10 Conceptual Frameworks of Organization Every Leader Should Know


11 min read

Understanding and analyzing organizations has been greatest challenges of academic and business world since decades. In order to facilitate this, many conceptual frameworks of organization have been developed; but most of them remained out of sight of practitioners. And along the last decades, researchers haven’t developed any new frameworks. In the meanwhile, management consultancy companies have developed their own frameworks based on their private research and have promoted them in business world. However, this time these frameworks mostly remained out of sight of researchers.

This article attempts to discover and review what is being offered to management practitioners in the contemporary business world as conceptual frameworks of organization. For this purpose a comprehensive list of management books were analyzed; and major consultancy companies were contacted.

Conceptual Frameworks

There is no agreed definition for conceptual framework in the literature. Ravitch and Rigan claims that there are at least three different perspectives. (Ravitch & Riggan, 2016) The first perspective defines conceptual framework as a visual representation of organization of a study. The second perspective defines conceptual and theoretical frameworks as essentially the same thing. In this case, conceptual framework becomes what one means by theory. The third perspective takes conceptual framework as a way of aligning all key components of the research process (goals of researcher, context, theory, methods, and interpretation of findings) to create a compelling argument for why the topic of the study is significant and the means proposed to study it are appropriate and rigorous. Coming closer to the second perspective, Maxwell puts another definition and claims that conceptual framework is something constructed and a combination of experiential knowledge, prior theory and research. (Maxwell, 2013)

In this article, the term of framework indicates any conceptual representation or model of organization designed to explain organizational elements and internal dynamics based on a theory. The field of organizational science especially feels the need of conceptual frameworks, because the phenomenon of organization, which consists of many technical and social elements, is too complex for our comprehension. By simplifying reality, frameworks help us gain understanding of how organizations work and make predictions about them. Practitioners utilize such frameworks in their change interventions for understanding and analyzing organizations.

Problems of Existing Frameworks

The field of organizational science can be considered rich in terms of conceptual frameworks. However, the resource scanning done for this article also implies that very few of them were recognized by the practitioners. Reasons of this remains as a topic to be explored further, however there are a plethora of studies acknowledging that there is a big divide between practitioners and researchers in management. Having noticed this, some researchers proposed remedies to fix it (Starkey & Madan, 2001), (Wolf & Rosenberg, 2012) while there has been others declaring all these efforts useless. (Kieser & Leiner, 2009)

Another important issue, which also contributes a lot to the aforementioned divide, organization science still doesn’t constitute a coherent body of knowledge. It even shows evidence of movement toward more diversity rather than less (Pfeffer, 1993). When the knowledgebase continue to fragment, it becomes more and more difficult for the field to be relevant and prove useful for practical purposes.

Apart from this usefulness problem, it seems that the motivation of management researchers to create new frameworks have also reduced. “Most of the theories of organization used by contemporary management researchers were formulated several decades ago, largely in the 1960s and 1970s, and these theories have persisted, mostly intact, since that time” say Suddaby, Hardy, & Huy (2011), repeating similar comments of Davis (2010).

As warned by Hambrick, in his call to management researchers to address the relevance gap urgently (1993), academia’s failure to meet practitioners’ needs pushed management consultancy companies to step in. They have developed some new frameworks based on their private research and have promoted them in business world. However, this time, these frameworks remained out of sight of researchers, since these companies did not disclose details of their research. (Read more about Organizational Theory)

10 Frameworks

The selection of conceptual frameworks for this article was made by scanning a comprehensive list of management books (to mention just a few (Kates & Galbraith, 2007), (Peters & Robert H., 2006), (Nadler, Tushman, & Nadler, 1997), (Kesler & Kates, 2010), (Stanford, 2015), (Cameron & Green, 2015), (Gallos, 2006)) and major management consultancy resources (mostly online resources of Bain & Company, McKinsey & Company, BCG, Strategy&, Deloitte, EY) on organization. Holistic frameworks, whose main purpose is to understand and analyze organizations as a whole, are selected. It is important to underline that my personal interpretation (subjective sense-making efforts) played a big role in the selection process (in judging significance and making the decision whether to include a particular framework or not).

Below are the frameworks identified:

60sThe Star ModelJ.R. Galbraith
70sThe 7S Model
The Six-Box Model
M. Weisbord
80sThe Congruence Model
The TPC Model
D.A. Nadler, M.L. Tushman
N.M. Tichy
90sThe Causal ModelW.W. Burke; G.H. Litwin
00sThe Organizational DNA
The Fractal Web Model
The Organizational Health Model
The Holonic Enterprise Model
E. McMillan
B. Robertson

Here are the mini reviews of these models:

J.R. Galbraith’s “The Star Model” (Kates & Galbraith, 2007) is among the most referred models in popular business literature. The model depicts 5 elements of an organization (strategy, structure, processes, reward system and people practices), which are controllable by management and can influence employee behavior. These elements are also explained as design choices of a company in its organizational design endeavor. According to Galbraith, strategy is especially important in the organization design process because it establishes the criteria for choosing among alternative organizational forms. Structure determines the location of decision-making power. Processes defines how information flow and people operate. Reward system influences the motivation of people to perform in line with organizational goals. People practices influence employees’ mind-sets and skills. As far as the internal dynamics of these elements are considered, the Star Model underlines that these elements must be consistent with each other, but it doesn’t provide too much detail about how and to what extend the consistency should exist.

McKinsey’s “The 7S Model” is another popular model referred in management practice. (Peters & Robert H., 2006) The model includes seven interdependent organizational elements which are categorized as either “hard” or “soft” elements. “Hard” elements (strategy, structure, systems) are tangible and easier to influence. “Soft” elements (shared values, leadership style, staff, skills), on the contrary, are less tangible and difficult to influence. The model is advertised by McKinsey as an analysis tool to analyze organizations.

The Six-Box Model”, which is based mainly on the techniques and assumptions of the field of organizational development, was developed by M. Weisbord, an American OD consultant, in order to assess the functioning of organizations. (Weisbord, 1976) As the model’s name implies, it includes six elements (purposes, structure, relationships, reward system, leadership, and coordination mechanisms) Purposes element may create confusion due to its naming but it actually refers to mission, strategy and goals of the organization. Environment, while not listed as an element, exists in the model as a complementary factor in order to emphasize organizations’ dependency to it. Weisbord, also underlines the concept of fit (the fit between organization and environment; and the fit between individual and organization)

The Congruence Model”, (Nadler, Tushman, & Nadler, 1997) which views the organization as a system that translates strategy (by using environment, resources, and history of the organization as inputs) into performance through the interaction of four elements (work, people, formal organizational arrangements such as structure and processes, informal organizational arrangements such as values, norms and patterns of social interactions). The model also emphasizes that the interaction between organizational elements is more important than the elements themselves. In other words, the degree to which the elements are aligned determines the organization’s ability to compete and succeed.

Although not as frequently referred as the aforementioned models, a model called as “The TPC Model” was also captured in the review study.  TPC stands for “Technical, Political, Cultural”. This model was developed by N. M. Tichy to be used in organizational change management process and made public in his book “Managing Strategic Change” (Tichy, 1983). In this model, 9 elements are listed: external environment (inputs), mission, strategy, tasks, prescribed networks (formal structure), people, organizational processes (communication, problem solving, decision making) and emergent networks (informal structures). Tichy names these elements as “change levers”, which need to be aligned for organizational effectiveness, and simultaneously adjusted to make change happen effectively. The model also defines three systems (technical, political, cultural) that cut across the nine levers. Tichy claims that these organizational systems must be aligned with each other and with other nine levers.

The Causal Model”, which is similar to other open systems theory based frameworks but differentiates from them with its emphasize on the on causal relationship of elements, was developed in the early 1990s by a group of consultants. (Burke & Litwin, 1992) Claiming that previous organizational models do little more than describing organizational variables and fall short of serving as a guide in managing organizational change, they tried to consolidate cause and effect relationships between organizational elements based on various academic studies of the past and their experiences in professional projects. The model identifies eleven organizational elements: External environment, mission and strategy, leadership (behavior of senior executives), organizational culture, structure, management practices (daily practices to carry out strategy), systems (all standardized policies and procedures related with the people and the operations of the organization.), work unit climate, tasks and individual skills, individual needs and values, motivation. The model also distinguishes between transformational and transactional organizational dynamics. By “transformational” the model implies the areas in which a change will require entirely new behavior sets from organizational members. Transactional areas are the ones, where change is not difficult and require relatively short term interventions among people and groups.

Analysis of consultancy resources brought “The Organizational DNA” framework into attention of this review. (PWC, 2017) This framework was developed by a group of consultants in Booz & Company (later acquired by PWC and renamed as Strategy&) in the early 2000s. It employs DNA metaphor and claims that DNA of organizations consists of four building blocks, which codifies distinct identities like the DNA of living organisms. These organizational building blocks — formal structure & networks (informal structure), decision rights & norms (informal decision rules), formal motivators & individual commitments, formal information processing & mindsets (informal information processing) — are dichotomous and largely determine how a firm looks and behaves, internally and externally. The framework also identifies 7 different organization types, four of which are unhealthy, based on specific configurations of these building blocks. (See this article for further detail.)

The Fractal Web Model” was captured in very few resources; but is presented here due to its uniqueness and its potential to enrich our perspective. As its originator McMillan puts forward, “The model was devised by thinking about biological structures […]. The model has nonlinear interconnectedness; and […] is open to its environments, all characteristics of self-organizing system […].” The model depicts organization like a living structure and outlines three main arteries and some (to be increased in case of necessity) chambers in it. Arteries are ethos and values, purposes and intelligence. Chambers are learning, futures, risks, projects, external aspects, experiences, resources, legal requirements, customers, chill out space. Each chamber in the model is dynamic and can change shape in line with changing needs. The size of the chambers indicate the amount of activity and resources involved for related domain. (McMillan, 2002)

Another framework, developed by management consultancy world, is “The Organizational Health Model” of McKinsey. (McKinsey, 2017) (Keller & Price, 2011) This framework is claimed to be the result of one of the biggest research projects ever undertaken in the field of management. It is developed to measure the degree of utilization of thirty seven best practices under nine dimensions, which are direction, accountability, coordination and control, external orientation, leadership, innovation and learning, institutional capabilities, motivation, culture and climate. Similar to “The Organizational DNA” framework, it also identifies four healthy archetypes, based on specific configurations of best practices.

The Holonic Enterprise Model”, which is also called as “Holacracy”, assumes some principles of complexity theory. It is developed by an entrepreneur, Brian Robertson, in his own firm and made public by an article in 2007, and later by a book in 2015. (Robertson, 2015) The purpose of the framework is depicting a better form of organizing rather than providing a model for understanding organizations. The framework is centered on self-managing teams (also called as circles), whose responsibilities are clearly defined by a higher team. A team’s responsibilities can also be negotiated for change by other teams. The teams run according to detailed democratic procedures and have full authority to decide how to carry out the tasks under their responsibility. People can assume many different roles in different teams. All responsibility and people arrangements are subject to continuous and small adjustments.


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