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Keeping Alternative Institutions Alternative: A Comparative Study

This research investigated the issue of keeping alternative institutions alternative both as an organizational problem of bureaucratization and as a research area with methodological complications. More specifically, the research addressed both sides of the issue by defining bureaucratization as gradual transformation of member control into conventional hierarchical control, and by employing an action-research model. To develop a coherent context for substantive and methodological questions, a detailed literature review identified several relevant areas of past research and commentary. In this review the Holleb and Abrams (1975) model of organizational development was examined in detail. Following consideration of workplace democratization and organizational learning areas, a central research proposition emerged: successful alternative institutions require formal organizational structure in three areas: (1) work, decision-making and coordination; (2) maintenance; and (3) organizational learning. To evaluate this proposition, interviews and documents were obtained from eight varied alternative in stitutions from the same geographical region. By employing the Holleb and Abrams model, the current state and the previous structural development of each organization was assessed, resulting in eight detailed case studies. By equating organizational success with the same model's consensual democracy stage, the case studies were divided into three successful and five unsuccessful instances, and were then subjected to three comparisons of structural features to test the research proposition. The first comparison examined current structural features and appeared to support the proposition. Successful organizations employed all three areas of formal structure while unsuccessful ones employed only those in the first two areas. In order to assess the converse of the proposition, that no organization with formal structures in all three areas could be unsuccessful, a second comparison was devised that considered instances of formal structure throughout each organization's history. In this comparison, both types of organizations evidenced formal structures in all three areas, apparently invalidating the proposition. Based on a rationale that formal structure should be enduring, the original proposition was modified to say organizational success resulted from sustained formal structure in all three areas. By defining sustained structures as those lasting at least one year, a third comparison was performed which produced a pattern of results very similar to the first comparison: successful organizations employed sustained formal structures in all three areas, while unsuccessful organizations employed them only in the first two areas. Since the results strongly supported the modified proposition, the comparison was examined in detail. In the area of work, decision-making, and coordination, only successful organizations employed sustained structures of job rotation and decision-making. In the maintenance area, successful organizations showed considerably more structures than unsuccessful organizations, especially in regard to information sharing, conflict resolution, and member orientation and training. Since only successful organizations employed sustained formal structures of organizational learning, their specific structures, usually retreats or special portions of meetings, were scrutinized closely. This examination revealed that the organizational learning structures were consistently used by members to create and modify structures in the first two areas, as well as to alter organizational goals. From this examination, it was apparent that sustained formal structures of organizational learning were central to the success of these alternative institutions. Following this major structural comparison, some comparisons of non-structural features were also made. The results of these secondary comparisons generally suggested that in contrast to unsuccessful organizations, successful organizations have lower member turnover, and slightly older members with better process skills and more relevant past experience. The results were shown to have practical applications for the design and creation of new alternative institutions, as well as for intervention activity within existing ones.
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