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Establishing Norms in Large Organizations (Or: How to Win the Turf War)

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Wharton Professor Galit Sarfaty just published a paper on changing norms in international institutions, using as an example the advance of the human rights agenda in the World Bank. The study describes the process of how new norms are adopted - or not - in large organizations and how different factions negotiate their positions. It's well worth a read and spells out the difficulties of reforming organizations and establishing new norms.

Sarfaty says that when a new norm is introduced into an organization, different professional groups approach the norm from different perspectives and evaluate the norm and its relevance to their work from different points of view. In the case of human rights at the World Bank, she argues that on one side lawyers see human rights as an end in itself, while economists see human rights as a means to achieve economic development. Establishing the norm means to adjust it to the mission of the organization. The job of reforming norms in large organizations is not an easy one: "Proponents of a norm must take internal conflict over competing frames into account when trying to persuade staff members to accept it. They must also consider the operational procedures, incentive system, and management structure of the organization when determining the most effective strategy of implementation. Thus, to bring about internalization, actors must adapt norms to local meanings and existing cultural values and practices."

Whether norms will be internalized in an organization or not depends a lot on the way they are framed: "A key condition for the internalization of human rights norms is finding an  institutional fit with the organizational culture. Finding an institutional fit requires that norms become vernacularized so that they resonate with preexisting understandings in 'a dynamic process of matchmaking.' Proponents of a norm should act strategically - for example, through norm framing, cuing, or persuasion - to ensure congruence with the organizational culture." In other words, if you want to establish a new norm in a large organization, you need to find an angle that appeals to its officials, and you need to make clear how that norm will support the goals of the institution. Norms are adopted through socialization, or, in Bank-speak, through "mainstreaming." Socialization or mainstreaming means that a norm becomes an unstated but also unquestioned assumption behind the work. Incentives play a big role here: if you're rewarded for measurable development outcomes, you will strive to achieve measurable development outcomes. Norms need to be part of the organization's mission, management structure, and decision-making process. Economists will adopt a human rights agenda if they're convinced the promotion of human rights will also promote development effectiveness. Lawyers will adopt a human rights agenda if human rights are a legal norm. The culture of the organization will decide which frame will be successful.

Picture: Flickr user timpeartrice

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