Contributing to Business

An Organizational Place in the Community

Drawing Attention to Dimensions of Place in Organizations

treesWhat are your favorite childhood memories? Chances are, these memories involve enjoyable activities with loved ones in special places—perhaps playing ball with friends at a local park, hiking with your mother and father in the mountains, or helping your grandfather tinker with cars in the garage. For Dr. David Thomas, Assistant Professor of Management at UNC, childhood memories have always taken him back to rural Kansas.

The experience of being grounded in a setting always fascinated Dr. Thomas, leading him to a dissertation topic and eight years of research on the topic of how organizations value and build place. He describes organizational place building as “how an organization values place on five place dimensions, which can advance a new way of thinking about what types of organizations are likely to advance the community’s interests, solve collective problems, and improve or maintain the well- being of the community.”

Dr. Thomas’s grounded-theory dissertation has since grown into a substantive theory of organizational place building, a framework that explains how organizations value place in a certain settings, such as a community. “Having worked in corporations, I always believed that organizations wield a lot of power in a community,” he said. All organizations, whether they are small businesses, non profits or large multi-national corporations, each value and build place in qualitatively different ways.”

Organizational place building refers to how an organization values place: “It’s how an organization balances its fiscal success with community well-being,” Dr. Thomas said. His research classifies an organization as fitting one of four types: An exploitive organization (callous of any obligation to the community), contingent (recognizing its roles as a participant in the community), contributive (seeing itself as an investor and contributor to the community), or transformational (having committed to being a change agent in improving lives in the community).

To determine the status of an organization, Dr. Thomas administers a survey focusing on five place dimensions: nature, social relationships, material environment, ethics, and economic relationships. He emphasizes place building as a way for organizations to balance fiscal responsibility with community well-being and suggests that organizations can and should strive to do well on each of the five dimensions.

The process of completing the survey influences executives, who may not have previously considered their place in a community. “One of the fascinating aspects of the research is the sudden awareness of an organization’s impact on its community,” Dr Thomas said. “In fact, people within the organization comment, ‘You know, I never really thought about our impact and how it might be measured or typed until answering these questions.’” Some community members react the same way when asked to think about the types of organizations they are recruiting to their place.

The organizations Dr. Thomas has worked with range from small businesses to large government agencies. He is now broadening his work to include other types of organizations in order to generalize and predict how they might build place. In addition, he is currently examining the implications of place building for an organization’s business model.

business2Dr. Thomas has discovered that his place-building typology not only applies to organizations as a whole, it also applies to individuals within an organization. Individuals can ask themselves, “To what extent do I value my own place and the place of others along these five dimensions?” At the same time, organizations can start evaluating how they value place by doing an inventory of their communications to see if their language is exploitive, contingent, contributive,or transformational. After learning about the framework, many individuals realize that their language is exploitive or contingent, even though they are striving to create a contributive and transformational organization. Dr. Thomas’s survey gives organizations a chance to alter their approach from the traditional sense of social responsibility to a new paradigm in which the organization’s role becomes fulfilling a place-building responsibility. It is a balancing strategy, a dynamic shift in the way an organization interacts in its community. “We’re starting to challenge what people have always believed is social responsibility. It’s the ability to stretch beyond it,” Dr. Thomas said.

Dr. Thomas credits his own accomplishments to strong support from other UNC scholars who have helped him clarify the purpose, direction, and impact of his work. “I am very fortunate to be at UNC and have the opportunity to do this... and be a part of something that has such breadth and richness to it.”