Monday, January 14, 2008

Thinking about organizations

I'm not an org theoriest but a sentence in a post by Valeria Maltoni got me thinking about the nature of our relationship with organizations.

"We should never talk about organizations as entities, it leads to all sorts of false assumptions, the most glaring of which is that an entity has a mind, it does not," she writes.

This is a fundamental error that people make all the time. Yet when my students write about a company using the pronoun "they" (example: Company X sold a million widgets, and they could've sold even more), I have to correct the grammar. Wouldn't we be better off if reminded that a company really is "they" rather than "it"? That is, it seems to me that the grammar is teaching us to think incorrectly about what organizations really are.

Dan(nye) Santow and Andy Bechtel, I'm throwing this one to you.


Thanks for the interesting question.

I'm OK with a company or organization as an "it" and using singular verbs and pronouns in those situations. People understand that such groups are made up of individuals who add up to one "team" that's a singular entity.

Another option: You could go the British route and use plural verbs in such cases: "Microsoft are preparing to release their latest version of Windows."
My grandmother's maiden name was Marvin, so there was some Brit in there somewhere. I think this qualifies me to use plural verbs from now on!
In a similar vein, do you write, "The crowd rose to its feet" or "their feet"? Like a group or company, a crowd is one unit (the crowd is excited, not the crowd are excited), but I would not write that the crowd rose to "its feet." Nevertheless, I treat an organization as an "it."
If you want students to write correctly, a company is an "it." Pretty hard to reinforce this, however, when most media use "they" and students can give you lots of examples in the stories and advertisements they read.
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