Sub-theme 26: Designing Dynamic Structures

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Patrick A.M. Vermeulen
Radboud University, The Netherlands
Geert van Hootegem
KU Leuven, Belgium
Johan Elvemo Ravn
Nord University, Norway

Call for Papers

In this sub-theme we focus on designing dynamic organizational structures. Organizational structures can broadly be described as the way tasks are (both formally and informally) assigned to or taken up by (groups of) individuals and related to each other in a network of tasks. Dynamic structures are structures allowing for their own development – that is, by means of interactions or practices based on these structures it is possible to change / improve the structure itself. To approach this topic, two relevant questions are central: (1) what are the characteristics of these dynamic structures, and (2) what does it mean to design them?
We have at least two reasons for paying attention to ‘dynamic structures’ – one relating to practice and one to theory. One practice-oriented reason for paying attention to dynamic organizational structures has to do with the role of structures in relevant contemporary societal issues. Some pressing societal problems (e.g., problems in healthcare, in professional service organizations, or in organizations responsible for our safety or education) have been analysed as problems related to organizational structures. For instance, Christensen et al. (2010) argue that the rising cost of healthcare and its growing inaccessibility are related to the structure of these organizations. The structures of large hospitals, for example, with work organized in complex functional, specialist departments, catering for many diseases have been found to lie at the root of long waiting times, low quality of care, and much overhead. The problem with such structures is that they tend to become ‘self-inhibiting’ – i.e. they tend to disable their own improvement. Complex structures with many dependency relations and separate regulatory tasks tend to become error-prone and typically lack the capacity to respond to errors swiftly. Moreover, in such structures organizational members typically lack the overview of processes and are caught up in overhead tasks. As a result, changing the structure as part of their regular tasks becomes problematic. The challenge is to design structures that can both help to realize the societal contribution of organizations, and, at the same time allow for their own continuous development.
Similar developments have been described in organizations responsible for our safety. Moorkamp (2019), for instance, discusses how the initial structure of a temporary military organization providing help and securing safety after a natural disaster was not only doing a poor job delivering their humanitarian goals, it also proved quite unable to change its own structure. Again, the challenge is to start with a design that can, based on the context factors it is confronted with, swiftly adjust itself.
Although design theory provides some clues about what such structures should look like, typically structures with low centralization, low job-specification, and units geared to a sub-set of orders (cf. Nadler & Tushman, 1999; or sociotechnical design theories, see De Sitter et al., 1997) there are still gaps in understanding the design of such structures; in particular how experimenting with the structural design itself should be built into these structures.
A more theoretical reason for paying attention to ‘dynamic structures’ has to do with the role of structures in organizational theory. Many scholars have presented ideas on organizations in which organizational interactions and the conditions for these interactions are seen as mutually dependent and constitutive. This is a central idea in Giddens’ structuration theory in which “structures […] of social systems are both medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize” (Giddens, 1979: 25). Or, in a similar vein, Luhmann (1984) discusses how decision premises act as conditions for organizational decisions, which, in turn, can alter the decision premises they were based on. The reciprocal relation between organizational interactions and their conditions is also a central notion in practice theory. Feldman and Orlikowski (2011: 1442), for instance, state that the mutual constitutive relation between ‘social orders’ and ‘human agency’ is a cornerstone of practice theory. In this ‘structure-agency’ approach, formal or informal organizational structures are part of the conditions of human agency in organizations. Structures co-constitute agency (along with other ‘structural’ components – in the Giddens sense) and based on human agency structures are altered.
However – sometimes organizational structures emerge that may constrain agency too much – and even up to a point that the ‘natural’ development which is implied in the mutual, co-constitutive relation between structure and agency is threatened. Bureaucracies, for instance, still condition agency – but they constrain agency in changing the bureaucracy itself. It is problematic to change the bureaucratic structures based on the agency allowed by the bureaucratic structures. This is, of course, not a new insight, but in organization theory attention seems to have drifted away from the structures conditioning agency. In this sub-theme we want to put more emphasis on the characteristics of organizational structures which condition agency in such a way that their own structural development is secured – i.e. the characteristics of organizational structures that allow for a continuous mutual and co-constitutive relation between structures and agency and do not constrain agency to change structures (Achterbergh & Vriens, 2019). Part of rethinking these structures has to do with the activity of ‘design’. Given the above logic, design – as the part of organizational activities that are geared at changing the structure, is not a one shot activity. Instead, a perspective on design that highlights it its embedded, continuous, and experimental character might be more appropriate.
In short, then, this sub-theme wants to discuss dynamic structures – structures allowing for their own structural development and sees at least two reasons for the relevance of this topic. We invite scholars to present empirical or conceptual research on (1) the characteristics of such structures, and (2) how these structures can be designed.
Possible topics that fit this sub-theme are (but are not limited to):

  • Conceptualization of the notion of ‘dynamic structures’ as structures enabling their own development

  • The place of dynamic structures in organization theory

  • The characteristics of dynamic structures

  • Theorizing the (embedded) design of dynamic structures

  • Empirical studies on dynamic structures

  • Theorizing the notion of self-inhibition

  • Studies showing that and how organizational problems relate to self-inhibiting structures

  • Requirements for the continuous design of dynamic structures

  • The role of designing dynamic structures in design theory



  • Achterbergh, J., & Vriens, D. (2019): Organizational Development: Designing Episodic Interventions. New York: Routledge.
  • Christensen, C.M., Grossberg, J.H., & Hwang, J. (2010): The Innovator’s Prescription. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • De Sitter, L.U., Den Hertog, J.F., & Dankbaar, B. (1997): “From complex organizations with simple jobs to simple organizations with complex jobs.” Human Relations, 50 (5), 497–534.
  • Feldman, M.S., & Orlikowski, W.J. (2011): “Theorizing practice and practicing theory.” Organization Science, 22 (5), 1240–1253.
  • Giddens, A. (1979): Central Problems in Social Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Luhmann, N. (1984): Soziale Systeme. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
  • Moorkamp, M. (2019): Operating under High Risk Conditions in Temporary Organizations. New York: Routledge.
  • Nadler, D.A., & Tushman, M. (1999): “The organization of the future: Strategic imperatives and core competencies for the 21st century.” Organizational Dynamics, 28 (1), 45–60.
Patrick A.M. Vermeulen is a Professor of Organization Development and New Organizational Forms at the Radboud University, Nijmegen School of Management, The Netherlands. He is also the academic director of the Radboud Management Academy. His research interests include institutional change and institutional complexity, innovation in developing countries and organization design. In his work he uses varied methodologies, but with an emphasis on qualitative research. Patrick’s research has, among others, been published in the ‘Academy of Management Journal’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Strategic Organization’, ‘Research Policy’, ‘Long Range Planning’, and the ‘International Journal of Research in Marketing’.
Geert van Hootegem is a Professor of Occupational and Organizational Sociology at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. He is also the Manager of HIVA, the Research Institute for Work and Society. He specializes in organizational and job design and investigates its effects on employees and companies. In recent years, the main focus has been on the healthcare sector. Geert is the founder of Flanders Synergy and the initiator of the movement regarding the Innovative Work Organisation and Workplace Innovation (e.g., European Workplace Innovation Network, a European learning network for innovative work organization).
Johan Elvemo Ravn is a Professor at the Social Science Faculty of Nord University, Norway. His research interests include organizational design, socio-technical systems design, industrial democracy and high performance work systems.
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