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Journal of Management
Volume 23, 1994

Select Articles

Organisational Effectiveness:
An Ethnographic Perspective
V Suchitra Mouly
ICSSR Senior Fellow,
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore,
Jayaram K Sankaran
Asst Prof, Dept of Management Studies,
Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

This paper attempts to explain the possible discrepancies between the perspectives of outsider experts and the experiences of insider members of an Organisation in terms of what determines its effectiveness.  Such discrepancies were observed in an ethnographic study of a R&D team. these discrepancies of the questionable premises of outsider experts on organisations were contended.  Although a few ethnographic studies favour this contention, many more micro ethnographic studies would be required to get definitive support for or against it.

The effectiveness of organisations is a topic of obvious importance which has been reported upon, widely written about, and discussed by many managers, practising consultants, and researchers over the past several decades.  Academics and practitioners alike have extensively studied the factors that influence the effectiveness, and the ways of improving the effectiveness in an Organisation.  A significant body of the concomitant literature has sought to identify the determinants of success that commonly and typically operate in most, if not all, organisations.  Only a few papers in this regard, have been cited here.

Murphy (1981) recommends several ways to improve R&D efficiency.  These include harinonisation of R&D targets with the corporate objectives, appropriate programme definition, and feedback. Margerison, Smith (1 989a) cite six 'D's' for success.  These include, among others, direction of knowing what one wants to achieve, drive and energy to achieve targets, and discipline to keep things moving in a systematic way.  In another paper (Margerison, Smith, 1989b), the same authors list several means of attaining success, such as doing it "your" way, taking on the giants, triumphing against odds, and so on.

Hughes (1986) lists several reasons for the failure of projects, such as the improper focus of the project management system, fixation on the first-level of estimates, and wrong level of detail, to-name a few.  Dobbs (1983) advocates twelve principles to be recognised in improving productivity.  One of the principles is that the administrative (white-collar) areas of the Organisation should not be ignored.  Another principle is that everyone needs a workable definition of productivity and productivity improvement. Moulder, Murray (1980) claim that in order to improve productivity, it is very essential for the managers to choose their aims and to communicate them to the workers. Heller (1983) states that success in the management of men and firms involves strong direction, good Organisation, and effective use of powers at the summit of the group.

Most of the cited literature on effectiveness are written from the standpoints of outsider experts and consultants exemplified by Peter Drucker.  Outsider experts typically generalise their consultative experiences with organisational effectiveness to almost all organisations.  Further, their approach to management tends to be somewhat normative and prescriptive.

Recently, there has been a growing body of literature that argues for more qualitative and in-depth approaches to the study of orgnaisations and their functioning.  While writing on corporate culture, Gorman (1989) refers to the "need to deal with organisations as they exist in the real world".  He asserts that the old-fashioned concepts, such as mission, vision, courage, and even leadership have been brought anew in the study of organisations and for good measure.  Although these concepts may not be very exact operationally, Gorman feels that they are nevertheless valuable since their meanings are robust and appeal greatly to the managers.

Aupperle, Acar, Booth (1986) compare and contrast the "excellent' firms of Peters, Waterman (1982) with 1,000 firms evaluated by Forbes magazine in one of their annual reports on the American industry.  Their results indicate that the excellent firms are not as superior as Peters, Waterman have suggested.  Aupperle, et al (1986) discuss the implications of these findings for the corporate culture (in the sense of work ethos) and performance research.  They assert that the role of corporate culture on business performance can be better understood only through methodologically rigorous research that "goes beyond the intuitive, causal, and simplistic" (Aupperle, et al, 1986, p. 51 1).

More recently, Mouly, Ramani (1990) argue that in terms of faithfully capturing an insider's point of view", an ethnographic approach is more appropriate for studying organisations than a survey-based approach.  Their argument forms part of a comprehensive appraisal of the two research methodologies - ethnographic, and survey-based.

This paper develops an ethnographic perspective on organisational effectiveness based on an 18 month study of a R&D team.  The team was based in a govemment-sponsored and funded Organisation in south India.  The primary objective was neither to study effectiveness per se nor to validate general hypotheses concerning the functioning of organisations.  Rather, the overriding objective was to capture, as closely as possible, the experiences of the members of a specific Organisation.  The focus was on understanding a community as a whole, the pattern of its daily life, and the day-to-day interactions among its members - in short, the "culture' of a community.  The ethnographic techniques used for data collection were questionnaires, un structured interviews, and participant observation.  Data were analysed using domain analysis followed by Spradley (I 979, 1980).

The Study
The research is aimed at providing a descriptive analytical case study of a R&D team in a public sector Organisation in south India.  It is aimed to understand the micro culture that was assumed to underlie both the generation and interpretation of the day-do-day interactive behaviour of the members of the R&D team.  The research provided an information-base grounded in insiders' perceptions of their daily life at work and thus hoped to facilitate an understanding of both the strengths and problems of the Indian R&D life.  A dominant feature of the research was that it used a qualitative, ethnographic approach as contrasted to the survey research mode, which has dominated the organisational studies in the Indian context.  The study comprised part of the doctoral research of the first author, (Mouly 1990; and Mouly, Sankaran, 1993).

Motivation for the Study
The motivation for this research developed from two trends in the study of scientific organisatlons in India.  Over the past five decades, sociological studies of science and technology (S&T) in India have focused on macro-level aspects, such as institution building, policy making, planning, and implementation of programmes.  In-depth, qualitative studies of the functioning of specific research teams in S&T institutions in India have not so far been available.  The study of the R&D team was pursued as a first step towards filling this gap.

The Site
The R&D team belonged to an institute that was established by the Government of India in 1960.  The objective of this institute as projected by its charter is to function as a national institute in power research and undertake development projects in the generation, transmission, distribution, and operation of electricity power systems.

The R&D personnel are organised into eight divisions.  The team that was studied comprised the five R&D personnel who belonged to a certain division.  The head of the team members was also the head of the division.  During the 18 month period of investigation, the team worked concurrently on several projects.  However, the study focused on their interactions with respect to two specific projects. (To protect the confidentiality of the team in the interests of its members, we have deliberately withheld details about the projects carried out by the team.)

Choice of the Site
It is pertinent at this point to describe as to why this setting was chosen to be studied.  Any generalisations about organisations subsume the notion of a "typical" Organisation for which the generalisations are putatively applicable.  If the chosen Organisation had been considered "atypical" by consultants and researchers alike, then any discrepancies between their generalisations and the findings from the study could have been attributed to the "atypical" nature of the Organisation.  Consequently, the chosen Organisation was considered 'typical" or "normal" by several outsider experts, consultants, peer groups, industrial clientele, and the like.  It was neither a total success nor a complete failure but was somewhat representative of other government R&D establishments in India.

This does not mean to say we meant to infer or deduce principles that could be generalised to other similar establishments, let alone organisations in general.  Rather, the study of the R&D team was pursued more for its own sake.  We believe it is time organisations are studied not with the intent of obtaining generalisable results by positing hypotheses and testing relationships among variables considered important.  Rather, we must Approach organisations with the objective of understanding them as cultures before orienting ourselves to hypotheses that maybe generalised across several settings.  Indeed, the emphasis in the study was on understanding another way of life and not on seeking objectively valid generalisations.

The data collection used the ethnographic research procedures of participant observation and unstructured ethnographic interviews followed by Spradley (1979, 1980).  In addition, a detailed commnunications study questionnaire was administered to the five members who constituted the core group of the R&D team.

Data were analysed through domain analysis as developed by Spradley. Spradley (1980, p. 85) defines analysis as a 'search for patterns', and ethnographic analysis as a "search for cultural patterns".  Domain analysis, which is the starting step in ethnographic analysis, involves searching for domains which Spradley defines as cultural categories under which to include smaller categories that give meaning to members' perceptions.  In other words, cultural domains hold a set of beliefs, perceptions, opinions, and values of the members of a community.  The goal of domain analysis is to enable us to identify cultural categories (by searching for different domains) and also to gain an overview of the cultural scene under study (by studying the content of various domains).  Each domain has a "cover term" which is the domain to be analysed, 'included terms" which reveal the perceptions of participants of this domain or the meanings given to the domain, and .semantic relationship" which states the relationship between the cover term and the included terms.

General Findings
While it is not possible for us to give a complete description of our ethnographic findings (Mouly, Sankaran, 1993, Chapt 4), we briefly sketch our findings from the study of the R&D team.  The major themes that we identified are: 

      1. Centralised administration
      2. Excessive bureaucracy
      3. Authoritarianism
      4. Apathy of the superior
      5. Strained inter-personal relationships
      6. Lack of cohesiveness
      7. Apathetic working lives
      8. Poor self-images
      9. Professional incompetence.

The central thesis of our ethnography is that the centralised administration, excessive bureaucracy, authoritarianism at various levels in the hierarchy along with professional mediocrity and an apathetic superior can very adversely affect the quality of life and work of an Organisation.  This influence can manifest in severely strained inter-personal relationships, distinct lack of identity as a group and poor self-images of team members, apathetic attitudes towards work, and low quality of research output.  The overwhelming impression that the first author formed from her fieldwork was one of frustration and apathy.

Findings on Effectiveness
We now discuss at length the findings concerning the organisational effectiveness, especially in relation to the mainstream of thought on this aspect of organisations.  An outsider expert typically attaches little importance to the personal/inter-personal aspects of the functioning of an Organisation with respect to its effectiveness.  If the study of the R&D team is any indication, these aspects can be very influential as we will now see.

Factors for Success
The domain analysis revealed that the team members perceived involvement, good teamwork, guidance from superiors, two way communication, good inter-personal relationships, and freedom at work as important factors for success.  Regarding the factors for personal success, the team members cited hard work, intelligence and also dubious factors, such as "soaping superiors", "flicking others' ideas", being 'heartless", and having the 'goodwill" of superiors.  The "technical" factors (namely , proper planning, state-of-the-art knowledge) were comparatively few and far between, compared to the personal/inter-personal factors.  Availability of resources, good salaries to attract the best personnel, dedicated staff, clarity of objectives, and timely completion of projects were additional factors listed by the members.

Factors for Failure
The team members listed lack of knowledge, lack of time, lack of resources, lack of encouragement, lack of help from the top, lack of interest, lack of co -ordination, lack of cohesiveness, and overconfidence as the factors of failure.  Significantly, only three of these can be regarded as technical or impersonal while the others are personal/ inter-personal in character.  We remark that while the "success" and 'failure" constructs may be fairly well defined, the experiences of organisational members may shape their perceptions and responses in a subjective manner, as seen in responses, such as "soaping superiors" or "flicking others' ideas".  Such responses revealed the interpersonal strains which were a dominant theme of the study.

Why do Perspectives of Outsider Experts Differ From Experiences of Insider Members?
To recall, we chose a typical organisation and yet we observed substantial discrepancies between the perspectives of outsider experts and insider members with reference to the factors for success and failure.  What might be the reasons for such discrepancies in general?  We suggest that these discrepancies arise because an outsider expert treats organisations as largely homogeneous entities while they are, in fact, more properly regarded as heterogeneous cultures.  Further, an outsider expert believes that he has a near-complee understanding of the causal chain of events that determine the success or failure of an organisational venture.  However, in truth, such an understanding may not be possible.

Organizations Not Homogeneous
Outsider experts tend to have a generally mechanistic view of the functioning of organisations.  They tend to view organisations in principally operational terms as groups of people working towards stated goals.  They believe that what is true of one should also be largely true of any other.

To cite just one instance to support our view.  Drucker (1974) enunciates six principles for effectiveness that he implicitly asserts are generically applicable to all service institutions.  He then adds that the application of these principles depends upon the kind of service institutions, such as natural monopolies, those that have to be paid for out of a budget allocation, and those that relate to the administration of .policy' areas, such as justice, and defence.

Briefly put, the principles are as follows.  Service institutions are to clearly define their function and mission.  Then they must derive clear objectives and goals, prioritise, define performance measures, incorporate these measures in feedback control, and, finally, develop an organised audit of objectives and results to identify obsolete objectives, unsatisfactory performance, and unproductive activities.

One is given to understand from Drucker that service  instituuons are sufficiently homogeneous that these general principles may be applied to all of them.  The sole caveat is that the type of service institution should be kept in mind while applying these principles.

As mentioned earlier, the culture of the R&D team that we studied was shaped by such site-speciflc influences as the recruitment and project selection processes.  Dubinskas (1988) reports similar findings based on a study of a genetic engineering firm.  He argues that the differences within organisations can shape the organisational life more powerfully than some blanket "corporate culture".  In a similar vein, Gregory (1983) argues that an Organisation that lacks cultural integration may actually be comprised multiple cultures that are internally consistent but externally conflicting.

Based on the consonance between our findings and those of Dubinskas, and Gregory, it seems reasonable to expect organisations to have fairly heterogeneous cultures.  Hence, whatever may be applicable to one Organisation may be, at best, only remotely applicable to another.

Culture of Influence
A close examination of the literature reveals that the prevailing tendency is to view effectiveness as being influenced by a set of largely impersonal factors.  In contrast, the discussion in the preceding section clearly illustrates that the personal/ interpersonal aspects of the culture of the R&D team played a substantial role in its effectiveness.  Like the study of the R&D team, that of Dubinskas also suggests that the culture of an Organisation. more specifically the behavioural (the personal/inter-personal) aspects, can substantially influence its functioning.  Hence, any issues, such as effectiveness must be studied in relation to the underlying culture of the Organisation.

Cause-Effect Relationships
Outsider experts believe that the causal relationships that underlie the functioning of an Organisation are, more or less, generic to all organisations.  They believe that these relationships can be understood or mastered to a considerable extent, if not completely.  Such knowledge may be organised either in precise, mathematical terms (such as a model) or in more qualitative terms.  Nevertheless, it may be gainfully employed to predict or manoeuvre the functioning of organisations in general.

Correlatively, an outsider expert or consultant is, more often than not, likely to view the success or failure of an Organisation as the almost direct consequence of the presence or otherwise of a set of factors.  As a result, his recommendations have a prescriptive/normative flavour.  Put crudely, they resemble a set of "dos" and "don'ts".

It may perhaps help to illustrate these remarks.  Drucker (1974, pp. 67-71) lists several factors that affect the productivity of an Organisation.  These include: (i) technical and managerial know-how; (ii) utilisation of time by men, machines, and managers: (iii) product mix - the balance between various combinations of the same resources: (iv) the conduct of operations.  For instance, the company may manufacture all of a product, or subcontract a part or even the whole product.  It may market the product under its own brand name through its own distributive Organisation.  Or it may sell the product to independent wholesalers who use their own brands; (v) utilisation of the specific abilities of the company and management and recognition of their limitations; (vi) the structure of the Organisation and the balance among the various activities within it; and (vii) economic factors, such as the marginal productivity's of labour, material, and capital.

Ostensibly, Drucker does not recognise the influence of personal/inter-personal factors on productivity.  His statements are to the effect that the aforesaid list is exhaustive.  One gets the impression from Drucker that an Organisation will almost definitely be productive if it retains these factors in propitious measure and will be unproductive otherwise.

In our own setting, the impersonal/ technical and personal/inter-personal factors described earlier by no means offered a comprehensive explanation for the effectiveness of the Organisation although their influence on success and failure was considerable.  In fact, we contend that it is very difficult to fully comprehend the causal chain of events in a particular organistional setting.  Any such knowledge will be at best partial.  Hence, it will generally not be possible to accurately predict or manoeuvre the outcome (success or failure) in any given organisational setting.

Need for More Studies
Our explanation for the possible discrepancies between the perspectives of outsider experts and the experiences of insider members in an Organisation has been based on three hypotheses: (a) organisations are culturally heterogeneous; (b) the culture of an Organisation has a substantial influence on its functioning; and (c) it may not be possible to fully apprehend this influence as well as the influence of impersonal and technical factors.

As stated earlier, these hypotheses have been supported in our ethnographic study.  However, many more such studies are required in order to obtain definitive evidence for or against the hypotheses.

In a study of a R&D team, we observed that the perspectives of success held commonly by outsider experts did not accord with the experiences of members of the team.  There was a substantial inter-personal character to the notions held by the insiders regarding what determined success and failure.  However, outsider experts generally ascribe importance to only the impersonal and technical determinants of effectiveness.  A similar study of a genetic engineering firm by Dubinskas (1988) suggests that such discrepancies between the perspectives of outsider experts and insider members may not be specific to the above mentioned R&D team.  In this paper, an explanation has been offered for the occurrence of these discrepancies in an Organisation.

Outsider experts tend to regard organisations as being largely homogeneous while, in fact, organisations can differ substantially with respect to the cultures that underlie their functioning.  As a consequence, what is true of one Organisation may not be even close to the truth of another.  Prescriptions of success that are meant to be applicable to organisations in general will likely to fail if they do not recognise the underlying micro-culture. 

The prescriptive approach of outsider experts implicitly assumes that success can be realised almost as the direct outcome of a few factors. This approach presupposes a near total understanding of the causal chain of events in an Organisation.  On this premise, outsider experts make recommendations and assert that these will work.

In contrast, the study of the R&D team suggests that the uniqueness and intrinsicity of organistional cultures has a strong bearing on organisational effectiveness.  Consequently, the causes that in reality determine the end-result of a venture may be hardly perceivable in a given context.  We may identify certain phenomena which partially explain success or failure in specific contexts.  However, a full understanding of reality may prove elusive.

This paper is based partly on the doctoral work of the first author which was supported by a scholarship from the Indian Institute of Science.  The first author gratefully acknowledges the support and guidance given by her adviser, Prof. Esther Ramani Also, thank the referees for the comments.


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