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Organizational routines: toward a communicational perspective

Las rutinas organizativas : Hacia una perspectiva comunicacional
Alex Wright
p. 22-57
Traduction(s) :
Routines organisationnelles : vers une perspective communicationnelle


Comment l’organizing routinier est-il accompli? Selon des approches récentes, les routines devraient être comprises comme dynamiques plutôt que statiques. Bien que cette tendance s’avère utile, elle est basée sur une lecture erronée des notions d’ostentif et de performatif telle que développées par Latour (1986). Je remets en cause cette interprétation, inspirée de la théorie de la structuration, et je propose une conceptualisation alternative basée sur la perspective de la communication organisationnelle mise de l’avant par l’École de Montréal. Les routines comprises comme constituées à travers la communication représentent un cadrage alternatif davantage en résonnance avec la vision de Latour quant à la distinction macro-micro. Un « système d’enquête communicationnelle » intégrant la coorientation, le déontisme, la téléaction et les mobiles immuables est proposé pour encadrer la recherche sur les processus itératifs du fonctionnement organisationnel.

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Notes de l’auteur

The author would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and suggestions, and the two special issue editors; Bertrand Fauré and Daniel Robichaud.

Texte intégral

1How is routine organizing accomplished? This paper addresses an issue raised by Fauré and Bouzon (2010), and offers a system of inquiry researchers may use to better understand the iterative processes of organizational functioning. Many organizational activities take place as part of routine praxis. There may be little in the daily practice of practitioners that can be considered outside of routine activity, as much of what constitutes organizing is repetitive in some way. Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that the field of organizational communication is yet to fully engage with the routine activity of daily organizing, as a focus on how routines emerge and unfold will increase and develop our understanding of organization. The objective of this paper is to challenge current conceptions of dynamic routines based on an incorrect reading of Latour’s (1986) notion of ostensive and performative (e.g. Feldman & Pentland, 2003 & 2008 ; Howard-Grenville, 2005; Pentland & Feldman, 2007), and offer an alternative framing drawn from the work of the Montréal School of organizational communication.

2Conceptualizing dynamic routines as possessing both ostensive and performative aspects has been a revealing recent move in exploring how routines are sources of organizational change and renewal (D’Adderio, 2008 ; Feldman, 2000 ; Feldman & Pentland, 2003 & 2008 ; Pentland & Feldman, 2005 ; Pentland & Reuter, 1994). This research has moved thinking on from seeing routines as inert phenomena akin to rules (Cyert & March, 1992) that control actors’ behaviour (Nelson 1991; Nelson & Winter, 1982). While Nelson and Winter (1982 : 17) acknowledged that actual [italics added] behaviour probably varies between enactments, their conceptualization of routines as encompassed by regularity and predictability became the dominant discourse amongst researchers until the notion of dynamic routines took hold. This move in routine theory recognizes the emergent nature of organizing and organization, and offered the promise of generating insight into the internal dynamics of organizational phenomena. Dynamic routines (henceforth routines) are now seen as “flows of connected ideas, actions, and outcomes” (Feldman, 2000 : 613), which have an improvisational quality as they involve multiple actors who perform recognizable patterns of interdependent actions in the mindful accomplishment of organizational activity (Feldman, 2000 ; Feldman & Pentland, 2003 ; Feldman & Rafaeli, 2002). What this research stream highlights is that organizational actors do not “mindlessly replicate or extrapolate a routine into a new context, or even within the same context” (Levinthal & Rerup, 2006 : 508), rather ‘enactments’ of the same routine allow for performances that vary over time (Howard-Grenville, 2005).

3Pentland and Feldman (2005 & 2007) criticize those approaches that fail to reveal something of the ‘black box’ of routines, yet framing complex routines as constituted by ostensive and performative aspects has also been unsuccessful in providing a key to unlock this ‘box’. True to the structurationist (Giddens, 1984) roots of the dynamic routines approach, ostensive (structure) and performative (agency) aspects are conceptualized as a duality, as two sides of the same coin. While there seems to be a consensus that assumes the relationship between the performative and ostensive aspects is recursive (Feldman & Pentland 2003, 2008 ; Volkoff, Strong & Elmes, 2007), the empirical evidence for this remains elusive. We are unclear about how, which and why ostensive aspects influence how actors actually accomplish routines ; and how, which and why performances of the routine then lead to the ostensive aspects evolving. Rather than problematizing the inter-relation between ostensive and performative aspects, Pentland and Feldman simply assume it exists. Additionally, the power exercises of actors engaged in iterative processes of organizational functioning require further illumination. Levina and Orlikowski (2009) show how actors may ‘enact’ a routine in practice that bears little resemblance to its ostensive descriptions ; but still use these as a mean of post-hoc legitimization, thus problematizing the strength of the link between ostensive and performative aspects assumed by Feldman and colleagues. In sum, while conceiving routines as comprising ostensive and performative aspects helps uncover issues of stability and change, Pentland, Feldman and colleagues’ work to date has been restricted to addressing the challenge of routines at the epistemological level only. They have sought to open the ‘black box’ with a re-directed gaze and have failed to question its construction. This is insufficient if we are to understand more about one of the central tenets of organization, routines. The limitations of their work highlight the need to re-cast ontologically how we conceive of routines in and between organizations. For this I turn to the Montréal School of organizational communication.

4I argue for seeing routines as communications following the Montréal School (MS) (a term first coined by Brummans, 2006). The notion that routines may be usefully seen as grammars and narratives has been raised previously (Pentland, 1995; Pentland & Rueter, 1994; Pentland & Feldman, 2007), so there exists an acknowledgement that they possess a linguistic quality and I extend this understanding into the broader hybridic territory of communication, which recognizes essential human and non-human entwinements in routine activity. The MS embodies work by James R. Taylor, François Cooren and colleagues, whose central assumption is that organizing emerges and progresses through communication amongst and between articulating human and nonhuman actants. Communication, from the MS perspective, incorporates talk and text, semiotics, grammars and narratives, and non-human artifacts such as architectural elements, pieces of furniture, and technologies (Cooren, Kuhn, Cornelissen & Clark, 2011), and seems eminently suitable for analyzing organizing routines. I argue for adopting a communicative perspective that eschews the idea that routines have two aspects (Feldman and Pentland’s idea of ostensive and performative), for a perspective that constructs routines as performatives. As it is only through this ontological reframing that researchers will be able to refine their investigations and practitioners better reflect on the impact of communicative routines on their work. I examine this illustration through the communicational constructs of : deontism, coorientation, teleaction and immutability. However, first I review how the current literature handles routines.


5In this section, I discuss how the literature presents routines as comprising ostensive and performative aspects. Routines are conceptualized as emergent, effortful accomplishments or flows (Feldman, 2000) that facilitate change within and between organizational actors. An organizational routine is seen as a “…recognizable pattern of interdependent actions, involving multiple actors” (Feldman & Pentland, 2003: 96). A routine from this perspective is not a fixed pattern of action, but a set of possible and potential patterns, enabled and constrained by the organizational, temporal, social, physical and cognitive structures from within which actors are said to ‘enact’ their performances (Pentland & Rueter, 1994). Routines unfold within and across organizational and individual contexts (Howard-Grenville, 2005), are inherently improvisational (Feldman & Pentland, 2003) and adaptive as actors adjust their behavior in response to the actions of others contributing to their accomplishment. Those involved in routines may have substantially different understandings about what purpose they serve (Feldman & Rafaeli, 2002). Practice is seen to unfold based on multiple situated understandings (Howard-Grenville, 2005), not a single shared, unchanging understanding. Dominant meanings for routines emerge through negotiation between actors, which assures that some meanings are marginalized in favour of those articulated by more powerful voices.

Ostensive aspect

6Feldman and Pentland (2003) took Latour’s (1986) concept and appropriated it to routines. The ostensive aspect is presented as the abstracted idea, generalized pattern, or road map of the routine (Pentland & Feldman, 2007) that is usefully thought of as a narrative or script (Pentland & Feldman, 2005). It shapes perceptions about what the routine is and how the set of performances it denotes are similar to others that may be encountered (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). For example, a job hiring routine within an organization will have “endless variations on the appropriate way to go about hiring people for different kinds of jobs, in different departments, or at different times of year” (Pentland & Feldman, 2005 : 796-797). Yet, each of these variations identifies the activities involved as a legitimate, recognisable and authentic representation of a job hiring process. However, Feldman and Pentland (2003) insert a note of caution that reminds those encountering the ostensive aspect that this description cannot possibly specify in sufficient detail what actually happens when a routine is accomplished. What this means is that actors should be aware that discussions focused on the ostensive are conversations about an idealized idea, not what actually happens in practice. For this reason, Feldman and Pentland (2003) say it would be a mistake to take the ostensive aspect as the whole routine.

7Similarly, it would be wrong to promote the view that there is only one ostensive aspect. There is no single unified entity that should be interpreted as the ostensive aspect ; that is why there are ‘endless variations’ of a hiring routine. It is important to talk about the ostensive in the plural as there are many ostensive perspectives (Feldman & Pentland, 2008), which is why there is more than one description of the hiring process in organizations. Actors have their ostensive understandings of routines framed by their individual contexts. Their understandings shape how they plan, guide, and account for their actions with respect to the routine (Pentland & Feldman, 2007) ; to retrospectively justify their agency (Feldman & Pentland, 2003) ; and, as a basis for discussing what actions are possible. While it is noted that ostensive narratives are used to legitimate preferred courses of action (Feldman & Pentland, 2008), how this occurs is not elaborated upon.

Performative aspect

8A focus on practice encourages a view of organizing that recognizes activity as involving general and specific embedded and embodied understandings, and interpretations of rules (Orlikowski, 2000 ; Schatzki, 2005 & 2006). Raelin (2007) sees an epistemology of practice as essential for exploring the tacit processes practitioners evoke as they accomplish their daily organizing. From this perspective, actors are said to improvise, innovate and adjust their agency over time (Orlikowski, 1996) as they adapt their activity to their contexts. The notion of ‘context’ is discussed by Latour (2005), who suggests that when actors adapt their behaviour to their contexts they are contextualizing (italics added), creating their contexts through their adaptive acts. The performative aspect, in the routines literature, is understood as the routine-in-practice executed by specific people in specific locations and at specific times (Essén, 2008 ; Feldman & Pentland, 2003 & 2005). This framing privileges the human over the non-human, seeing socio-materiality as subservient to the uses made of it by humans. Each actor’s contribution to the effortful accomplishment of the routine is part of a flow of organizing that occurs within the broader contexts of other routines and the contextualizing of actors. Organizational routines do not occur in neat parallels, never meeting or impacting upon each other; but, constantly interweave, with actors’ participation in one having unintended consequences on others. Individuals encounter each others’ performances directly and indirectly as they progress through routines.

9Performances are carried out against a background of expectations and established norms of behaviour that shape agency, but do not dictate it in some path-dependency sense. Actors have a repertoire of potential actions to draw from, the actual performance, Feldman and Pentland (2003) assert, could always have been different. Understanding the choices not made as well as those made is essential to effectively interpret performance. Behaviour though is not necessarily conscious, but inherently improvisational and intuitive (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). Ostensive descriptions do not adequately explain variability within routines (Essén, 2008) as the level of analysis is too removed from the everyday actions of individuals to explain unplanned actions and deviations from ostensive scripts. However, substantial empirical research into the performative aspect of routines through which assumptions can be examined is still rare as most research focuses on the ostensive. Yet, Feldman and Pentland (2003 : 107) seem convinced that “[p]erformances enact the ostensive aspect”, but the nature of this enactment is less clear and there remain many questions unaddressed, for example ; which of the many ostensive aspects are the performances enacting ; is each actor enacting his/her own understanding of the ostensive aspect as it seems agreed upon that multiple ostensives exist ; and, how do non-human actants make a difference in this process?

10In the next section, I review Latour’s idea of ostensive and performative and contrast this with how the routines literature has appropriated it.

Latour’s ostensive and performative

11Feldman, Pentland and colleagues’ use of ostensive and performative has been successful in energizing routines research, moving it away from the evolutionary economics-inspired understanding propounded by Nelson and Winter. However, it is necessary to revisit an original source upon which they base much of their theorizing to evaluate their claims. When doing so, it is revealed their adaptation of Latour’s (1986) notion of ostensive and performative has undergone considerable unacknowledged translation.

12Latour (1986 ; 2013 ; 2005, p. 35 et seq.; Strum & Latour, 1987) only discussed ostensive and performative very briefly, covering less than three pages of a book chapter. He offered advice for conceptualizing the ostensive : i) in principle it is possible to discover properties which are typical of life in society and could explain the social link and its evolution, though in practice they might be difficult to detect ; ii) social actors, whatever their size, are in the society defined above; even if they are active, as their name indicates, their activity is restricted since they are only parts of a larger society ; iii) the actors in society are useful informants for those who seek the principles that hold society together (see i), but since they are simply parts of society (see ii), actors are only informants and should not be relied upon too much because they never see the whole picture ; iv) with the proper methodology, social scientists can sort out the actors’ opinions, beliefs, illusions and behaviour to discover the properties typical of life in society (see i) and piece together the whole picture. (p. 272)

13He also discussed how researchers may approach the performative : i) it is impossible in principle to define the list of properties that would be typical of life in society although in practice it is possible to do so ; ii) actors, whatever their size, define in practice what society is, what it is made of, what is the whole and what are the parts – both for themselves and for others ; iii) no assumption is necessary about whether or not any actor knows more or less than any other actor. The ‘whole picture’ is what is at stake in the practical definitions made by actors ; iv) social scientists raise the same questions as any other actors (see ii) and find different practical ways of enforcing their definition of what society is about. (p. 273)

14Further, Latour (1986) criticizes social science attempts to understand society through ostensive definitions (p. 273) : “Society is not the referent of an ostensive definition discovered by social scientists despite the ignorance of their informants. Rather it is performed through everyone’s efforts to define it”. And, he calls for a move to focus on the performative over the ostensive : “The result of such a continuous definition and redefinition of what collective action is about is to transform society from something that exists and is in principle knowable into something which is built equally, so to speak, by every actor and that is in principle unknowable – it involves shifting from an ostensive to a performative definition”. [italics added] (p.276-277).

15Latour then, does not consider the ostensive and performative aspects as of equal analytic importance, as some form of duality as structurationists following Giddens might. Rather, he (1986) advises researchers to move their analytical focus from the ostensive to the performative. The routines literature that has appropriated ostensive and performative frames them as dualities, as two sides of the same coin, which is clearly not Latour’s intention. In their review of Actor-Network theory, McLean and Hassard (2004) specifically reject any attempt to synthesize Giddens’ structure/agency duality with Latour’s views on macro/micro distinctions, which he sees as unproductive. Latour’s call to focus on the performative (micro), they claim, results from his conviction that the ostensive (macro) “is made up of the same basic connections” (2004 : 508) as the performative and should be studied in the same way. This lies at the heart of Latour’s thinking of ostensive/performative distinctions. They do not denote two sides of the same coin, recursively related, but the same coin looked at from two different perspectives. Latour’s (1986) call for researchers to shift their focus from the ostensive to the performative results from a belief that it is at this level that we can better understand how organizing emerges. Studies that persist in maintaining the ostensive/performative duality drawn from structuration theory talk of actors ‘enacting’ routines (e.g. Feldman & Orlikowski, 2011 ; Howard-Grenville, 2005 ; Pentland & Rueter, 1994 ; Rerup & Feldman, 2011) as the belief holds that the ostensive(s) is(are) enacted in the performative. By describing such activity as an ‘enactment’ these authors separate the performative and the ostensive, reinforcing body/mind distinctions. The ‘black box’ mentioned by Feldman may never be opened because it does not exist, it is constructed out of their own assumptions. A Latourian view would see actors and actants ‘embodying’ the routine, locating practice as accomplished by the body as much as the mind. Actors’ practice is a bodily achievement. Latour acknowledges this and this is why he privileges the performative over the ostensive, because it is only through this level of analysis that researchers can get closer to the bodily moves of actors and to how they “define in practice what society is, what it is made of, what is the whole and what are the parts – both for themselves and for others” (Latour, 1986 : 273). The idea of routines currently propounded by Feldman, Pentland and colleagues fails to do this, but I argue that the MS notion of communication addresses this with its centering of communication-in-practice.

Routines as communicatively constituted – Montréal School

16Cooren and colleagues explicitly reject any entangling with structuration theory’s concern with dualisms or dualities (Cooren, Thompson, Canestraro & Bodor, 2006). They challenge the recursivity assumption held by structurationists and proffer the view that the macro can be discerned only through a focus on the micro; “structuring effects can [indeed] be identified through a bottom-up approach without resorting to any form of duality or dualism” (Cooren, et al., 2006 : 533). Their notion of communication allows for ‘scaling up’ and ‘bearing down’ (Hardy, 2004 ; Putnam & Cooren, 2004 ; Taylor, Cooren, Giroux & Robichaud, 1996) but doesn’t presume that this happens uniformly or unproblematically. The structurationist conceived mythical ‘black box’ obscures the fact that macro and micro are in fact the same phenomenon examined from different perspectives. The only existing work that questions the assumption that “[p]erformances enact the ostensive aspect” (Feldman and Pentland, 2003: 107), is Levina and Orlikowski’s (2009) study of consultancy practice routines. They found that macro (ostensive) discussions were disconnected from the micro (performative) practice they observed because alternative discourses were being invoked; consultant as detached, ‘objective’ expert at a macro level, and as ‘hands on’ guys sharing the trials and tribulations of practitioners at the micro. Levina and Orlikowski (2009 : 700) assert that their findings elaborate, “the conditions and actions that can produce differences between ostensive and performative routines and how these can shape power relations in organizations.” However, they were only able to do this by assuming that work is essentially a communicational performance (Levina & Orlikowski, 2009).

17To argue that routines are communications suggests that I see them as constituted ontologically through and by communicative interrelating. This needs unpicking. What this means is that I advance a notion of routines as essentially “established, composed, designed, and sustained” (Cooren, et al., 2011: 1150) through and by communication. However, unlike the perspective of routines put forward by Feldman and colleagues, which privileges the human over the non-human and sees socio-materiality as used by humans in their practice, an MS communications view refuses to place humans above non-humans and recognises that either or both could be key in routine organizing. To frame routines as essentially human constructions downgrades non-humans and leads to the contributions they make being passed over by researchers. To produce richer and thicker descriptions and explanations of how routines are incarnated, non-human communicative practice must be given the same status as human. Non-human communicative mechanisms can include clothing, hierarchy, symbols, signs, texts, hardware and software, desks, corridors, buildings and locations, to name just a few of the non-human artifacts that can make a difference to how a routine unfolds. A research approach sensitive to how humans and non-humans articulate with each other (Cooren, et al., 2006) during iterative processes of organizational functioning is needed.

18To address this, I offer an analytic system to guide researchers in their studies. Latour (1986) advised shifting to the performative and Cooren et al. (2006) suggest a ‘bottom-up’ approach to examining who or what makes a difference as routines unfold. To facilitate a sharper analytic understanding of iterative processes of organizing I now turn to a “system of communicative inquiry,” comprising the MS-inspired notions of : coorientation, deontism, teleaction and immutable-mobile. I begin with coorientation.


19Taylor and Robichaud (2004) construct routine organizing as an activity or processual struggle to attain coorientation (Cooren, et al., 2011). Coorientation though is not an outcome, but the means by which organization is accomplished. For them (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004), organization is not possible without coorientation. It is negotiated through dialogic conversations with the aim of producing coordinated beliefs, actions and emotions, mediated by texts (Taylor, 2006 ; Taylor & Robichaud, 2004) and other socio-materiality. Coorientation focuses on activities centered around an object; it is an object-oriented human practice (Groleau, 2006). As such, coorientation analysis explores the communicational means by which individuals and groups strive to organize to accomplish an object; for example, a text (Groleau, 2006). The object is not pre-formed and separate from the coorientation process, but unfolds as actors interrelate socially and materially in its pursuit (Groleau, 2006). This process involves actors transforming themselves into a network of human and material agents, and thereby embodying the routine rather than enacting it. They adopt subject positions that allow them to act in ways that make achievement of the object more likely (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004). Groleau (2006) criticizes some of the early formulations of coorientation that concentrate on the conversational constituent and neglect socio-material forms. She (2006: 175) sees “people transform[ing] their social and material reality into discourse at the heart of coorientation.” Coorientation research highlights how past practices, conceptualized as texts, are brought to bear through conversation and material forms in the accomplishment of an unfolding object, also frequently a text.

20Coorientation highlights how communicatively constituted routines produce the object they pursue (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004). When used to investigate organizational routines, coorientation provides an explanatory language for understanding how the process unfolds and outcomes are realized. It highlights how objectives assigned at the beginning of routines seldom remain unchanged but emerge over time as pragmatic priorities take over. For example, a strategy formulation routine can begin with the aim of producing a strategy that helps managers make more effective decisions in an uncertain future increasing their strategic capability. However, as the routine progresses more pressing concerns in the form of competing stakeholder aspirations for the strategy; politics; a need to establish internal coalitions; and, a concern with how potential investors will react to the strategy can all bear down on the routine and result in an outcome, a strategy, very different from that envisaged at the routine’s outset. Coorientation offers a language for describing and explaining how in communicational terms this can arise.

21However, coorientation denotes more than an aim or objective. It encapsulates the idea that outcomes progress and alter through the unfolding of the routine, and that this process may be a ‘struggle’ (Taylor & Robichaud, 2004). This is important for routines as it highlights the political nature (Soloman, 1986) of much complex routine organizing; outcomes are often compromised, contested, fudged, or simply forgotten as actors concentrate on process and detail, as it is these that managers are often held accountable for (Bryson & Roering, 1987). Coorientation highlights how outcomes for complex routines can be achieved that are different to those originally envisaged, and yet the process itself can be deemed a ‘success’ when evaluations are made based on the detail of the process, on spending and allocating resources ‘effectively,’ and on not making mistakes (Bryson & Roering, 1987). Groleau’s (2006) caution against an exclusive focus on the conversational aspect of coorientation offers an apt warning and flags up the importance of socio-materiality in how outcomes emerge. For researchers, coorientation implies that they must look beyond formal outcomes and investigate how, in practice, they become negotiated objects of power. For practitioners, the notion of coorientation reminds them that outcomes are seldom ‘fixed’ remaining unchanged throughout the accomplishment of a routine; more commonly, their actions, preferences and the political influences they operate under, bear down upon and mediate the outcomes achieved.

Deontism/ deontic modality

22Deontism can be traced to the work of Finnish philosopher Georg von Wright (1951) and refers to communicational moves that oblige, permit or forbid action for those they are aimed at. The phrase “you may now turnover your exam paper” is deontic, as it obliges and permits action for those about to sit an exam. A sign that states simply “no smoking” is also deontic, but here it is forbidding an act rather than obliging or permitting one. By adding the term ‘modality,’ deontism is extended from words to include symbols, supralinguistic features of speech (e.g., tone of voice) and non-verbal expresssions (e.g., hand gestures) that help to convey meaning (Taylor, 2006). If we think about the above deontic utterances, modality signifies completion of the same task, but without words having been spoken or written. An invigilator may demonstrate the turning over of the exam paper, rather than speak the words, permitting students to do the same. A sign may show a lit cigarette within a red circle with a diagonal line over it to forbid the act of smoking. Both of these communications use different deontic modalities: gesture and signage. Cooren and Taylor, (1997) and Taylor (2006) draw from the notion of deontic modality to assert how, through communication, power is exercised that bears down upon and influences practice. Deontic modality is seen to follow an epistemic modality, when a problem or situation is assessed and evaluated, as following this phase deontism is present in the definition of roles and the commitments entered into (Cooren and Taylor, 1997).

23It seems reasonable to speculate that all routines require some form of deontic communication to progress. This is more than a mere truism. Deontic communication emerges from authoritative sources, otherwise permission, for example, is not needed. When routines contain feedback acts, such as presentations and briefings, these represent attempts to secure permission to continue. When these activities occur, they can be interpreted as attempts to ‘scale up’ from the micro to the macro, it represents a bid to link communicational practice to broader legitimizing discourses. An academic example may help to illustrate this point; when engaged in the routine of academic paper writing, authors need to make themselves familiar with the referencing style of the journal they intend submitting to. The style guidelines contain deontic statements that permit the correct use of a specific referencing approach. The guidelines are also deontic in that by permitting one style of referencing they forbid any other referencing approach. Successful adoption by the academic author of the guidelines represents an attempt by her/him to ‘scale up’ her/his work from the micro to the broader macro discourses exemplified by the journal’s referencing style.

24Deontism highlights aspects of micro communication used by actors to influence the actions of others to more closely align them with their own view of what should be done (Cooren & Taylor, 1997; Taylor, 2006) – as journal style guidelines attempt to do. It provides a means for understanding how single instances of communication: a word, a phrase, a sign, a look, or a gesture, et cetera, although small are significant in allowing a routine to progress. The danger with ignoring deontic communications, or in amalgamating this type of communication with others, is that we miss the nuance of routines in practice; we miss how subtle and not so subtle influence makes a difference in shaping how routines unfold. Organizational routines are replete with power-filled deontic communications; both those that permit and oblige, and those that forbid. When organizations seek to have their strategies and policies implemented, they oblige those with the means to do so to act (Vaara, Sorsa & Pälli 2010). When public agencies send their strategies to central government departments to be ‘signed off,’ refusal forbids them from going ahead with their plans (Wright, 2007). For researchers, deontic modalities provide them with a means of unpicking my central argument; that routines are better understood as performative communications, through offering a means by which who or what makes a difference in how routines unfold can be discerned. Researchers are then able to highlight communications that permit and forbid, and investigate how permitting and forbidding involves the exercise of symbolic power. For practitioners, deontism enables them to more effectively discern when influence is exerted on their practice, it also helps them be more precise and act with more clarity when attempting their own deontic acts, which are essential for routines to progress.


25Teleacting refers to “acting at a distance and over time” (Cooren, Taylor & Van Every, 2006 : 9). This occurs when actors in specific contexts act on behalf of others remote in time and space from those contexts. It can be discerned when those not physically present have their interests, objectives, ideas, and preferences represented by actants that are. Teleaction is different to deontism, as deontism refers to a specific act that is intended to generate action by others, while teleaction denotes activity that represents something/ body else. Cooper (2006: 248) feels the idea of teleaction sustains the embodiment metaphor and helps explain how “transmission of distance is thus the making present and immediate of that which is distant and faraway. The body’s organs and senses reach out to make the distant and faraway immediately sensible, meaningful and manipulable.” Transmission of distance through the process of teleaction is thus the continuous making present of that which is absent and invisible (Cooper, 2006: 248). In complex diverse organizations, Cooren et al. (2006) assume, teleacting is not just feasible, but inevitable. The concept of teleaction highlights how actors infrequently act on their own behalf. Far more common is for them to speak or act on behalf of, or in the name of, others (Cooren, 2006). Teleaction presupposes bearing down through representation, it explains how those not physically present can exercise power remotely and have their interests, objectives, ideas and so on represented by someone or something that is (Cooren, 2006).

26Teleaction refers to acts that represent something distant in time and space from where they are practiced (Cooren, et al., 2006) and are conscious attempts to bear down on micro discourse by authoritative sources. It occurs when specific actions are undertaken at the behest of, or that represent someone or something located remotely from practice. Teleaction is pervasive in the accomplishment of routines, as actions enabling them to unfold will largely be representative of actors outside of the routine. Incorporating teleaction into our communicative perspective of routines facilitates the integration of how remote power is exercised (Levina & Orlikowski, 2009), something the routines literature has remained largely silent on. When subsidiary sites implement the policies and procedures originating from a central headquarters, the central headquarters is exercising its power through teleaction. For example, a multinational corporation headquarters can decide upon a particular market segmentation approach and then instruct its subsidiaries to implement the programme to its specifications. Power is exercised through texts, as a macro source attempts to bear down upon micro activity through monitoring processes put in place to ensure compliance with policy. The central tenet of our argument to construct routines performatively is maintained when we recognize that the macro source is itself sustained and maintained by micro activity. Teleaction highlights acting at a distance and over time, but is itself constituted from micro agency. What our notion of macro here acknowledges is the distant origins of representation.

27Teleaction refers to the process of acting at a distance, something Cooren et al. (2006) suspect is inevitable in complex organizations. It helps us understand how remote power is exercised over routines, how broader structural power is used to frame routines and how more micro examples of power are applied to shape the actual practice of routines. As intra and inter-organizational working becomes more prevalent, complex routines are less likely to be accomplished within a single department or organization, and will more commonly involve multiple organizations represented by individuals and small groups. As yet, there are no conceptual abstractions within the routines literature to take account of this, teleaction is such a construct. For researchers, this is important as it allows for sharper analytical explanations of why complex routines emerge in the way they do. It is explicitly concerned with representations designed to exercise power over others at a distance – how bearing down is attempted and accomplished. For practitioners, it enables them to better understand how individuals represent both themselves and their organizations.


28Whereas teleaction leaves open the possibility that what is represented at a distant may evolve through its transmission, for an entity to become immutable-mobile it must travel in space and time unaltered. Again, the origins of the notion of immutable-mobile rest with Latour (1987 ; 1999). Latour (1987: 237) advised researchers to study how phenomena are made immutable; “the logistics [italics in original] of immutable mobiles is what we have to admire and study”. Cooren, Matte, Taylor and Vasquez (2007: 183) identify an organizational mission statement as something that can “become an immutable-mobile to the extent that people actively maintain its stability while transporting it from one point to another.” To preserve an entity’s immutable-mobile status it must be supported by specific discourses. Big ‘D’ Discourses are sustained by the many small ‘d’ discourses that help constitute them (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2001). Stabilization of Discourses can only be understood and explained from focusing our research interests on the discourses that do this (Cooren, et al., 2007). Communication researchers in the Montréal School are interested in how stability and immutability are possible, and how such effects are embodied and incarnated (Cooren, et al., 2007).

29Immutable-mobile refers to socio-materiality that travels in space and time, but remains stable through such travels (Latour, 1987). Immutable-mobiles are the material artefacts of routines and bring in a socio-technical, socio-material and essentially non-human consideration into how routines as communicatively constituted are achieved. This helps researchers operationalize the symbiotic relationship between humans and non-humans in the communicative system. Routines are constituted through communication, but not solely human communication (Cooren, et al., 2011). The framing of communication adopted from the MS makes provision for this (Cooren, 2004). The notion of immutable-mobile can apply to texts, but it can also be used as a springboard to explore other forms of materiality. Immutable-mobiles are materiality that remain stable. It stands that not all materiality will remain stable through a routine, but that some will alter and change as it progresses and this distinction is informative for our understanding. For example, Cooren et al.’s (2007) missio statement is an immutable-mobile, in use it travels through and across an organization but remains stable. Whereas, in use, mutable-immobile describes materiality that can change but cannot travel within an organization. However, it is how immutable-mobiles are constructed (their logistics in Latour’s language) and how such constructions are supported and stabilized by specific discourses where the most significant insights can be drawn. So, for Latour (1987) it is how a particular mission statement came about and what small ‘d’ discourses (Alvesson & Kärreman, 2001) substantiate, promote and stabilize it, where analytical interest lies.

30Immutable-mobiles help identify those socio-materiality that remain stable while being transported from one location to another (Cooren et al., 2007). This is crucial in more performative-based studies of routines, as there is a need to analytically distinguish between socimateriality that alters and evolves as it is transported, and that that retains its stability. Not all material artefacts in a routine are of the same hue. Understanding this distinction allows us to offer more nuanced explanations for how complex routines are accomplished. Not all attempts to create immutable-mobiles will be successful. By acknowledging that they need their authorization and legitimization claims accepted, we can better explain how stability is achieved and how instability may arise. For researchers, Latour’s immutable-mobile concept offers the promise of better understanding how material stability is embodied and incarnated (Cooren et al., 2007). However, we know little about the consequences of such immutability for complex routines and this seems a fruitful area for future research. Practitioners may draw from the construct to more effectively classify certain texts and understand how they may productively ensure that the aim of stability is achieved.

31In sum, a communication perspective of routines recognises that as well as being flows of connected ideas, actions and outcomes (Feldman, 2000), they are also ongoing, precarious and embodied accomplishments. When applied, the “system of communicative inquiry” offers researchers the means to understand who or what makes a difference in their accomplishment (Cooren, et al., 2006).

32This paper has argued that reframing routines as constituted by and through communication, drawing on the ideas emerging from the Montréal School, provides a sharper analytic lens through which to understand the iterative processes of organizational functioning. While I recognize and acknowledge the advances made by moving our understanding of routines on from static and inert forms to dynamic phenomena, I have challenged the understanding of Latour’s (1986) ostensive and performative appropriated by Feldman, Pentland and colleagues. Latour’s view on macro/micro distinctions sit uneasily with its association with structurationists’ conceptualizations of structure/agency dualities. Latour’s (1986: 276-277) advice to researchers seems straightforward enough, to “shift[ing] from an ostensive to a performative definition”. To move their analytical focus to centre how actors and actants collectively embody routines. A shift in understanding away from seeing routines as dualities moves our understanding from seeing people and things ‘enacting’ them to embodying them. Embodiment suggests actors (human and non-human) become the routine through their bodies as well as their minds. To say actors enact a routine reifies mind/body separations, the routine is somehow in the minds of the actors who then physically enact it in practice, which privileges a form of cognitivism. Additionally, a language for including how power is exercised in iterative processes of organizational functioning is missing from current conceptualizations of routines. The Montréal School’s notion of communication helps overcome the limitations in routines research highlighted, strengthening the idea that actors embody rather than enact them, and provides a language for acknowledging how power is exercised in their accomplishment.

33Adopting an MS perspective ontologically constructs phenomena such as routines as performatives. Mirroring Latour, this questions any assumed unproblematic recursive relationship that is awaiting the researcher’s explanation – Feldman and Pentland’s ‘black box’ mentioned earlier. Some aspects of communication transcend the there and then to the here and now through ‘bearing down’; and some aspects of communication transcend the here and now affecting organizational and extra-organizational thinking and action through ‘scaling up’ (Cooren & Fairhurst, 2009). Routines as communicatively constituted offers researchers the tools to construct explanations for how ‘bearing down’ and ‘scaling up’ are realised in practice. Both those communications that bear down and those that scale up are performative, and are most effectively understood through bottom-up analyses of practice. This provides a language for understanding routines through communicative processes. It offers a means for unpicking how communication constitutes routine organizing, not unproblematically, but through recognising that all manner of social, socio-technical and socio-material influences need to assemble to construct routines.

34The notions of coorientation, deontism, teleaction and immutable mobiles collectively offer a “system of communicative inquiry”. This system has a ‘bottom up’, performative, practice-based analytical focus that can help researchers discern who or what makes a difference in how routines unfold. Through this, issues of stability and change in routines are more effectively accounted for. Coorientation is the means by which organization is constructed and how outcomes progress and alter during the unfolding of routines. Deontism examines how specific communicational efforts exert power by privileged sources obliging, permiting or forbiding acts by another. Teleaction incorporates power and representation at a distance in time and space into how iterative processes evolve and emerge. And immutable mobile acknowledges that non-human actants are not homogeneous but heterogeneous artifacts, some of which change during the routines; others, immutable mobiles, do not and retain their stability through the time of the routine.

35The research challenge for a communicational perspective of routines is significant. Much of daily organizing is repetitive in some way, therefore the opportunities for researchers to adopt a communication lens and produce novel descriptions and explanations of actors working together to accomplish complex organizing are considerable. This paper is intended to spark such thoughts and stimulate such action.

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Alex Wright, « Organizational routines: toward a communicational perspective », Sciences de la société, 88 | 2013, 22-57.

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Alex Wright, « Organizational routines: toward a communicational perspective », Sciences de la société [En ligne], 88 | 2013, mis en ligne le 22 avril 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/sds.354

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Alex Wright

Professor, Open university business school, United Kingdom.

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