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Book Review of Herbert Kaufman's, Time, Chance, and Organizations

Updated on March 6, 2010

Motivational Leadership

Change Management Leadership

Book Critique of Herbert Kaufman's: Time, Chance, and Organizations

Organizations are described as collective groups of people facilitating cohesion within defined borders by accepting specific entry requirements within their borders. These borders can be interrupted either internally or externally. Once the borders are open "death" can occur. Member attrition, the inability to manage resources and personality dissensions (suicide) are symptoms of impending problems. Organizations may or may not be self-sustaining and normally engage in exchanges of mutual benefits. Additionally, sub organizations can develop that promote special interests. Changes in the environment, as stated by Kaufman, influence the reduction of factors necessary for survival.

Perceived inequities in the exchange of benefits, member turnover and the resistance to change contributes to an organization's death. Rates of change, according to Kaufman, are not constant and may be visually imperceptible, yet have a cumulative effect. As decades change so does the homogenous composition of the organization. Within the overlapping environment of organizations are influences that affect the support, will, and intent of organizations. One of the greatest threats to organizational longevity is other organization.

Changes associated with the expansion of boundaries empower organizations to redefine managerial structure and substitute activities required to achieve goals previously sought prior to border expansion. Internal and external threats are managed by increasing the levels of centralization. Subsequent attempts to increase immunity from external threats while solidifying influence over members increases the chance that influences will compete and clash. Required adjustments (strategic calculations) are designed to match cumulative environmental changes.

Attempted changes are often carried out in a manner that negates effective change. Consensus building is hampered by zero-sum posturing among members. Personal biases filter the reception of quality decisions which may or may not be acknowledged by members. These conditions increase internal volatility. Covert resistance brings organizations closer to the situational threat than to solutions proposed. Figuring out adjustments is never easy even though failure to adjust accounts for organizational failures. So, how do organizations continue?

Change according to Kaufman, comes with time and leads to structural alterations and the assembly of new alliances. Chance and probability supersede the influence of personnel, talent, leadership and available resources, Additionally, statistical probability must be recognized as a contributor to success or failure.

The ability to withstand change is reduced by the over committal of resources to produce specific outcomes. Resources and diversification are linked. When diversification is used to counter environmental threats costs are incurred in resources and unity. Over time, the ability to generally apply resources throughout an organization increases the chance for survival. Changes are also initiated in the overlapping jurisdiction of organizations.

Organizations use various devices to develop member loyalty. Time, adjustments to roles, and maintaining the status quo lock people into established modes of behavior. The resulting instilled behavior patterns exacerbate problems. Conversely, these same attributes, under opposite circumstances would increase the chance of success. In organizations with strong centralization, the diversity of sub organizations diminishes to create more stable internal environments. However, in these organizations failure anywhere in the web of relationships causes problems everywhere.

Kaufman's analogy of organisms and organizations recognizes that evolutionary differences are appropriate for different environments. Organizational traits such as sexual reproduction, reasoning and multiple memberships are appropriate for environments characterized by gene variations. The traits of asexual reproduction, strong biological bonding and self-contained physical components are advantageous in stable environmental niches. For both groups evolutionary adaptation becomes increasingly complex with time. When organizations die they release attributes into the environment that merge with other attributes. Member turnover facilitates the transfer of skills and specializations and development takes different courses.

The synergism of different skill levels suggests trends in organizational development. However, these trends are best recognized only after they emerge. The more we understand the relation of different environments and organizations the greater the chance to proactively manage change. Chance interaction within organizations challenges speculation. Chance, according to Kaufman, is a major factor in organizational success because no other specific factors have yet to be isolated.

The conclusions presented here are reminiscent of the phrase "statistics don't lie, statisticians do". In the postscript Kaufman states," I believe that my hypothesis, if it is not refuted...will stand up well when tested against specific competitors." Within the reality imposed by the covers of this book, his writing does have a relevance to the social applications of organizational behavior. I strongly feel that Kaufman's omission of historical references and or case studies has minimized the practical applicability of this book for public managers. Since public sector management encompasses daily planning and goals in conjunction with long term planning and goals, documenting the daily changes for a year end synthesizing of facts may reveal trends and or situations that can be compared to or remedied by the information in this book.

Future publications may refute or strengthen Kaufman's book. Each idea of Kaufman must be considered as an augmentation to the tools used by public managers to manage in dynamic environments. We make decisions based on the best information available at the time. Conditions change, are unpredictable, and our responses sometimes end up causing more problems than they solve. Though not a very optimistic observation, still a valid one.

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Ronald Roberts is a former Army Officer and MPA graduate. His many interests include public administration and academia. His favorite quote: Never despise a humble beginning. 

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