PowerPoint and the Invisibility of Contingency in Project Organizing
University of Zurich - Department of Business Administration (IBW); University of Zurich - Faculty of Economics, Business Administration and Information Technology
December 17, 2010
IOU Working Paper No. 124
The emerging process view in organization studies conceptualizes organizations as fluid streams of organizing. If, however, organizations are conceived as consisting of something as ephemeral as processes, the question arises how the organization is then able to interconnect the very processes that constitute its existence. For studying this issue of connectivity we draw on one particular stream of process theorizing, that is, the theory of social systems by Niklas Luhmann. He argues that organizations are fundamentally grounded in paradox: they continuously require both to visibilize and to invisibilize the inherent contingency (i.e. alternativity) of processes in order to allow for interconnectivity between them. In this paper, we therefore examine one organizational form where the connectivity between processes is particularly at stake: the project organization. We present the findings of an empirical case study at a globally operating business consulting firm. The study involved the quantitative and qualitative analysis of 565 textual documents collected from cross-project learning databases as well as 14 qualitative interviews. We found that usually all that remains after a project has been completed is a collection of highly condensed PowerPoint documents. The narratives contained in those documents focused on consistency (e.g. highlighting "best practices" or "success stories") rather than contingency (e.g., doubts, mistakes, or alternative paths considered). Consequently, the processuality and contingency of each project remained opaque to non-participants. This also found expression in established practices of hiding the elephant, i.e. disguising the vast contingencies inherent to the processes that constitute the organization.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 37
Keywords: process perspective, project organizations, organizational communication, PowerPointworking papers series
Date posted: May 9, 2011 ; Last revised: August 26, 2012
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