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The most important invention

A few years ago I was in Brussels to be interviewed for a large research grant. I had titled my research proposal “The Foundations ...

By Phanish Puranam . 03 May 2011

A few years ago I was in Brussels to be interviewed for a large research grant.   I had titled my research proposal “The Foundations of Organization Design” – an act of bravado I was already beginning to regret as I imagined the sniggers and sneers from the committee next morning.


38ChloeTheMecanicsOfTheBrain482x271The evening before the interview, in the hotel lobby I ran into a few of the other candidates who were also there to be interviewed. All of us seemed nervous and were seeking a stiff shot (or pint as the case may be) of courage. I don’t know if that shared drink worked for them, but it certainly did not work for me – as I swiftly discovered that I was up against candidates who were asking for a grant to study treatments for autism and to conduct experiments on the particle accelerator in Geneva (the funding agency was looking for proposals from all areas of research).


That night as I sat in my hotel room, I began to have serious doubts about why I deserved to be there at all. How could anything I study as a management researcher possibly compete in importance and for tax payer’s money against proposals to cure disease or understand the quantum structure of matter? This frame of mind seemed to have seeped through into some email correspondence I had that evening with my department chair, Costas Markides. Costas wrote back something which changed my perspective entirely. “Don’t forget that you are studying organizations- mankind’s most important invention!”

It seems obvious in retrospect, but Costas had put it (as usual) in extremely simple but powerful terms. Insect colonies and chimpanzee groups have organization too – and impressive as their achievements are, they do not display the range, flexibility and complexity of goals that human organizations do. It is the capacity to organize that enablesus to work together to achieve objectives that would be unthinkable for individuals acting alone- whether it is building the pyramids, putting a man on the moon or curing cancer. Organizing and managing is the bag of tricks that help us forge a system capable of taking on vastly more complex goals than what any of its constituent individuals – with their diverse motives and knowledge – could ever dream of accomplishing. What could be more important than studying how these systems work – and possibly improving them?  For there can be little doubt that room for improvement exists – we live after all in the age of Dilbert, Enron and Lehman Brothers. On the other hand, we should resist the temptation to be like the critic of the singing dog who complained that the animal was often out of tune – and was blind to the wonder of the fact that it could sing at all.

I decided to contribute regularly to this collection of blogs at LBSR because I have come to believe that studying how organizations work is not only important- it can also be interesting to others besides my fellow academics and me. Every fortnight (or so – I need a little wiggle room here) I simply intend to describe some piece of ongoing research that I or my colleagues are currently engaged in that I find interesting, and that I think will be of interest to a broader audience outside the ivory tower. Your reactions will provide the data to test this hypothesis! Do feel free to drop me a line with any thoughts or reactions on ppuranam@london.edu

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