When observing the world of business and commerce, one cannot help notice the startling homogeneity of organisational forms and practices. In addition, while various kinds of professionals within an organisation may differ from one another, they exhibit much similarity to their professional counterparts in other organisations. How do we explain this?
The sociological theory of isomorphism, which refers to the similarity of the processes or structure of one organisation to those of another, proves useful in explaining this homogeneity. Di Maggio and Powell (1983:150) identified three mechanisms through which institutional isomorphic change occurs, each with its own antecedents: (1) Coercive isomorphism results from both formal and informal pressures exerted on organisations by other organisations upon which they are dependent and by cultural expectations in the society within which organisations function. (2) Mimetic isomorphism results from uncertainty that encourages imitation. When technologies are not clearly understood, goals are ambiguous, or when the environment creates uncertainty, organisations may model themselves on other organisations. (3) Normative isomorphism results primarily from professionalisation, which is the collective effort of members of an occupation to define the conditions and methods of their work and to establish a cognitive base and ligitimation for their occupational autonomy.
Due to my involvement in higher education, and more specifically in MBA education, I am naturally inclined to consider the role management education plays in contributing to normative isomorphism which, among others, has to do with establishing a cognitive base for management practice. Di Maggio and Powell (1983:152) contests that the resting of formal education and of legitimation in a cognitive base produced by educational specialists is an important source of isomorphism.
Management educators are important centres for the development of organisational norms. Generally speaking, however, most providers of management education draws from the same management theories to create a cognitive base. Although the principles and methods of instruction vary, the theoretical foundation is largely similar.
My submission is that the existing cognitive base has the potential to create a pool of almost interchangeable individuals who occupy similar positions across a range of organisations and possess a similarity of orientation and disposition. But is this necessarily negative? I propose, as far as, for example, business ethics, social responsibility, corporate governance and emotional intelligence is concerned, it is most definitely beneficial. However, when the similarity of orientation and disposition may override innovation in management principles and processes that might otherwise shape organisational behaviour, I regard it as negative.
So, what can management educators do to not get trapped in normative isomorphism? Well, for starters I propose including philosophy into the methods of instruction and readings; philosophy addresses the “big questions” which do not fall into other disciplines, i.e. how we should act (ethics), what exists (metaphysics), how we know what we know (epistemology), and how we should reason (logic) (Anissimov, 2011). Philosophy’s goal is nothing less than a systematic world view. Other fields study particular kinds of things; philosophy asks how it all fits together (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2011). Coetzee (2011) also argues that philosophy is what is required to break the glass-ceiling of MBA education.
Next I propose more emphasis on innovation in management principles and processes. According to Hamel (2006:75) a management innovation can be regarded as a marked departure from traditional management principles, processes, and practices or a departure from customary organisational forms that significantly alters the way the work of management is performed. Put simply, management innovation changes how managers do what they do, and can create long-lasting advantage.
Thirdly, I propose enforcing the uniqueness principle; in terms of the uniqueness principle of Nadler and Hibino’s (1998) breakthrough thinking theory, one should not copy a solution or use a technique from elsewhere just because the situation may appear to be similar. We can’t clone others’ successes; copying what others do or have done doesn’t necessarily produce the same results. No two situations are alike; to begin with, people in each situation are different.
In the quest to ensure that graduates are equipped to meet the challenges of contemporary global business and capable of managing in environments marked by constant change, management educators should take note of the benefits and disadvantages of normative isomorphism as a result of the cognitive base produced by them. Build on the benefits and seriously reflect on addressing the disadvantages… we owe it to commerce and industry.