Michel Crozier and the Changing Context of Organizations

I met Michel Crozier in the late 1970s when I was lecturing at Harvard’s Kennedy School on my studies of leaders. Michel was sitting in the middle of the third row in the lecture room and asked a question. I can’t remember the question, but after the lecture he introduced himself. He had read my book The Gamesman (1976), later published in France as Le Joueur (1980), and to some degree identified with the new style leader who viewed strategy and organization as a game. This is the metaphor for an organization he used in the book written with Erhard Friedberg, Actors & Systems, The Politics of Collective Action.

Michel believed that France not only needed more entrepreneurial gamesmen like the ones I described at companies like HP, Intel and Texas Instruments, but that they needed to be liberated from the burdensome government rules and regulations that resulted in a stalled society. And he was interested in the projects I was directing in the US and UK, engaging unions and management to collaborate to improve productivity and the quality of working life. I was eager to talk with Michel. I had read The Bureaucratic Phenomenon and The World of the Office Worker and these books had been extremely helpful to my understanding of resistance to participation in decision-making in the projects I was leading in companies and government agencies. Many organizational theorists assumed that all workers wanted a say in decisions concerning them, that they wanted to be “empowered”. Michel pointed out that “Participation is in fact dangerous, because it gets one involved; one can better safeguard one’s independence by submitting to orders rather than by seeking to participate in the elaboration of decisions.” (The World of the Office Worker, trans. David Landau, University of Chicago Press, 1971, p137) I had found that some workers feared being blamed for offering their ideas or making mistakes and felt more secure just following orders, others wanted more involvement, but only if they were protected by a union and by management that did not punish mistakes, but used them as an opportunity for learning.

After this first meeting, Michel and I began a conversation that lasted more than 25 years and took place in Cambridge, Washington, Paris, Los Angeles, and Stockholm. In the 1980s, when I worked with Swedish companies and the research group funded by the Employers Confederation, Michel joined Richard Norman, and Don Schon on an advisory group to the study I was leading on the kinds of leaders needed by Sweden for innovation and development in different sectors of society.

Over the years, when Michel visited Washington DC, he stayed at our house and we continued a conversation guided by our shared view that human behavior resulted from the complex interaction of individual subjective values and the social-cultural context. Both of us were also engagé; we were interested not only to study but also to change organizations and society. However, we could be critical of all ideologies and political approaches that were not based on solid evidence. Our only ideology was the belief that development should be evaluated by social as well as economic criteria. Michel affirmed our shared approach in his preface to the French edition of my book Why Work? (Travailler, Pourquoi?, Inter-editions, 1990).

Since the 1960s when Michel first published his research and the 1970s when I began to study leadership and lead projects to transform the workplace, the world of work and attitudes of employees have changed radically. The most advanced companies have been forced to transform bureaucracies into collaborative learning organizations. These companies gain customers by providing knowledge-based solutions as well as products. Unlike a bureaucracy where employees can protect their autonomy in structured roles, to be effective and efficient, these companies must be able to organize teams of experts, often bridging departments and disciplines. Their productivity depends not only on what they can control, but also on their ability to collaborate with each other and customers and partner with suppliers. In global companies, some of this collaboration is by virtual teams with members located in different countries.

A major driver of the changes in work and organization has, of course, been information technology. But there have also been changes in the knowledge and values of professional and technical workers who have been raised with this technology in the post-68 egalitarian culture. Unlike the employees first studied by Michel, these individuals expect to participate in decisions that are essential for organizational effectiveness. To be sure, there are national differences. French companies tend to be more hierarchical and formal than those in the US and Scandinavia. In a class of executives I was teaching at the Said Business School of Oxford, an executive recounted his experience of moving from IBM to head a French company. He asked his vice presidents to call him by his first name, and one answered, “Oui, M. le president.” However, when I taught in the Sciences Po MPA program, French students seemed little different in terms of attitudes to authority than young professionals I have worked with in the US, UK, Germany and Scandinavia.

Of course, there are also differences between the most advanced knowledge creating companies and many that lag behind in terms of effectiveness. Many government agencies and health care organizations are mired in bureaucratic structures and regulations. The French government, more than the US or German governments, burdens entrepreneurial businesses with regulations that hinder economic growth. The demand by workers that government should provide security and cushion the hardships of life confronts the logic of capitalism. The challenge of creating wealth and balancing the national budget without sacrificing the wellbeing of workers and the sustainability of the environment is not easily resolved.

Both the new organizations and the complex demands on government require extremely competent leaders. They are in short supply. In the most advanced organizations, different types of leaders are needed to work interactively: strategic, operational and network leaders with different skills and styles. Leaders need to articulate a philosophy that includes a meaningful purpose, practical values essential to achieve the purpose, ethics and moral reasoning that determines decisions, and results defined in terms of purpose. They need to understand systems thinking and the values that motivate collaborators. They need the foresight to recognize threats and opportunities so they can adapt organizations to continual change. Ideally, they need to strengthen the legitimacy of companies by demonstrating ways in which they are contributing to society.

Clearly, both the subjective values and social context in the organizations Michel and I studied and worked with have changed. And so has the larger social context. The changes in production and global competition have increased the gap between winners and everyone else. The income gap is larger in the US and UK than in France where the left is stronger, but at the expense of national competitiveness in global markets. As Michel argued, one cannot change a society by decree. But the challenge of institutions to adapt to the changing conditions requires a high level of collaboration between governments and organizations.

Regrettably, Michel is no longer engaged in the work of understanding these challenges and proposing solutions. That is a great loss, for his insights and courageous willingness to question all assumptions are sorely needed.

Copyright Michael Maccoby - October, 2012