An earlier version of this paper presented at the University of
Michigan, Interdisciplinary Conference on Organization Studies
Working Conference on Generative Theories of Organization, January
17-19, 1992. The author would like to acknowledge the support
of the Ameritech Foundation, through the Information and Organizations
Program of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University
of Michigan. This paper has benefited greatly from discussion
with Michael Cohen, Kevin Crowston, Chris Dellarocas, Jintae Lee,
Fred Luconi, Thomas Malone, Peter Manning, George Wyner, and feedback
from Andrew Van de Ven and the anonymous Organization Science
Grammar has been used metaphorically to describe organizational processes, but the metaphor has never been systematically developed so that it can be applied in empirical research. This paper develops the grammatical metaphor into a rigorous model for describing and theorizing about organizational work processes, defined here as sequences of actions that occur in the context of enabling and constraining structures. A grammatical model starts with a lexicon of elementary actions (called moves) and specifies the ways in which they can be combined to create a process. Unlike other sequential data analysis techniques, grammatical models provide a natural way of describing the layering and nesting of actions that typifies organizational processes. The example of a simple retail sales transaction is used to illustrate the underlying concepts. The paper also examines some methodological considerations involved in using process grammars and proposes an agenda for research, including: (1) creating descriptive taxonomies of organizational processes; (2) creating disconfirmable theories about the relationship between processes and the structures that enable and constrain them; (3) explaining the distribution of observed processes and predicting new processes that have not yet been observed; and (4) designing new organizational processes.
Keywords: Grammars; Process models; Business processes; Sequential
Process thinking has been attracting more interest lately from both theorists and practitioners. Some sociologists are beginning to adopt the view that "social reality happens in sequences of actions located within constraining and enabling structures" (Abbott, 1992, p. 428). Organization theorists argue that process models provide a unique perspective on innovation (Van de Ven and Poole, 1990), strategic change (Van de Ven, 1992), and organizational behavior in general (Mohr, 1982). Practitioners believe that a process centered view of organizational design can yield dramatic improvements in organizational performance (Hammer, 1990; Davenport, 1993). Whether one regards this wave of interest in processes as a case of theory leading practice, or practice leading theory (Barley, Meyer and Gash, 1988), it seems clear that there is a need for more understanding of this domain.
Recent studies of innovation (Pelz, 1985; Van de Ven, Angle, and Poole, 1989), group processes (Gersick, 1989; Poole and Roth, 1989; Olson, Herbsleb and Rueter, in press), software development (Sabherwal and Robey, 1993) and careers (Abbott and Hrycak, 1990) have begun to introduce sequential concepts and methods to a wider audience of organizational scholars. But more than ten years after Mohr's (1982) rallying cry for research that takes process seriously, organizational theorists are still generally content to study the variable properties of static objects using traditional variance models (Van de Ven, 1992). Processes, if mentioned at all, are often used as "just-so stories" that describe the causal chain that relates independent and dependent variables (Abbott, 1992, p. 429). Empirical studies of actual sequences of events (e.g., Van de Ven, Angle, and Poole, 1989; Sabherwal and Robey, 1993) are still quite rare. We are accumulating an increasingly powerful set of tools for describing and comparing sequences of events (Hewes, 1980; Holmes and Poole, 1991; Abbott, 1990), but these methods lack the capability to express the nested, layered quality that characterizes many kinds of organizational processes. As interest in process research grows, we will need increasingly sophisticated ways of representing and reasoning about complex sequences of events.
The purpose of this paper is to argue that a special class of process models based on the metaphor of grammar can provide unique insights into the sequential structure of organizational processes. In recent years, the metaphor of grammar has been used more frequently in connection with organizational processes. One of the first instances was Weick (1979: 3), who defined "organizing" as a "consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocked behaviors," and goes on to argue that "organizing resembles a grammar, a code, or a set of recipes." More recently, Drazin and Sandelands (1992, p. 230) argue that the "deep structure" of organizing consists of a "generative grammar." By describing organizations and interactions in grammatical terms, these scholars and a host of others (Skvoretz and Farraro, 1980; Barley, 1986; Abell, 1987; Sandelands, 1987; Salancik and Leblebici, 1988; Coulter, 1989; White, 1992) are implicitly suggesting that, like human language, human organization has syntax. A syntax of organizational processes is an exciting possibility, because it provides a new paradigm for organizational science. In the same way that ecological concepts (such as population, niche, and density) provide new ways to theorize about organizational forms, grammatical concepts (such as lexicon and syntactic structure) provide new ways to theorize about organizational processes. The most convenient starting point in this effort would be simple "business processes" (Davenport, 1993): goal oriented sequences of actions that repeat over time, such as customer service (Ventola, 1987). Eventually, it may also be possible to create grammatical models for other kinds of processes that embody change over time, such as organizational life cycles, innovation (Van de Ven and Poole, 1990), or strategy formation (Van de Ven, 1992).
The goal of this paper is to define the basic terms of grammatical models of organizational processes, and to clarify the limits and possibilities of a research agenda based on such models. The question is, what might we learn if we took Weick's (1979) metaphor seriously and applied it in empirical research? To answer this question, we need a method for rigorously mapping concepts from the domain of grammar to the domain of organizing. Organization theory is filled with metaphors (Morgan, 1986), but with the notable exception of the ecological metaphor, very few of them have been systematically developed. Tsoukas (1991) describes a way to develop metaphorical language into rigorous theoretical language by progressively mapping ideas from one domain to another until one arrives at a language that is isomorphic between domains. Another way of framing this line of inquiry would be to ask: what can we learn about organizational processes by thinking of them as products of a language? The argument here is that the grammatical metaphor opens up new ways of modeling and analyzing process. These models are not substitutes for variance models, or other kinds of sequential models. Rather, they add to the stock of analytical tools that organization theorists can bring to bear on this important class of phenomena.
In typical metaphors, the source domain is quite familiar to the
audience, so that it helps them form interpretations or insights
about the less familiar target domain (Tsoukas, 1991). For this
paper's audience, the source domain (grammar) is less familiar
than the target (organizations). Therefore, the paper begins by
defining the concept of grammar and explaining some of its key
features. Given this introduction, I will examine some ways that
these concepts can be exploited to construct grammatical models
of organizational processes. The analysis indicates that basic
grammatical concepts can be used to create rigorous, disconfirmable
models of organizational processes. The final sections of the
paper discuss some methodological considerations in developing
and testing such models, and suggest what we might learn from
a grammatical research agenda.
Before we can begin mapping concepts between grammar and organization, we need to familiarize ourselves with the critical features of the source domain. I will start with a basic definition of grammar:
A grammar describes a (potentially infinite) set of patterns in terms of a finite lexicon and a finite set of rules or constraints that specify allowable combinations of the elements in the lexicon.
In English, for example, the "patterns" are sentences, the "lexicon" consists of words, and the "constraints" are the rules of English syntax. By specifying how words can be combined to create sentences, a grammar provides a concise way of describing a language (that is, the set of all correct sentences and only these). A grammar embodies hypotheses about what patterns are possible, but it is not intended to predict individual patterns. English grammar offers no insight at all into what my next sentence will be, yet it describes the form of every correct English sentence. Likewise, Salancik and Leblebici's (1988) grammar of food service transactions describes the set of all possible restaurants, but cannot predict whether a particular restaurant will offer cafeteria style or sit-down service. Like discrete, stochastic process models (Hewes, 1980), grammars describe a set of possible outcomes, not an individual outcome. Given that grammar is perhaps the purest form of structuralism, it should not be surprising to find that, like any structuralist perspective, grammar emphasizes patterns over individual cases (Mayhew, 1980).
In addition to describing a set of patterns, grammars can also embody a set of testable hypotheses that provide the basis for a theoretical explanation of the observed patterns. The explanatory power of grammatical models lies in the way in which they embody structural constraints on the set of possible patterns. As Simon (1992, p. 154) notes, a description becomes an explanation when it refers to "structural characteristics of the system." For example, when linguists observe a sentence construction that seems valid, yet violates some hypothesized grammatical constraint, it forces them to revise the hypothesis to account for the new observation. Similarly, in other domains where grammars have been used, the process of fitting the grammar to the data progressively improves one's understanding of the structure of the data (Olson, Herbsleb and Rueter, in press). In this way, grammar provides a logical framework for testable theories about the constraints that account for any given set of observations.
Grammars also provide a framework for generating new instances of a set. In linguistics, grammars are called "generative" because they possess the mathematical capability of generating an infinite set of sentences from a finite lexicon and a finite set of rules. Generativity is an interesting property for organization theorists, as well, because it suggests the possibility of predicting new organizational processes and forms based on a given set of constraints, or changes in a set of constraints (Salancik and Leblebici, 1988). From a practical point of view, the generative properties of grammatical models may provide new ways to design processes (Malone, Crowston, Lee, and Pentland, 1993).
Grammars are similar to scripts, but there are two important differences. First, as used in the organizational literature, the concept of a script (or event schema) is general treated as an individual level cognitive structure (Abelson, 1981; Gioia and Poole, 1984). By contrast, the grammatical concepts I will describe below are tied to a more general set of structures that enable and constrain the flow of events, including physical and organizational structures. Second, grammars are a more powerful representational device than scripts. Schank and Abelson's (1977, pp. 11-17) original formulation of plans and scripts was built upon a lexicon of eleven primitive actions or "meaning units." These units could then be combined or recombined to form any particular plan or script, such as the restaurant script. To the extent that the restaurant script is a combination of this lexicon of meaning units, it is the product of an implicit "restaurant grammar" of the kind proposed by Salancik and Leblebici (1988). From the perspective of formal representation, generative grammars form a complete superset of scripts; there is no script that cannot also be expressed by a grammar. This is an important observation, because it suggests that a grammatical approach to representing routines is not an alternative to a script based approach. Rather, it is a more powerful generalization of the same basic idea.
Since we are attempting to apply grammatical concepts to a domain other than language, it is important to realize that linguists do not hold a monopoly on the concept of grammar. Grammars can be constructed for any phenomenon that can be given a sequential representation. There are grammars for DNA, polygons, curves, Korean characters, computer programs, electrical circuits, and more (see Gonzalez and Thomason, 1978; Miclet, 1986). Grammatical models have also been applied extensively to the study of stories and narratives (Prince, 1973; Ryan, 1979; Lenhert, 1981; Colby, Kennedy and Milanesi, 1991). In many respects, story grammars provide the most readily applicable set of grammatical tools for the analysis of organizational processes because they have been applied to the kinds of events that comprise organizational life (e.g., situated actions by individuals). To the extent that we conceive of organizational life as a kind of living narrative, story grammars are an obvious analytical tool. The utility of grammatical techniques to domains other than linguistics also helps to underscore the distinction between the general concept of grammar and the highly specific (and controversial) hypotheses of Chomskian generative grammar which are discussed in more detail below. This distinction helps define the limits and possibilities of grammatical models of organizational processes.
For some, the idea of a "social grammar" of any kind is troublesome because the word "grammar" carries some very powerful philosophical connotations: essentialism, deep structure, and universality. Because of these connotations, the notion that social life of any kind can be represented by grammatical formalisms has been disputed by social theorists such as Bourdieu (1977, 1990), Brint (1992), de Certeau (1984), Fabian (1979, 1990) and Heritage (1984), among others. As typically conceived, grammars depend on rules of syntax that determine what is grammatical and what is not. But as Heritage (1984: 126) argues, "social action cannot be analyzed as 'governed' or 'determined' by rules in any straightforward sense." Heritage (1984: 216) points out that flaunting a well-known rule (e.g., "greet only acquaintances") can be actively used to reconstitute the meaning of a situation. In this way, participants may strategically use a rule without following it at all. Fabian (1979: 11-12) notes that a complete grammar would need to contain "rules for the proper violation of its rules, or rules for the change of rules," which would lead logically to a regress ad infinitum. The objectification of rules and rule-following is only one problem. The grammatical metaphor has also been criticized for being ahistorical (Fabian, 1990: 14) and for relying on objectivist assumptions that have been long discredited by philosophers and empirical psychologists alike (Lakoff, 1987: 8-10). These objections raise serious questions about the extent to which the grammatical metaphor can be applied to organizations.
To address these concerns, it is critical that we not import grammatical concepts without careful consideration of their connotations and implications. We must restrict ourselves to clear mappings between the source domain and the target domain and discard those features of the source domain that do not fit (Tsoukas, 1991). The proposed mapping between grammar and organizational processes is summarized in Figure 1, and each of the rows is explained in the text that follows. To help make the mapping concrete, I will use a simple example to illustrate each part of the overall metaphor: a trip to a supermarket in the United States. We will examine this process from the shopper's perspective, since this is the perspective that will be most familiar. One could just as easily consider the processes of stocking the shelves, taking inventory, or other aspects of supermarket operations. The purpose, of course, is not to make a contribution to a substantive theory of shopping, but simply to illustrate the use of the terminology.
Moves are like words
The basic elements of a language are usually called an "alphabet" or a "lexicon" (Miclet, 1986). Like atoms in chemistry, these are the basic building blocks that can be combined to create more complex structures. The definition of these basic elements depends on the kind of sequences being studied. In story grammars, the basic units are sometimes called "plot units" (Lenhert, 1981) or "meaning units" (Colby, Kennedy and Milanesi, 1991). In studies of human interaction, the term "lexicon" is more common (Hymes, 1972; Fabian, 1979), so this term is used here. Note that the definition of these units is always somewhat arbitrary; lexemes can be decomposed into phonemes, plot units into actions, atoms into particles, and so on. The point is that they are treated analytically as the most detailed level of description necessary for the problem at hand.
In organization theory, moves can be used to define a lexicon of organizational action (Pentland, 1992). Goffman (1981, p. 24) defined moves as "any full stretch of talk or of its substitutes which has a distinctive unitary bearing on some set or other of the circumstances in which participants find themselves." Using this definition, Pentland (1992) identified a set of basic moves in the lexicon of a software support organization (e.g., assign, transfer, refer, escalate, and so on). Moves have some conceptual and practical advantages over other possible lexical elements, such as speech acts (Searle, 1969; Winograd and Flores, 1986). First, unlike speech acts and other purely linguistic concepts, the concept of a move encompasses non-linguistic behavior (Goffman, 1981). As an interaction unit, a move might consist of a combination of several different utterances and actions, the combined effect of "has a distinctive, unitary bearing" on the situation. Furthermore, moves are connected to structural features of the situation; they are constrained and enabled by the physical, ritual, and competence structure of the situation (Pentland, 1992). Given Abbott's (1992, p. 428) definition of processes as "sequences of actions located within constraining or enabling structures," moves are an obvious choice for the elements of a lexicon.
Example. Consider a trip to a typical suburban supermarket in the United States. Because of the organization of the physical space and the general expectations of the shoppers and the store management, there are certain kinds of moves that are likely to be observed. For example, a shopper might park their car, get a shopping cart, select items, and so on. In some stores, shoppers may also request special assistance (for example, in a meat department or a deli counter). The shopper would usually empty his or her cart onto a checkout counter of some sort (often a conveyer belt), where a cashier would "ring up" the items and the shopper would pay. In some supermarkets, there may be a "bagger" who places the purchased items in bags; in other supermarkets, shoppers do this for themselves. Finally, the shopper would remove the items from the store, load them into his or her car, and drive away. Note that this level of description is quite abstract; it does not specify the number or kind of items selected, or how payment was made. Without further specifying some constraints on the sequence, these moves could be used to construct descriptions of impossible or nonsensical processes (e.g., ringing up items that have not been selected). All we have at this point is a lexicon.
Performance programs are like syntactic constituents
In addition to a lexicon, grammars often include a more abstract notion of "syntactic constituents" (Newmeyer, 1983; Cook, 1988). Linguists identify categories of words or phrases that serve a particular function in the syntax of a sentence, such as noun phrases (e.g., "the official," "the document") or verb phrases (e.g., "is shredding"). These constituents can be combined according to grammatical rules to create sentences (e.g., "The official is shredding the document."). Syntactic constituents provide a way of describing the structural features of a pattern without elaborating it all the way down to the specifics of the lexicon. Syntactic constituents also provide a way of categorizing interchangeable chunks of a sequence that are functionally similar. In the example just given, one can substitute a wide variety of different noun phrases as the subject of the sentence: "the copier," "the dog," and so on. The meaning of the sentence changes, of course, but these forms are structurally equivalent. Another powerful feature of syntactic constituents is the way they can be nested together. To return to the example of the official, we can substitute a different, compound noun phrase at the end of the sentence: "The official is shredding the document that contains the incriminating evidence." The ability to substitute equivalent constituents and nest them together is an important part of grammar.
In organization theory, "performance programs" (March and Simon, 1958) provide an analogy to syntactic constituents. In their discussion of performance programs, March and Simon (1958, pp. 140-144) describe the way in which programs can be nested together and recombined to create larger programs. These "programs" embody chunks of behavior that have been routinized and possibly even automated in some way. More recently, Ashforth and Fried (1988) build on the concept of scripts (Schank and Abelson, 1977) to describe "mindless" routines that can be initiated by a very limited stimulus and run through until completion, unless interrupted. Abell (1987) uses the term "molecular actions" to describe a similar concept: actions that are so tightly bound together that we usually think of them as a unified whole. These routinized chunks of behavior would seem to make excellent candidates for the syntactic constituents of organizational processes.
Example. In our description of the supermarket, there are several candidates for syntactic constituents. For example, "ringing up" a set of items involves a highly routinized set of discrete steps. Once started, it tends to go through to completion. Further, ringing up can be accomplished in several ways (for example, manually or with a universal product code scanner). "Making payment" also involves a set of routinized actions that can be accomplished in several different, interchangeable ways (Ventola, 1987). While particular ways of ringing up or making payment may only be possible in a supermarket (e.g., coupons and food stamps are usually not accepted at restaurants), these generic activities are syntactic constituents of every kind of retail transaction.
Processes are like sentences
Sentences are the basic unit of analysis in grammatical theories of language. In other domains, it would be individual children's stories, electric circuits, polygons, or whatever. This is perhaps the most critical aspect of the mapping because it fixes the unit of analysis -- thereby determining the kinds of methodological tools that are required and the kinds of theoretical statements that are possible. In linguistics, grammar defines the set of valid sentences in a language, thereby defining the language itself.
In organization theory, the appropriate unit for grammatical analysis is a process. This seems to be the intuition that Weick (1979) was building on when he suggested that organizations construct processes from a set of "cycles" or "double interacts" using a set of "assembly rules." The grammatical metaphor applies most readily to "stationary" processes (Hewes, 1980). These are processes that involve sequences of discrete events (or states) that may repeat over time but do not change over time. Grammars, by their very nature, are synchronic, not diachronic (de Saussure, 1959; Barley, 1990). Grammars describe sequences of actions that are situated in time, but the time scale for any given occurrence of a sequence could be relatively short. For example, in Salancik and Leblebici (1988), the unit of analysis was a food service transaction; depending on the kind of restaurant, the entire sequence might be completed in a few minutes or a few hours, at most. For any given food service establishment, the basic sequence identified in their grammar would stay relatively constant over time. These sequences are what Van de Ven (1992) calls a "unitary" progression of events, where only one event occurs at a time. This is the most intuitive mapping, because it compares directly to words in a sentence, or plot units in a story. However, other kinds of progressions identified by Van de Ven (1992) (parallel, divergent, and convergent) are well within the representational capacity of more advanced grammatical models (for example, Miclet, 1986, describes grammars for tree structures of various kinds).
Example. In our supermarket example, one can imagine recording the sequence of events in one shopper's trip to a particular store. This sequence is like a "sentence" that could be represented and analyzed grammatically. Note that even in a single supermarket, there are an enormous number of possible sequences (think of all the available items, and every possible sequence in which you could select them and pay for them). One could also collect data from multiple markets, or other kinds of retail sales interactions. If one were using a typical variance-based approach, one would summarize these sequences using a set of variables (e.g., total time, total cost, number of items, item placement, item price, etc.) which could be used to answer a variety of questions concerning consumer behavior and marketing. There is, of course, a great deal more information in the data if we retain its sequential structure. Like other sequential analysis techniques, grammatical models allow us to make use of this information by analyzing the sequences themselves, as sequences. Grammatical models allow us to ask a very different set of questions: What sequences are possible? Why do we observe these sequences and not others? What would happen if some aspect of the context were changed? These questions depend on the hypothesized nature of the structures that constrain and enable the observed processes, so let us turn our attention to this topic.
Organizational and institutional structures provide constraints and affordances
Grammatical constraints are often expressed as rules for combining the elements of a lexicon. Without constraints, words in any order could be a sentence; any set of line segments could be a polygon; any sequence of nucleic acids could be DNA. In each field where grammatical models have been applied, there is a clear set of constraints on what is and is not a proper instance of the set. Furthermore, the hypothesized origin and nature of these constraints forms the basis of explanations of why certain patterns exist and others do not. Constraints form the basis for disconfirmable theory: if one observes patterns that violate a hypothesized constraint, that hypothesis can be disconfirmed. These hypotheses are often expressed as phrase structure rules (Black and Wilensky, 1979; Gazdar, Klein, Pullum and Sag, 1985) that specify the allowable combinations of syntactic constituents and other lexical items.
In organization theory, constraints on action are often thought of as rules (e.g., Drazin and Sandelands, 1992). While the arguments against rule-following mentioned above would seem to preclude any rule-based grammar of organizing, that would be a hasty and incorrect conclusion. This is because grammars do not predict particular patterns or actions; the rules in a grammar do not "determine" anything. Rather, they generate the set of possibilities for the agents in the situation. As a result, it is helpful to think in terms of constraints and affordances (Gibson, 1982; Norman, 1988; Pentland, 1992), rather than thinking of rules. This implies a shift away from deterministic, rule-like statements, toward an articulation of what is feasible in a given situation. This shift is logically equivalent to that suggested by Mohr (1982) in his distinction between variance models and process models. In Mohr's terms, a variance model implies a necessary and sufficient relationship between an antecedent and a consequent condition. In a process model, the antecedent condition is necessary, but is generally not sufficient; in other words, it creates the possibility of the consequent, but does not guarantee it. For this reason, grammatical models are an example of the kind of process models described by Mohr (1982). As long as one keeps this distinction in mind, one can still express constraints and affordances in terms of rules, as in Salancik and Leblebici (1988). One of their rules for food service transactions states that a meal must be cooked before it is eaten. Note that this rule does not obligate anyone to eat a meal just because it has been cooked; it merely points out that reversing the sequence is impossible.
Because of the importance of structure in organization theory, we have an extensive vocabulary about constraints and affordances, as suggested in the following examples. Like any set of idealized analytical categories, they may combine in practice.
Institutional structures. The general idea of identifying constraints and affordances on action is a familiar aspect of institutional theory (Commons, 1950; Jepperson, 1991). It is also a central part of Giddens' (1984) concept of structure, where rules are conceptualized as resources for action. One can explore the implications of various institutional arrangements for the configuration of various kinds of transactions (Leblebici, Salancik, Copay and King, 1991). Under different institutional regimes, one should observe different sequences. In some sense, the whole idea of "a trip to the supermarket" is a reflection of the institutional structures surrounding agriculture, food distribution, and the social division of labor in an industrialized economy. On a more concrete level, the range of acceptable means of payment (such as credit cards, food stamps, etc.) reflects specific institutional arrangements that may vary from setting to setting.
Technological structures. Norman (1988) offers an analysis of how the physical properties of technical artifacts affect the actions of users. In organization theory, technology is an important source of structure (Orlikowski, 1992). Of course, technological constraint does not imply technological determinism. As Barley (1986) showed, the same technical system can result in different patterns of social interaction. Technology accounts for one of the most visible changes in American supermarkets in recent years: the introduction of universal product code scanners. This new technology eliminates the need for cashiers to type in the prices of most items. Note that if we were studying the inventory process, or the marketing process, the implications of this technological innovation would be even more significant.
Coordination structures. There are also a wide variety of constraints that emerge because of different kinds of interdependencies between actions (Malone, Crowston, Lee, and Pentland, 1993). In addition to sequential constraints (e.g., step A must be completed before step B), there may be usability or simultaneity constraints on the steps of a process. Interdependencies are often introduced by the particular technology being applied in a situation; as technology changes, the degree of interdependence and the ability to manage it may change, as well. Because they explicitly affect the timing and sequence of steps in a process, coordination constraints may be a particularly interesting source of grammatical hypotheses. In a supermarket, one finds a variety of sequential dependencies, such as needing to select items before you bring them to the checkout line.
Cultural structures. Cultural structures operate at many levels in an organization, including the level of appropriate behavior (Schein, 1985). Culturally based norms and expectations place a great many constraints on what moves are possible, and on the appropriate sequence of moves in a given situation. While these constraints are pervasive in social interactions, they are also the most subject to strategic flaunting. As Heritage (1984) suggests, one can reconstitute the meaning of a situation by explicitly violating a rule like, "greet only acquaintances." In the supermarket, cultural norms govern interactions with the cashier and other customers.
Constraints and their sources should be especially interesting to organization theorists because of our interest in problems of stability and change (Gersick, 1991; Leblebici, Salancik, Copay and King, 1991). Depending on how the rules of organization are grounded, one would expect very different properties in terms of persistence, volatility, and so on. For example, a rule or a lexical item that is grounded primarily in a technological feature of a process subject to very abrupt revision if that technology undergoes a major change. The disruption of organizational forms resulting from technological innovation (Tushman and Anderson, 1986) could be potentially be analyzed in these terms. However, a rule that has a cultural basis may persist regardless of technological changes, or it may change only slowly.
Example. We are now ready to continue our supermarket example with a set of grammatical rules that embody the constraints and affordances on the process. Figure 2 shows a generic phrase structure grammar for a trip to a suburban supermarket. This example has been deliberately simplified so that the general ideas will be as clear as possible. At this level of generality, the rules embody combinations of technological, institutional, cultural, and coordination constraints; it is difficult to isolate pure examples of each category. A more detailed description of the process of payment (e.g., credit card validation or check approval) would start to reveal clear technological structures, for example.
Trip --> arrive, select items, check out, leave. Arrive --> park car, get cart. Select items --> [(pick item, put in cart), ...]. Check out --> unload cart, ring up items, pay, bag items. Leave --> wheel cart to car, unload cart, (return cart), start car, drive away.
In figure 2, the symbol "-->" is read as "consists of." These are not "condition-action" or "if-then" rules; they imply sequence but not causality. Thus, the first rule states that a trip to the supermarket consists of "arrive," "select items," "check out" and "leave". Each of these can be considered a syntactic constituent for the shopping trip, and is further decomposed in the subsequent rules. The process of selecting items, for example, consists of an indefinite number of repetitions of "pick item" and "put in cart." One could further elaborate the process of picking an item to include comparison shopping, and so on. Similarly, the check out process has a set of constituents that could be further elaborated to describe various forms of payment. Finally, one can indicate optional steps, such as "return cart" in the rule for leaving. By using these simple rules, one can describe a limited variety of different "trips to the supermarket" that differ mainly in the number of items selected. By adding more rules to describe alternative forms of payment, special requests at the meat counter (an alternative way to "pick item"), one can describe a more complex set of transactions.
The grammar in figure 2 represents a set of hypotheses about the sequential structure of trips to the supermarket. One could test these hypotheses against actual observations of trips to various supermarkets. By coding observations in terms of the relevant lexicon, one could quite easily determine whether these rules capture the observations. In doing so, one might discover that suburban supermarkets systematically violate certain parts of the pattern. These violations would suggest revisions to the grammar, which could then be tested again. If one restricted one's attention to supermarkets, the results of this line of inquiry would be a detailed but rather boring "theory of supermarkets."
If one looked at other kinds of retail sales transactions, however, the questions one might ask start to get more interesting. For example, how can one describe and explain the differences between a traditional country store, where the clerk picks items for the customer, and the modern supermarket? What about differences between clothing stores (where items are routinely "tried on" to test their usability), and food stores, where "trying" items might be considered petty theft? One might also be interested in exploring the differences between a regular retail store and mail order. In short, there are many ways to organize the process of retail sales that depart systematically from the basic supermarket model. Grammatical models provide a way to state explicit hypotheses about these sequential processes and test them against empirical data.
So far, the concepts we have explored have been generic to any kind of grammar, whether linguistic or otherwise, and they seem to map quite well as process descriptions. In addition, there are a number more specific concepts and hypotheses that derive from Chomskian generative grammar (Newmeyer, 1983; Cook, 1988). They are not part of the definition of grammar per se, but given the dominance of the Chomskian perspective, concepts like deep structure have become a part of the grammatical metaphor in general and have started to emerge in the organizational literature (Gersick, 1991; Drazin and Sandelands, 1992). To a large extent, these additional concepts revolve around the hypothesized nature of constraints on human language: the so called "language faculty" (Chomsky, 1986). It is worth noting that Chomsky himself would be the last person to advocate extending these specifically linguistic ideas beyond their source domain. In spite of this, these linguistic hypotheses seem to have drawn the most heated objections in the debates over the applicability of grammar to social action. Thus, for the sake of clarity and completeness, it is important to consider these additional connotations of the grammatical metaphor quite closely.
Organizations have no "language faculty"
In Chomskian linguistics, a central hypothesis is that there exists a universal grammar for all human languages that depends on a feature of the human brain called the "language faculty" (Chomsky, 1986; Cook, 1988). Universal grammar is essentially an hypothesis about the source of rules and constraints in human language. Chomskians argue that grammar is a feature of the human brain that enables people to learn languages the way that birds learn to fly. Given even a modest opportunity (e.g., a typical upbringing), humans cannot help learning a language. Which particular language we learn is determined by context, but our ability to learn it is innate, because the language faculty is a physical structure in the human brain.
In organization theory, it is very hard to imagine anything that could sustain a rigorous, isomorphic analogy to this hypothesized structure of the human brain. This can be seen by recalling the list of structural constraints and affordances reviewed in the previous section. Each of these is historically situated, culturally embedded, and generally stands in a recursive relation to action (Giddens, 1984). It is difficult to imagine an institutional, technological, cultural, or coordination constraint that does not vary with context and is not subject to revision with the passage of time. Universality is simply not a characteristic that applies to the social world. The lack of an organizational "language faculty" eliminates the possibility of a universal grammar for organizational processes: a single set of universal rules or principles that govern the syntactic structure of all organizing processes. Unless organizational theorists can identify a similar structure that is ahistorical and acultural (which we cannot), we will have to be content to apply grammatical methods to historically and culturally bounded domains.
Limited distinction between competence and performance
Once we rule out the possibility of a structure analogous to the language faculty, a number of closely related concepts must also be questioned. For example, Chomskians traditionally distinguish between "competence" and "performance" (Newmeyer, 1983). Competence refers to the core grammatical knowledge of an idealized speaker-hearer, while performance refers to actual utterances produced in social interaction. In Chomskian linguistics, a grammar is a model of the idealized language embodied in the language faculty, not of the performances produced by speakers as they go about their daily lives. Grammar embodies the normative rules for producing correct sentences, although these rules are regularly violated in actual speech.
In organizational research, we could develop this analogy by treating the idealized, normative account of how a process should work as competence, and observations about how it actually does work as performance. To the extent that normative expectations have a great deal of influence on satisfaction and a host of other outcomes, this may be a valuable analogy. One might also point to formal rules or procedures as an analogy to linguistic competence, because they also express an important kind of normative expectation. We could model these kinds of expectations in the form of scripts or prototypical sequences (Schank and Abelson, 1977) that provide a yardstick against which actual performance could be assessed. In the supermarket, for example, if a shopper selects items and then leaves without the intervening checkout process, it is a serious violation of the normative constraint against stealing. However, these kinds of cultural or institutional constraints are, at best, only a partial description of what generates the observed patterns in a situation (Bourdieu, 1977). For this reason, it seems unreasonable to give them the special status implied by the analogy to Chomskian linguistics, where competence refers to the complete set of formal structures that specify the syntax of a language.
Organizations have no deep structure
This lack of isomorphism has some additional consequences. First, it implies that the appealing notion of deep structure is inapplicable to organization theory. When organizational scholars use the term "deep structure" (e.g., Gersick, 1991; Drazin and Sandelands, 1992), they are referring to the accumulation of institutional, technological, and other kinds of structures that tend to make organizations relatively stable over time. These familiar kinds of structures have little in common with the formal, decontextualized, ahistorical "deep structure" of syntax as conceived in linguistics. Although organizational and institutional structures are obviously important, there is little to be gained by calling them "deep." Perhaps more important, the lack of deep structure implies that organization theorists will never achieve the strong, intuitive sense of a pattern being "ungrammatical" that linguists have relied on so heavily in their research. We will still be able to formulate disconfirmable hypotheses about what kinds of patterns and processes are possible, but these must be tested empirically against observations of surface structure. In the following section, I discuss a number of considerations involved in doing so.
To apply the kind of grammatical model outlined here in empirical research on organizational processes, there are a number of methodological considerations that need to be addressed. It is worth noting that an emphasis on processes as a unit of analysis implies a significant departure from conventional methodologies. We are much more accustomed to using individuals, organizations, or networks as the unit of analysis, treating them as hypostatized objects, and formulating theories based on their variable properties (Mohr, 1982; Abbott, 1992). Nonetheless, the growing interest in process analysis has given rise to a variety of methodologies for analyzing sequences of events (Hewes, 1979; Procter and Abell, 1985; Bakeman and Gottman, 1986; Gottman and Roy, 1990; Abbott, 1990; Abbott and Hrycak, 1990; Van de Ven and Poole, 1990). These methodologies are too numerous to review in detail, but they are generally designed to discover meaningful regularities in sequences of events that can be observed, coded, and compared. Grammatical models add to this growing family of tools for analyzing process data by providing a way to link what Poole, Folger and Hewes (1987) call the "syntagmatic" structure of a process to its global sequential structure. To the extent that grammatical models rely on sequential data, they share many of the same methodological considerations as sequential techniques in general, such as reliability of coding. Grammatical models, however, provide a rather different approach to understanding the connections between sequences of events and the structural features that enable and constrain them. As a result, there are several issues that deserve attention here.
Identifying a lexicon and syntactic constituents
To perform a grammatical analysis of a class of organizational processes, the first step would be to identify the lexicon of moves and the appropriate syntactic constituents. The question here is, what is the vocabulary of action in this process? What are the steps in the process? What are the different ways in which the steps can be accomplished? These questions bear a striking resemblance the "structural questions" described by Spradley (1979, p. 116-7) in his primer on ethnographic interviewing. The objective of Spradley's (1979) technique is to map out the semantic domain used by the members of a particular cultural group to describe some aspect of their work or lives. In process research, the two most relevant semantic domains would be sequence ("X is a step (stage) in Y") and meAns-ends ("X is a way to Y") (Spradley, p. 111). In these relationships, "Y" is called a "cover term" and "X" is called an "included term." For each cover term, there is generally more than one included term, and there may be many. In terms of the grammatical metaphor outlined above, the included terms will tend to correspond to moves and the cover terms are likely to correspond to syntactic constituents. This nesting of lexical items is a distinctive feature of organizational processes that the grammatical metaphor encourages us to explore explicitly. Other process models treat data as flat, with each element having roughly equivalent status (e.g., Holmes and Poole, 1991).
In practice, one may need to abstract somewhat from an informant's talk to arrive at a set of syntactic constituents that can be generalized across settings. The necessity of creating more abstract categories of action to facilitate analysis raises a familiar question: do we impose our own, etic terminology for the actions we observe, or do we use the emic terminology of our informants (Spradley, 1979)? This is essentially the same problem we confront when we collect survey data that are presumed to mean the same thing to different respondents, so that their responses can be subjected to mathematical transformation and analysis (Cicourel, 1964). The important issue here is not so much the use of member's own terminology, but the semantic relationship between covering terms and included terms. The included terms must be "steps in" or "ways to" complete the action described in the covering term (e.g., paying is a step in checking out).
Identifying and formulating constraints
To formulate meaningful explanations, the critical problem is to identify the relevant sources of constraint on the lexicon and the ways in which its elements can be recombined. The most convenient way of formulating a constraint is as a rule, as in this kind of sequential coordination constraint: "A product must be designed before it can be manufactured." It is interesting to note that there may be a large number of different steps in the process that intervene between design and manufacturing (dealing with strategy, marketing, finance, and so on). A simple sequential constraint does not require adjacency (although one could formulate a more stringent constraint that would). This simple example points to one of the major advantages of this approach: syntactic models provide explicit ways of stating hypotheses about constraints on events in a process that are widely separated in the observed sequence. This is a special property of syntactic models that is not shared by statistical techniques such as Markov models (Chomsky, 1956). In a supermarket, for example, you may have any number of iterations of "select item" before you "check out." For this reason, a Markov model would do poor job of capturing the sequential dependence between arriving at the store and checking out, even though these events are structurally constrained to occur in this order in every complete transaction.
Comparison to phasic analysis and other sequential techniques
Although a detailed review of sequential methods is beyond the scope of this paper, there are some points of reference in the literature that might be helpful for some readers. For example, Holmes and Poole (1991) describe a method called phasic analysis that has some interesting similarities, while also having a number of important differences. The basic idea of phasic analysis is to code sequential data in terms of a set of events that mark a particular phase of activity. For example, in a stage model of organizational development (e.g., Greiner, 1972), there might be an early stage of creativity and leadership marked by certain kinds of behavior, followed by a stage of direction and autonomy, delegation and control, and so on. Using phase analysis, one can test the observed sequence of stages against a predicted model or analyze typical sequences of stages (Pelz, 1985; Holmes and Poole, 1991). Poole and Roth (1989), for example, used phasic analysis to develop a typology of group decision making processes.
There are a number of terminological similarities between phasic analysis and the grammatical models suggested here. Holmes and Poole (1991, p. 295) write about testing phase models by "parsing of a sequence of phase markers into discrete phases." Grammatical models are also tested by parsing sequences of events into syntactic constituents, but these constituents can have a much more elaborate internal structure. Furthermore, a grammatical constituent is typically marked by a single event, rather than a sequence of similar events. Holmes and Poole (1991, p. 293) also discuss the use of coding systems that include "major categories" and "subcategories," which in some respects are like Spradley's (1979) covering terms and included terms. However, the semantic characteristics of the respective coding scheme are very different. In the coding schemes described by Holmes and Poole (1991), the subcategories are indicators of the major categories, not steps used to accomplish it, and the categories are basically etic (which include things like "denial and equivocation," "noncommittal remarks," "topic management"). In the grammatical approach, the included terms should be steps needed to accomplish the covering term (e.g., paying is a necessary part of checking out). In further contrast to the phasic approach, it is helpful if the coding scheme at the lowest level (moves) is basically emic. The use of emic categories is not essential, but it facilitates the collection of data by asking people to describe what they are doing. Furthermore, grounding the lexicon in ethnographically derived categories helps keep the analysis more closely connected to the phenomenon.
Logic of Analysis
Testing grammatical models raises some interesting problems concerning what, exactly, should count as evidence of disconfirmation. Linguists can often disconfirm a grammatical rule by pointing to a single sentence construction that intuitively seems grammatical, yet violates an hypothesized constraint. As mentioned above, organization theorists are not so lucky, because we do not have introspective access to a hypothesized universal structure that guides our theorizing. Rather, we must collect data in the field, a procedure that is fraught with all kinds of possibilities for error in coding, sampling, and so on. While we might want to follow a strict rule of single case disconfirmation, it would tend to lead to spurious rejections of the hypothesized model.
Alternatively, we might also follow a statistical approach, similar to that used for testing traditional variance models. Unfortunately, no rigorous statistical tests have yet been developed to test the goodness of fit of grammatical models or other rule based models (Olson, Herbsleb and Rueter, in press; Simon, 1992). Simon (1992) notes that in cognitive science, the general heuristic for the adequacy of rule-based models of human performance is that the model must explain many more cases than the number of rules it uses. In this context, Simon's (1992) usage of the term "explain" simply means that the behavior described by the model matches the observed behavior, either in functional form or in exact detail. In the case of our simple grammar of suburban shopping trips, this criterion is easily met; at the level of detail expressed in the grammar, I would expect it to fit nearly every supermarket in the United States. This seems like a reasonable basis for proceeding until the statistical properties of these models can be worked out.
Limits of Applicability
There are limits on the kind of processes and level of detail for which a grammatical approach may be appropriate. Levinson (1983) notes that conversation analysts have had limited success in formulating interaction grammars of the kind Hymes (1972) proposed. In essence, there are just too many possibilities and contingencies available in interaction, and too strong a tendency toward the strategic use of cultural constraints (such as Grice's (1975) maxims for conversational cooperation) to create irony and implicature. There is no point, as Abell (1987) points out, in attempting to unpack every little motion or inflection as a separate piece of data. The kinds of processes that seem more natural and appropriate for grammatical analysis are more deeply embedded in organizational structures, less fine grained, and hence less subject to capricious variation. This suggests that it is important to limit the level of granularity with which one describes a process to those moves that can be easily observed and reliably coded (Folger, Hewes and Poole, 1984; Van de Ven and Poole, 1990). The difficulty involved here should not be underestimated. We have a natural ability to parse sentences into recognizable words and constituents, but our ability to parse organizational processes depends on artificial methods. The development of reliable coding schemes for moves and syntactic constituents that can be generalized across organizational settings will be an important research question in and of itself.
Furthermore, the culturally and historically embedded quality of organizational processes implies that it is important to bound the scope of the data one is drawing upon in constructing a grammar so that it is relatively homogenous. In their discussion of grammatical techniques in cognitive anthropology, Colby, Kennedy and Milanesi (1991, p. 383) note that grammars of folk tales can only be developed for a culturally bounded group of people.
To reiterate the condition for analyzing plot grammars, it is necessary that the sample of texts be geographically bound to a particular language using group of people and that it consist of the same genre and same general time period. With these restrictions, and if the sample is sufficiently large (numbering at least over fifty and preferably twice as much) it should be possible to eventually work out a plot grammar.
The same basic recommendations seem quite appropriate for the analysis of organizational processes. The critical issue here is one of sampling, and the scope of data that one can hope to meaningfully incorporate into a single grammar. One cannot expect processes operating within different institutional, cultural, and technological structures to fit the same grammar, unless that grammar is very abstract. While these limitations need to be taken seriously, they are not especially different in kind or severity than the limitations on traditional variance models. What is different, of course, are the kinds of phenomena that grammatical models can express, and the kinds of research questions they allow us to pursue.
As suggested in the introduction, grammatical models create a variety of opportunities in organizational research by providing a novel way to describe the sequences of actions that make up organizational processes. More importantly, the grammatical metaphor has explanatory power because of the way it connects structures and possible actions. This connection suggests the possibility of several interesting kinds of research questions. Because the grammatical metaphor applies most clearly to processes that occur repetitively with relatively little change over time (i.e., synchronic rather than diachronic processes), I have chosen to emphasize those examples here.
Classification of processes
Organization theorists have been concerned with the classification of organizational structures and forms (McKelvey, 1982; Rich, 1992). Grammars provide a conceptual framework for classification that is quite different from the typologies and taxonomies that are prevalent in organization theory. Instead of classifying organizations based on their structural features (e.g., M-form, U-form, etc.), or their industry (e.g., by SIC code), or their strategy (prospector, defender, etc.) or some other variable property, the grammatical metaphor suggests the possibility of classifying organizational units according to their internal processes. There are two main ways in which processes can be differentiated within the grammatical framework: differences in the lexicon and differences in the constraints.
Differences in the lexicon of a process are easy to identify, because they would show up immediately in the domain analysis as described above. For example, some customer service processes can dispatch a technician to your location (for example, to fix your computer), while others cannot. Processes that have the "dispatch" move in their lexicon could be called "field service," whereas processes without this move might be "walk-in" or perhaps just "hot lines." Similarly, in a retail sales operation, there may be a variety of lexical differences that create whole new possibilities for interaction and service, as in the case of catalog stores that allow customers to enter their orders directly using a computer terminal. Sequential differences are also important, as Salancik and Leblebici (1988) illustrated in their restaurant grammar. In a sit down restaurant, the sequence is order, cook, serve, eat, pay, but in a fast-food restaurant, it is usually cook, order, pay, serve, eat. The grammatical metaphor makes classification relatively easy, because it isolates differences within syntactic constituents. For example, most retail stores have an overall pattern similar to a supermarket. But in a clothing store, the "select item" constituent often involves a specialized sequence required to try on the clothing. This syntactic specialization provides a formal way to identify clothing stores as a kind of retail store, and to further differentiate kinds of clothing stores, and so on.
Explaining the variation and distribution of processes
As one starts to develop a taxonomy of processes, it becomes possible to start asking questions about what explains the observed distribution of instances, a problem that parallels the classic problem of explaining the distribution of organizational forms (Singh and Lumsden, 1990). Furthermore, grammatical models make it is possible to predict organizational forms that have not yet been observed (Salancik and Leblebici, 1988). This is a unique and potentially very interesting contribution that is not possible with existing ways of modeling organizations. Given a set of unobserved forms, one might attempt to explain their absence.
To explain the observed distribution of processes, there are several strategies that one can adopt that roughly mirror the kinds of explanations used for organizational forms. For example, economic efficiency, institutional legitimacy, or resource availability might all be used as explanatory constructs. To the extent that the processes under consideration here are core business processes that transform inputs to outputs, economic efficiency is clearly a critical consideration. One interesting feature of the grammatical metaphor is that it suggests the possibility of separating this consideration from the internal structure of the process itself. To see why this is so, recall that the theory of the firm treats organizations as "black boxes," without much if any consideration for internal structure. Economic theories are largely indifferent to the possible ways of organizing, except insofar as organizing effects efficiency. Likewise, pragmatics is largely indifferent to syntax, except insofar as syntax effects the force of an utterance. Excluding economic considerations from grammar does not exclude them from organization theory, but it does simplify the theoretical work to be done by each. We can begin to imagine piecing together a set of modular, interacting components that would explain the existence of observed organizational forms. Consider again Salancik and Leblebici's (1988) restaurant grammar. Their grammar explains the variety of possible restaurants without any reference to whether one form is more economically viable. This makes sense, because these are logically separate questions. Implicitly, Salancik and Leblebici (1988) are relying on the modularity of their grammar. If we were to ask questions concerning the competitiveness of the restaurants that their grammar generates, or whether the food is tasty, we would need to look elsewhere, because these questions are outside the scope of the grammar.
Comparative statics: why do processes differ?
The grammatical framework outlined here contains no endogenous explanation for change. Following the traditions of structural linguistics, grammars are generally treated as synchronic; they can be used as indicators of diachronic change, but cannot be used to explain such changes. Within the grammatical framework, one can formulate a variety of testable hypotheses concerning the effects of changing constraints on organizational processes. For example, "As constraint X changes, what new patterns or classes of action are predicted?" This is the logic underlying Malone and Rockhart's (1991) analysis of the effects of information technology on organizational processes. As the cost of this technology goes down, it reduces certain kinds of coordination constraints. As a result, new organizational forms are possible.
The grammatical method suggested here is particularly well suited to the empirical comparison of "discrete structural alternatives" (Williamson, 1991) as they are actually practiced. Williamson (1991) maps out the structural alternatives that economize on transaction costs under various institutional regimes. While one can gain considerable insight through the study of hypothetical or idealized contracts, Leblebici (1992) suggests that differences in transactions under various institutional regimes can be conveniently expressed by using grammatical models similar to the kind proposed here. Using these models, it may be interesting to observe the sequential structure of various kinds of transactions within markets, hierarchies, and hybrid forms, to see how they differ empirically. Does the lexicon or sequence of moves in a market transaction differ from the sequence of moves in a hierarchy or a hybrid form? What accounts for the differences or lack or differences? It would be quite interesting, for example, if we learned that institutional structures have relatively little effect on the configuration of transactions compared to technological or cultural considerations.
Design of organizational processes
On a more practical level, grammatical methods may offer insights into the design and redesign of organizational processes (Malone, Crowston, Lee, and Pentland, 1993). To the extent that syntactic constituents can be identified that generalize across organizational settings, a grammar provides a framework for generating and comparing alternatives. For a given syntactic constituent (or covering term), it may be possible to substitute a functionally equivalent alternative. By studying the syntax of a wide variety of processes, it may be possible to start predicting which specific kinds of routines are more effective in various situations. Malone, Crowston, Lee, and Pentland (1993) have initiated an effort to accumulate just such a "handbook" of organizational processes that would not only classify existing processes, but help design new ones. A closely related practical question confronting managers is how to measure the relative performance of existing processes. While so-called "bench marking" studies are widely used, there is often little systematic basis for assessing the validity of the comparison. By using the idea of syntactic constituents, persons interested in comparing parts of larger processes should be able to gain a firmer point of reference on which to base comparisons.
The analysis presented here suggests that it is possible to construct rigorous, disconfirmable process models using the grammatical metaphor. The particular advantage of such models is that they suggest an explicit connection between structural features of the context and the set of possible processes. In addition, grammatical models make the layered quality of many organizational processes explicit through the use of syntactic constituents. As a result, grammatical models provide a unique window into the relationship between institutional, technological, coordination, and cultural structures and the details of organizational actions, routines, and processes. The generative quality of grammatical models suggests the possibility of predicting or designing new processes, as well. In short, the grammatical metaphor seems to offer a great deal to organization theory.
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There are a large number of different kinds of formalisms that can be used to represent a grammar. A more general definition is offered by Chomsky (1956: 114): "By a grammar of the language L we mean a device of some sort that produces all of the strings that are sentences of L and only these."