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1 The temporality of organizations, the actions that are built up and the identities that are formed within them, are compromised by the permanence and interdependence of the changes made. Transformation processes are either not introduced in a synchronous manner or cause conflict when certain rules remain independent of the changes affecting the whole. “Dyschrony” therefore exists between stakeholders and structures and between structures and stakeholders.

2 The situation described here is that of a movement: a stream of transformations that are not in the same state of development and that do not develop according to the same logic. This movement is composed of small processes—small in comparison with the larger whole represented by the overall dynamic, in which learning is sometimes accommodated and sometimes not. Each constituent part of this dynamic follows a specific course or is in a specific state within its course. As a stable structure, the organization becomes less significant as far as the definition of working constraints and the coordination of organizational activity are concerned.

3 This idea is not new within the field of Sociology. Sztompka (1991) points out, in this respect, that what is usually referred to as social change is in fact a confluence of numerous processes, with a variety of vectors that converge and diverge and are mutually supportive or destructive of one another. The state of a society is, thus, the consequence of the interaction of these processes, the result of which is largely unpredictable since each process has its own specific rhythm. This idea comes close to the notion of the “broken rhythm” of change, an idea developed by Rocher. [1] These views, however, have little to do with the chaos theories that derive from the natural sciences and are applied to the world of organizations (Guastallo 1995). There is at least one reason for this, namely, that far from being “autoregulated,” repeated change creates a lack of regulation with an ability to produce legitimate social rules.

1. Change and Movement

4 Whatever the frame of reference, the social sciences that relate to the world of work have traditionally been more widely concerned with the analysis of individual changes, limited in space and time. The analysis of change as a flow corresponds exactly, however, with a train of thought that is both contemporary and controversial.

5 Comparisons made between the circumstances existing before and after a change have formed the object of a large body of research; in the 1960s, for instance, concerning the automation of industrial activity (Trist and Bamforth 1951; Naville 1963), or, more recently, concerning “new productive models” (Aoki 1991; Coriat 1991). A new state with regard to social and organizational make-up is described in these works, assisted by a succession of indicators. A study carried out by Moscovici (1961) concerning the industrialization of hat-making processes in the Aude, in France, is a perfect example of this perspective. The nature of the work, the social relationships, and the attitude toward work were radically transformed. The passage to “industrial coherence” of an entire local society, its artisans, and cottage industry is expressed here. It is a question of the comparison of two states. Change per se, that is to say, the specific moment between the two states, is not perceived as relevant. It is understood not in terms of that which is changing, but in terms of that which has changed.

6 Another angle of research is directly concerned with the process leading from state A to state B. This diachronic interpretation of the phenomena of change is widespread, historically speaking. Bloch, for instance (1935), attempts to highlight cultural, economic, and legal dimensions that intervened, slowing up of the spread of the watermill over the course of a millennium. White (1962) carries out an analysis concerning the wheeled plow along similar lines. This type of study is analogous to research carried out in psychology (Lewin 1947) and management (Argyris and Schön 1978). Organizational sociology (Reynaud 1989; Friedberg 1993) occupies a specific position in that change is considered to be the result of a process that has been arranged more or less explicitly as a social structure deserving of analysis in itself, rather than as the character of new plans, rules, and relationships.

7 Looked at from a third point of view, contemporary firms are characterized by the permanence of change and by the conflicts with temporality engendered by this permanence. It is no longer a question of treating a problem within it, but of treating it repeatedly “within a given time,” according to the dynamic of the environment and internal structures (Hannan and Freeman 1984). It is a matter of carrying out changes on a tight deadline, while protecting the expertise and routines that promote efficacy (Sastry 1997). It is also a question of harmonizing asynchronous changes, or those of a different character (Nooteboom 2000) or those that are contradictory (Bacharach, Bamberger, and Sonnensthul 1996). The continuous nature of change leads to the design of work structures and management rules that remain temporary and experimental (Brown and Eisenhardt 1997). The organization does not then represent a “punctuated equilibrium” with brief, but radical periods of change (Romanelli and Trushman 1994), but more of a movement that makes forecasting and planning difficult. In any case, the authors come up against the paradox expressed by March in 1981; a paradox according to which organizations are in a state of continual change, but are unable to easily control this change.

2. Movement in a Bank

8 The perspectives referred to above correspond relatively well to what can be observed in a major French bank. [2] The permanence of change that concerns skills, organization, products, and management procedures may therefore be considered as commonplace and recurrent. [3] This tide of change “structures” (defining and restricting) the work a lot more than the established forms in a new organization. The sociological question does not therefore consist in understanding what it is that distinguishes state A from state B, nor what has allowed for the passage from state A to state B. It consists precisely of understanding how the social relationships and the rules that relate to them function in a situation where state A has disappeared without having been replaced by state B. The situation relating to movement is neither linear nor synchronic, since all the constituent parts of the whole do not change according to a single, unifying rhythm, and certain elements do not change at all.

9 Since the early 1980s, activities have become progressively more commercial and “customer oriented,” but at the same time more complex. Technical, interpersonal, organizational, and cognitive aspects are tightly associated so as to “modernize” the work of the bank. Five logical aspects can be distinguished overall (they are distinct from stages, since they are partially interrelated).

a. Openness to Methods and to the “Spirit of Commerce”

10 According to their income, age, profession, and level of debt, as well as their “potential,” customers are the object of specific and so-called personalized targeting, linked explicitly to their “needs” rather than to work rules. In order to achieve this, it is suggested that the employees concerned should take the “initiative,” which is to say, the decisions that allow procedures to be relaxed circumstantially. On this occasion, previous relationship patterns between colleagues are altered. The increased complexity of the work means a greater degree of cooperation, with no employee taking sole responsibility for all the information necessary to deal with all the cases with which he or she is entrusted. These changes are realized without effective planning regarding the creation of working teams, the development of information systems, or commercial strategies. Concerning these three aspects at least, evolution manifests itself as a frequently erratic succession of realizations, policies, and new projects.

b. Managerial Invention

11 During this same period, however, activity becomes the object of management policies intended to allow for the cooperation and “realignment” of efficacy. These experiments do not last, however. Within about a decade, one encounters a haphazard jumble of quality circles, multiskilled working teams, value analyses, reductions in hierarchical levels, customer satisfaction analyses, operational marketing, and telemarketing. These practices merely pass through establishments without its being obvious as to why they came and went, unless, it is hypothesized, they were part of forward-thinking market in matters of management procedure (Alter 1991).

c. The Rationalization of Activities

12 Since the beginning of the 1990s, there has been an active rationalization of commercial activity. For example, the three types of market (individual, professional, and business) are defined and managed according to procedures, levels of classification, and very specific commercial strategies. Employees are allocated objectives and resources on an annual basis, in such a way as to control their personal efficacy. Management programs are the object of surveys realized with the assistance of management indicators (ratios that are a combination of two or more variables, for example, the relationship between the time devoted to a particular activity and the number of resultant contracts). The results of these indicators are then summed up in “performance indicators” destined for the management hierarchy. Additionally, administrative activities (“back office”) are grouped together so as to form specific establishments, the “scanning” of the contents of client files allowing for specialization in terms of activity. Lastly, the first level of client “reception” is gradually being replaced by “call centers.”

d. The Incomplete Nature of Change

13 This inventory is far from being complete. It is missing a certain number of “innovations.” [4] In addition, the changes described are not “complete,” but are summarized. The bank is therefore currently branching out into different types of products (insurance policies). The information systems are, likewise, once again currently the object of the rationalization of activities: access to networks such as the Internet or Intranet is codified, with free access no longer being permitted. In addition, the management is starting to loosen the reins concerning procedures relating to reaching objectives, in favor of an interest in the added value—seen from a strictly financial point of view—of each of the operations and the employees who carry them out.

e. The Asynchronous Character of Change

14 The body of change is not implemented either coherently or cohesively. It is a seemingly fragmented process, a constellation of transformations obeying rhythms and logic of a disparate nature, producing “dyschrony” (§4) and integrating some stable elements (§5).

15 This analysis enables a better understanding of the idea of movement. The succession of changes is not comparable to a succession of radical breaks. As far as the technical aspects, organization and, client relations are concerned, each “innovation” serves only generally to change the initial situation a little more by being incorporated into the previous innovation. So that it is possible to think, in a sense, that nothing changes (radically) since, for fifteen or twenty years, the different constituent parts of the activity have not stopped changing. Moreover, this is very precisely reflected in the employees' discourse: “The real change will occur when change stops.” “Reform,” as is made abundantly clear by Brunsson and Olsen (1993), has thus become a “routine,” a habit. However, for all that, it does not have the predictable (and reassuring) character of something that is routinely repeated. The situation is reminiscent of a badly managed adventure.

16 Therefore, change is not finite, and this has been the case for twenty years. This idea has been accepted in economics in respect to technological development (Amendola and Gaffard 1988), highlighted by the idea of “endless innovation.” There are organizational traces here. Evidently, change is neither an occurrence, nor a particular moment in the history of these institutions or of this sector; on the contrary, it is a pedestrian, everyday event. Viewed as a whole, this dynamic is characterized by instability. It does not correspond to a process of linear rationalization, of either the “industrial” or the “professional” type (Gadrey 1994), owing to the fact that it also contains decisions conducive to uncertainty. However, this same dynamic cannot really be based on the “postmodern” concept of the organization (Cooper 1990; Law 1994; Chia and King 1998). Here too can be found the idea of flux, of organization as simple “punctuation” in permanent change, although it should be noted at the same time that hierarchical control is important and that the division of labor remains a central factor within an organization.

3. The Weakness of the Organization and the Power of Organizational Activity

17 Describing an organization involves the habitual reference to a “production model,” a clear form of the division of labor. Generally speaking, when the question of repeated change and innovation constraints is considered, there is an allusion to the emergence of “new productive models” or “new forms of work organization.” What they have in common is a body of rules that defines and constrains the distribution of tasks in a coherent and cohesive manner. The different tasks are thus linked in a logical and homogeneous way. However, the term “organization” is equally reflective of the idea of action, that of “organizational activity”; that is to say, it consists of implementing ways so that the desired state of the organization can be obtained—for instance, an information system and a forward-looking policy for the management of jobs or “personnel mobilization.”

18 The use of the expression “organization of work” also makes indifferent reference to the state of the structure of the division of labor, or to the action that is definitive of that structure. Both meanings, the form of the organization and the organizational activity, can usefully be associated in an intentional manner. In developing the notion of an “organized action,” Friedberg (1993) integrates both terms in a way that is explicitly justified: an organization is indeed the result of an action, and the action never totally submits to the rules of the organization that only creates spaces for negotiation. Similarly, during their development of the notion of “organizational work,” de Terssac and Lalande (2002) analyze the activity that produces the forms of organization, what weakens them, and what changes them. Seen from these two perspectives, the organization and the action that underpins it are, therefore, associated in order to show that the structure and rules of a business enterprise constitute a negotiated social structure. Despite the proximity of the terms used, these perspectives are not retained.

19 The distinction between the form of the organization and organizational activity does indeed deserve to be preserved for at least one reason: the description of an organization consists of demonstrating its function, a function that is more or less harmonious, while the analysis of the organizational activity sheds light on how the reduction of uncertainty, which ensures the stabilization of an organization, is more or less easily and completely realized. An analysis of movement implies that a distinction is made between these two meanings because the principal assessment involves a considerable weakening of the work structure and a steady increase in organizational activity.

20 What is known as the “Taylorian model” can thus be broken down into two dimensions:

21 a. The first concerns the structure of work, which is defined along five axes: the division of labor (each task is only a limited part of the overall task); the fast work rate (source of productivity in this type of system); specialization relating to maintenance and design (planning departments); ascending and descending information flows; the control of upstream activities (definition of procedures) and downstream activities (the control of performance in a situation). [5]

22 b. The second dimension relating to the “Taylorian model,” the organizational activity, represents the work of the organizer, which involves analyzing the work, drawing up job descriptions and the methods of coordinating these jobs, and working out evaluation techniques for the activities in order to rationalize them and to ensure the “loyalty” of the employees. The arrival of the conveyor belt, on the other hand, means that employees are attached to a job, the rhythm of which is defined by the speed of movement of its parts.

23 The observation of the “modernization” of public companies and the analysis of investigations relating to the Japanese model (Alter 2000) demonstrate that these two dimensions are completely separate. In both cases, the organization aims to shake off Taylorian forms relating to the division of labor (flexibility, lateral and upward information flows, the recomposition of labor, and the control of work partially integrated in the production design), but in both cases, equally, the organizational activity remains largely unchanging. Companies can therefore transform their work structures without modifying their methods of change and their organizational activities. In other words, Taylorism is, at the same time, a lot more and a lot less than a model—a lot more because the character of organizational activity is shared with all other models of organization, and a lot less because this activity can be realized inside structures, the nature of which is not Taylorian. This means, more generally, that the question of “organization models” is a bad one because it is underpinned by the idea of homogeneity, coherence, and the adaptation of structures to their environment. Piotet (1992) shows that this type of reasoning leads to the confusion of an ideal type with a social practice, a form of the division of labor with action policies and, above all, the desired coherence with the relative incoherence obtained.

24 The perpetual debate concerning the renewal of forms of work organization (post-Taylorism or neo-Taylorism?) is therefore a debate whose terms are unsuitable because they confuse organization and organizational activity. Coriat (1991) explains that Toyotism consists in Taylorism “thought backward” (recomposing work, granting autonomy to employees, etc.), but at the same time, he provides information to show that the organizational activity of the engineer Ohno is of the same order as that of his predecessor, Taylor. On the other hand, Linhart (1991) explains that the methods and objectives within the rationalization of work are perennial and, for that reason, that Taylorism remains the dominant form concerning the division of labor. What is referred to by the authors as the perennial nature of Taylorism is in point of fact only the perennial nature of Taylorian methods (organizational activity), and what is termed post-Taylorism is nothing but the modification of forms relating to the division of labor (the organization).

25 The question of movement enables further clarification of this distinction. In a stable situation, the connection between organizational activity and the organization may be considered to be relatively simple: the former builds the latter “once and for all.” Regarding the movement described here, the situation is different: the organizational activity leads to the organization only very rarely and incompletely.

26 This assertion means a return to the notion of organization, which has been considered up until now as a homogeneous whole whatever the retained “model” of organization, since for Taylor the sole objective of the organizer is to reduce uncertainty. [6] It should also be understood that uncertainty is something other than the “vagueness” of a situation, the contours of which are ill defined, or a playground for stakeholders (Crozier and Friedberg 1977). Stinchcombe (1968) thus explains that uncertainty is characteristic of activities whose variables, which define the result, are very much at odds with one another. Therefore, the one with the most influence cannot be predicted, and the relationship between a variable and its result is unknowable. He adds later on (1990) that the more the uncertainty is reduced, the more scientific the organization becomes, the more “Fordian,” in fact. Likewise, here it is worth recalling Brunsson’s (1985) brilliant idea, according to which it is the lack of confidence in existing information, not the absence of information, that creates uncertainty.

27 Uncertainty does not affect the body of services in the same company in the same way. Work structures have at their disposal a level and type of rationalization that varies according to the significance of the uncertainties encountered by the different services. A given organizational form does not, therefore, suit the whole company, so that there are merely segments of organization. For example, the comparatively repetitive activities carried out in the bank—those of the “back office” (the administrative services)—are comparatively predictable and fairly widely codified. These are “organized” along rational lines and correspond to a substructure of a bureaucratic nature. Conversely, the activities of the planning department or the services that involve “corporate” customer relationships have been very much formalized and correspond to a substructure of a professional type.

28 The degree in which the work is rationalized thus depends on the degree of uncertainty characteristic of each service, not on an overall company policy in terms of organization. The work of the organizer (organizational activity) thus consists in finding a way of coordinating these differences. As regards “integration,” this analysis agrees completely with the works of Thompson (1967) and Lawrence de Lorsh (1967). The latter involves the implementation of measures to ensure the coordination of tasks across the different services. In the case of the bank, for example, it is at the same time a matter of information systems allowing each entity to be orientated in relation to downstream and upstream activities; of quality policies leading employees to register their operations within a framework of formalized procedures that are therefore predictable as far as others are concerned; and of cost accounting that identifies the contribution of each service within the workings of the whole in a specific manner. Perrow (1971) thus points out that the goal of the organizer always involves rationalization to the best of his or her ability, so as to reduce uncertainty and to predict modes of treatment that are perfectly formulated in cases of residual incidents. But, as he explains, this objective should not be confused with an actual situation. Indeed, in practice, its realization comes up against the often uncontrollable nature of a part of the tasks undertaken by the employees. Similarly, Brunsson and Olsen (1993) note the synchronous nature of the work of standardization and homogenization on the one hand, and the constant development of forms of organization that are considered to be models, on the other.

29 Movement brings this situation to the fore—a situation in which organizational activity is permanent, and organization is continuous. For example, in the bank, the increase in complexity and variety of products is reflected by an uncertainty concerning the nature of the skills necessary to deal with this new situation. No one individual has the capabilities necessary to handle the situation encountered at work in its entirety, and therefore, no job is perfectly adapted to suit the character of the tasks to be implemented. Cooperation between colleagues, or with the lower levels of management hierarchy, represents the only effective way of dealing with these circumstances. However, this form of work is problematic as far as the management of the organization is concerned: the delays in the processing of files are too long, and: Who is responsible for what is poorly identified and does not allow for the “traceability” of actions? The development of cost accounting and quality procedures represent the current rationalization practices relating to this question.

30 Of course, the organization, as a stable and coherent structure, is not entirely removed from the situation described above. Decisions involving rationalization give rise to capabilities relating to planning, standardization, and coordination. These do not last very long, however. For example, an influx of insurance products brings new uncertainties to the current plans. Similarly, the development of group projects means that a carefully drawn-up management control policy is partially redundant. In both cases, the management indicators are ill adapted to carry out an evaluation of operations that are both cross-disciplinary and independent of the classic operations relating to production.

31 Thus, the body of organizational rules in the bank is represented neither by a bureaucracy, a project structure, a network enterprise, nor by any other type of organization model. This body of rules is both heterogeneous and incomplete. It is, in fact, the result of a tension between organizational activity and the permanent quality of the uncertainty that it is seeking to eliminate. Both organizational activity and uncertainty are, therefore, permanent. The weight of this activity is directly related to the defects within the structuring of the forms of organization: the less organization there is, the more developed organizational activity becomes. [7]

4. Movement and Dyschrony

32 This situation creates a conflict of temporality between the different elements of movement, which is referred to as “dyschrony” (Alter 2000).

33 The concept of dysfunction first occupied an important place in North American sociology (Merton 1936, 1940; Selznik 1949; Gouldner 1954) followed by French organizations (Crozier, 1963). It is defined as a repeated gap (an inversion) in terms of practice, in comparison with objectives targeted by the rules or principles of an organization. This gap—an unexpected consequence of the plans that are in place—does not allow the objectives pursued (by those who defined them) to be met. This creates recurrent functional problems, problems that are themselves often referred to as dysfunctional. The meaning of the term has gradually been broadened, so that dysfunction simply represents a discrepancy in comparison with expected continuity. This discrepancy is generally considered to be negative in view of the objectives defined initially. It may be considered as negative and positive in equal measure, as Weick (1976) has made perfectly clear. [8]

34 Comparable natural phenomena may be observed in the analysis of movement. Here, dysfunction is not directly linked to the opposition or incompatibility of different elements or stakeholders in a system, but to the fact that these do not develop according to the same rhythm or normal patterns of learning. Asynchronous encounters between elements are caused by the whole. These encounters create problems in terms of function and overall evolution. This phenomenon should, strictly speaking, be termed “dysynchrony” (δÏς: “difficulty” or “lack” of synchrony), but for the sake of simplicity, it will be referred to as “dyschrony.” This occurs in relation to technical and management planning, investment made by stakeholders, and their performance and views. Here I am temporarily concerned with strictly organizational aspects, such as those that have been identified within the setting of a small mechanical business. [9] Four main categories can be discerned:

35 a. Dyschrony linked to the scheduling of operations. For example, the definition of the new relationship between the engine shop and the commercial services during the installation of “just-in-time (JIT)” manufacturing resulted in the following difficulties: The organizers initially missed certain aspects concerning informal cooperation. The necessary corrective measures were put in place, but held back the development of the information systems intended to ensure the output of figures and the monitoring necessary for the application of the JIT. Obviously, this delay had, in itself, negative effects on immediate production, bringing considerable harm to the commercial viability of the planning.

36 b. Dyschrony linked to the incompatibility of two changes. For example, the implementation of a certification policy came up against that of JIT. The employees had to dedicate time to defining protocols, then to analyzing procedures, and finally, to the implementation of the operations relating to the certification, while at the same time being available and “flexible” in order to work on the JIT. Speaking more generally, these two types of change were relatively conflicting. The processing of the emergency measures and the custom-made product required by the commercial services are not always included within the framework of certification.

37 c. Dyschrony linked to rivalry between procedures. For example, the preventive maintenance policy involving the robots, which had recently been reinforced, was absolutely practical since it allowed for a reduction in the costs and disruption connected with the practices of corrective maintenance. The problem was that preventive maintenance came under a temporal logic independent of circumstantial constraints. For example, the commercial services department might have had an urgent or specific production requirement, necessitating that a number of technicians be summoned in order to carry it out. If these technicians had been involved in the preventive maintenance operations, the commercial services department would have logically required them to put aside their work for the time being, postponing it and thus running the risk of extending the corrective maintenance operations.

38 d. Dyschrony linked to time value. More generally speaking, efficacy (defined as the ability to reach objectives) and efficiency (defined as the ability to produce at the lowest possible cost) create considerable tensions in the development process connected with change because they force operations within an economic framework independent of the constraints of permanent change. The amount of time necessary for the appropriation and learning relative to an innovation is considered by planning and monitoring services to be inefficient (it represents an additional cost) and ineffectual (it delays the achievement of objectives).

39 Thus, when viewed in isolation, the management qualities in each change are often apparent. On the other hand, their extrinsic qualities are regularly debated by stakeholders because each change answers to a particular dynamic. Therefore, the encounter between two good decisions is not automatically expressed by harmony; it can very well manifest itself by tension or pernicious effects (Boudon 1977) and, here, by dyschrony, because the encounter between two localized learning processes does not always produce a comprehensive learning process. Put differently, the learning process is limited because it is contained within, and through, the division of labor; it cannot therefore be superimposed on the organization, which does not possess a homogeneous unity. This type of situation is commonplace, but during the last few years the question of “organizational learning” (see, for example, in France the works of Midler 1993 or Moisdon 1997) has occupied scholars (in the world of research into management as well as enterprise) to such an extent that the tendency has been to believe that all learning is necessarily part of the development of the whole. [10]

40 Therefore, from the point of view of the management of firms, the problem here does not concern change so much as of the articulation of permanent changes and the stakeholders who implement them (Bacharach, Bamberger, and Sonnensthul 1996; Brown and Eisenhardt 1997). Put differently, the collective ability of the stakeholders to change their working methods so as to improve their efficacy is obvious, so that each service tends to participate in the creation of efficacy, and in a manner that is intrinsically legitimate. Thus, we come back to Reynaud’s idea according to which regulation rests on its efficacy (1988). However, the concept of efficacy and the manner in which it is created may be varied and variable enough over time to call into question the legitimacy of the action of both. Thus, the variety of localized regulations poses the problem of the overall regulation of an enterprise. [11]

41 Seen from all these angles, dyschrony does not rest on the same foundations as the bureaucratic dysfunction identified by Crozier: “A bureaucratic organizational system is a system that is incapable of being corrected by virtue of its errors and in which dysfunction has become one of the elements essential to the balance” (1963, 239). The various stakeholders are constantly learning and introducing knowledge derived from their learning into the methods and tools of management. [12] The problem is created by the temporality relative to the different learning processes and the rivalry between these temporal elements.

5. The Relative Autonomy of Rules and the Lack of Regulation

42 The rules of an organization can become relatively autonomous, both in relation to the forces that created them and the situations they were originally supposed to remedy. Once they have been created in answer to a situation that has arisen at a particular given moment, they also regulate new situations later on, according to a register of criteria relating to evaluation and sanction that remain firm and are, therefore, ill adapted for new situations. They do not, therefore, readily bend to the desire for transformation on the part of the stakeholders. The rules are then merely an imperfect way of regulating management problems caused by movement because they have a “life of their own” and do not adhere to the same rhythm as the action.

43 This idea owes much to the works of Georg Simmel, to whom I shall return later on, leading to the observation of two major points in the analysis of organizations: (1) not all the elements in an organization are transformed simultaneously, and some of them even remain at the rule stage; (2) each rule does not necessarily contribute to the overall organizational coherence and some of them may have a logic independent of the will of the organization so that, at the end of the day, they do not “regulate” anything at all.

44 The situation relating to the whole is characterized by a consistent lack of regulation, a lack that is directly linked to the fact that the rules are comparatively autonomous compared with the action.

a. Lack of regulation

45 These ideas directly relate to the question of social regulation according to Reynaud’s perception of it ,and may be understood in two relatively distinct ways. In the first, it is seen as the analysis of operations carried out collectively so as to ensure the transformation of rules, with the latter being submitted to a constraint of legitimacy and efficacy within a changing world. In the second, regulation is considered as the analysis of the social process represented by the collective activity of regulation, a process that leads to the production of new rules that are analyzed as such. These two points are very much intertwined. Thus, when Reynaud (1989–1997, 16) writes, “In the sense in which the word has been used in this book, rules are nothing other than their genuine capacity for regulating interactions,” it is understood that he is as much concerned with the rules of the game (those of regulation) as with the rules that result from this activity. On both these levels, movement produces gaps in terms of regulation, the size of which ends up characterizing the social fabric more than the regulation.

46 A change is, in effect, only a change in the state of rules and the relationship of the stakeholders with these rules. It is also a social process during which the stakeholders draw up new rules and a new relationship with these rules in a manner that is more or less comfortable or more or less contentious. However for the entire duration of this process, these interactions continue to be framed by the previous rules.

47 This process may be analyzed practically in accordance with perspectives developed by the sociology of innovation, since the diachrony of phenomena is of central interest here. Concerning themes as diverse as the development of new industrial strategies (Chandler 1962), the art profession (Becker 1962), a new drug (Coleman et al. 1966), a policy relating to aquaculture (Callon 1986), or microcomputing (Alter 1985), sociologists always analyze a comparable question. Firstly, a few atypical stakeholders make use of the innovation and persuade other stakeholders to use it; secondly, the innovation (if its circulation is successful) is developed by a large number of users (who give it the meaning that suits them by distorting the initial intention to a greater of lesser degree); thirdly, the innovation becomes a new norm (those who do not use it become “nonconformists” in their turn). The authors also emphasize the fact that the process is never peaceful, in that it brings the innovation stakeholders into conflict with those of the established order and the new forces into conflict with the instituted norms. The success of an innovation therefore represents an inversion of norms. However, in all cases, innovation is indeed a matter that has been observed in itself and one that has the great advantage of showing that the major sociological fact of a process of this type is its unfolding more than the result, the learning process more than the fact of having been learned.

48 The duration of this process is the period that separates the initial state of the rules from their new state. However, during this process, the original set of rules continues to be applied and the legitimacy of the new practices emerges only at the end of the process. Thus, the rules possess a certain “inertia” that does not allow them to regulate the evolution of social practices simultaneously. Reynaud (1989) takes this gap between rules and social practices into consideration, regarding it as a “delay” relative to one another. In situations of movement, this gap becomes structural because it is the change that characterizes the fact of organization. It therefore causes the stakeholders to reside more often between two sets of regulation than within a situation that is regulated differently. It often leads to a transgression of the established rules rather than to negotiation, since in such situations, there are no known “rules of the game” on either side. This situation is that of a “standard deviance” that causes things to change as much as conflict and negotiation. This situation also leads to the understanding that uncertainty is a source of anxiety just as much as a playground. [13]

49 In addition, rules can be applied over a long period in an authoritarian manner by the hierarchy without any regulation actually materializing. Thus, in the bank, the implementation of certification procedures, the internal invoicing, the information systems master plan, the procedures controlling management, and the indicators associated with them did not form the object of any negotiation with the stakeholders affected by the changes whatsoever. These forms of “malfunction” (E. Reynaud and J. D. Reynaud 1994) are never definitive, disappearing because they are neither legitimate nor efficacious. The only ones to remain are those that were finally adopted by the stakeholders. In this respect, one of the central tenets of Reynaud’s work is well documented, namely, the idea that a rule is effective only if it succeeds in ensuring cooperation between the “manager” and the “managed.” However, in situations in which hierarchical logic is particularly apparent, the very construction of this cooperation is sometimes so slow moving that both stakeholders and observers confuse the rule with the regulation (Alter 1990, 1993).

b. The Relative Independence of Rules

50 What is even stranger is that it is the relative independence of certain rules relative to action that governs the movement of the whole.

51 In the bank, the management policy relating to “objectives/means” continues to support the volume of sales, while the other types of management policy, constrained by quality or by the reduction of general expenditure, palpably cut down on the importance of business turnover. Similarly, in SMI, neither the hierarchical character of the decisions, nor even the nature of the punishments in place in case of error, is called into question by either participatory management policies or the call for initiative. Indeed, in both cases, information systems policies are consistently the subject of a carefully detailed “master plan” while the practices of the users always come back to the initial plans relating to its use.

52 Indeed, in all these cases, these rules are the creation of the stakeholders. Thus, the “objectives/means” principle, the hierarchical character of the decisions and the information systems directives are imposed neither by the state of the structure nor by any functional necessity at all. These rules are the result of a social structure. They are, however, ultimately a construct that inhibits action. All these rules can therefore be analyzed along traditional lines as a constraint that defines the work framework of employees, and one that has previously been created by the stakeholders. They represent the objectified forms of action. This is indeed clarified within organizational sociology.

53 Thus, the evolution of the information system in the bank is indeed the result of a social process through which the state of the system has been progressively defined, by way of questioning, conflicts, passions, experiences, and reflections on those experiences. The technical setting that is retained at a given moment is evidently a manifestation of social relationships. It derives from these encounters and is created by them. But, it is this form—that of the information system at a given moment—that “crystallizes” social relationships. The state of the technical system acts as a constraint on the actions of the users and designers of the information system according to the criteria belonging to each organization in the state it is in at a given moment. Thus, the management of the company’s information system obeys rules (of accounting, investment, maintenance, or training) which are dictated by the state and the “form” of the technical system, and not in relation to the nature of the issues to be dealt with.

54 Here I return to the question of the “social forms” as conceived by Simmel (1917) as well as the terms used by him. According to the author, these forms represent relationship models that are imposed on individuals and the interaction between them, imposing behavioral conformity. In Simmel’s early writings, these constitute the framework of thought, and then, later on, work, language, and acquired knowledge, and, seen from a wider perspective, institutions, organizations, and traditions. They are “crystalized settings,” which have been created by human beings, but which then become autonomous, functioning according to a logic that is independent of their creators and the motives behind their creation. They are distinguished by their “contents” (interests, desires, and urges) that represent the foundations of action. [14]

55 Thus, the technical, regulatory, and interpersonal design may be, at a given moment, relatively independent of the intention, power, and will of the stakeholders and capable of constraining their actions, giving them a sense of meaning or ensuring their coordination. Indeed, there are numerous examples in current thinking, in which the weight of “planning” in negotiation methods (for example, Eymard-Duvernay and Marchal 1994), or the place of “routine” in the development of firms (for example, Dubuisson 1998) is emphasized, although it is also quite legitimate to think that planning and routine are the result of activity that has become autonomous in relation to the stakeholders. [15]

56 Misunderstanding stems from the fact that perhaps we do not sufficiently question the reasons leading the stakeholders to accept the autonomy of the forms relating to our social life. Simmel explains that forms are tolerated as such because they also represent “satisfaction,” that of the ability to belong to a world in which behavior is regulated independently of the “special interests” that created them and the commitment and action that they imply. In the situations that are relevant here, this pleasure is the rarer, the more unstable the positions and planning at work become. Thus, what motivates the stakeholders is not only the regulation, but also the rules, since participating in regulation implies an effort—that of action—something that sometimes culminates in exhausting the stakeholders (Alter 1993).


57 The movement described here leads to the modification of certain perspectives prevalent in the sociology of work and organizations, seen from two angles. On the one hand, organizational activity should be distinguished from organization qua structure. The organization can clearly be perceived as a permanent action, as a “mission” rather than as a stable and rational structure. Repeated change is, therefore, in no way associated with any “post-Taylorian” or “neo-Taylorian” model whatsoever, but rather with a body of management rules, the consistency of which is merely partial and occasional. On the other hand, certain technical, managerial, or social rules are not readily bent to action because they have become relatively autonomous. This autonomy, however, cannot be analyzed without reference to the commitment of the stakeholders. Their capacity for transforming rules mobilizes and demobilizes them because the repeated action constitutes an effort and a risk and, above all, because it is the rules that guarantee socialization.

58 Recently, the question of learning, whether “organizational” or “collective,” has become popular in research relating to management and sociology. A wide variety of situations that might be included within the body of theory are encountered in this analysis. However, empirically speaking, the phenomena observed here do not share the same characteristics as those that are generally cited by scholars interested in questions relating to learning, namely, that several types of localized learning do not automatically lead to overall and cohesive learning. This leads me to the view that the problem of management and organization that faces business enterprises is more a question of the ability to harmonize change than the ability to implement it. The enterprises are confronted more by issues relating to dyschrony than to dysfunction.

59 The body of these analyses highlights the fact that movement tends on the whole toward a lack of effective and legitimate regulation—a situation of anomie. This situation is often difficult to see because the lack of regulation does not have much to do with the lack of rules. On the contrary, there are numerous, even too many, rules in the movement described, but for all that, they do not create organization. A paradoxical situation thus arises, one in which the constraint exercised by the rules cannot be associated with what is currently termed “organizational constraint.”


  • [1]
    “Each part of society evolves according to a specific momentum and along its own route. The progression of change thus necessarily engenders frictions which serve to encourage change, which influences its rhythm and its orientation” (1968, 128).
  • [2]
    The bank is distributed throughout France and has branches abroad. These observations relate to three practical services (information technology, corporate markets, finance) and three operational establishments in the Paris region. The results of this study are presented in L’innovation ordinaire, Paris: PUF, 2000.
  • [3]
    This is also a question of methodology, since an awareness of these changes in their entirety would require at least fifteen pages of exposition in order to cover a single practical aspect. The most economical situation—one that consists only of a list of changes and does not take into account registration policy and interdependencies—would be insufficient because it does not allow for an understanding of the logic of the movement. A compromise solution is therefore proposed here, a solution that consists in taking into account these dimensions by reducing the empirical presentation as far as possible.
  • [4]
    Among other things, these “innovations” concern:
    - Methods of operational management—for instance, the implementation of cost accounting, turning every employee into a “service provider” or the “customer” of a colleague for whom he or she is providing a piece of information or a service.
    - Methods of managing skills—for example, the definition of employment types and reclassification of salaried employees.
    - Management—for example, the necessity for spatial and functional mobility in order to carve out a career, the development of project-style tasks or, indeed, “reengineering” (a method of reconfiguring an organization that allows for a reduction in operational costs).
    - Control methods, for example, the development of certification practices and “total quality management”.
  • [5]
    It is noteworthy that Taylor and his exegetes (Le Chatelier et al. 1915) pass over this question fairly rapidly because the scientific organization of work is perceived more as an experimental process that ensures that the “one best way” adapted to suit the localized circumstances of production, than as a type of universal division of labor. In Taylorism, the universal is not, strictly speaking, the “one best way,” but the method that ensures that it is defined. For all these reasons, the work of organizational engineers corresponds more to the organizational activity than to the definition of work structures.
  • [6]
    Returning to the works published between 1879 and 1932 by American Machinist and Engineering magazines, Shenshav and Weitz (2000) observe that the activity of the planning engineers is concerned primarily with a reduction in organizational uncertainty, carried out using a number of different techniques, calculations, appeals for motivation, experimentation, and evaluation.
  • [7]
    An additional element contributes to enlarging the sphere of organizational activity, that of its own duration. Organizational activity should not be confused with a one-off decision. On the contrary, it is a matter of a “time-consuming” activity because it explicitly involves the culture of the employees. In any case, it is in this light that Taylor’s interpreter, Le Chatelier, perceives it: “The important problem facing the transformation of the system of organization consists in a complete change in the attitudes and habits of the workers and those managed by them. This change can be effected only gradually and by furnishing the worker with numerous practical examples. …This change in the workers’ mind-set requires time, and attempts to obtain it might be overhasty. The author has warned those who have wanted to change organization practices a thousand times that it would be a matter of two or three years and sometimes, four to five years” (1915, 108).
  • [8]
    “Decoupling” phenomena are considered at the same time as potential function and dysfunction. For example, work routines limit adaptation to the evolution of an environment, but they also ensure the preservation of know-how that is usable in situations that are more comprehensive and lasting rather than in a one-off situation.
  • [9]
    This business includes two hundred salaried employees and manufactures agricultural machinery and machine tools in the south of France. It operates predominantly with large customers. This strategy means limited production runs, which guarantee the adaptation of production constraints to suit the customers while reducing the order time. The results of this study were published in L’innovation ordinaire (Alter 2000).
  • [10]
    This idea clearly concurs with the observation made by Weick, who writes about “decoupling” phenomena that “by definition, if one goes into an organization and watches which parts affect with other parts, he or she will see the tightly coupled parts and the parts that vary the most. Those parts which vary slightly, infrequently, and aperiodically will be less visible…An implied theme in this paper is that people tend to overrationalize their activities and to attribute greater meaning, predictability, and coupling among them than in fact they have” (1976, 9).
  • [11]
    Maurice defends a comparable idea on the subject of the relationship between localized and “societal” regulation (1994). He highlights the fact that the theory of regulation does not explain the manner in which the passage from one to the other operates. It is equally possible to imagine that the “societal” type is not necessarily “regulated” and that it also exists in situations of generalized dyschrony. This is precisely the analysis made by Sztompka concerning the modernization of Eastern Europe during recent years. He points out that situations constitute a compound form of occurrences, rather than processes: “What happens, how it happens, the location in the processual sequence, the place in the rhythm of events characteristic for a given process” (1991, 25).
  • [12]
    The problem analyzed here is precisely the opposite of that termed by Crozier a “vicious circle.” It is, in fact, because the creation of rules is decentralized, and the corrections made to the functioning of services are consistent, that dyschrony “replaces” dysfunction. It remains a fact that what is described here is indeed a “collective” learning process dependent on the existence of stakeholders for its realization, with “organizational” learning merely being “precipitated” by their actions.
  • [13]
    The question of deviance takes into account four major elements that currently exist within organizations (Alter 2000, 2002):
    - The transgression of rules corresponds to a central dyschrony when rules have a different temporality from that of action. They are more often slower.
    - The simultaneous development of the demand for initiative and an increase in the ability to control lead to a frequent violation of the rules.
    - Deviance, which is associated with a capacity for institutionalization, can be considered as a means of transforming the social order, along with conflict and negotiation.
    - “Suffering” is, then, the result of this type of undertaking that is conducive to anxiety rather than the “manipulative intelligence” of the company management.
  • [14]
    These definitions are obviously too succinct to take into account the interests of “formal” sociology or its ambiguities, which are linked largely to the fact that Simmel does not give the same meanings to the terms “form” and “content” throughout his oeuvre. Aron (1935) takes this into account, followed by Léger (1969) and Boudon (1998). The recent work of Deroche-Gurcel and Watier (2002), however, contains arguments in favor of an interpretation along our lines.
  • [15]
    Incidentally, this might explain why Callon (1986) and Latour are interested in “nonhuman stakeholders.” The phrase is obviously farcical: a stakeholder, among other things, is distinguished (for example from coquilles Saint-Jacques [scallops]) by a consciousness relating to his or her relationships and the ability to reflect on his or her actions. It is not because a plan, a germ, or a technical object seems to be dictating its law that he or she has decided to impose it.


The principal subject matter of this article concerns the existence of the continuous nature of social and organizational change in business enterprises. The analysis of this “movement” as an individual, lasting element, rather than as the emergence of a new structure, is put forward here. Based on the perspectives characteristic of organizational sociology and the sociology of innovation, a marked growth of organizational activity in firms associated with a poor capacity for structuring organizations in a lasting manner is singled out in the article. The fragmented nature of learning and the existence of “dyschrony” are also highlighted and, finally, with reference to the work of Georg Simmel, the autonomous character of rules compared to action is questioned.


Cet article met en évidence l’existence du caractère continu des changements organisationnels et sociaux dans les entreprises. Il propose d’analyser ce « mouvement » comme une donnée spécifique, durable, et non comme l’émergence d’une nouvelle structure. En s’appuyant sur les perspectives de la sociologie de l’innovation et de l’organisation, l’article distingue un fort développement de l’activité organisatrice des firmes, associé à une faible capacité à structurer durablement l’organisation. Il souligne le caractère morcelé des apprentissages et l’existence de « dyschronies ». Reprenant les travaux de Simmel, il s’interroge finalement sur l’autonomie des règles par rapport à l’action.


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