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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

All over the world, the media report daily on the debates and decisions in organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the European Union (EU), and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the meanings of their acronyms and abbreviations are familiar to newspaper readers around the planet. A number of similar organizations are less generally known: the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the Universal Postal Union (UPU), and the World Association of Nuclear Operators (WANO), for example. There are yet other organizations known by few people outside their own memberships: the Confederation of International Soft Drinks Associations (CISDA), the International Egg Commission (IEC), and the International Cremation Federation (ICF), for instance.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

In this chapter we expand on the definition of meta-organizations we made in the previous chapter. We also demonstrate what we mean by meta-organizations by providing many examples. We give a short historical overview of the development of metaorganizations and present some figures that represent the number of national and international meta-organizations. Finally, we present summaries of nine of our case studies as well as short descriptions of 15 more meta-organizations that appear in the book.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

We base our theory of meta-organizations on two fundamental arguments: one connected with an organization’s environment and another with its membership. At least in their most general form, we expect these arguments to be uncontroversial. We do not intend to present new theories about environments or members, but we do find it necessary to specify clearly the aspects of existing theories on which our theory of meta-organizations is built.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

In this chapter, we discuss the issues behind the creation and maintenance of meta-organizations, referring to the discussion in Chapter 3 about their environments and their members. We first explain the inception of meta-organizations using the concept of the environment. Here, we see meta-organizations as an attempt on the part of organizations to eliminate part of their environment.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

The high degree of differentiation among organizations requires that each meta-organization take a stance on the type of organizations that will constitute its members. As mentioned in the last chapter, membership is normally based on the members being similar in some respect. They are all a certain type of state, a firm in a certain industry, a certain type of association. If the aim is to strengthen a sense of shared identity or status, it is necessary for the members to be perceived as similar. Even when the purpose is collaboration, meta-organizations usually aim at collaboration among equals. In this chapter we discuss identity formation in meta-organizations in more detail and we will highlight both how meta-organizations deal with similarities and dissimilarities among their members.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

Making decisions is a key activity in all organizations. In many meta-organizations, it is largely the only activity. The important thing in Eurelectric is making decisions about the stance on the production of electricity that the organization will take vis-à-vis the EU. Electrical production is carried out by the member organizations – not by the meta-organization. Fédération Internationale de Football Associations (FIFA) makes rules for the game of football but does not take part in any matches.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

The issue of change is central to organization theory. Organizations are expected to be able to change in order to adjust to a changing environment. But the conditions for change are different in meta-organizations than in individual-based organizations. Many of the characteristics particular to meta-organizations that we have discussed in previous chapters seem, in fact, to be obstacles to change. Yet meta-organizations run a high risk of greater change – a risk of being dissolved. Their dissolution may be the answer to success as well as failure. In this chapter we discuss change in meta-organizations, arguing that many metaorganizations can best be understoood as being in a transitional phase between a weak organization with strong members and a strong organization with weak members.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

The fundamental difference between meta-organizations and individual-based organizations is often overlooked because analysts take for granted that organizational members are always individuals. Thus, it is common in studies of meta-organizations to regard their employees as their members (see, for instance, Barnett and Finnemore 2002). But having employees does not distinguish meta-organizations from other types of organizations. A metaorganization is a special kind of organization with special problems and solutions because its members are organizations.

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Göran Ahrne and Nils Brunsson

In our analysis of meta-organizations, we have relied primarily on two basic arguments – one related to membership and the other to the issue of organizational environments. In the previous chapter, we summarized our conclusions on membership. In this chapter we further expand our arguments about meta-organizations and organizational environments.