William H. Starbuck

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William H. Starbuck.

William Haynes Starbuck (born Sept. 20, 1934) is an American organizational theorist, and Emeritus Professor of Management at New York University. He contributed to the concepts of self-designing organizations, organizational design, environmental niches, organizational equilibriums made of antithetical processes, relativity through time of levels of aspiration as well as to behavioral research methods and epistemological status


  • In recent years there has been increased interest in the effects of internal communication on decision processes. A number of hypotheses relating the bias in information to the final decision have been proposed. In this paper we discuss two laboratory experiments which were designed to test two such hypotheses. The first experiment tests the hypothesis that cost and sales estimations are made with the implicit assumption that a biased pay-off structure exists. The second experiment tests explicitly the effects of biased and unbiased pay-off structures on estimation within an organization. An analysis of the data for the two experiments is made and some implications for further research are drawn from the results.
    • Richard Cyert, James G. March, William H. Starbuck. (1961) "Two experiments on bias and conflict in organisational estimation," Management Science, 254–64; Abstract
  • Organization theory,” a term that appeared in the middle of the twentieth century, has multiple meanings. When it first emerged, the term expressed faith in scientific research as a way to gain understanding of human beings and their interactions. Although scientific research had been occurring for several centuries, the idea that scientific research might enhance understanding of human behavior was considerably newer and rather few people appreciated it. Simon (1950, 1952-3, 1952) was a leading proponent for the creation of “organization theory”, which he imagined as including scientific management, industrial engineering, industrial psychology, the psychology of small groups, human-resources management, and strategy. The term “organization theory” also indicated an aspiration to state generalized, abstract propositions about a category of social systems called “organizations,” which was a very new concept. Before and during the 1800s, people had regarded armies, schools, churches, government agencies, and social clubs as belonging to distinct categories, and they had no name for the union of these categories. During the 1920s, some people began to perceive that diverse kinds of medium-sized social systems might share enough similarities to form a single, unified category. They adopted the term “organization” for this unified category.
    • William H. Starbuck and Philippe Baumard (2009). "The seeds, blossoming, and scant yield of organization theory," in: Jacques Rojot et. al (eds.) Comportement organisationnel - Volume 3 De Boeck Supérieur. p. 15

"Organizations as action generators," 1983


William H. Starbuck, "Organizations as action generators." American sociological review (1983): 91-102.

  • Most of the time, organizations generate actions unreflectively and non-adaptively. To justify their actions, organizations create problems, successes, threats and opportunities. These are ideological molecules that mix values, goals, expectations, perceptions, theories, plans, and symbols. The molecules form while people are result watching, guided by the beliefs that they should judge results good or bad, look for the causes of results, and propose needs for action. Because organizations modify their behavior programs mainly in small increments that make sense to top managers, they change too little and inappropriately, and nearly all organizations disappear within a few years.
    • Abstract

Learning by knowledge‐intensive firms," 1992


William H. Starbuck, "Learning by knowledge‐intensive firms." Journal of management Studies 29.6 (1992): 713-740.

  • Labeling a firm as knowledge-intensive implies that knowledge has more importance than other inputs.
    • p. 715
  • A knowledge-intensive firm may not be information intensive... Knowledge is a stock of expertise, not a flow of information.
    • p. 716
  • In deciding whether a firm is knowledge-intensive, one ought to weigh its emphasis on esoteric expertise instead of widely shared knowledge. Everybody has knowledge, most of it widely shared, but some idiosyncratic and personal. If one defines knowledge broadly to encompass what everybody knows, every firm can appear knowledge-intensive. One loses the value of focusing on a special category of firms. Similarly, every firm has some unusual expertise. To make the knowledge-intensive firm a useful category, one has to require that exceptional expertise make important contributions. One should not label a firm as knowledge-intensive unless exceptional and valuable expertise dominates commonplace knowledge.
    • p. 716
  • Professionals identify strongly with their professions, more strongly than with their clients or their employers. They not only observe professional standards, they believe that only members of their professions have the competence and ethics to enforce these standards. Similarly, professionals insist that outsiders cannot properly supervise their activities.
Management consulting and software engineering, for example, do not qualify as recognized professions. Without doubt, those who do these jobs well have rare expertise. Nevertheless, the ultimate judges of their expertise are their clients or their supervisors, and their employers set and enforce their ethical codes and performance standards
    • p. 717

"The Origins of Organizational Theory," 2005


William H. Starbuck (2005). "The Origins of Organizational Theory," in: Haridimos Tsoukas, Christian Knudsen (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory. p. 143-182

  • The history of organization theory contrasts with the history of managerial thought. When people began to compose texts about organized activities, between 2,000 and 3,000 years before the Christian era (BCE), they focused on managerial practices rather than on organizations as such. Several writers proposed general principles for managerial practice before 1000 BCE, so one can say that theories about managing have existed for at least 3000 years. However, these writings often said nothing about the organizational contexts in which managing was to occur. When the writers did make statements about organizations, they did not generalize. They wrote about specific organizations.
    • p. 143
  • Another forerunner of modern organization theorists was Andrew Ure, a professor of chemistry. An enthusiastic proponent of “the factory system,” Ure (1835) took a step beyond Adam Smith. Whereas Smith’s pin factory was solely an example of division of labor, Ure pointed out that a factory poses organizational challenges. He asserted that every factory incorporates “three principles of action, or three organic systems”: (a) a “mechanical” system that integrates production processes, (b) a “moral” system that motivates and satisfies the needs of workers, and (c) a “commercial” system that seeks to sustain the firm through financial management and marketing. Harmonizing these three systems, said Ure, was the responsibility of managers.
    • p. 149-150
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