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Management Control and "Coherence" : Some Unresolved Questions

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Clothed in various formulations, the question of “coherence” is central to management control. Thus it is widely accepted that different forms of control “cannot be used effectively in every situation” (Merchant, 1998: 32, 69) – a statement referring to the contingency framework. It is also argued that “congruence [is] one of the prime determinants of the effectiveness of management” (Merchant, 1998: 159-160), congruence here being defined both in terms of the managers’ adequate understanding of organisational objectives, and in terms of appropriate mirroring of the objectives by the measured performance dimension. Finally, there is general agreement on the idea that the dominant form of control (i.e. action-, result- or personnel-orientated) is “likely to change (…) as (…) needs and capabilities change” (Merchant, 1998: 259), this involving again the idea of an effective fit between modes of control and the organizational situation. These different statements refer to various aspects of “coherence” in organizations, and the issues mentioned are not specific to management control: coherence issues also concern strategy, marketing, information systems and human resource management. The objective of this article is to reveal the diversity of content that the concept of "coherence" possesses. This “inventory” reveals that, whilst most management control claims on coherence refer to various forms of what call be termed “strategic coherence”, there are many other meanings of the concept, which can be gathered around the notion of “psychological coherence”. This review enables us to reconsider coherence-related questions, which, we suggest, are incompletely answered within the usual frameworks of coherence deployed. In Part One we examine the different terms which are used to designate the concept of coherence. We show that in the French and English languages we cannot strictly “align” the meanings of the different words which are used in association with the concept. This semantic inventory also shows that "coherence" can be understood either in reference to the idea of a totality, or not. Part Two considers the variety of theories of “coherence” which, either in the management sciences or in associated fields (such as organization theory, industrial and occupational psychology, etc.) provide the conceptual supports for management discourse, including those in the management control domain. This section reveals both the diversity and sometimes the incompatibility of these theories. In Part Three we re-examine different coherence-related questions. We show that in some cases, the usual perspectives on coherence lead to a reductionist view of management as a human activity, which can be detrimental both to organisations and their participants. We also disclose some missing points in common claims on coherence and finally suggest that, beyond a rationalistic façade, appeals to coherence might have rhetorical aspects participating in legitimisation processes. The Conclusion proposes news ideas and directions of research on “coherence”.

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Paper provided by ESSEC Research Center, ESSEC Business School in its series ESSEC Working Papers with number DR 03018.

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Length: 34 pages
Date of creation: May 2003
Handle: RePEc:ebg:essewp:dr-03018
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