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The theory sees human organizational behaviors and conceptions culturally bound, rather than natural, unlike advocates of systems theory. Systems theory has been more influenced by sociology and linguistics than the natural sciences.
Analyzing symbolic interpretations may be more useful in organizations serving diverse populations: if a public health organization wants to alleviate the prevalence of diabetes in an area, it is not enough to more effectively disseminate information through the existing channels of communication (as systems theory might suggest) or even change the environment to create healthy options for consumption. Rather the people being served may require counseling to change what they consider good foods, a healthy diet, and a positive body image, if their culture tends to reinforce unhealthy practices. An ideological overhaul is necessary to change some behaviors, like the decreased social acceptability of smoking, for example. Organizations are social as well as formal, and cultural in nature as well as purely bureaucratic.
Symbolic interpretation suggests that we as humans are trapped in symbolic webs we ourselves have unconsciously created -- it is impossible to escape this fact, but through self-consciousness, we can have greater control over them. It is thus more dynamic in nature than the modern systems perspective -- just as human beings change their points-of-view, organizations can change, rather than remain static bureaucracies. Red tape is not an inevitable obstacle unless organizational actors view it as such. And studying the symbolic realities created through language and organization tells us a great deal about ourselves as a society -- the separation of juvenile from adult systems of justice show 'us' how we see juveniles as a separate and less responsible category of offenders for their crimes, the mechanization of the original construction of the inexpensive Model T. reveal American assumptions about the value of democracy and standardization inherent in the creation of mass production systems, and the current emphasis on customization (such as color-coordinated iMacs, iPods, and iPhones) reveal a mania for personalization, even in an increasingly impersonal and technology-dominated world (Hatch 1994, p. 42).
One criticism of symbolic interpretation is that it is difficult to quantify such findings in useful terms -- it is more academic and impressionistic than useful to managers. However, its sense of cultural construction of social realities has become even more intensified in postmodern theories of organizational development. Knowledge cannot be systematically and objectively obtained according to postmodernists, contrary to the modern systems view. Policies are created by proceeding through diverse and irrational systems of knowledge, amongst individuals and the organizations that make up individuals. Rather than a holistic system of symbolic interpretation, current meaning systems have become fragmented. In particular, the modern workplace is divided and torn, especially in 21st century life. Telecommuting means one is separate from work, yet always 'working,' and for almost all individuals, the workplace is more part of the home than ever before, due to the way technology connects people. Yet there is also greater fragmentation socially, as different parts of people's complicated lives become more specialized and compartmentalized. People move farther away from their original families, and bring their clashing systems of meaning to new areas, changing the nature of traditional organizations (Hatch 1994, p. 44). They are affected by the different value systems of their colleagues, and a new patchwork culture (or non-culture) is created.
Postmodernism challenges traditional modern notions of 'best practices' -- there is no one best practice, there is only the best practice for right now. This may mean that what works in a business' place of origin may not be functional in another area of the world, or what works for local government does not work nationally. The postmodern idea of instability of values and processes seems well-suited for our constantly changing economic times. Organizations are now composed of people with radically different value systems, and public organizations must suit the needs of extremely diverse populations. Although it can be frustrating, it seems that, like it or not, we have entered the postmodern, technological age, and it is important to use diverse media and highly segmented approaches to connect to the population being served on a highly personalized level. Individuals must be addressed in a specific fashion, in ways that are tailored their generational and cultural perspective, so that they are willing to change.
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