2/3 – Institutional Work, a concept to be understood in order to launch new devices

2/3 – Institutional Work, a concept to be understood in order to launch new devices


2/3 – Institutional Work, a concept to be understood in order to launch new devices


20 May 2018

Pascal Latouche

20 May 2018

Pascal Latouche

In my previous article, I had discussed the richness of the theory of Translation (Callon, 1986; Latour, 1994) in order to shed light on the art and the way to foster the emergence of new devices within companies. This is a social illumination based on the interactions between stakeholders concerned by these devices. Two other insights can be provided. In this article, I would like to share one of them with you: Institutional Work.

What is Institutional Work?

The concept of Institutional Work allows a better understanding of the nature of the work carried out by the actors from an organizational point of view (Vs. The Translation that gives a social point of view).

This concept is defined by Lawrence and Suddaby, its creators in 2006, as: « the intentional action of actors or organizations to create, maintain or destabilize institutions ». These authors distinguish three types of Institutional Work. Institutional Creative Work corresponds to the implementation of new practices, new routines and new standards. Institutional maintenance work suggests that actors in place, favoured by the institutions, will try to ensure their maintenance. The work of destabilizing institutions, on the other hand, corresponds to the actions of actors who, wishing for change, will try to convince other actors to turn away from existing institutions.

Each of these types of work is associated with a mixture of specific practices. The reader will appreciate the simplicity with which it is possible to appropriate this notion of Institutional Work. It is indeed very intuitive, especially for those who work in companies or institutions.

What are the mysteries of Institutional Creative Work?

The work of institutional creation corresponds to the legitimation and implementation of new practices, new routines and new standards. Without going into detail, these are the steps that are associated with it. They are : Mobilizing political and regulatory support through direct and deliberate techniques of social persuasion; Constructing systems of rules conferring status or identity, defining boundaries, or creating hierarchical statuses in a field; Creating structural rules at the origin of property rights; Constructing the relationship between an actor and the field in which it operates; Redefining relationships between sets of practices and the moral and cultural foundations of these practices; Establishing inter-organisational connections through which practices become sanctioned by normative rules and which constitute the new references to be respected; Using practices, technologies and rules that are taken for granted; Developing and specifying abstract categories, elaborating chains of cause and effect; Training actors in the skills and knowledge needed to support the new institution.

What are the intricacies of institutional maintenance work?

The work of institutional maintenance suggests that existing actors, favoured by the institutions, will try to ensure their maintenance (perpetuation logic). The steps involved are as follows: Creating rules that facilitate, complement and support institutions; Ensuring compliance through enforcement, control and monitoring; Establishing coercive barriers to institutional change; Providing the public with positive and negative examples that illustrate the normative foundations of an institution; Preserving the normative foundations of an institution by creating and sustaining myths about its history; Creating daily organizational routines and practices that instil the normative foundations of institutions in participants.

What are the intricacies of institutional destabilization work?

The work of destabilizing institutions corresponds to the actions of actors who, because they want change, will seek to convince other actors to turn away from existing institutions. These are the following: Legally disconnecting rewards and sanctions from certain sets of practices, technologies or rules; Implementing practices that indirectly and gradually challenge the moral underpinnings of institutions; Reducing the perceived risks of innovation and differentiation by undermining basic assumptions and beliefs.

Why is understanding institutional work useful?

It is the desire to better understand the relationships between actors and institutions as well as the processes at work that is at the origin of the concept of Institutional Work. This concept makes it possible to extend and broaden our understanding of change (in the process of being made) to all the actors involved in organisational dynamics, whatever their objectives vis-à-vis the institution.

Armed with this understanding, each of us can act better by understanding the action of others and of the whole. Putting words to such understandings can, beyond taking a step back, allow each of us to choose whether or not to consciously become part of a collective or individual dynamic. In short, it is a question of not letting oneself be dragged along on slippery ground, because when we talk about new devices, we are necessarily talking about new interests at stake…

I think the business of bringing a new device to the forefront is a serious business. When it touches a device that interacts with the external, then the serious business becomes sensitive, because its de facto takes on board the image, the brand of the entire company. Whether we want to create, maintain, or destabilize, however, we must not forget that we are part of a global company whose main asset is precisely the brand. The brand must take precedence over personal interests, which cannot be left without limits.


For those who are more familiar with the subject, it is important to note that these two concepts (Translation and Institutional Work) each refer to the micro-foundations of organizational institutionalism (Powell and Colyvas, 2008). When they are brought together, as was the case in my doctoral research, they shed a powerful light on the socio-organizational dynamics of institutional change and, in particular, allow a microanalysis of socio-organizational interactions in companies.

For the less informed, I will simply say that the concepts of Translation and Institutional Work, when put together, allow us to go beyond the classical dichotomy between a social reading of institutional change on the one hand (Translation), and an organizational reading on the other (Institutional Work), by reconciling these two perspectives. I believe that organizations influence individuals as much as individuals influence organizations.

The Translation and the concept of Institutional Work thus refer to a reality that is reflected in what can be more simply called « managerial work ». The notion of « managerial work » is rich and allows us to connect the social and organizational dimensions through managerial adaptation, i.e. the manipulation of the characteristics of a managerial structure. This will be the subject of a third and final article on the topic of launching new structures.


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