A coordination theory approach to organizational process design

Publication Type:

Journal Article


Organization Science, Volume 8, Issue 2, Number 2, p.157–175 (1997)




An important practical problem for many managers is finding alternative processes for performing a desired task, for example, one that is more efficient, cheaper, or that is automated or enhanced by the use of information technology. Improving processes also poses theoretical challenges. Coordination theory provides an approach to the study of processes. In this view, the design of a process depends on the coordination mechanisms chosen to manage dependencies among tasks and resources involved in the process. In this paper, I use coordination theory to analyze the software change process of a large mini-computer manufacturer. Mechanisms analyzed include those for task assignment, resource sharing, and managing dependencies between modules of source code. For each, I suggest alternative mechanisms and thus alternative designs for the process. The organization assigned problem reports to engineers based on the module that appeared to be in error, since engineers only worked on particular modules. Alternative task assignment mechanisms include assignment to engineers based on work- load or market-like bids. Modules of source code were not shared, but rather "owned" by one engineer, thus reducing the need for coordination. An alternative resource sharing mechanism would be needed to manage source code if multiple engineers could work on the same modules. Finally, engineers managed dependencies between modules informally, relying on their personal knowledge of which other engineers used their code; alternatives include formally defining the interfaces between modules and tracking their users. Software bug fixing provides a microcosm of coordination problems and solutions. Similar coordination problems arise in most processes and are managed by a similar range of mechanisms. For example, diagnosing bug reports and assigning them to engineers may have interesting parallels to diagnosing patients and assigning them to specialists. While the case presented does not formally test coordination theory, it does illustrate the potential of coordination theory for exploring the space of organizational processes. Future work includes developing more rigorous techniques for such analyses, applying the techniques to a broader range of processes, identifying additional coordination problems and mechanisms and developing tools for collecting and comparing processes and automatically suggesting potential alternatives.


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