James D. Thompson

American sociologist

James David Thompson (January 11, 1920 in Indianapolis – September 1, 1973) was an American sociologist, and Professor of Sociology at Vanderbilt University, especially known for his book Organizations in Action, published in 1967.



Organizations in Action, 1967


James D. Thompson, Organizations in Action: Social Science Bases of Administrative Theory, published in 1967.

  • A central purpose of this book is to identify a framework which might link at important points several of the now independent approaches to the understanding of complex organizations.
    • p. viii
  • If we now reintroduce the conception of the complex organization as an open system subject to criteria of rationality, we are in a position to speculate about some dynamic properties of organizations.
    • p. 11
  • Most of our beliefs about complex organizations follow from one or the other of two distinct strategies. The closed-system strategy seeks certainty by incorporating only those variables positively associated with goal achievement and subjecting them to a monolithic control network. The open-system strategy shifts attention from goal achievement to survival and incorporates uncertainty by recognizing organizational interdependence with environment. A newer tradition enables us to conceive of the organization as an open system, indeterminate and faced with uncertainty, but subject to criteria of rationality and hence needing certainty.
    • p. 13 (in 2011 edition)
  • Under norms of rationality, organizations seek to seal off their core technologies from environmental influences.
    • p. 19; Proposition 2.1
  • Under norms of rationality, organizations seek to buffer environmental influences by surrounding their technical cores with input and output components.
    • p. 20; Proposition 2.2
  • Under norms of rationality, organizations seek to smooth out input and output transactions.
    • Proposition 2.3
  • Under norms of rationality, organizations seek to anticipate and adapt to environmental changes which cannot be buffered or leveled.
    • Proposition 2.4
  • When buffering, leveling, and forecasting do not protect their technical cores from environmental fluctuations, organizations under norms of rationality resort to rationing.
    • Proposition 2.5
  • Organizations under norms of rationality seek to place their boundaries around those activities which if left to the task environment would be crucial contingencies.
The implication of this proposition is that we should expect to find organizations including within their domains activities or competencies which, on a technological basis, could be performed by the task environment without damage to the to the major mission of the organization. For the hotel, for example, provision of rooms and meals would be the major mission, and the operation of a laundry would be excluded; yet we find hotels operating laundries. On the other hand, provision of rooms and meals would not be within the major mission of the hospital, although hospitals commonly include these activities within their domains.
  • The incorporation of subsidiary competencies along with major missions is commonplace in organizations of all types and is not a major discovery. But our proposition is not an announcement of the fact; rather it attempts to indicate the in which domains are expanding
  • p. 39-40; As cited in: Barbara Czarniawska (1999). Writing Management: Organization Theory as a Literary Genre. p. 33
  • The more sectors in which the organization subject to rationality norms is constrained; the more power the organization will seek over remaining sectors of its task environment... many constraints and unable to achieve power in other sectors of its task environment will seek to enlarge the task environment.
    • p. 36-37; As cited in: Christopher A. Simon (2001). To Run a School: Administrative Organization and Learning, p. 40

Quotes about James D. Thompson

  • Organizations in Action (1964) [was] a masterpiece on the behavior of organizations, incorporating an open-systems perspective to explain the influence of technology on the matter in which work systems are structured for task accomplishment.
  • Thompson’s Organizations in Action was published more than three decades ago but is still one of the classics of organization theory. The book provides a unifying perspective on open- and closed-systems thinking in organization theory that has been recognized as an important contribution in its own right (Scott 1998). The environment is a key source of uncertainty for an organization, and Thompson argued that much of organizational action can be explained by the need to reduce uncertainty. Consider a specific action such as “buffering” (e.g., building warehouses or storages), aiming to seal off the organization’s technical or operational core from environmental uncertainty. The main lines of his arguments always are couched in explicitly formulated propositions but also are brought to life by examples such as the typologies of technologies (long-linked, mediating, or intensive), interdependencies (pooled, sequential, or reciprocal), and coordination (by standardization, by plan, or by mutual adjustment). His typologies have inspired much research in organizational design (Galbraith 1977) and contingency theory (Mintzberg 1979).
    • Jaap Kamps and Laszlo´ Polos. "Reducing Uncertainty: A Formal Theory of Organizations in Action." in: AJS Vol. 104 Nr 6 (May 1999): 1774–1810
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