Meals on wheels as an example of organisation
Let us consider a very simple case of organisation to help introduce the idea of organisation as a system consisting of various interrelated patterns of action.
Many elderly and disabled people are unable to shop for foodstuffs on a regular basis and are physically incapable of preparing a hot meal for themselves. However, many such persons want to continue to live independently in their own homes. To help enable this, some Local Authorities in the UK provide a service called ‘meals on wheels’ to the elderly in their immediate area. However, many other areas of the country are not served by such a public sector service, but rely instead upon charitable activity. This is the case in the local area in which our group of volunteers live; they decide to set up a meals on wheels service (a voluntary sector service or social enterprise) for their area themselves. The key question here is: How should they organise themselves to achieve the collective goal of delivering this service?
There are clearly several activities that must be performed on a regular basis by various different people to achieve the goal of delivering hot meals to the elderly and disabled. First, they need to continuously determine who among the elderly and disabled population in their area would like a hot meal every day and be willing and able to pay a small fee for this. Then somebody must source foodstuffs from suppliers. Someone else will have to prepare the foodstuffs, to cook the meals and to package them ready to be delivered. Other people will have to deliver meals to people who subscribe to the service. And all these activities, performed by many different people, will have to be coordinated effectively to ensure that the elderly and disabled people who want a hot meal get it on time and of a requisite quality.
Initially, they recruit some 20 people to the scheme and decide only to try to provide a hot meal to these persons three days a week for a small weekly charge. Several volunteers allocate themselves to the task of purchasing foodstuffs and preparing meals at a local community kitchen that they are able to rent for this purpose. A group of other volunteers indicate that they are prepared to deliver the hot meals in reusable, insulated containers to subscribers of the scheme in their own vehicles. The cooks indicate to the delivery people what they have prepared on any designated day and the delivery people indicate to subscribers what they can expect each day the scheme operates.
This way of working is successful for several months. However, the success of the scheme passes by word of mouth throughout the community and within a short period the number of subscribers to the service trebles. Consequently, the quantity of foodstuffs needed to be sourced from suppliers rises considerably and the established way of purchasing from high-street supermarkets is no longer viable. Also, a growing range of volunteers is needed to cover gaps in the workforce caused by illness and other circumstances. This makes the task of determining who is doing or should be doing what and when much more difficult.
This means that the group of volunteers must decide to organise themselves more appropriately. They start making records of things such as: members’ details including their addresses and dietary requirements; volunteer details including contact details and times when they are able to contribute; a rotating monthly menu with a detailed breakdown of foodstuffs required; details of foodstuff suppliers; financial details such as what money has been collected from which members and how much has been expended on foodstuffs, rent of the kitchen and fuel in deliveries.
Such records communicate to volunteers what has happened, what is happening and what should happen, among other things. This increased level of formal communication allows volunteers to better coordinate their activities. The rotating menu, for instance, is used by many different volunteers to make decisions about their own appropriate activity. Volunteers that deal with suppliers use the menu to determine what foodstuffs to buy and when. Volunteers that cook the meals use the menu as a guide to food preparation and volunteers that deliver hot meals use the menu to guide subscribers as to what to expect.
In this simple example we have all the component elements making up organisation and which we shall consider in some depth in this chapter. The volunteers are best described as actors in the sense that they act: they perform on a repeating basis a set of activities such as cooking meals and delivering these meals to subscribers of the service. Each volunteer needs to coordinate his or her activities with those of other actors: other volunteers. As a group they also need to coordinate their collective activity with that of further actors such as foodstuff suppliers and of course the subscribers to the scheme themselves. For such coordination, communication is needed.
Communication relies upon some mutually agreed system of signs between coordinating actors. Statements in spoken language are clearly acts of communication between two or more actors which rely on such a common sign-system. But statements in spoken language do not persist beyond the communication in which they take place. Hence groups of actors that wish to coordinate their performance across time and possibly space need to create records. In other words, records ensure that multiple actors are informed of the actions of others some period after such actions have been completed. Records can also be accessed in a different place from that in which the actions took place. Such records are thus by their very nature used to do different things such as to make persistent certain assertions about the current state of some organisation or to direct future actions of group members. In this sense, records are particularly important for making decisions about future courses of action.
So, from an institutional perspective, this meals on wheels service exists as an entity greater than any particular individual that participates in the organisation. From an action perspective the organisation is constituted from the actions of the individuals which make up the organisation.
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