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Doing the organisational tango: the dance between the formal and informal in complex environments

posted on 15.05.2017, 02:20 by Ali, Irena Malgorzata
The ongoing relevance of any major organisation both within itself and to a nation's social, political and economic prosperity depends, in large part, on its ability to respond to a rapidly changing operational context. Organisations must now be capable of exploiting new opportunities and of coping with new challenges. In short, organisations must be adaptive and agile in responding to changes in their environment. Informal collaborative arrangements in organisations and the salient role of informal networks in many aspects of life are well recognised. However, research on organisational responses to the complexity of the environments in which they operate, largely focuses on the formal aspects of organisations in terms of their design, structures, and business strategy. Although in organisational life formal and informal structures are intertwined, what research and discussion there is of informal structures tends to treat these as separate entities. In overall terms, the interaction of both formal and informal organisational structures and the mechanisms that enable this interaction have not been sufficiently explored. This study examines the interaction of informal and formal organisational structures in complex and changing operational environments. More specifically, this thesis explores contingencies, both external to the organisation and within, that give rise to informal network activity and looks at the characteristics and modus operandi of the networks that arise. Furthermore, this study investigates whether such networks contribute to organisational goals, and what factors enable a complementary relationship between formal and informal organisational structures, in responding to a complex operational landscape. These issues provide the foundation for the empirical program, conducted in the context of a deployed military organisation, the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The thesis examines and reports on three different deployments, comprising humanitarian and combat operations. The confluence of research objectives and complexity underpin the methodological approach adopted; narrative data and participants' sensemaking further informs the researcher's approach to analysis. The emergence of distinctive themes from the analysis of the collective narratives provides a basis for further explorations. The consistency over time of tentative early findings is examined through a workshop with a sample of military personnel who had a more recent deployment experience than that of their counterparts in the initial three deployments analysed. The substantive findings of this study provide insights into the dynamics of the interaction between formal and informal organisational structures. In particular, they illuminate relationships between three enabling factors - accountability, responsible autonomy, and command and control arrangements -that need to be considered to fully exploit the strengths inherent in formal and informal organisational structures during deployments. The study results clearly demonstrate that agility of response in an operational setting can be enhanced by a symbiotic relationship between formal and informal organisational structures. Implications of the study's findings for military organisations are explored, together with their broader organisational and practical applicability. The novel combination of techniques used for data acquisition and analysis within the empirical program extends the methodological approaches, for study of phenomena situated in the organisational and complexity domains. The overall outcomes of this research align with the convergence of organisational and complexity theories, and through empirical exploration the present research enriches this convergence.


Campus location


Principal supervisor

Henry Linger

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Clayton School of IT


Doctor of Philosophy

Degree Type



Faculty of Information Technology