Framing Organizations

Aug 26

Having just finished the course for Organizational Dynamics, I wanted to summarize my main take away from the course. The material covered leadership, strength assessment and four frames through which organizations can be viewed. By far the most valuable insight for me came from exploring the four frames, which are:

  • Structural
  • Political
  • Symbolic
  • Human Resources


The structural frame focuses on the hierarchical structure of an organization. Who reports to who, titles, roles, responsibilities. The primary argument from this frame’s perspective is that organizational issues can be solve by changing the structure of the organization. Cases in which this can work include organizations which have well defined roles based on commodity skills, where workers with those skills are widely available. Some examples might include retail or manufacturing.


The political frame views organizations as power structures where influence is gained by forming coalitions and leverage. The primary argument from this frame’s perspective is that success in an organization depends on one’s ability to navigate the complexity of political relationships and gain power and influence to drive key decisions. Organizations in which this can work include industries where there may be multiple successful solutions to a given problem or where the value of an outcome depends on human evaluation. Some examples might include a law practice or an advertising agency.


The symbolic frame views an organization from the perspective of symbols that emotionally drive and motivate the workforce. These can come in the form of stories, myths and other objects of significance that carry special meaning. Motivation and alignment with company objectives can be powerful and effective, often compensating for deficiencies in structure. This can be especially effective in organizations that have an emotional component, such as non-profits.

Human Resources

The human resources frame focuses on the human needs of the workers within the organization. These may include family, entertainment, acceptance and achievement. From the perspective of this frame, an organization is most likely to be successful when the needs of its workers are met. Conversely, workers whose needs are met are more fully available to address the needs of the organization. Some examples of this type of focus include companies that provide meals, transportation and access to gym equipment for employees. Some even go so far as providing child care services.

Interplay Between Frames

It’s unusual to find a company which operates exclusively within a single frame. Nearly all companies have some formal structure. Most companies address human needs, some of which are imposed on the company by government regulations. As organizations grow, it’s difficult to avoid some political play and most companies that survive and thrive accumulate symbolic events and objects or rituals that are passed on to new workers.

Being aware of the interplay between these frames, and which frames may best apply to your business type, can help to align the minds of your workforce with company objectives in powerful and effective ways.

How Frames Affect Outsourced Workforce

Of particular interest to me was how these frames play out when the workforce is distributed. I explored this somewhat with respect to the three phases of employment communication, Hire, Train and Manage, in an ethnographic study I conducted during the course.

What I’ve observed from a daily perspective is that most outsourcing focuses on the structural frame. This begins with the definition of a job role and its responsibilities. To the extent possible, human resource needs are commoditized or outsourced. Outsourced workers are removed from the organization, so that political considerations are either external to the host organization or not directly present in daily work. Symbols are rarely communicated in a way that reaches external workers. To say it another way, outsourced workers rarely become part of the family.

As a result, it can be difficult to leverage the power of the perspectives offered by these four frames when dealing with outsourced workers. I will definitely be exploring methods that would change this in my own software company in the coming years.


One comment

  1. Cindy Martin /

    Thank you, Sir, for your explanation of organizational framing. It has really helped me in my understanding of it. We are currently examining this topic in my current Organizational Managment course, but our information is restricted to a power point presentation that is severely lacking in understanding. Again, thank you.

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