Michael Cohen on Routines

10 July 2007 at 8:19 am Leave a comment

| Nicolai Foss |

In the field of organization studies, Michael Cohen is a towering figure. What he says is listened to. In a recent Essai in Organization Studies (yes, in case you didn’t know, Org Studies belongs to the same continent as Michel de Montaigne; pretentious, nous?), Cohen talks about the inspiration he has gained from American pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. He mentions that, somewhat to his surprise, he has found out that he is far from unique in his Dewey interest. Another Dewey-reader with interests similar to Cohen’s is Sid Winter; in his recent bashing of methodological individualism at the DRUID conference, Winter enlisted Dewey among the enemies of MI. 

Cohen interestingly contrasts Dewey with Simon in a discussion of how cognition, habit, and emotion are related and how their insights in their relations may inform the study of routine: Whereas Simon tends to put cognition, habit and emotion in separate boxes, Dewey thinks of them as intimately related. According to Cohen, it is Simon’s separation of habit from cognition and emotion that has produced the contemporary view of routines as “rigid,” “mundane,” and “mindless.” A superior source of inspiration for thinking about routines is Dewey’s emphasis on the “dynamic interplay of habit, thought and emotion” (p. 777).

I am not sure I understand all that Cohen is saying. I am pleased that he has problems with the current conception of routines that are similar to mine (see my recent post on “routines and practices”). However, I have great difficulties understanding his argument that what is wrong with the current conception of routines is attributable to the Carnegie SchoolTo the Carnegie school conscious, though imperfect, decisions, supported by decision rules, and the consequences of decisions “were very much in the foreground” (p. 776), and habit was more in the background. However, what — in my view — happened is that the Cyert and March emphasis on decisions has been suppressed in current thinking by an overriding emphasis on automaticity, rigidity, etc. — in other words, “habit.” The problem in current thinking on routines, therefore is not that there is too little emphasis on “habit,” but much too much. Rather than reading Dewey contemporary proponents of the routine notion would, I submit, be better served by going back to Cyert and March.

Entry filed under: - Foss -, Management Theory, Methods/Methodology/Theory of Science.

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