Extended Organizations: Finding the Boundaries and Naming the Contents

by cv harquail on February 1, 2012

Can you help me out with a messy research-related question?

What are the best ways to set boundaries around subsets of an “extended organization”, and then give these subsets names so that they are easy to talk about?

The problem seems on the surface looks like a question of semantics (i.e., what to call it). But it’s more than that, since the terms of expression need to be founded on some kind of principle of composition. I need help with both the semantics and the principle(s).

When we’re talking about a network of coordinated, interdependent economic actors, how do we decide which of these actors should be considered part of the organization and which of these actors should be considered outside the organization?

And, how do we name the groups within different levels of boundaries, in a way that’s easy to comprehend and makes sense conceptually?


And the biggest issue:

How do we refer to “the organization” without automatically dismissing the sense of connection that any particular actor might feel, and without diminishing his/hers/its valid status as “part of” the organization?

(Note, I can’t call it The Organization because (ultimately, though not now) I want speak of it as its real self, by name, and not just talk about it as a theoretical organization.)

Here’s the situation:

“The Organization” in question is the core entity and the largest entity in a community of commerce / commercial network of businesses. All of the businesses are interdependent economic partners.  The core organization cannot exist without the co-commercial organizations. And, although some of these entities have revenue streams and commitments to entities outside the extended organization, most of them depend on the incorporated organization for key elements of their value chain.

The incorporated organization is big-ish (400 employees), and the co-commercial entities are small (1 to 10 employees) concerns. Some are incorporated or LLCs.

What I’m talking about this extended organization, I need to name three things:

  • The incorporated organizational entity, which is incorporated and has a CEO, and directly employs individuals (that all get W-2 income from their work in the organization).
  • The extension of the organization that includes not just the W-2 employees of the incorporated organization but also includes all of the co-commercial partners whose participation is critical to the incorporated entity.

Because the incorporated organization relies so heavily on these co-commercial partners, it’s hard to think of them as not being part of “the organization”. In fact, lots of these partners describe themselves as being part of “the organization”, and are often seen that way by customers and outsiders. If you asked a customer or a random person on the street who The Organization was, they’d likely include the co-commercial partners and maybe not even know that they were not completely part of the incorporated organization.

  • The community of commerce, which includes not only the incorporated organization and its co-commercial partners but also includes the customers that interact with partners.

Do economic or financial dimensions work as complete decision rules?

In my description above, of the different layers/levels/subsets of “the organization”, I’ve defaulted to using legal & financial categories to set the boundaries. For example, the incorporated organization vs the intended one. Another similar strategy is distinguish between entities financially, by using who issues the W-2 to whom as a way to separate the pieces.

The easiest way for me to distinguish the boundary is to consider the legal entities–whether they are incorporated or not, and then to consider who is attached to each Inc. entity, based on their W-2 income.

But these dimensions and boundaries are defined by purely financial criteria – which isn’t enough to really define “the organization” if organizations are more than just economic machines. Categories like sources of revenue, origin of income for individuals, and legal status don’t reflect any particular sense of social agreement, such as the beliefs of participants about who the organization is or isn’t.

I’m willing to use the financial criteria to establish qualitatively different boundaries that include more or less of the network’s participants, but once I do that I still have the problem of …

What do I call the different entities?

I have to start with the core organization’s real name, so that outsiders can sort of know what I’m talking about. My daughter suggested “Pluto” as the nom de recherche for this organization, so Pluto has to be part of it. (Or not, you can convince me otherwise).

I could call the three key groupings Pluto Incorporated, Pluto Extended, and Pluto Community.

The method for distinguishing groupings can’t put any particular group down. In other words, there can’t be a master category (e.g., President) and a few marked categories (e.g., Female President), because adding the modifier to only some of the categories makes them subordinate. SO, I can’t do Pluto, Pluto Extended, and Pluto Community.

And, I need a method to refer to them that feels reasonably seamless, and is not clunky or cumbersome. This is made me think about using subscripts, to call it Pluto -I, Pluto-X, Pluto-C. (note, I can’t format a subscript in wordpress — techfail on my part)

But does this look dumb or distracting in print?

Self-Determination and Psychological Connection

Finally, a perfect solution would be to have a naming system that was related to how the different people (and the entities they are part of) think of themselves in relation to “the organization”. How could the names reflect the group that think of themselves and each other at “the organization” when this includes the core organization and some but not all of its co-commercial partners?

Even though the I, X, and C designations map onto financial distinctions, they don’t tell the reader anything about the sentiments or relationships among the actual people I’m referring to. For example, to talk about Pluto-I when I’m talking about things other than revenue/finances, such as the effort of “the people who think of themselves as ‘the organization’ and who are all working together”.

Theoretically, I could make a fourth group that includes all the people who think of themselves as being part of Pluto.

Maybe Pluto-| could stand for Psychologically Pluto?

Making distinctions of who’s in or out based on members’ psychological self-assessments, by asking them whether or not they consider themselves “in” the organization, makes sense when we’re trying to capture or talk about their psychological (that is, non-economic) motivations. But, since I’m an outside researcher who can’t survey the sense of membership of all the entities in the network, I’d always be referring to this group as a theoretical one with a boundary that hasn’t been firmly established. It would always be a blurry group.

Any thoughts on how to parse these distinctions in a way that’s conceptually clear, emotionally inclusive, and textually simple?

I’d love your suggestions ..


Image: B’okay on Flickr ??? Some rights reserved by HarshPatel;Photographer


Gordon Ross February 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm

I think the language of ecology can help here CV. We’re not shy of invoking ecological metaphors and ecologists have been dealing with similar problems of identifying boundaries for many years.

Your desire to create mental isolates is much the same as Arthur Tansley’s wonderfully named article from *1935* “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts and Terms.” [link: http://karljaspers.org/files/tansley.pdf%5D

organization (legal) = organism
array of organizations (legal) directly related to each other = community
furthest boundaries of your systems (organizations + others + operating environment) = ecosystem or ecology?

Even good old wikipedia’s pages on ecosystems, ecology, and ecotopes (landscape attributes that help categorize/classify ecologies) have lots of fodder there.


Your comment about “putting people down” is related to the perception of hierarchy in the overall relationships between the entities. It’s interesting how hierarchy is seen as being the default concept of a control hierarchy (organization by power through a system) instead of the relational concept of inclusion hierarchy (the famous Chinese box image of things inside of things). And somehow there’s value attached to that hierarchical description (a subjective value, hence the “putting people down”).

David Lane takes a wonderful run at those concepts in his essay, “Hierarchy, Complexity, Society” (link: http://once-cs.csregistry.org/tiki-download_wiki_attachment.php?attId=420) and winds up with the recognition that what appears clean cut (as you are writing about) is in fact part of a tangled hierarchy.

I think we need to reclaim hierarchy as a useful concept to describe relationships between entities in networks or ecologies or even perhaps borrow from the language of network theory to describe that relationship specifically (degree, betweenness, closeness, reach, centralization, etc.)

Hope that is sufficiently tangential to get some sparks going.

cv harquail February 3, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Hi Gordon —

Ecological metaphors and concepts seem like a nice antidote to financial ones… I’ll follow your links and see what I can learn – if not about actually how to label things, then about the challenges of labeling things.

My concern about putting people down is I guess related to hierarchy, in the sense that I don’t want them to think they are ‘less important’. But it’s more (for me) about not wanting to diss anyone. I want to find ways that acknowledge subjective ‘part of it-ness’ as well as more concrete indicators of being ‘part of it’.

Hasn’t anyone come up with words that describe fuzzy ‘boundaries’, or are these all fictions of language anyway?

Alec February 2, 2012 at 1:20 pm

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