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Why are Organizations Magic?

Posted on: March 2, 2021

Written by John A. Wager III, co-author with John R Hollenbeck of Organizational Behavior, 3rd Edition.

Look around your room.  Is there anything in it that wasn’t created by people working together in an organization? Why is that? Why are organizations so central to contemporary life? The answer to these questions lies in the magic that organizations are able to create through the division and integration of work.

Division of Labor

Organizations make it possible for people working together to do things that people could not accomplish by working alone.  They do this, partly, through the division of labor, a process in which work beyond the abilities and skills of individuals is broken down into smaller jobs that can be performed successfully.  To understand this process, imagine that I am able to collect all of the parts needed to manufacture a car and that I put them in a garage, and then I ask you to assemble the car.  Unless you’re a very unusual, highly skilled individual, you are likely to discover quite quickly that you can’t build a car by yourself.  Yet, people working together in the automotive assembly plant a few miles from my house are able to turn out new Cadillacs and Camaros at the rate of one every 90 or so seconds.  They are able to do this because the overwhelmingly difficult work of assembling a car has been divided into smaller jobs that people are able to perform.

Integration of Work

The division of labor alone isn’t enough to enact organizational magic, though.  In addition, the various jobs created through division must be reconnected through processes of grouping and coordination.  So, for example, at the assembly plant near my home, car manufacturing jobs are interconnected by grouping them together into assembly lines, and assembly line work is coordinated by a structure of communication, supervision, and planned, recurrent procedures.  Unit grouping and structural coordination, together, integrate the jobs created through the division of labor, resulting in productive activities that are shared among individuals and that result in a common outcome – a car – and not in a situation where some people are making basketballs, others are designing kitchens, and yet others are writing computer software, all the while expecting that everyone’s efforts will lead to a final, shared outcome.

The Magic

The magic of organizations lies in processes of work design, unit grouping, and organizational structuring, reinforced by additional processes of motivation, leadership and social acculturation. In turn, the division and integration of work that is enabled by these processes answers questions concerning the ubiquity of organizations in contemporary life.  Absent a little magic, the way we live would be considerably different.