24 April 2006

Towards a Valence Theory of Organization

Update (April, 2010): The research and thesis on Valence Theory of Organization is now complete and available at the Valence Theory Thesis Wiki

I’ve just finished some major writing that extends my previous thinking about an Effect-ive Theory of Organizational Effectiveness, and derives A Valence Theory of Organization (that were once only initial thoughts). Here’s an excerpt – but for the really good stuff – including the Latourian entanglement argument – feel free to ask for the complete version.

They are relationships, connections, and emergent effects – far more than defined boundaries, production processes, functions, and responsibilities – that seem to be more apropos with respect to considering contemporary organization. Consider the effect-ive theory of action that I derived earlier, and the extension of the competing values framework of organizational effectiveness to include orientation. Consider, too, Castells’s (1996) reframing of the dominant organizational trajectory from vertical to horizontal, enabling the emergence of the network enterprise; Granovetter’s (1973) “strength of weak ties” that demonstrates the efficacy of indirect relationships in a large social network for diffusion of information. Inspired by [Margaret] Wheatley (1992), I propose another metaphor from science that serves to capture essential aspects of human relationships, to facilitate a reconception of organization, and more importantly, a new entanglement of the organization-person hybrid.

In the Niels Bohr model of the atom, electrons orbit around a nucleus in discrete levels or orbitals. There is a limit to the maximum number of electrons in each orbital, with the outermost orbital being incomplete – that is, having fewer than the maximum number – in most elements. Electrons in this outermost orbital can effect various types of chemical bonds with other atoms, and are known as valence electrons. In its most simplistic conception, valence bonding occurs when two or more atoms share valence electrons in their respective, uppermost orbitals, thereby creating a mutual connections upon which all of the atoms depend for the creation of the resulting molecular compound.

In an analogous fashion, an individual can consider her- or himself connected to an organization – and vice versa – in a variety of ways. There are often economic ties through employment contracts. In many cases, individuals construct part of their identity through self-identification with the organization. Indeed, in contemporary capitalism, some argue that both employees and customers construct identity based on their relationships with organizations (Gee, Hull, Lankshear, 1996; see especially chapter 2). Especially among non-profit or volunteer organizations, there are socio-psychological connections that emerge; indeed, I argue that these (among other) factors that explain aspects of motivation in the free/libre open source software movement can be applied to general principles of management (Federman, 2006).

These various relationships create valences – the capacity to connect, unite, react, or interact – between the individual and the organization. Ordinary experience would suggest that valences have complex relationships among themselves – one’s interactions with an organization are rarely uncomplicated and unitary, save in the most instrumental and limited circumstances. The strength of a given valence likely changes over time: for example, a person might be very active as a volunteer during a particular campaign (representing a strong socio-psychological valence, perhaps) and then limit her involvement thereafter (weakening the valence). A full-time employee might enjoy strong economic and identity valences; during a layoff, the economic valence might weaken more than the identity valence. Unionized workers would likely have dual identity valences that sometimes form “double bonds” (reinforcing self-identification with both union and company), and sometimes work in opposite directions, as during labour negotiations or strikes when the union-identity valence might work to negate the employer-identity valence.

Since individual-organization valence bonds can shift in intensity, type, and pervasiveness among individuals and over time, organization conceived in terms of its relationships, or valences, with its members is consequently contingent. Consider a non-trivial organization like a university. At its core are full-time faculty and staff, and enrolled degree students, all of whom enjoy mutual economic and identity bonds with the institution – and likely others, but two will suffice for illustration. Part-time faculty and students have the same types of valence bonds with the university, but neither bond is as strong as that of the university’s core constituents. Alumni, too, have economic and identity bonds, but the quality and nature of their bonds with the university are different than those of both the core group and the part-timers. In terms of relationships, then, what defines the university? The answer is interestingly contingent, uncertain, and complex, consistent with much else in the contemporary world: it depends. It depends on the temporal, spatial, material, and other contexts in which the question makes sense, but can be precisely defined by the types, strengths, and extents of the valence bonds under consideration. Like water that has three states – solid, liquid, and gas – the university analogously can exist in the same three states: solid (core constituency), liquid (core plus the more fluid part-timers), and gas (core, part-timers, plus the often evanescent alumni).

Unlike traditional contingency theories of organization that focus on instrumental repositioning of individual functional requirements based on environmental conditions (e.g., Lorsch, 1977), the contingent construction of an organization when considered from the ground of its valences considers the multiplicity of its relationships, and the nature, quality, and extent of those relationships’ effects, to define what now becomes organization as an emergent form.

When one moves beyond individual-organization relationships, it is equally clear that the same sorts of relationship valences can exist among discrete organizations (if indeed the notion of a “discrete organization” retains a useful meaning), both directly and indirectly, as in the case of a network enterprise. The same complex multiplicity of relationships and effects define inter- and intra-organizational forms, again, as emergent actants. This observation leads to a tentative, recursive, redefinition of organization:
Organization is that emergent form resulting from two or more individuals, or two or more organizations, or both, that share multiple valences at particular strengths, with particular pervasiveness, among its component elements.

  • Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.
  • Federman, M. (2006). The penguinist discourse: A critical application of open source software project management to organization development. Organization Development Journal, 24(2).
  • Gee, J. P., Hull, G., & Lankshear, C. (1996). The New Work Order: Behind the language of the new capitalism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Granovetter, M. (1973). The strength of weak ties. The American Journal of Sociology, 78(6), 1360-1380.
  • Lorsch, J. W. (1977). Organizational design: A situational perspective. Organizational Dynamics, 6(2), 2-14.
  • Wheatley, M. J. (1992). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
Update (April, 2010): The research and thesis on Valence Theory of Organization is now complete and available at the Valence Theory Thesis Wiki

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Astha said...

Fascinating. It's appears to be analogous to the social interactionist perspective of individuals and quite dissimilar to the normal rational conceptions we have about the organization. A step forward from the open systems perspective, which takes into account relations and interdependencies- but somewhere in the Input->Transformation->Output, loses the emergent quality.

What are your ideas on the practical implication this might have for the way organizations are currently structured? Or even for the way they market themselves.

Really like reading your posts.

Mark said...

Thanks, Astha. The conventional and current conception of organization is an artefact of an earlier time (eg. Industrial Age - structured primarily by mechanization) and hence the Input-Transformation-Output seems "natural" against that ground. As the world has changed, it is easily seen that such thinking is anything but natural - the UCaPP world imposes its own characteristics on us, characteristics that are fortunately closer to being human than being a machine.

The question of implications (not to mention a more complete exploration of valances and their interactions) is really the subject of the next couple of years of empirical investigation and writing. But here's one that I'm using as an illustration: Consider the customer and the employee. Two different entities relative to the I-T-O model: one's in the middle and the other on the right. But in the valence model (particularly when you consider Gee et al.'s idea of fast capitalism constructing identity via both production and consumption) you see that both employee and customer are connected to the organization primarily by the same valences - identity and economic. One could then consider them as equivalent in this sense, and that raises some interesting questions. For example, if there is a duty owed by the organization along each of these valences, then what we consider duty for one might inform the nature of the duty owed to the other. If there is a (self-imposed) requirement to truly listen to one, then that requirement might transfer to the other, and the justifications for certain actions taken against one group or the other become that much more transparent.

Another line of thinking on implication is that organizations connect to each other along the same valence lines. This means that the contingent organization goes well beyond its traditional organization set (that, in reality, often becomes a closed system even if considered as an open system from the organization's own perspective) now connects far beyond its usual customers, suppliers, and markets/industries. The effect-ive implications on direct valence bonds from indirect feedback loops must be considered in planning and strategy. That's not to say that organizations shouldn't be considering those things now. But this provides a vocabulary and thinking frame that should encourage more conscientious decisions.

Bao Thien Ngo said...


Fascinating. A few weeks before you posted this I, being a graphic designer, created this visualization of one of the organizations I once worked for. It did occur to me then that it looked like an atom, but it's not until today that I wonder if we can extend the analogy further by analyzing complex organizational relationships in the same manner as analyzing molecules.

In the same vein there must also be different types of organizations that can be categorized based on their valence. Some organizations might be inert, i.e. independent. Others are dependent (as in chapters of a organization; I consider these analogous to valence-1 hydrogen atoms). And still others are networking-organizations (like valence-4 carbon atoms). The complex relationships between different organizations could very well take a life of its own; society is really a DNA of organizations.

Scott said...

I think it would be useful to look at this idea of valence in relation to Winograd and Flores' discourse on commitment and conversations in organisations.