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Shadow Organizations

Sensitive Spots in the Treatment of Management Fashions 

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 16. May 2024

When dealing with a management fashion, we are inevitably venturing into dangerous territory. Especially at the beginning, we find euphoric representatives who see the philosopher’s stone in the management fashion they are promoting. Not only the inventors of a management fashion play a role in this, but also consultants who earn their money with the introduction of these organizational concepts, as well as managers who tie their careers to the integration of a management fad in their organization. However, at the latest, when the first practical experiences with an organizational concept are available, the first critics also chime in and point out the blind spots. Then these concepts are gradually replaced by new management fashions. 

Thus, it is not surprising that holacracy also has both staunch advocates and sharp critics (see ​Rąb-Kettler 2018, 171f.​; ​Ravarini and Martinez 2019, 63ff.​). For supporters of the concept, holacracy is nothing less than the “revolutionary management system that abolishes hierarchy” (​Robertson 2015b, 3​). “The vibrant city of Holacra City” would, according to the flowery imagery of dyed-in-the-wool holacrats, finally fill the gap that has arisen between the “companies that have settled on the level of self-organization” “along the Purpose River” as well as the “software companies from the Highlands of Agility” ​(Bernardis et al. 2017, 10)​.  

Critics, on the other hand, point out that holacracy is too bureaucratic, too process-oriented, too rule-heavy ​(Denning 2014; Veuve 2017). ​In holacracy, processes are placed above people and thus ultimately organized without regard to people’s interests ​(Appelo 2016)​. The complicated set of rules is criticized, which is not intuitively comprehensible, but must first be painstakingly learned by employees (​Caddell 2016​; ​Ehtan Bernstein et al. 2016​; ​Zeuch 2016b​). Especially when it is necessary to communicate quickly between different functions in an organization, the highly regulated system bumps up against its limits ​(Oane 2016; Doyle 2016)​. 

For organization scholars, these controversies between euphoric proponents and strident critics are interesting as empirical material. However, there is little reason to take one side or the other. Any measure to design communication channels, define programs, or select personnel is introduced with the hope that it will perform important functions for the organization. At the same time, however, we also know that these measures cannot avoid unintended side effects (for more on this, see ​Merton 1936, 894​). Every “solution for a problem” inevitably has “problems with the solution” (​Luhmann 1964, 382​). The optimal organizational structure may shape the dreams of some practitioners; in reality these structures do not exist. 

But despite all the distancing, as a scholar one cannot avoid being drawn into the controversies. Even the use of the subjunctive triggers irritation among particularly diehard advocates of management concepts. At the latest, the analysis of a management concept as a management fad frequently elicits audible gasps. As soon as a researcher deconstructs the implicit organizational understanding of a management concept, points out unintended side-effects or unintended structural effects, or describes informal evasive movements, he or she inevitably draws strong reactions from a concept’s supporters.  

The reactions of a management concept’s advocates are always the same. Their descriptions purport to be based on original ideas, while they do not pay sufficient consideration to the fundamental further developments of the concept. They would lodge the accusation that you haven’t fully grasped the concept because you haven’t yet personally experienced it in its full application. Their criticism would be based on analyses of organizations that have not yet reached the necessary level of maturity in introducing the management concept. Observations in individual organizations would be overly generalized and divergent experiences of other organizations—especially one’s own—would not be sufficiently taken into account.  

As an organization scientist, one could avoid these disputes with practitioners by writing only for the echo chamber of sympathetic scientific colleagues. Publication in a scientific journal guarantees that hardly any practitioner will take note of these reflections. After all, one would have to scan the relevant scientific journals, obtain the article from a university library and then delve into a theoretically dense text. If researchers write primarily for other researchers, they can rest assured that no practitioner will be upset about their academic thoughts; but then they also have to live with the fact that their writings will find no relevance outside of academia.  

This book may be unusual in that it deliberately attempts to bridge the gap between organizational science and organizational practice without attempting to resolve the fundamental tension between these two fields. As a result, both organization scholars and organization practitioners are in for a treat: organization scholars are confronted with a rather unusual form of presentation. This book is based on empirical research that is presented in detail elsewhere in journals and edited volumes (see, for example. ​Sua-Ngam-Iam and Kühl 2021​; ​Kühl and Sua-Ngam-Iam 2023​), whereas detailed theory discussions, methodological expositions, and case presentations are largely omitted here. But I can guarantee that organizational scholars will find one or two interesting things to think about. Organizational practitioners, on the other hand, will be required to confront a rather unfamiliar picture of organizations. The emphasis on unfamiliar side-effects and unintended structural effects does not fit the picture that practitioners normally have of organizations. My hope, however, is that the descriptions presented here will ultimately be closer to practitioners’ perceptions of reality than the usual management books that are trimmed down to make for a compelling read. If, at the end of reading this book, you gain an even more accurate sense of how organizations function as a whole, beyond the effects of hyperformalized organizations – then all the better.  

Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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