Chester I Barnard defines a formal organisation as a ‘system of consciously coordinated activities or forces of two or more persons,’ later as part of a ‘cooperative system,’ and finally a ‘complex of…components which are in a specific systematic relationship by reason of the cooperation of two or more persons for at least one definite end.’* In our reading or sitting in lectures most of us have likely seen or heard this stated as ‘two or more persons working together in a coordinated way to achieve a common objective,’ (or similar).

Key components of this are ‘two or more persons,’ ‘”coordinated way” or “cooperative system”’ and ‘common objective,’ and I believe my restatement accurately reflects Barnard’s intentions.

For many years this definition has raised questions for me, particularly when trying to understand why, so often, the behaviour of individuals within an organisation seems contrary to assumed or stated common objectives.

I’m comfortable with ‘two or more persons’ and ‘cooperative system’ but I’m not at all happy with ‘common objective’. In my experience although there usually is a stated common objective, this has little, and sometimes absolutely no, impact on the behaviour of individuals.

Consider this example: My son in law was quality assurance manager for an engineering firm manufacturing hydraulic components for the aerospace industry and companies making big yellow earth moving machines. He faced two serious problems: several large orders in production were behind schedule because of quality problems and customers with similar issues were rejecting components already shipped. He scheduled a meeting with his managing director. He entered the office carrying an armload of papers detailing his problems and placed these on the conference table while his MD sat across from him and spread out his own papers. We would have expected his MD to open the meeting with something like: ‘How bad is it, Pete, and how can I help?’ Instead his first question was: ‘Which of these BMWs do you think I should choose [for my next company car]?’

According to Barnard’s definition of ‘one definite end’ or ‘common objective’, both Pete and his boss should have been concerned about the profitability of their company as reflected in their products’ meeting quality standards and being shipped on schedule. Instead, Pete’s addressing a quality problem directly impacting profitability diverged remarkably from his boss whose objective had questionable impact on profitability.

Should you regard my example as trivial, examine your own experience and I’m confident you can recall many situations supporting my argument.

Accordingly, I propose a restatement of this definition as: ‘an organisation is two or more persons working together in a cooperative or coordinated way each to achieve an objective not achievable by not being a member of the organisation.’ Indeed, a person’s membership in an organisation often has nothing at all to do with common objectives.

Several observations follow, some obvious and some more subtle:

1. Working together in a cooperative way implies you expect to give something to get something. Most of us comply, most of the time, with the Highway Code: we keep to designated lanes, stop for red lights and use turn indicators. This we give. In return the something we get is a transportation system allowing us to drive about the country with impunity and relative convenience.

2. It’s reasonable you give the minimum needed to achieve your objective and nothing more. This makes perfect sense and is not, in my judgement, what some observers of the human condition describe as ‘selfish’. If the supermarket chain where we shop is experiencing a drop in profits, when we make a purchase, we’re not expected to pass our change back to the person on the till and say: ‘Keep the change; you need this more than I do.’

3. You give enough, you put enough into the organisation to ensure its viability and longevity (here viability and longevity relate to your achieving your objectives). Again, there is nothing selfish about this, indeed, it follows from my definition that as long as you continue expecting to get something you expect to continue to give something.

4. Your objectives are motivated by your particular needs. These are fully internal to you and have nothing to do with stated organisational objectives. An obvious exception is if you are the sole owner of a profit-making business it’s likely your personal objectives are fully consistent with stated organisational objectives but this is not the case for your employees.

5. An organisation evolves according to the personal objectives of those who put themselves forward for positions of power within the organisation. This is true for both the formal and informal elements within an organisation. This is such an important part of my thesis I want to discuss it in detail in this made-up case study (if you don’t play chess I’m confident you can relate this to one or more of your leisure activities).


Your Chess Club and Its Evolution

You enjoy playing chess and a group of eight consisting of you and seven of your workmates meet informally most Thursday evenings in one of your homes to play. You all play at about the same level so every week you play against a different opponent and eventually against all seven. Your host for the evening provides snacks and drinks, and over eight weeks each member is host. The process is informal: some are absent occasionally and sometimes the meeting is cancelled if too many are busy with other activities.

Over time, however, the organisation begins to change in two ways—assuming, of course, you all maintain your interest in playing chess. First, more workmates want to join in and, second, as some members become more proficient, they want to be challenged by their being paired with other, also more proficient, members.

Now you decide to make the organisation more formal. You create a constitution and a set of by-laws, you introduce an annual subscription, and you ordain a Committee consisting of Chair, Deputy Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and Adjudicator. In additional to your weekly play sessions, you schedule a monthly business meeting—at least for the Committee. And since your membership has grown well beyond the original eight, you now meet in the village hall. You purchase boards, chess sets and clocks using funds generated by subscriptions. You divide members into classes: novice, junior, senior, master.

This evolution might occur over a few months or several years. At some point you’ll probably add an Activities Coordinator to the Committee.

As your membership grows, personal objectives of members begin to emerge: from a group of eight who just want to play a little chess, something else begins to be seen. Some highly competitive members insist on their being paired with equally competitive and equally competent opponents (and some highly competitive individuals only want to play against those they can beat). Some want to set up elimination tournaments where each year one member is crowned club champion—complete with second and third place medals and an impressive cup, naturally. Others want to travel to other clubs and engage in tournaments. Some want to arrange meetings where classic games are re-enacted. Some want to organise workshops. A couple play mediocre chess but are keenly interested in the formality of the organisation. At least one plays little chess but has an impressive collection of chess sets. And a few wonder what all the fuss is about: ‘What’s wrong with just meeting every week and enjoying playing chess?’

Over time the club will evolve in one of these directions. My thesis is the organisation will evolve, the objectives of the organisation will shift, in directions to meet the personal objectives of those who move into positions of power, who put themselves forward as candidates for Committee membership or who assertively, and often vociferously, argue from within the informal organisation for change (in larger organisations these changes may result in movement in several directions addressing the objectives of different coteries of members but this does not obviate my argument).


The most visible evidence of this for all of us today, I think, is the directions in which political parties trend. The Conservative Party came to reflect the personal objectives of Margaret Thatcher; Labour, those of Tony Blair. Labour now is clearly moving, albeit with significant resistance, in the direction Jeremy Corbin wants it to move and this movement is based on his personal objectives; May, Gove and Johnson have shifted the Conservative Party towards something unrecognizable to Thatcher. Again, look to your own experience for examples.

One may ask whether the leader of a political party, for example, is truly supporting personal objectives having moved into that position of power when heard to make statements directly contradicting earlier statements. I argue here the quest for power is the overriding personal need and others have been subsumed under this. When queried about such contradictions, politicians respond in one of three ways—but never that they have changed direction or made a U-turn: they were quoted out of context, the interviewer misquoted or misunderstood the original statement or, quite simply, they never said it.

* Barnard, C.I. (1968) The Functions of the Executive, 30th anniversary edn. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
† We can ignore distinctions ordinarily made between entities we describe as ‘organisations’ and others we characterize as ‘groups’. For purposes of this essay, structural and functional differences between the two need not concern us. Nor am I interested here in referring to what is usually described as organisational dynamics.
‡ I don’t want to discuss needs, a subject much too broad for a mere blog post—or even a lifetime enquiry. If you’re interested, start with: Maslow, A.H. (1954) Motivation and Personality, New York: Harper & Brothers, and go from there.

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