Organizational Analysis

I’ve written here before about the learning opportunities offered by MOOCS (Massively Open Online Courses) and I wanted to tell you about another excellent course from Stanford University, delivered via the Coursera platform.

This one is titled Organizational Analysis, written by Prof. Daniel A. McFarland, who presents ten theories to help us understand the nature of organizations and what strategies are available to them.

The course comprises 25 lectures, delivered in about 60 videos (each of 10-20 minutes), 26 case studies, about 50 “screen-side chats”, a background reading list of 40+ titles, a lively online forum and lots of quizzes spread over ten weeks and followed by a 3-hour final exam. That might sound daunting, but it’s perfectly possible to fit this around a full-time job, providing your partner is understanding about your leisure-time priorities.

The emphasis is on providing students with a selection of tools for the study of organizations in different environments, circumstances and times, with practical application, rather than simply academic or abstract interest. Some situations call for the application of more than one theory at a time and others suit different approaches at different stages.

  • The Rational Choice model assumes a central actor with clear goals, consistent preferences and all the information necessary to make decisions.
  • The Bureaucratic model describes organizations that break down problems and match them to their standard operating procedures.
  • Coalition theory explains the behaviour of multiple actors with inconsistent preferences and identities that need to form alliances to achieve their goals.
  • Organizational anarchy describes how problems, solutions and participants come together in decision-making arenas.
  • Organizational learning covers the conditions necessary for constant improvement, including feedback loops, lateral communications, communities of practice, exploration, exploitation and adaptation to suit local circumstances.
  • Organizational culture theory shows how the corporate mission and identity can be expressed through communications, behaviour, artifacts and rituals.
  • Resource dependency theory focusses on the ways an organization can insulate itself from uncertainty in the environment, including stockpiling, diversification, vertical and horizontal mergers.
  • Network theory applies to organizations that are obliged to collaborate in order to deliver a service and explores the strategies they might pursue in forming alliances.
  • Neo-institutional theory explains why organizations in the same environment tend to conform to cultural norms to survive, even at the cost of efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Organizational ecology uses the metaphor of population theory, which describes how animals’ survival depends on their environments and competition for resources.

I never imagined the subject would be so interesting. In addition to the insight it gives into problems faced by many organizations and considering the strategies at their disposal, it offers concrete and practical applications for the workplace. Case studies come from the private and public sector and include a wide range from Google and Xerox to the Cuban missile crisis and the two-decades long project to transform Chicago high schools.

If you like the sound of this (free) course, or would like to see what others are available, take a look at and sign up for one to find out what MOOCs are all about. I’ve already started my next one.

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