquiet, and so on. The behaviour ofthe water is also connected with the seasons.
Man-made disturbances are also common, as when rivers are used for hydroelectricpower. The flow ofa river can also be intensified or disturbed by many means,natural or human.
R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 All ofthis goes to show that the flow ofa river, already highly unstable and temporary in its character, can be made more unpredictable under severe weatherconditions, or can be manipulated by human activities resulting in anything fromslight cumulative changes to measures so drastic as to destroy the source ofthe riverand render its channels dry.
A description ofa river can ofcourse include a lot ofother details. However, the brief survey given above should be sufficient for our purposes. Rather than focusingfurther on the ‘‘content’’ of the river—the flow of water—we will now extend themetaphor to include the context ofthe river as well.
4. Contextualization invited by the extended metaphor Four different (but related) types of contextual scheme have been inspired by the metaphor. We have noted that the Heraclitus metaphor highlights the time context,but an extension ofthe metaphor suggests three further contexts, which we presentbelow—albeit, as examples only.
(1) The time context,(2) the geographical context,(3) the man-made context, and(4) the conceptual context.
The time context could stand for several things, since time is a somewhat problematic concept (see e.g. Lundin, S .oderholm, & Wilson, 1998). In its leastcomplicated version it can be envisaged as linear or cyclical. In the early times, i.e.,the days ofsubsistence farming and fishing, we could say that society was based on acyclical concept oftime. Farming and fishing are both dependent upon the seasonalchanges. So too is the river, which means that information provided about theseasons can give us a good deal ofinformation. Water levels, flows and erosion tendto be cyclical and to be shaped by seasonal changes, over the year since the levels ofprecipitation usually vary with the seasons. Similarly, vegetation changes over theyears, with implications for water absorption, and so do temperatures in the water. Ariver located in a mountainous region is particularly sensitive to changes intemperature that cause snow to melt, and so on.
There are several fairly trivial but very important examples of the way in which this discussion can be applied to organizations. We know that activities in businessorganizations are ‘‘seasonal’’ for a variety of reasons. Sales are seasonal for mostcompanies or production has to be seasonal due to the particular raw materialsrequired. Added to which, there are seasonal variations based on institutionalconditions. The fiscal year is extremely important in connection with certainactivities; so too is the structure ofthe periodical release ofshort-term incomestatements. Budgets and follow-ups obviously impose seasonal variations in what isgoing on, while investment behaviour towards the end ofthe budget year can oftenbe attributed to plaus for handling funds for the next year. ‘‘Buy now or the money R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 will be gone’’ is the kind ofplanning that appears to apply, particularly in some partsofthe public sector. Very stable investment priorities in organizations are hardly tobe expected under these circumstances.
As regards the linear time concept, it is perhaps enough to remind the reader that in some respects action in time is far from cyclical. Thus, if there is an eruption oflava affecting a river in the lava field, that river will certainly change its ‘‘behaviour’’for all time. It will still be affected by seasonal variations, but due to the eruptionthat changes the conditions for the seasonal variations, knowledge about the extentofthe seasonal variations is bound to be much reduced, especially in the yearsimmediately following the eruption. The lava outburst (which cannot be reversed—aperfect example in relation to linear time) tells us that what we know about seasonalvariations is no longer very reliable as regards that particular river. It is well knownthat linear time ‘‘exists’’ for organizations. To put it briefly, they may be disturbedfor good by irreversible events such as mergers and acquisitions, crucial investments,government actions and so on.
The geographical context is even more obvious characteristic to the river metaphor than the time context. The geographical refers to differentiation in the surface of theearth, which for rivers can be exemplified by their sources, the nature of their basinsand their riverbeds. Knowledge ofsuch things tells us something about what toexpect when we study a river in the long as well as the short term. Some rivers floodextremely rarely ifever, whereas others do so every now and then. Riverbeds andriverbanks (geography at the micro level) cannot in general be regarded as constants.
However, the present configuration ofboth macro- and micro-level geographyprovides a clear point ofdeparture for grasping what is happening in a river at anypoint in time. Not only the context ofthe present but also that ofthe past isimportant in relation to the future, although when changes occur they may beregarded as discontinuous (as a lava eruption would be).
It could be said that the three names for rivers in Icelandic mentioned above, j .okul !a, drag !a and lind !a, all include their entire geographical composition as the mainingredient in their very names. Any Icelander who hears one ofthese names has a verygood sense ofwhat it means and what to expect. In different parts ofthe world withother types of geography, the differentiation between rivers is bound to be different.
Certainly in the Scandinavian countries the names are different. The more crucial thedifferentiation ofthe various types ofriver has been in the past, the more likely it isthat the terminology is similarly differentiated. Even differences in very subtle detailsare probably taken care ofin the language. We are often told, for instance, that inGreenland the language has 30 names or more for different types of snow.
The geographical context has several parallels in the organizational world, for instance the mapping oforganizations by ownership, industry, type, and size. Theconcepts of‘‘closeness’’ and ‘‘distance’’ have also been used as grounds f describing relations between and within organizations and how these relationsdevelop over time. The use ofIT is obviously changing such things today, butphysical distances are still relevant when it comes to differentiating betweenorganizations. Theories concerning industrial development—for instance, ideasabout the second industrial divide (Lorentzoni, 1981; Piore & Sabel, 1984)—in which R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 ‘‘closeness’’ is used as an important variable, exemplified this trend as far back as theearly 1980s. The extended river metaphor allows for the fact that it is difficult todefine boundaries between the outside and inside ofan organization, and encouragesthe researcher to consider organizational activities across traditional levels andboundaries.
The man-made context refers to the once—for-all changes that can also affect rivers. These include constructions ofa more or less tangible kind such as dams builtfor the purposes ofhydroelectric power that alter the behaviour ofriver for theforeseeable future by altering the natural flow of water and rendering it less variable.
Attempts to avoid future flooding by strengthening riverbanks or constructing wallsalso have long-range effects. Occasionally even more drastic human action may betaken, as when towards the end ofthe 19th century a Swede known as ‘‘the wildHuss’’ changed almost the entire bed ofa Swedish river with a single blast ofdynamite. In such cases the character ofa river can be almost completely changed.
Much ofwhat was previously known about the river concerned is instantly renderedvirtually invalid.
Needless to say, man-made contexts are very important to organizations as well.
Here there are general contexts existing for, and valid for, all organizations, andspecial(ized) contexts existing exclusively for one specific organization. Laws andedicts are usually valid for the entire range of organizations and their mere existencehas implications for each one. Professional activities have similar effects on a wholeset or organizations. It could also be claimed that rules ofconduct associated withparticular cultures also have an obvious impact on organizations—although here the‘‘man-made’’ label is a little problematic, since such rules are ofa very special kind.
This kind ofman-made context is commonly referred to as being ‘‘institutional’’. Astrike aimed at one particular company (for refusal to sign a labour unionagreement), is an example ofan organization-specific context. Such special contextsthat are exclusive to a particular organization may be involuntary and enforced invarious ways, or they may represent some kind ofrestriction that the organizationimposes upon itself.
Finally, the conceptual context represents what we believe we already know about rivers in general, and includes the concepts that have been constructed over the yearsto guide us in classifying rivers. The knowledge that a river is a glacial river, is veryuseful since we know immediately that the water will be muddy from loose sand,which means in turn that it looks ‘‘milky’’, that fish will generally avoid it and thatsedimentation in the river will be not only heavy but also ofa special sort. Theconceptual context also encompasses verbalized experience ofwhat erosion andmeandering evolve over time and this provides us with a basis for forecasting whatwill happen to the river in the future. And we can be guided in our attempts toresearch the river. The conceptual context also includes normative knowledge, i.e.
rules as to how we should behave in relation to a river. Conceptual context isoverwhelmingly important for organizations as well. In fact it embraces all researchin the area as well as all its theory-in-use.
The implications for student oforganizations ofthis rather detailed description of the extended river metaphor should be evident to the reader. The study ofa R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 particular organization, rather than being restricted to the organization in isolation,can be enriched by looking at its various contexts as these seem, relevant to theresearch question or questions driving the research endeavour as a whole. Since mostorganizations participate in a larger number ofcontexts, this approach should helpus to see how activities in relevant contexts are mirrored in the organization and viceversa.
As to the contexts that may be relevant, there are no ready-made answers. The contextual examples described above might provide some inspiration for dealingwith the relevance ofenvironmental issues, naturally with due consideration paid tothe research question(s). Another complementary possibility is to let the actors in ahost organization be involved in the definition ofthe relevant contexts. Thisapproach is related to the idea ofletting empirical work ‘‘go naked’’ or to the notionofthe tabula rasa, which in turn bears some resemblance to the setting up hypothesesbased on previous research or the explicit revelation ofall the assumptions on whichstudies are based. The first ofthese alternatives should perhaps be further discussed.
The implicit suggestion regarding the use ofa predefined set ofcontext definitionsmight be regarded as a call for hypothesis testing as a prototype for doing research.
However, that is not our intention. The ‘‘abduction’’ alternative suggested byAlvesson and Sk .oldberg (1994) seems to be what researchers choose anyway, so wehave no hesitation about mentioning such procedures here.
The essence ofour suggestion as it emerges from an analysis ofthe river metaphor, namely to study organizations in terms oftheir contexts, implies the consideration ofdifferent societal levels. Further, it should appeal to theorists of a realist bent as wellas those who adhere to social constructionism. Overall, the contextualization ideaseems to support the fruitfulness of a ‘‘micmac’’ approach in seeking to capture thedifferent dimensions and levels that are inherent in the study of organizations.
Before concluding our discussion on contextualization through the medium of metaphor, we would like to make one further point concerning the use of metaphorsin organization research. Their use has been much debated, among others byTsoukas (1993). For instance, it can be questioned whether the metaphor inspires thework or the other way round. The point we want to make in connection with thisdebate is related to our discussion ofthe river metaphor above. As pointed out, ariver means something completely different to a present day Icelander comparedwith what it meant to Heraclitus. In other words, metaphors are culture-dependent.
Which means that understandings ofmetaphors are not very consistent. This in turnmay lead to diverging perceptions and understandings among researchers, oftenresulting in problem ofcommunication. On the other hand, that same culturaldependency may enrich the realms ofthe metaphor as a source ofinspiration, as wefeel it did for us when we were working on the present article.
For the purpose ofour analysis ofthe study oforganizations via their projects, it seems appropriate to distinguish between projects (or ‘‘temporary organizations’’) R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 on one hand and ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations on the other. As noted above, we believethat the study ofprojects helps us to understand contemporary organizations.
Projects are manifestations of organizational action and they provide interestinginsights into the inner workings ofa studied organization and into the way theorganization relates to its environment. Projects and ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations dothus have many traits in common and are usually related to each other, but weshould also be aware of what may differentiate the one from the other. Projectsgenerally have two very characteristic features: they have been designed for apurpose so their existence is delimited in time from the moment of their creation, andthey are focused on one primary task. Projects are therefore very interesting asspecial cases. To most people their man-made quality appears obvious and direct—in a way they are more man-made than ordinary organizations—and there areseveral reasons for paying special attention to them: (1) The prevalence ofprojects in society appears to be on the increase. (There are very few direct or explicit statistics to substantiate this claim, since there are veryfew, statistics—if any—on projects as a whole. But there is indirect evidence tosupport it, for instance the fact that PMI—the professional organization forproject managers—has increased its total membership from around 17,000 in1995 to somewhere in the vicinity of60,000 in 2000. In other words, interest inprojects is growing, since membership ofPMI increased by almost a factor offour over a period of 5 years.) (2) The field is currently attracting research interest from new cadres of researchers.
(Themes associated with projects and temporary organizations are appearingmore frequently in research journals. Special conferences and workshops onvarious aspects ofproject organizing are arranged, often in cooperation withbusiness people who have a stake in project-oriented activities. One reason forall this growing activity in recent years is that many researchers find the notionof a ‘‘temporary organization’’—differing from any ‘‘ordinary’’ organizationsince it has a definite end-point—intriguing in itself. There also appears to be anurge to find ways to merge thinking about projects and temporary organizationswith the general field oforganization theory.) (3) It appears that the overall, global economy is undergoing some fundamental changes, and that projects play an increasingly important part in thisdevelopment. (Projectivization, in the sense ofthe increasing use ofthe projectform, is escalating in society as people talk increasingly ofthe rapidity ofchangeand emphasize time as an important variable to be considered (cf. Ekstedt,Lundin, S .oderholm, & Wirdenius, 1999).
As already mentioned, projects differ from the general category of ‘‘organiza- tions’’ in that they are defined as limited in time from the outset. In most cases, thetime horizon is specified at the time when the project is explicitly formed.
In projects time is generally regarded as linear, since by definition a project has a beginning and an end, and has none ofthe aspired continuity ofthe ordinaryorganization. Since a project tends to pass through a series ofphases during its R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 lifetime (Lundin & S .oderholm, 1995), project duration time is a good indicator ofwhat may be going on. The whole notion ofa project as a plan is in fact based on theconcept oflinear time. And even when a project or a temporary organization has animprecise or unclear task, which renders the entire venture rather vague, the resultsreported in Gersick (1988) about the ‘‘half-way’’ problem suggest that knowledgeabout the linear project time is useful if you want to grasp what is going on. At thesame time the Gersick results also suggest that the order ofthe phases in a projectmay be switched round or some phases may be repeated, so there may even beinstances ofcircular time in projects as well.
Other differences also exist (Lundin & S .oderholm, 1995). It could be claimed that in the minds ofthe general public temporary organizations or projects are envisagedas having a very strict design, as compared to the generic organization. The projectidea is thus accompanied by a clearly specified set ofcharacteristics, a kind ofgeographical structure. The following summary of some of the differences betweenprojects and ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations (or their stereotype version) can serve toillustrate this contention (Fig. 1).
Although this dichotomy may be overstating the case, it is fair to say that a project can be conceived as a special case oforganizations in general. Some researchers alsospecifically differentiate between projects and temporary organizations. Packendorff(1993) finds it useful to describe the project as being characterized by a plan, whilethe temporary organization is more ofa perspective on what is going on in the worldin terms of time-focused organizations. This last distinction could be carried furtherby suggesting that ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations are assuming some ofthe traits ofthe‘‘temporary’’. We will leave that argument here, however, and return briefly to thediscussion oftime.
As noted above, projects and ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations are often related to each other. The latter are often ‘‘parents’’ or ‘‘hosts’’ to the former. Projects are generallyconstructed or created from parts of an ‘‘ordinary’’ organization. In that case,according to the normative prototype a project should be isolated from itsenvironment. It should be possible to decouple the project from the rest of the world(including its host), so as to make it independent and amenable to control as anentity. In practice this is very difficult to achieve. In some instances it would even beless than wise to follow the normative advice. Project managers and, even more, the Fig. 1. Comparing conceptions ofprojects and ‘‘ordinary’’ organizations.
R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 bosses ofthe project managers have long since recognized the need to coordinateprojects from an extended view, especially those using the same kind of resources(cf. Eskerod, 1997). If manpower is a scarce resource, then this will affect the total setofprojects (or the project portfolio, to use the traditional terminology).
The concepts (or conceptual context) in the project field are nearly always normative. This applies not only to the theory-in-use but also to virtually all-conceptual material. This fact may give added weight to the field, since theterminology seems well adapted to the needs ofthose working with practicalproblems in projects. At the same time the preoccupation with the normative entailsa weakness, especially ifthe approach is explanatory.
In our search for remedies for the methodological pessimism that can plague the empirical study oforganizations we thus focus on the project level. In other wordswe scrutinize the context ofthe projects or temporary organizations that areconnected with a studied organization. (This last is the most relevant part oftheproject’s environment.) Thus, focusing on projects or temporary organizations is away ofstudying more directly what is going on in the main organization. Thecontexts ofthe projects and temporary organizations tell us something about thehost or the parents organization, since projects almost by definition have a birthplaceand a home. Investigating the projects associated with an organization thus involvesanswering questions about where the projects come from (their origin) and what willhappen to them when their task is completed, as well as the more obvious questionthat attaches to projects, namely how they are handled over time.
Specifically, the following points are, what make projects especially interesting to (1) They represent foci of attention not only for people working within them but also for others, such as ordinary members of the host organization, and even forpeople outside the constellation altogether. In other words, it is comparativelyeasy to pick them out for study. In line with the reasoning of actor networktheory (Callon & Latour, 1981), we could say that the projects become actorsonce they have been established on the stage.
(2) They can function as communicative devices in relation to actions in the main organization and as a way ofinvolving the actors more deeply in the ongoingresearch processes.
(3) They represent aspects ofthe main organization since they have been created to fulfill a task associated with that organization. The answer to the question aboutwhere a project comes from—which is important for the people working in it,since this belongs to its context—may be a key to essential processes in the mainorganization and in the project itself.
(4) The events preceding a project’s birth and the birth process itselfmay tell us something very important about the main organization and its actors. The samething holds for the allocation ofresources to the project, which is also one ofitsimportant contextual aspects.
(5) The mix ofprojects—bread-and-butter projects in the construction industry, for instance, as compared to development projects whose ultimate purpose is R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 change as such—also tells stories ofinterest to those working in the projects aswell as interesting stories about the main organization.
(6) Thus studying projects related to a parent or host organization and examining their different contexts, is also a way of grasping some of the vital processes,actors and related priorities ofthe main organization.
6. Contextualization and organizations as temporary phenomena Before summarizing the above and attempting to carry the argument a little further, it is important to note that there is more to organizations and their contextsthan meets the eye. The data collected may not be relevant, nor may it provide anyvery valuable understanding of the organization in question. A deliberate effort hasto be made to collect data, useful to the case under study. For those anxious to get agrasp oforganizations that may be on the move, i.e. to understand contextualizationin a broad sense as described in above, our proposed procedure offers one way toorganize the study oforganizations today. We will see that, the aspects ofcontextualization which are closely related could, be regarded as two sides ofthesame coin.
The extended metaphor highlights not only the ‘‘becoming’’ but also the ‘‘being’’ oforganizations. It calls attention to their embeddedness and contextual aspects, andthe different levels at which organizational activity occurs. It invokes complexunderlying forces and invisible assets as well as the more tangible manifestations oforganizations. This means that in order to develop a comprehensive picture oftheorganizational activity in question, the researcher needs to study the organizationlongitudinally and across the different levels in which the activity is embedded. Thisin turn suggests a need to adopt a contextual and processual research approach,referred to here as a processually related ‘‘micmac’’ approach.
This conclusion is in line with recent calls for contextual awareness and processual research (see Ropo et al., 1997), but it is also necessary to draw special attention tothis research approach when it comes to studying organizations as temporaryphenomena. Wiewing organizations as temporary implies a certain ontologicalstance, which has implications for the research as well as for the researcher.
A change in the ontological stance regarding the nature oforganizations raises thequestion as to whether present theories and models are really promoting usefulunderstandings ofthe activities in question. The researcher should never forget thatin the field oforganizational studies and in the common understanding ofthepractices oforganizational research, language and traditions may be misleadingfrom the start.
By focussing on the temporary aspect of organizations, we are forced to consider them as ‘‘becoming’’ rather than as merely ‘‘being’’. They cannot be regarded asstable and predictable systems or as self-controlled organisms that always achieve abalance in their activities. There is a chaotic element in organizational activities,which can indeed be seen as multi-contextual and heavily dependent on the will andwishes ofthe stakeholders in question. The student concerned with the temporary R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 nature oforganizations must take heed ofPettigrew’s warning that ‘‘language can bean analytical prison’’ (1997, p. 338) and remember that the development ofnewlanguage must be grounded on the particular action to be studied. The student’spreconceptions and understandings ofthis action frame the study.
In studying organizations as temporary phenomena the researcher’s attention is drawn to different contexts and processes in the organizational actions, as well as tothe changing nature of the contexts themselves. Different aspects such as the contextoftime, the context ofspace, the context ofman-made creation and the context ofconceptions and enactments among the participants in the temporary activities areall in the focus of attention. Projects, as the most fully considered manifestations oforganizations as temporary phenomena, illustrate the complex contextual depen-dencies and paradoxical aspects that have to be taken into account in seeking tounderstand what is actually taking place. Projects are the surface expression of theorganized activities, they are intentional ‘‘man-made’’ creations-social and technicalconstructions—designed on purpose to grasp some ofthe activities or developmentsthat occur.
In discussing the methodological aspects ofstudying organizations as temporary phenomena we have emphasized the importance ofextending the research f beyond the projects in isolation and to study them in their context as well. Also, theorganizational field does not offer the vocabulary that is really needed for studyingon organizations in this temporal perspective. To support this contention we needonly point out that understandings ofthe concept of‘‘project’’ today vary not onlyin different parts of the world but also within one and the same country. There areeven languages totally lacking appropriate words for describing the project concept.
And when it comes to trying to describe what ‘‘organizations as temporaryphenomena’’ actually means, the situation is worse still.
There is of course, nothing really new about applying different contexts to the study of organizations. In one form or another researchers have used all four of thecontext types inspired by our metaphor. Thus H.agerstrand (1991) is famous for histime-space geography, which brings together two ofour contexts. Giddens has longbeen promoting ideas regarding ‘‘structuration’’ which are also relevant (see e.g.
Giddens, 1984). Further, the focus on projects has some features in common with theemphasis on ‘‘critical incidents’’ as a useful way to find out about organizationalprocesses. Studies of a ‘‘critical incidents’’ type have in fact been around for a longtime (cf. Flanagan, 1954), although projects and temporary organizations themselveshave only become popular in empirical studies quite recently.
What is perhaps new is the suggestion that a focus on organizations as temporary phenomena promotes the combination ofthe various contexts and approaches intoone. An analytical approach that combines something along the lines ofthe fourcontextual aspects with a study ofthe projects ofa host organization might open upsome new avenues for the researcher, since the resulting match (or mismatch) couldbe a further source of valuable information and a trigger for new questions. The ideabehind this contention is very simple. Projects can be seen as instruments whereby ahost organization can adapt to, or shape, the contexts within which it is operating. Inthis light the contextual approaches can be said to represent the two sides ofa coin.
R.A. Lundin, R.S. Steinth !orsson / Scand. J. Mgmt. 19 (2003) 233–250 Rather than choosing one or other ofthe approaches (or perspectives), the aimshould be to combine them, since such a combination is useful in itself.
Ifthis is so obvious, however, why have more researchers not adopted the approach? There are not many examples ofprojects being studied as a means ofreaching interesting conclusions about their host organization. The same can be saidabout contextualization via the metaphor. Examples ofthe suggested combinationare even more scarce, ifnot lacking altogether. The question as to why thecombination has not been used is ofcourse an empirical one. We suspect, however,that there are some fairly straightforward answers: (1) Perspectives other than that ofcontextualization have been f researchers over the last 20 years or so. The relative success ofstudies oncultural and similar issues has fostered certain favourite ways of doing researchamong those active in the empirical field.
(2) Studying projects has not been particularly popular until recently. The project field has a history ofnormative endeavours on the part ofengineers, rather thanefforts towards understanding on the part of organization theorists.
(3) Most researchers interested in the temporary organization/project phenomenon have tended to focus on the project in itself, rather than on projects in context.
Not until recently have research efforts been directed towards project-orientedfirms or projectivized companies, i.e. towards a multi-project environment.
We claim that the temporality oforganizations today should not be regarded as anything exceptional. We believe that the entire field oforganized activity isconstantly moving and changing, due to forces and relations that demand responsesand counteractions. We emphasize the challenge that this poses for the researcher. Inthis article, we have sought to provide some bases for reflecting upon the study oforganizations by way of a focus on projects and through lenses representing differentcontexts.
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