If your organization feeds people, you don't have time to sit back and analyze your organizational structure — people are dying.

Businesses try to select an organizational structure that best suits their needs. In management lingo, some businesses are flat, with few managers overseeing broad areas, while others are tall, meaning that there are more layers to the hierarchy, with each manager assuming a narrower range of responsibilities. Small nonprofit organizations, in contrast, tend to adopt similar structures without considering that there might be better options. Assistant Professor of Management Eric Martin is helping to change that.

As an organizational theorist, Martin sees three main facets to an organization. While strategy refers to the purpose or mission statement, and process refers to the details of how to get it done, Martin's expertise is in structure, questions of how the organization should be arranged. "That's something that a nonprofit doesn't have the luxury of thinking about, because they are usually dealing with very pressing problems," he says. "If your organization feeds people, you don't have time to sit back and analyze your organizational structure - people are dying."

In addition to his activities with nonprofit organizations in the United States, Martin worked on environmental projects as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland from 1992 to 1994. He later researched the coordination of international development assistance in Bosnia after the war and spent the 2008-09 year in Serbia as a Fulbright Scholar. || Related -- Ask the Experts: Eric Martin on Haiti relief efforts

These experiences helped him realize that the government, nonprofit and private business sectors were not always as clearly delineated as they are in the United States. Countries that were centrally planned, for instance, often have a private sector uncomfortable with risk, a government uncertain about decentralization, and a poorly developed nonprofit sector. However, this dynamic unleashes enormous potential to "play across the sectors," as Martin says, and be creative in how they are defined and how they interact.

When international aid organizations come in to help a country rebuild, they have a big influence on how these sectors are established. "For an outsider to do that, it's exciting. I love being a part of it, but it sure raises a lot of questions," he says. "Who am I to define this very macro, this very critical way of organizing society and organizing an economy around these sectors, when before there was one or two sectors? Why not add a fourth or fifth, who knows? That to me is just fascinating."

Posted Sept. 27, 2010

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