Abstract – Administrative Behavior by Herbert Simon
PAF 602 (Fall 2008)
Simon, H. A. (1997). Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition. Free Press.
Herbert Simon’s Administrative Behavior is an extensive analysis of decision making in organizations. Relying heavily on the work of Chester Barnard, Simon analyzes organizational decision making from the flawed classical “administrative principals” to a new interpretation of decision making through the use of elements of modern human psychology. Simon’s central argument seems to be that an organization can be defined through its decision-making processes and that the gauge of success is the achievement of objective organizational goals.
The goals of an organization can be either an end in themselves or a means to a greater end. Either way, the selection of final goals are termed to be “value judgments” while the implementation of the goals are termed “factual judgments.” In an organization, members come together with the purpose of achieving any number of organizational goals. The process of deciding on these goals and implementing choices and processes to achieve these goals results in a complex system of coordination, expertise, responsibility, authority, loyalty, efficiency, information and training.
Organizations are only possible with the voluntary contribution of the individuals comprising them. In order to influence individual participation and to have the individual temporarily substitute their own goals for those of the organization, Simon suggests that the organization must be in equilibrium which occurs when, “individuals are willing to accept organized membership when their activity in the organization contributes, directly or indirectly, to their own personal goals” (p. 140).
In order for organizations to successfully make decisions that further its goals, structured forms of authority and communication must be in place. When an individual in an organization, “relaxes his own critical faculties” and “permits the communicated decision of another person to guide his own choice” he is submitting to authority (p. 200). This authority can be persuasive and suggestive but sometimes is conclusive.
Administrative behavior has been a central book in public administration for its analysis of efficient and effective means of decision making. Highly specific and detail oriented, it has allowed administration to become a science, bound by logic and objectivity.
I found Simon’s Administrative Behavior to be a very solid and relatively thorough analysis of decision making processes in organizations. While initially skeptical of a highly analytical approach to explaining concepts like acceptance of authority, I was impressed with the logic and open endedness of his ideas. Unlike some other theorists, Simon clearly states that his ideas have merely:
provided us with a framework for the analysis and description of administrative situations, and with a set of factors that must be weighed in arriving at any valid proposal for administrative organization (p. 328).
He does not claim that his analysis is an absolute end to the decision making process.
One of the more subtle nuances I found while reading Simon was that much of his analysis was centered around the definition of terms and phrases. By defining (and often redefining) terms central to decision making and organization, Simon was able to make his argument objective and analytical. It often seems that other writers will take accepted meanings of words and construct their arguments around them, making for a quasi-subjective, and often contradictory (or uncertain), interpretation of their work. I think that Simon makes his arguments stick by clearly defining the scope of the terms he uses and thus makes their meaning more impactful.
While reading Simon’s chapters on authority and communication, I began to wonder how he might interpret the use of the Internet within organizations from both the organizational decision making end as well as the individual within the organization. In his 1997 chapter comments, he does make reference to the “Web” and outlines some implications of how the technology is influencing the decision-making process of the organizations. However, I would be very interested in his thoughts on the Internet as a means of individuals subverting authority; and for that matter organizations using the Internet as a means of subverting other organizations!
As unfortunate as it may be, corporate espionage and employee subversion are likely more commonplace today than back in the 1940′s. Anything from corporate “hacking” to employee collusion and subversion are not outside the realm of uses for Internet technologies. Many organizations (including government agencies) take these threats into account when goal setting and thus information technology concerns have been squarely placed within the context of administrative behavior and decision making.
Being a person of a computer science background, I’m sure if Simon were around today, he would have some very interesting additions for the fifth edition of Administrative Behavior.