July 28th, 2012 Joan Woodward
Joan Woodward was one of the most influential contributors to Contingency School which is based on the premises that there is no single best way to manage because every situation and every manager is different.
The British academic, Joan Woodward, conducted an extensive, comparative empirical study from 1950 to 1959 at the South East Essex College of Technology and the Imperial College of Science and Technology in the United Kingdom. The study focused on the relationship between organisational structure and organisational performance. It measured a firm's comparative performance relative to its industry peers and compared this indicator to its structural dimensions such as span of control, number of management levels, management style, etc.
The research team was amazed when the 100 surveys from manufacturing organisations in the South Essex region indicated no direct statistically significant relationship between the type of structure and the level of performance.
A relationship between structure and performance surfaced only by introducing an extra variable: the type of technology. Woodward's study, thereby, rebuked the accepted notion that 'one best way' of organising existed by linking the variations found in organisational structures with differences in manufacturing technology. Her data showed that function and form were complementary in commercially successful firms.
She joined the Production Engineering and Management Section of the College in 1958 and became the second woman to hold a Chair at the College when she was appointed Professor of Industrial Sociology in 1970. Much of her most important work was published during her period at Imperial.
Her most famous work was a longitudinal study of 100 organisations begun before she joined Imperial College, completed at the College and published as Industrial Organisation: Theory and Practice (OUP, 1965). Her key and lasting insight was that technology is a key variable influencing organisational design and performance. Her sample of firms covered a range of manufacturing technologies and what she Joan Woodwarddemonstrated was that the successful firms were the ones where there was congruence between the type of technology they were using and their organisational structures and processes. Different technologies generated different requirements and the successful firms recognised this. It is a tribute to Joan that this insight which was so controversial in its time is now part of the "taken for granted" world of the organisation theorist.
This work established Joan as one of the world's foremost organisation theorists. She was invited to join a group of the top 7 theorists which called itself the Magnificent Seven. This international recognition was a huge achievement for a woman in the 1960's.
Joan was much sought after as a consultant and a commentator. As such she epitomised the spirit of the College in its commitment to the application of ideas to practice. Unlike today where social science researchers sometimes struggle to find organisations to collaborate with, Joan had organisations contacting her and asking her to work with them.
Joan Woodward classified technology as follows
Group 1. SMALL BATCH and UNIT TECHNOLOGY
All technologies that produce one or several products simultaneously such as art work and construction projects. Successful companies with unit technologies reflect organic structures.
Group 2. LARGE BATCH and MASS PRODUCTION
Technologies in assembly line operations, such as automobile and consumer electronics plants that produce standardized, identical products based on routines and standard procedures. Successful companies with mass technologies reflect mechanistic structures.
Group 3. CONTINUOUS PROCESS PRODUCTION
Technologies at ongoing, non-discreet, capital intensive production processes that require minimal manual involvement such as chemical plants and oil refineries. Successful companies in this category reflect organic structures and more levels of management.
Joan Woodward described the technical complexity of a manufacturing process as the degree of its mechanisation — unit technology as the least complex and the continuous process production as the most. She discovered that the relationship between technical complexity and the level of work routine was shaped as an inverse U. Unit and continuous process technologies required non-routine behaviour while mass production was better served by mechanical structures characterised by routines and procedures. Managers of commercially successful companies were the most aware of their firms' technological characteristics.
It appears that certain activities naturally "go with" certain structures. Joan Woodward found that by knowing an organization's primary system of production, you could predict their structure:
Unit Production/Small Batch
Companies that make one-of-a-kind custom products, or small quantities of products (e.g., ship building, aircraft manufacture, furniture maker, tailors, printers of engraved wedding invitation, surgical teams).
-In these companies, typically, people's skills and knowledge is more important than the the machines used.
-Relatively expensive to operate: work process is unpredictable, hard to pre-program or automate.
-Flat organization (few levels of hierarchy).
-Ceo has low span of control (direct reports).
-Relatively low percentage of managers
Mass Production/Large Batch
Companies that sell huge volumes of identical products (e.g., cars, razor blades, aluminum cans, toasters). Make heavy use of automation and assembly lines. Typically,
-Bigger than small batch
-Bottom level is huge (supervisor span of control is 48)
-Relatively greater number of managers (because hierarchy is so tall)
-Mechanistic, bureaucratic structure
-Relatively cheap to operate
Primarily companies that refine liquids and powders (e.g., chemical companies, oil refineries, bakeries, dairies, distilleries/breweries, electric power plants). Machines do everything, humans just monitor the machines and plan changes.
-These organizations are tall and thin or even inverted pyramid: almost nobody at the bottom
-At the very top there is an organic structure
-Lower levels more mechanistic, but because machines do everything, there is not much paper work, low level supervision, etc.