Technology's Influence On Organisations.

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Technology’s Influence On Organisations

In the early 1950’s, technological advances occurred at what seemed to be rapid fire.  While developed mostly for military use, products using technologies such as radar and the transistor were spilling into public use.  While firms were quick to understand the commercial success such products would bring, they were unprepared for what else was to come.

Technology meant big changes, not only with the development, manufacture, marketing and distribution of these new products, but also within their own corporate structure and culture.  This caught the attention of British academians, who became increasingly aware that businesses must solve social and economic problems that would inevitably result from such technological advances. 

A small research unit was set up at South East Essex College in September 1953 on the initiative of the Principal, Dr. F. Heathcoat; the Joint Committee on Human Relations in Industry of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Medical Research Council.  Together, they sponsored a four-year research survey of the organisational structure of 100 firms, supplemented by detailed case studies.

Joan Woodward wrote a short account of the study when the project completed in 1958, which was published by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.  She reported that the firms studied varied considerably in their organisational structure and that similar administrative expedients could lead to wide variations in results.

Many of the variations found in the organisational structure of the firms studied did, however, appear to be closely linked with differences in manufacturing techniques. Different technologies imposed different kinds of demands on individuals and organisations, and these demands had to be met through an appropriate structure.

In 1965, Woodward furthered this small body of knowledge into what is still referred to today as “industrial organisation theory.”  She initially sought a correlation between organisation size and design.  Instead, she found a potential relationship between technology and design.  As complexity of technology increased, so did the number of levels of management.

Woodward’s study led her to define three basic forms of technology:

  • Unit or Small Batch Technology:  Produce custom-made products to customer specifications, or else produce in small quantities;
  • Large Batch/Mass Production:  Use assembly-line production methods to manufacture large quantities of products;

-        Continuous Process:  Use continuous flow processes to convert raw materials by process or machine into finished products.

Technological advances continued far more quickly than any man might have imagined, pervading every human activity on earth.  Woodward blazed a trail along which researchers have traveled ever since.  Every year, new studies surface around the world that are supported by the underpinnings of her important early observations.

Professor Graham Winch of the Manchester Centre For Civil and Construction Engineering in Manchester, England, for example, followed Woodward’s lead when he noted 40 years later that the characteristics of complex organisations fall into two categories:

  -  Structure: The arrangements that related the parts to the whole; and

  -  Process:  The flow of information and materials through the structure, and the processes by which that flow is controlled.

It has become clear that technical complexity means larger, more complex organisations that require complex structural designs.  The structural designs developed to handle complex work has had many variations.  Few will argue that the most significant among them was the Matrix Design, developed in the 1980s.

Acknowledging that functional walls must be torn down, a project manager could now team with staff members from different functional areas, such as research and development, training, manufacturing and communication.  Employees on a project thus had responsibility both to their functional superior and to the project manager.

An American, Henry Mintzberg, studied organisational structures in 1979, identifying five basic structures.  He called a company fully developed as a matrix an ‘administrative adhocracy.’  He defined an administrative adhocracy as a structure wherein mutual adjustment as a means of coordination and the support staff are most important.  “It avoids the specialisation, formality, and unit of command found in bureaucracy.  Even the term itself, derived from ‘ad hoc,’ suggests a lack of formality. 

Winch interprets Mintzberg’s adhocracy as an adhocracy with bureaucratic tendencies.  He refers to an adhocratic organisation as ‘organic.’  The term adhocracy, according to Winch, was coined by Alvin Toffler in 1970 to characterize a new type of organisation better adapted to a turbulent economic environment.  Alternatively, Winch’s adhocratic organisation emphasizes interpersonal relations rather than procedure, change rather than order, and process rather than hierarchy.

Technical Complexity’s Influence On Projects

Projects are unique undertakings each time, with a range in objectives, size, complexity and technological content an almost limitless variety.  

Activity in a project has continuity through time,” according to Winch.  It is here, he believes, where complex projects are distinguished from the larger class of complex organisations:  They are temporary.   “The distinctive challenges of managing projects from complex organisations derive from project being both complex and temporary.

In 2003, The Center For Managing Business Practices in Havertown, Pennsylvania, U.S., tried to take the pulse of project management with a survey that was completed by project professionals and senior-level executives representing 76 global companies in industries including manufacturing, healthcare and technology.


When asked about the technical complexity of their project, 72.4% reported they were involved in projects they considered complex.  51.7% said they were involved in projects that were highly complex.

In 1995, Professor Aaron Shenhar at the University of Minnesota in the U.S. completed a four-year study of projects within companies.  The study was conducted in two stages.  In the first, 16 projects were subjected to a multiple case-study qualitative approach,  focusing on the dynamics within single settings.  In the second, detailed questionnaires were sent to project managers of 127 projects.  The industries included electronics, computers, mechanics, aerospace, chemical, and construction.  The projects ranged in value from $40,000 to $2.5 billion (U.S. dollars) and in duration from three months to 12 years.        

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The answers from these project managers led Shenhar to identify three levels of technical complexity within the projects under the scope of their responsibility:

  - Level 1:  Assembly.  This is a project consisting of a collection of components and modules combines into a single unit.  A typical assembly may perform a well defined function within a larger system, thus constituting one of its subsystems.  Alternatively, it can be an independent, self-contained product that performs a single function;

  -   Level 2:  System.  This represents a project consisting of a complex collection of interactive elements and subsystems ...

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