Rethinking the nature of institutions

09 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Dr Warren Nilsson, from the Graduate School of Business, wins the prestigious Academy of Management Review's Best Article Award for 2016.
Dr Warren Nilsson, from the Graduate School of Business, wins the prestigious Academy of Management Review's Best Article Award for 2016.

The Graduate School of Business's Dr Warren Nilsson has become the first scholar from an institution in the global south to win the prestigious Academy of Management Review's Best Article Award for 2016 for his startling new research on positive institutional work.

How do some organisations manage to stay strong and healthy for decades in the midst of ever-changing environments? Is it possible, somehow, to institutionalise those things that are fundamentally experiential: things like joy, creativity and fulfilment – the positive human experiences that fuel such vibrant and durable organisations?

These are just some of the questions that motivated Dr Warren Nilsson, senior lecturer at the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to do the research that led to his award-winning paper. The article, entitled “Positive Institutional Work: Exploring Institutional Work through the Lens of Positive Organisational Scholarship”, is a theoretical exploration of the central role of human experience in the creation and maintenance of powerful, adaptive and positive organisations.

Nilsson's article breaks new ground in a number of significant respects. First is the fact that it brings together two distinct research fields. Marrying the organisational focus of institutional theory with the more pronounced social purpose of positive organisational scholarship allows Nilsson to trace the underlying patterns that ensure both the well-being of an organisation and the flourishing of social good beyond the organisation itself.

A second important feature of Nilsson's research is the extent to which it focuses on subjective human experience as a defining characteristic of robust organisations. The article suggests that we might conceive of positive human experience as the proper grounds for creating and maintaining strong, healthy organisations.

He goes on to propose interpersonal engagement – the mutual act of trying to figure out what the other person feels and thinks about a given situation – as the primary work of positive institutions. He says that organisational health may depend on processes of mutual exchange and enquiry rather than on political contests or manoeuvring around scarce resources.

It goes without saying that a research article of this nature ventures freely into highly technical, theoretical terrain. And it is for this impressive conceptual contribution to the field of management studies that the article merits a prize from the theoretically focused Academy of Management Review.

According to Professor Ralph Hamann, research head at the GSB, winning such a prestigious prize is a big accomplishment, not only for the GSB but for scholarship in South Africa more generally. Nilsson is only the eighth author from the global south to publish in the Academy of Management Review, and is the first from the region to win the award.

Hamann says that while the practical implications of Nilsson's research still need to be explored, there is no doubt that organisational practice, in a social as well as a business sense, will reap the benefit of his work for years to come.

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Story Rothko PR on behalf of the UCT Graduate School of Business. Photo Supplied.

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