routines, continued

In a long-winded and slightly off-topic comment responding to Nicole’s review of Habit, I noted that interest in habits and routines runs deep in thinking about government and organizations. I also mentioned recent scholarship by Martha Feldman and others looking at routines not only as sources of stability in organizations, but also of endogenous change and adaptation.

Feldman’s (2000) study of five organizational routines operated by a major university housing organization – among them the annual process of getting 10,000 students moved into their dorm rooms and the process of assessing fines for damage done to rooms when students moved out – finds each a process of problem-solving and adaptation. Traffic jams and hostile parents on move-in day led to coordination by a central administrator. Complications when damage was assessed after students had moved out of their dorm rooms led to room inspections before students were gone. Viewed closely, these routines are more than patterned behaviors; they are ongoing, “effortful accomplishments.” Feldman observes:

 “One can think of routines as flows of connected ideas, actions, and outcomes. Ideas produce actions, actions produce outcomes, and outcomes produce new ideas. It is the relationship between these elements that generates change” (Feldman 2000: 613).

This perspective emphasizes the interplay of the three aspects, or phases, of routines: ostensive, performative, and artifactual aspects. (Figure 1.)

The ostensive aspect consists of the abstract internal representations of routines in the minds of actors: what people think the routines are. These routines may be informal like “taken-for-granted” norms or formalized like standard operating procedures, but because the routines belong to individuals – they always vary. This, to my mind, is one of the big flaws with the effort by many contemporary rational choice theorists to treat norms as “structure” – they are unevenly observed. (i.e. Not everyone experiences the routines in the same way. We all think the routines exist, but the routines are not defined.) A lot of contemporary management thinking comes down to the problem of rationalizing varied world views. Feldman and Pentland (2003: 101) write:

 “Each participant’s understanding of a routine depends on his or her role and point of view …The ostensive aspect of the routine gains in apparent objectivity and concreteness as the views of different participants come into alignment. But it is still only a partial picture because it does not include the performances”.

The performative aspect represents the ongoing physical practices associated with carrying out the routine (the so called “effortful” and “improvisational” enactment of the routine.) Again, variation is the rule. Feldman and Pentland (2003: 102) write, “Practices are carried out against a background of rules and expectations, but the particular courses of action we choose are always, to some extent, novel”. In a separate study examining a fragmented, ultimately frustrated effort to implement new budgeting practices in the same university housing office, Feldman (2003: 746) observes:

“Even if we focus narrowly on the part of the budget routine examined here, there were performances that drew upon and contributed to different ways of thinking about the organization. And different groups of people behaved in ways that were more or less supportive of the different sets of values.”

Feldman demonstrates the point by comparing the internal representations of subordinates with those of their supervisors. Again, the trick for managers is bringing ideas and practices into line – to rationalize organizational behavior (without destroying the capacity to improvise). As I mentioned yesterday, Feldman’s work joins a broad trend in the literature on organizations and strategy emphasizing what are variously termed competence, resource-based, knowledge-based, and learning theories of organization. In a popular treatment, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid describe the essence of the common theme:

 Part of the skill of work, all work, then is routinization, adapting the particulars of the world so that they fit within the general schemas of the organization. The gap to be bridged lies between reality and process, and it is bridged by the improvisation inherent in practice – so deeply inherent that the practitioners themselves are barely aware of it. (Brown and Duguid 2000: 108-9)

That is where the artifactual aspect of routines comes in: the paperwork and meetings of routines. Forms, copies, schedules, electronic records imprint and codify the performative and ostensive aspects. The artifacts are, of course, the parts of routines most easily controlled by managers. But, as decades of new institutional sociology tells us, the formal is often “decoupled,” disconnected, and unhinged from routine organizational performance. Meaning people are performing tasks or routines that don’t improve how, in our case, government works. The when and the why these artifacts – the organizational charts and performance measures – become unhinged from routine performance is the real question? To my mind, at least, that question goes to the heart of current management thinking.


Feldman, Martha S., and Brian T. Pentland. 2003. Reconceptualizing Organizational Routines as a Source of Flexibility and Change. Administrative Science Quarterly 48.

Feldman, Martha S. 2000. “Organizational Routines as a Source of Continuous Change.” Organization Science. 11(6): 611-629.

Feldman, Martha S. 2003.A performative perspective on stability and change in organizational routines.” Industrial and Corporate Change, 12(4): 727-752.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. 2000. Social Life of Information. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School.


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