Control mechanisms and the students’ life

Entering the topic of organisational and managerial control, I introduce my students to three thoughts about control in organisations: 1) Control is frequently mentioned in textbooks as being as one of the management functions (e.g. to plan, organise, motivate, control and co-ordinate, see Fayol), 2) Control is seen as being necessary in order to organise social units. E.g. “Organization implies control. A social organization is an ordered arrangement of individual human interactions. Control processes help circumscribe idiosyncratic behaviors and keep them conformant to the rational plan of organization. . . . The co-ordination and order created out of the diverse interests and potentially diffuse behaviors of members is largely a function of control” (Arthur Tannenbaum, 1968, p. 3), and 3) Organisational control ensures the successful transformation of the employees’ potential to work into actual work performance (a reformulation of Marx’ transformation problem).

Afterwards, I ask my students to discuss the following question:

“From your point of view, what would be the most effective way of controlling students compliance with formal rules at the university in relation to, for example, attendance of classes, chatting in lectures, listening to the teacher, participating in discussions, etc.?”

My intention with using this question is that connecting aspects of control to their everyday student life would reveal to them the various aspects of how control is exercised at the university. This insight could afterwards used as input for introducing the students to different control forms (or mechanisms, strategies) in organizations. However, there is not much that I receive from the students. Some refer to mid-term examinations, others to grades based on classroom activity. Hence, I had to come up with own examples, however, continuing to follow the idea of providing examples from the student life and not examples from the working life. I do so, since only a few students in my course have work experience.

So what I do is to refer to the following forms of control:

  • Direct control (explicitly direct employees according to their tasks and directly monitor what they do) – My example: Each time when I assign a classroom exercise to my students (usually done in groups), I attend and listen to their discussion, thereby I also directly control what they do and what they talk about.
  • Technological control (using technology, e.g. assembly line, certain software, or video surveillance, in order to regulate employee behaviour) – My example: The use of the Blackboard learning management system at our university provides me the opportunity to track whether students access the content that I upload. Furthermore, I was recently introduced to an even more advanced learning management system that enables university teachers to have short multiple choice tests in order to check whether students read texts. In addition to that, the student ID card that each of our students receives at the beginning of the study could be used in order to find out, how often the students enter the university premises or the computer labs, since they have to use the card for getting access.
  • Bureaucratic control (apply formalised rules and structures defining authority and work division and prescribing employee conduct) – My example: Students are subject to numerous formal rules and regulations that ensure appropriate behaviour. The recent introduction of automatic enrolment to examinations is one of them. This rule has been introduced to ensure that students participate in the examinations and thereby acquire 30 credit points each semester in order to promote their study progress.
  • Ideological control (making employees to identify with particular values and beliefs that are defined by the organisation) – My example: The university defines a set of values about how to study, how to behave in the classroom, the status of students and university teachers etc. During the course of their study, most students internalise (or at least learn to respect) these values and believes, act accordingly and thereby allow the university to exercise a certain level of control over them.
  • Disciplinary control (NORMALISE employees, hence, making them internalise and voluntarily accept what is normal, hence, taken-for-granted, and what constitutes the norm, thus, the idealized way of conduct) – My example: “To have excellent grades at the university, in addition to internships and engagement in voluntary work enables you to get a good employment” constitutes on of the mantras that students take-for-granted. Even though the promise of getting a good job with a university degree in the pocket does no longer hold true, in many cases, a lot of students agree that the above statement resonates with their reasons for studying at the university and their understanding of what this study will enable them to achieve. This taken-for-granted knowledge, however, includes various norms of conduct that are voluntarily obeyed by the students because it is normal to do so.

From my experience, using examples (here presented in the short version) from their student life worked well to illustrate the various forms of control. I am aware, however, that some of you may despise using the students’ everyday experiences at university as an example to illustrate the various forms of how control is exercised in organizations. Some may argue that students are neither employed at the university nor do they work for the university, therefore, their situation may fundamentally differ from that of a worker in a factory or a clerical worker. I agree that there are differences. However, my challenge is to get modes of organizational and managerial control across to first semester students, who do not have any work experience. And to achieve this, I believe that referring to their everyday life experiences constitutes one viable way.

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