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THE BROKEN WHEEL: THE INSEPARABILITY OF AUTONOMY AND CONTROL IN INNOVATION WITHIN ORGANIZATIONS

Steven P. Feldman

Journal of Management Studies, 1989, vol. 26, issue 2, 83-102

Abstract: There is an ambiguity at the centre of our understanding of innovation in large, specialized organizations. The literature is split as to whether individual autonomy or hierarchical control leads to an increase in innovative activity. In this article, I argue that this uncertainty is the result of an inappropriate conceptualization. In my view, autonomy and control are inseparable aspects of managerial action, not independent empirical phenomena. Innovation in an organization requires the simultaneous regulation of autonomy and control in order to promote creativity and experimentation but still produce results that can be manufactured and marketed or institutionalized. I develop an interpretive concept of culture to analyse the relationship between autonomy and control, and I apply this conceptual framework to managers and engineers in an electronics company as they attempt to innovate. Four general conclusions emerge. First, autonomy and innovation can never be ends in themselves but always depend on a context of control for their relevance to the organization. Second, under conditions in which innovation is required and autonomous behaviour is important, general management control is needed as a sort of switching station to regulate interaction and set and enforce priorities. Third, when control and autonomy are not in balance a vicious circle can develop which undermines commitment to an organization's goals. Fourth, innovation in organizations requires participants to have a highly developed sense of the legitimate possibilities of autonomy in organization.

Date: 1989
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