David Shulman, David M. ’70 and Linda Roth Professor of Sociology, shares insights about the course Organizations in Action
David Shulman: David M. ’70 and Linda Roth Professor of Sociology
The Course: Organizations in Action
For anybody who has ever had working experience, this is their place to think out loud about it and ask, “What have I learned? What would I change? What would I do?”
The goal is to talk about organizations and groups at the sociological level. Take, for example, human resources. Those are the people who are deciding about hiring into a group, firing in the group, dealing with problems, and dealing with motivations. How do people make those decisions ethically? What are the pressures on an organization to do that? How do people enter into groups? How do people exit groups? How do you learn to identify with a group? How are you motivated by others? Some of that is psychology, but a lot of it is also sociology.
It’s not an unusual thing for people to have their own moral codes and then find organizations they join suddenly ask them to do things that they wouldn’t do as individuals. But once they’re inside the organization, they identify with the organizational goals, and they can rationalize things away.
Different types of organizations have different organizational cultures. Let’s take firefighters, for example, as a really tightly bonded kind of organizational culture that has to face a lot of risks. How do they come to trust each other? What are the skills they need? Organizational cultures that are hypercompetitive tend to treat people in one kind of way. Large bureaucracies that never change their mission tend to have a really different company culture than an organization that is focused on increasing its market share.
The gig economy has created a relationship between people and organizations that is different from the traditional model. It used to be that someone would finish school and go into a job with the old thinking that you’d be there for a while. Now people switch jobs all the time.
We discuss moral decision-making: What’s going on in someone’s head when they commit crimes, and they don’t think they are? In other words, how do people do bad things and still think they are good people inside of their organizations? What are their influences?
One exercise we’ll do is on organizational simulations. I’ll give the students seven or eight cases with different kinds of problems, and they’ll have to make recommendations on how to solve them. How are you going to manage that? How are you going to deal with the people? I get local HR executives to come in and appraise how the students came up with a plan to handle these problems.
All companies have some kind of bureaucracy, but the degree is what we’re looking at. We’re also examining behaviors that occur in organizations that people don’t want to acknowledge, like breaking rules, taking shortcuts, goofing off, or lying, that people who work all recognize exist but that they don’t like to discuss openly.
One of the things about a course like this is that everyone who has ever worked has their own experience and their own expertise. So, this course provides concepts people can use to describe what they’ve experienced—and they can see what fits, what doesn’t fit, and the simple variances.