2006 LAA Address by Lyman Porter

Lyman Porter

The OB Division Lifetime Achievement Award recognizes senior scholars who have contributed to our discipline throughout their careers. The criteria for lifetime achievement include three major components. First, the person must have completed their PhD (or finished their training/education) at least twenty years ago. Second, the individual is a truly outstanding scholar. He or she has published in the very best journals, and work with colleagues and students with interest and passion for the field of organizational behavior. Third, lifetime achievement concerns more than just publications. People contribute to this field in many ways that complement their scholarship. For example, they may be on editorial boards, serve as elected representatives for the Academy or have numerous outstanding students in the field. The recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award contributes not only directly through his or her scholarship, but through these other activities as well.

Dr. Lyman W. Porter is our 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. The summary of Dr. Porter’s invited address, “Personal Reflections on the Birth of the OB field,” presented at the 2006 Academy of Management meeting follows….

“PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON THE BIRTH OF THE OB FIELD”
OB DIVISION LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD LECTURE
LYMAN W. PORTER
Academy of Management, 2006 Annual Meeting

SUMMARY OF REMARKS

What follows is, to an extent at least, an exercise in retrospective sense-making. This is because those of us who were “present at the creation” at the time the field of Organizational Behavior, or OB, was born in the 1960s were not explicitly intending to found a new field and were not overtly conscious that a new field was in fact being launched. In many respects, like other aspects of ordinary living, “things just happened.”

As my title indicates, this talk presents my purely personal reflections on OB’s birth, and thus they may or may not be consistent with the views of my contemporaries who were also active during the field’s early years. I will begin by describing the pre-OB landscape decade of the 1950s, followed by a focus on the key decade — the 1960s — that marked the origins of what we now call Organizational Behavior. This summary of my remarks concludes with a few observations about how the field has developed over the years since the 1960s – observations that benefit from the ever-helpful lens of hindsight.

PRE OB: THE 1950s

It is important to note that in the 1950s, no field by the name of Organizational Behavior existed. Or, to paraphrase what the author Gertrude Stein once said about Oakland (California), “there was no there, there”! And now, some 50 years later, it is the name of the division with the largest membership (over 5,000) in the Academy of Management.

The first published use of the term “organizational behavior” that I have been able to locate was by Chris Argyris, certainly one of the field’s outstanding pioneers, in his path-breaking 1957 book, Personality and Organization. However, I don’t think that Chris himself even recognized the significance of his use of the term, and it did not re-appear again until the early 1960s in the book edited by Hal Leavitt entitled Social Science of Organizations that contained a collection of papers presented at a 1962 conference at Carnegie Mellon University and was published in 1963. Since that was at least five or six years after Argyris’ ’57 book, it could safely be said that the label “organizational behavior” did not immediately catch on.

One other point to be made about the decade of the ‘50s with respect to OB was the fact that it obviously was not present as an academic area within business schools of that period. The closest approximation to the OB field at the time in B Schools, and it was not a very close approximation, was “personnel administration” or what we would now – but not then — call “human resources management.” The field of personnel administration of that era was largely limited to describing and analyzing current practice in that area in major corporations. It was a field focused on people, but not a field very much concerned with the behaviors of those people nor with their interactions occurring with others in their organization. To put this another way, in my view the field of personnel administration did not give rise to the future field of organizational behavior.

(As a personal aside, I should note that in the last half of the 1950s I was a junior faculty member in the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley, and had been hired to teach industrial psychology and to develop courses in what my senior colleagues had called “industrial-social psychology.” The only problem was that in the late years of the 1950s data were being published that showed that the area of industrial psychology was declining within psychology departments. Consequently, I had to worry about whether there would even continue to be a field of industrial psychology, let alone a sub-field of industrial-social psychology. Thus, although industrial psychology is today a flourishing field in at least some psychology departments, I can truly say that the subsequent development of the field of OB in the 1960s turned out to be rather crucial for me personally!)

OB EMERGES: THE 1960s

In my view, there were three agents of change in the 1960s – identified by the initials B, B, and A — that were absolutely essential components of the stew of ingredients that resulted in the emergence of the new field of Organizational Behavior by the end of the decade. The first “B” was books; the second “B” was business schools; and the “A” was the Academy of Management. The first of these, books, could be considered an “internal” (to the nascent field) agent of change, whereas the latter two were agents of change that were external to OB, per se.

Books

There were at least 11 seminal books that started appearing in the latter half of the 1950s, and then on into and throughout most of the ‘60s, that were, collectively, to have a profound influence on the birth of this new field. Ten of these 11 books were authored by academics, but the first was by a journalist. That book, published in 1956, was The Organization Man, written by a member of the editorial staff ofFortune magazine, William H. Whyte (not to be confused with the contemporary well-known social scientist, William Foote Whyte). Whyte’s book basically was a damning account of how managers and executives were submerging their individuality by adhering to the dictates and needs of the organizations for which they worked. If nothing else, this book called attention to the effects of the relationships between employing organizations, on the one hand, and the needs and aspirations of their individual members on the other hand.

The ten scholarly books that followed, starting in 1957, that I think provided a “critical mass” impetus for forming a new academic field were the following (in chronological order, grouped into two sets: late ‘50s/early ‘60s, and mid-late ‘60s): Set 1

  • 1957: Argyris: Personality and Organization
  • 1958: March & Simon: Organizations
  • 1959: Herzberg, Mausner & Snyderman: The Motivation to Work
  • 1960: McGregor: The Human Side of Enterprise
  • 1961: Likert: New Patterns of Management

Set 2

  • 1965: Schein: Organizational Psychology
  • 1965: Woodward: Industrial Organization
  • 1966: Katz & Kahn: The Social Psychology of Organizations
  • 1967: Thompson: Organizations in Action
  • 1967: Lawrence & Lorsch: Organization and Environment

It is perhaps interesting to note, although not necessarily noticed at the time, that eight of the 11 books contained the word “organization” (or a variant), rather than some other term such as “corporations” or “companies.” This by itself had an indirect effect of providing the basis and rationale for half of the name of the emerging field of organizational behavior. Much more important, however, was the sheer stimulation that these books, collectively, imparted to researchers, especially those of us who were relatively younger at the time. They created excitement with their new ideas and with the data that many of them were providing to back up their arguments. In effect, there was an exciting intellectual “buzz” of proportions that I, and I suspect many of my contemporaries, had never experienced before then nor, perhaps, since.

Business Schools

One of the two major change agents external to the newly-developing OB field that was to play a significant role in shepherding its emergence was the institution of the American business school of that era. Business schools before the start of the 1960s had occupied a rather lowly, and not wholly undeserved, status in U.S. higher education. It would not be much of an exaggeration to sum up the situation by saying that the only academic areas of universities held in lower esteem at that time were physical education and home economics! All of this began to change, however, in the early ‘60s, following the publication (in 1959) of two highly critical reports on the condition of business school education in the U.S. at that time. Commonly referred to as the Gordon & Howell, and Pierson, reports (sponsored by the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, respectively), they severely criticized business schools for all sorts of sins, including: low standards, non-rigorous curricula, poorly-prepared faculty, anemic or non-existent research activities, and, most relevant to OB’s subsequent birth, no modern quantitative or behavioral science in the curriculum or represented on the faculty.

B schools, stunned by the harsh critiques and then soon aided by the infusion of money from the Ford foundation, begin to address the several issues that had been raised. In particular, for those of us with an interest in OB, they added faculty members with behavioral science expertise. This was done in two ways: Either by sending existing B school professors to conferences or visiting appointments at top universities to receive updating and research training, or by hiring faculty members (and I was one of those) away from social and behavioral science types of departments — faculty members who, presumably, knew something about both research and organizations! The fact that transplanted faculty came from different disciplinary backgrounds – such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science – and that curricular material likewise came from a variety of disciplines, meant that these units could not be called, for example, “organizational psychology” or “organizational sociology”. Thus, the consensus umbrella term that emerged was “organizational behavior”. It was also a term consistent with the content and concepts of the previously-mentioned set of influential books. The consequences by the end of the ‘60s and beginning of the ‘70s: Presto! The creation of units within the business school faculty, and the creation of courses in the curriculum, with the label of “organizational behavior.”

Attention should also be called to the fact that, independently of these developments, U.S. business schools started to experience mushroom growth at the end of the 1960s which only served to help accelerate the development and expansion of this new OB “baby.”

Academy

The other major external agent of change that influenced the formation of the OB field was the Academy of Management. Founded in the late 1930s, the Academy had been a fairly small, sleepy academic organization up through the 1950s. Indeed, without too much overstatement, it could be said that in that period the Academy of Management was a prime example of an “old boys network.” At least it was that way when I went to my first national AOM meeting in 1967 (having just joined a business school faculty), held in Washington, DC, at the end of December. There were roughly 200 in attendance, but, indicative of both the size at that time and the relative lack of emphasis on scholarly research presentations, the total printed program comprised four – f-o-u-r – pages!

At the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the ‘70s, there were three key developments in AOM that had both direct and indirect effects on the emergence of OB as a field: One was the move of the annual meeting from the end of December to August. This obviously had no more effect on OB than any other area, but it did have a great impact on increasing the size of the Academy and the attendance at its meetings, both of which helped all areas within the Academy to grow. The second development was a fundamental change in the nature of the annual meeting, going from the previous practice of “invited” papers by acquaintances of the program organizers, to “competitively refereed” papers. This change was spearheaded by several of the early founders of our field, including, among others, Larry Cummings, Bob House, Jack Miner, Steve Carroll, Henry Tosi, and the present author. It changed the character of the annual meeting and motivated newcomers to want to attend and learn about the latest theories and research findings. No longer was it just an “old boys” club. The third, and most directly important development for our field, was the Academy’s creation of Divisions in 1971. The Board of Governors at that time (still virtually all “boys,” both older and not-so-old) established nine divisions at the outset, with OB being one of them. The present author was appointed the first Chair of the OB Division, and Larry Cummings was elected as the second Chair. The first-ever “divisionalized” version of the program at the Academy’s annual meeting occurred in 1972 and has been a basic characteristic of programs since that

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance to our field of the creation of Divisions by the Academy of Management at the beginning of the 1970s. The changes occurring within business schools at that time provided the potential new members for this ncipient field, but the new entity called the “OB Division” provided an intellectual “home” that we could inhabit and around which we could coalesce. It also had the effect of solidifying a commonly-accepted name for the new field. Another way of stating the importance of the Academy and, especially, of its divisionalized structure, is to say: Institutions do matter!

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

I finish my remarks with a few observations about the current state of our field (observations consistent with some thoughts expressed in my essay in the 40th anniversary issue of Administrative Science Quarterly some ten years ago).

  • First, up to now OB as a field has clearly been a “growth industry” these past several decades. One only needs to look at its current size of membership within the Academy of Management to document this. Whether this will continue to be the case in the coming several decades, though, is, I think, an open question.
  • Second, OB from its beginnings has been a definitely multi-disciplinary field. The fact that no single discipline predominates in OB has been part of its hybrid-vigor strength, in my opinion. However, the fact that it is multi-disciplinary does not necessarily mean that it is also inter-disciplinary in any true sense.
  • Third, and related to the previous observation, OB as a field is subject to centrifugal forces and consequently it has spread across a relatively vast array of topics. You might say that the field has developed a lot of girth. At the micro end it merges into HR, and at the macro or OT end it merges into Strategy. It is the areas in between that constitute the core of OB.
  • Fourth, the fact that OB is so broad is a problem in one sense, but it is also a great asset in another. It is the tremendous smorgasbord of diverse topics – from organizational justice to trust to relational demography to transformational leadership to organizational citizenship behavior to cross-cultural differences to power to group conflict to …. — that makes this field so interesting and exciting.
  • Fifth, not only does the field encompass an ever-widening array of topics, but it is also hospitable to an increasing diversity of research methods, both qualitative as well as quantitative.

Going forward, I find the field healthy, but also with plenty of unmet needs and continuing challenges. Chief among those are:

  • the need to give more attention to the organization – the “Big O” – as the context for understanding different types of individual and group behavior occurring within;
  • the need for more large-scale research efforts such as that represented by the GLOBE project on leadership across national cultures;
  • the need for more research that cuts across micro/macro artificial boundaries, such as, for example (among many that could be cited), the behavioral effects of balances struck between degrees of centralization and decentralization within organizations, and the impacts of different types and strengths of control systems (think Enron) on organizational effectiveness; and, last but not least,
  • the never-ending need and challenge to develop integrative perspectives to put together and make sense of all of our diverse findings.

In conclusion, it has been a privilege to have spent my academic lifetime in such an intriguing, stimulating and vibrant field that organizational behavior was from its earliest beginnings — and still is!