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The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office


Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan

  Twelve books  
Release Date:


  business; human nature  
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When i read about this book online it seemed fascinating -- a book about organizational efficiency from the perspective of the modern business organization. You might not know it from reading EvilSponge, but i am a corporate drone, and have been so for a few decades now. Often the corporations i work for do really bizarre things (in my experience -- a division that has not had a "re-org" in at least 2 years has something wrong with its management!), and i was hoping that this book might shed some light on things, help me understand the seemingly irrational organizations which, through no fault of my own, i find myself navigating my working life.

The authors seemed capable of explaining it too. Fisman teaches at Columbia Business School while Sullivan is the director of Harvard Business Review Books. And, i have to admit, they are both pretty good authors. A book about this topic could be dry, but they use an informal, conversational tone and pepper their writing with equal amounts of studies and interesting anecdotes.

The two are able to explain how organizations function through contrasting successful organizations (usually American or European businesses) with unsuccessful ones (normally small third world factories that hired consultants). While it might seem that there is a good bit of cultural bias in their comparisons, they are able to demonstrate the objective value of Western-style corporate organizational techniques by showing how places become more profitable through implementing these techniques.

They talk a lot about communication within organization, including that bane of my existence, The Meeting. Basically, the reason so many meetings happen is that it is harder to lie in person than on email. Well, that's not the entire reason, but that was my takeaway here. I think they did a good job of explaining the rationale behind meetings in general.

I found the book interesting and easy to read. But ... it seems like Fisman and Sullivan end up cheerleading the things they study. That is, the ultimate conclusion of the book is that modern American corporations are the best things in the history of the world for optimization of profit, which is, they seem to imply, the purpose of life. Therefore, since the American Corporate Structure sucks less than all other organization styles, it is the optimal way for human beings to be organized.

As i sit here, a few days before the Christmas holiday, in an under heated office building in a second class city in America, surrounded by other peon cubicle dwellers like myself, most of whom are "contractors" not employees and are looking at a few random unpaid days (i.e., Federal holidays) off the next few weeks while all of the executives are away with their families (because they are awarded more vacation time), i have to say that Fisman and Sullivan can go fuck themselves.

They have made the Hegelian error in confusing historical ontology with teleology. That is, they say that because things have worked out this way, it must be for the best! They rightly point out why organizations are the way they are now. I appreciate the historical perspective, but the conclusion that me that being in meetings all the time is really for the best of society and that CEOs deserve to get paid a hell of a lot more than the rest of us because that is best for everyone, ultimately, is a conclusion that i cannot accept.

They do have a chapter on "The Future Org" at the end of the book, but they are primarily concerned with speculation on technological changes that will be merged in with the structure that they feel is the epitome of human civilization.

Look, things have worked out this way because of accidents and random occurrences, and the sheer force of will of certain individuals. Ultimately i was turned off by their cheerleading, by their seeming acceptance that random history has resulted in The American Corporation, which is The Best Possible Way For Humans To Be Organized In Order To Make Money, Which Is All That Matters.

I accept their description of how we got here, but in the end i am left wondering, "Okay, so how do we change this?"

I don't know how to change it. But this book has given me a lot to think about, so there is that. It also has helped me put some of the really stupid stuff that corporations do in perspective, which was really why i picked it up in the first place. But it challenges me.

Either way, i would definitely recommend it. I cannot say that i like it, their cheerleading turned me off too much for that, but it is well written, compelling, interesting, and talks about important issues. In that sense, this is a really great book.

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