What is an organisation anyway?

What is an organisation anyway?

At first sight, what an organisation is, is a fairly simple question to answer. Surely it’s a group of people brought together for the purpose of achieving a goal? On closer inspection though, organisations are not so easy to define.

Most organisations contain a hierarchy, within which some of the power of the organisation is vested. I say some, because members of the organisation all join it for their own reasons. These may align with the organisations stated purpose, but just as likely they are nothing to do with it. For example, people might join simply to get money. Others may be seeking to make a contribution to society, be seeking personal status or any number of other reasons (and often some combination of reasons). Far from being a group with a unified purpose then, an organisation is a group with a whole range of purposes. It just so happens that everyone in the organisation sees it as their current best option for meeting their own personal goals. So an organisation can’t really be defined by the unifying power of its goals – because the reality is that everyone in it has different ones.

Organisations often possess assets, or at least owners of assets. These are a poor definition of the organisation however, as assets don’t do business, run charities, operate governments or deliver any of the other myriad services provided by organisations – people do that. The assets, processes and systems an organisation possesses are simply there to support the services it delivers; they can’t in themselves define what an organisation is.

It seems that our pleasant and certain ideas around what an organisation is then, have begun to dissolve somewhat, but there is another aspect to be considered. If what an organisation is doesn’t reside in any of its components, perhaps it exists in the interactions between those components? When the members of an organisation (with all their different individual goals) come together with the organisation’s assets, things happen. Specifically, the organisation delivers the services for which it has been brought together.

Far from being a simple entity then, organisations contain multiple (often conflicting) goals, and when push comes to shove, are composed of interactions between people. The majority of those interactions of course take the form of conversations, so in one view, an organisation is nothing more than a collection of conversations which are focussed on achieving something. Organisational success therefore depends to a very large on the skills of its members in communicating with one another. No matter how good a person’s technical, accounting or other specialist skills are, success depends on communication – on expressing ourselves in words. It is against this backdrop that future posts will present ideas on how we as people can best help ourselves, and our organisations, to be effective places.