Alternative organization and alternative organizing

Last updated, 24 Sep 2014

by George Cheney*

September 2014

The term "alternative organization" has become popular within the multi-disciplinary arena of organizational studies and is a focus of a great deal of attention within the Critical Management Studies Division of the Academy of Management and its listserv.  As with other uses of the same adjective, "alternative" in this context derives meaning from dialectical pairings.  Alternative organizations are understood in opposition to the familiar, traditional, mainstream, predominant, or hegemonic institutional arrangements. Frequently, this means organizations that are less hierarchical, less bureaucratic, and more attuned to human and environmental needs than the well-known players in any of the three major sectors: private, public and non-profit. The adjective is also suggestive of organizational practices that are novel, creative, untried or untested, and perhaps radically different from those to which a group or part of society is accustomed (see Parker, Fournier & Reedy, 2007). 

Organizational theory and organizational studies writ large have their corresponding lay or everyday forms. Managers, employees and customers/clients experience and reproduce organizational practices as they go about their daily business, yet very few people are encouraged to think about how organizing can occur differently from established norms.  Thus, sheer imitation and organizational isomorphism are prevalent.  Reproduction of structure, even with calls for innovation, may be seen in industries as diverse as education, finance, energy, health care and manufacturing (Atzeni, 2012).  

Of course, "alternative" may have a general or undifferentiated counterpoint (e.g., "business as usual") or be posed against a specific category or case (e.g., a new model in an industry or sector or a novel theoretical formulation). The term has in fact become a rallying point within theoretical discussions (see notes on the session under this title at the 2014 Academy of Management meeting in Philadelphia; Adler et al., 2014) and to a significant extent in social movements as well (consider "globalization from below" initiatives). In a manner parallel to earlier uses of "new media," alternative organizing asks us to consider developments and possibilities we may not have entertained previously. In fact, advances in information/communication technology itself make possibilities for multi-cephalous, “leaderless”, and anonymous (or concealed) organizing more possible (see, e.g., Rossiter & Zoehle, 2014; cf. Scott, 2013; Stohl & Stohl, 2011).

Furthermore, the term alternative is unstable not only with respect to its own orbits of meaning but also in the sense that yesterday's alternative can easily become today's conventional practice. This was the case, for instance, with team-based organizing in the 1990s and beyond, although many different kinds of participatory and collaborative practices were grouped together under that rubric. The patterns of absorption and cooptation are even more apparent in the arts and entertainment where yesterday's "cutting-edge" or visionary genre becomes today's accustomed style.  Part of the dynamic of capitalism, recognized long ago by Marx, is expansion with absorption of "alternatives"; and this has become much more pronounced in an age of ubiquitous marketing and a system driven more by exchange and consumption more than by production (see Karatani, 2014).

Along with neo-Weberian critiques of rationality (e.g., Reed, 2004), feminism (Aschcraft & Mumby, 2004; Buzzanell, 2000; Calas & Smircich, 1993), post-colonialism (e.g., Broadfoot & Munshi, 2014), and neo-Marxist structural analyses (Karatani, 2014) as well as other approaches to production, exchange and consumption (Williams, 2014), remain important sources of ideas for challenging accustomed organizational designs and practices (see also the wide-ranging discussion in Burell & Morgan, 2006). More recently, efforts have been made to bring the bio-physical environment into organizational theory and practice to argue for sustainability, stewardship, and survival (Azkarraga, Cheney & Uriarte, 2014; Cato, 2014; Ganesh & Zoller, 2014).  From each of these major standpoints—or really, families or constellations of positions—organizing is reconfigured in significant ways from accustomed or dominant viewpoints represented in both lay and theoretical thinking. Received views on fundamental concepts may be challenged: what constitutes an organization, who are members, how do members relate to one another, how roles are established and defined, how decisions are made, how rewards are distributed, what goals are pursued, and to what extent the process of organizing itself is subject to reflection and revision. A major theme running through all of these alternative viewpoints and their applications is control and its exercise. Alternative organizing is often associated with democratizing work, although this term, too, is subject to many interpretations and transformations.

As already implied, one may also speak about an attitude, or set of attitudes, that accompanies alternative organizing. First is not taking for granted assumptions about organizing. Indeed, this is where the importation of new ideas and energies into any organizational system is vital. And, this is also where, in network terms, "the strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973) is as relevant to organizational change and transformation as it is to an individual's career shifts and job searches.    Second is cultivating imagination and visualization in terms of the possible (or even the thought to be impossible). There is a shortage of publicly available and well developed alternative models to corporate-consumer capitalism as the chief point of reference for institutions today. This is one reason why the "discourse of inevitability” (Aune, 2001) that surrounds such trends as free trade agreements, the privatization of social services, and unchecked growth has no strong competitor (see also Heinberg, 2011).  To be sure, there are powerful interests that work both consciously and without reflection to limit the horizons of possibility, and this has never been more clearly evident that since the Great Recession of 2007 onward.

At the same time, however, the sheer lack of vision--literally, not being able to see other ways of doing things--certainly restricts efforts at social transformation—even within many social-movements.  Third is the promotion of experimentation. This follows from the previous point in that space should be made for tinkering, tests and trials. And the fourth is social entrepreneurialism in that alternative organizing requires value-driven energetic efforts of groups as well as individuals (e.g., Roper & Cheney, 2005). Entrepreneurship is sometimes treated as something to avoid by those interested in significant social and economic change; but in the view presented here, it represents skills and energies to be directed and harnessed especially by groups.

There are a number of principles commonly associated with alternative organizing (see, e.g., Parker et al., 2014). The first is autonomy, as supported by recent surveys of workers and on worklife.  The largest survey of workers in US history, detailed in the book What Workers Want  (Freeman & Rogers, 1999), highlights autonomy as being one of the keys to job satisfaction and productivity—across classes of occupations. Second is equality/equity in the sense of shared opportunity and stake.  The worker-cooperative movement, which has gained steam during the years since the global recession began, offers a model that at least in principle unites labor and capital and establishes a one-person, one-vote means of governance, that is, for the major policies of the company (Webb & Cheney, 2014). Third is participation and democracy, on multiple levels from work group or team to the organization's relationship with the larger society (Pateman, 1970). Today's efforts at bringing socially inspired companies out into the community through means that go well beyond strategic philanthropy, are manifestations of a vision of participation that seeks to invigorate the public sphere. Fourth is solidarity and connection in terms of the embodiment of commitments to the community. In most cases, this term is used for something that goes far beyond, say, strategic philanthropy, important though that may be in terms of fostering community ties as well as socially responsible development (see, e.g., the now well-known “Triple Bottom Line’). The fifth and final principle to be highlighted here is responsibility in regard to the pursuit of policies and practices in accord with stated values.

In order to situate alternative organizing today, it is important to place the concept within a variety of contexts. We may observe alternative organizing as a response to any one or more of the following societal trends:  (1) responding to globalizing capitalism and growing inequalities (as is now discussed widely, even in the mainstream media), (2) promoting obvious and non-obvious forms of resistance to predominant trends of global capitalism and consumerism (that is, in terms of efforts to reconfigure citizenship and reconstitute contemporary "lifestyle"), (3) addressing cultural imperialism and related homogenizing forces (e.g., through "culture jamming"), (4) reinvigorating democracy and the public sphere (e.g., with respect to multiple levels of participation and bridging segregated groups), (5) counter-balancing fragmentation in social and psychological dimensions (with new organizing even if contingent principles), (6) supporting a variety of identities (and by building upon identity politics towards new connections),  (7) confronting the global environmental crisis and moving towards a new kind of realism (i.e., in terms of confronting mounting data on the need for drastic reformulations of "civilization") (8) taking full advantage of communication technologies for fostering connections (and recognizing the fluidity of organizational boundaries), and (9) constructing a kind of trans-localism (i.e., to bind local activities and movements to macro issues and trends). With respect to these impulses, there is a family resemblance in that prevailing assumptions about organizations, capitalism, bureaucracy, power and praxis are challenged. 

What, then, do alternative organizations look like?  As is the case with Weber's ideal types of authority and organization, we should not be tempted to look for or build perfect cases. Rather, we may look to alternative aspects or dimensions of organizations that may be present in varying degrees: take for example, the contributions and limitations of micro-credit or –finance institutions, gift economies, etc. (compare Lightfoot, 2014; Rehn, 2014). Also, it is important to note that some alternative organizing efforts will be more context- or domain-based (consider alternative organizations for immigrants not associated with or protected by any nation state: see Heyman, Fischer & Loucky, 2014) while others will be more generally applicable (consider how principles of mediation and dialogue may be applied across a variety of organizational activities). Sensitivity to the degree of transferability or generalizability is especially important as we look across nations, cultures, and ethnic groups where, for example, "professionalism" may have very different implications for policy and interactions and for groups (compare Allen, 2010; Cruz, 2014) such as refugees and the homeless where organizing must take on creative, ad hoc and contingent qualities (Ferrell, 2014).

Let's return to the term alternative organizations and consider its heuristic and practical value for the future.  The term itself is not yet tired or hackneyed, and that supports its continued usefulness. But, can it be employed in new ways and new contexts?  Can it serve to inspire? And, how can its persuasive power be enhanced in various media? These are the important questions to investigate as we consider not only the life of the term but also the larger question of how best to advance the values and goals most commonly associated with "alternative" and "organization".


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*Adjunct Professor, The University of Utah, The University of Texas at Austin, USA,

and The University of Waikato, NZ

Associate Investigator, Ohio Employee Ownership Center, Kent State University, Ohio, USA

Reference Professor, Mondragon University, The Basque Country, Spain