Are Thompson’s Levels a Good Model?

In his work Organizations in Action, James D. Thompson attempts to reconcile rational, natural, and open system perspectives on the basis of three levels within organizations.  The first is the technical level, which carries out production functions and encompasses the rational system perspective.  The second is the managerial level, which designs and controls how the organization is run and brings in the natural system perspective.  Finally, the institutional level relates the organization to the greater environment, similar to an open systems perspective…At least this is what Thompson argues…

When first reading about this in chapter 5 of Organizations and Organizing, I accepted this model and found it to appropriately fit in with what I had thus far learned.  However, after diving into the rest of Scott and Davis’ text book and further analyzing organizational theory throughout the semester, I really don’t agree with the levels model. Overall, it just feels like Thompson tried to force all three perspectives into a uniform organizational model, which goes against the very reason the perspectives exist!!!! It appears Thompson constructed his levels model during the 1960s, so corporate society has obviously changed a lot since then.  The interesting part is that, according to Thompson’s model, organizations have always been natural and open, but they have not embraced it until present times.

First off, Thompson claims that, “organizations strive to be rational although they are natural and open systems” (2007 p. 109).  This is simply not true in today’s society.  More and more organizations are informally structuring themselves to promote a cultural working environment.  Google and Southwest Airlines are two corporations that pride themselves on lax regulations in order to spur positive work performance.  In addition, I’m not sure I understand how organizations can deny their open nature.  Companies constantly model themselves after previously successful companies, thus absorbing information and strategy from the environment.

Furthermore, technology is perhaps the most environmentally influenced aspect of a company.  However, Thompson claims that the technical level is where we can expect to see a rational systems perspective. Technology, in the sense of assembly lines and machines, can in fact be highly formalized, but Thompson is using a very narrow definition of technology.   For example, technological knowledge and technique often come directly from examples in the surrounding environment.  And let’s not forget about the task environment, which involves the aspects of the environment relating to inputs and outputs.  He seems to neglect the intellectual and knowledge processes involved at the true technical level.

Between jumping on industry bandwagons, developing popular product knock-offs, acquiring start-ups, spinning off divisions, and informally organizing to fit in with modern trends, I feel it is safe to say that organizations now embrace their natural and open system identity.  Times and practices have certainly changed since the 1960’s, but I find that Thompson’s levels model fails to adequately connect the three systems perspectives.  When exploring the combining of rational, natural, and open systems perspectives, I would instead suggest turning to Lawrence and Lorsch’s contingency model.  Simply put, this suggests that there is no best organizational form, but many that fit well depending on different environments (2007 p. 108).  There’s no reason to try and force all three perspectives into one organization.


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