We have reached a turning point in history in which major changes are dramatically transforming the way the world is operating. To what extent is organizational influence playing a role in this?
Last year, I had been invited to speak to a group of students and faculty members at Claremont University. When I was introduced by the host, my name and affiliation—retired professor from McGill University–were announced following the title of my paper. On the same day across the Atlantic, a colleague was being introduced to a group of students and faculty members in a similar setting. One of the main differences between myself and my colleague on that particular day–aside from the obvious geographic, cultural, and temporal differences–was that he was speaking as an activist with no affiliation attached to his name, and I was speaking as a professor affiliated with a major university. Did my organizational affiliation influence the reception of my paper among the audience? More specifically, to what extent did the prestige and legacy of my organization influence the circulation and effectiveness of my ideas?
This blog raises questions about some of the intersecting ideas associated with individual and organizational influence. Over the last year we have been struck by the ability of organizational leaders and other speakers to influence the shaping of public discourse, policy and law. Remember the conversation in the US shortly after a horrific school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012? During that period more than 8 in 10 people who were polled indicated that they wanted better mental health screening and treatment to prevent gun violence. Yet, not a single federal law curbing gun violence was passed in that year. Congress had done nothing, and interest and hope for legislative action on gun violence waned.
We see influence in all aspects of human relationships. When we speak about influence, we are referring to an ability to effect change in action and thinking, in beliefs and commitments. While the process of catalyzing action is the more visible result of influencing efforts, change at the cognitive and ideological level is equally important for ideas to morph. This is because influence points to something more fundamental. It suggests a new position or concept that has been internalized by those who are influenced. A powerful notion that can ultimately fuel action in both the short and long term, influence in society has been effected mostly through organizational efforts.
Think back to the recent financial crisis, to drug pricing issues, to national security debates and think about how today’s public policy discourse is rarely, if at all, shaped by public opinion. Organizational opinion appears to be the vector of influence. It seems that as we individualize and democratize media through technology (twitter, facebook, instagram etc.) to influence the institutions of our society, organizational forces are developing more sophisticated tools to enhance their influence. As we look around us, we believe there is no better moment than now to examine and critically understand influence and the impact of organizational influence.
What do we mean by organizational influence?
As a concept, influence is about effecting change. It is about “the capacity to shape the thinking and/or catalyze action from the decision makers, stakeholders, media, thought leaders, and the public in order to effect change.” It operates in all facets of our lives, including inside and outside our organizations, communities, and our networks. Yet, for many of us, influence remains at the periphery of our thinking. In today’s noisy globalized world we ask:
- Who influences who?
- Whose voice is heard?
- What tensions emerge among these voices?
- And, more emphatically, to what extent do organizations strategize influence in their desire to effect change among their audiences, both at the local and global level?
As we become increasingly frustrated by the dearth of interest on behalf of governments, corporations, and other organizations to listen to individuals’ voices amid a cacophony of organizational discourse engaged in effecting sweeping changes around us, we wonder about the role of influence–the engine that is fuelling national conversations today. We are interested in the ways in which influence operates and is operationalized by governments, institutions, corporations, and other organizations to shift ideas and mentalities.
We believe we have reached a turning point in history in which major changes are dramatically transforming the way the world is operating. We ask in what ways our organizations are contributing to such changes. Do certain types of organizations have more influence over others? How can individuals be a part of this discourse? Does the private sector exercise more influence over NGOs and other organizations in the plural sector (Mintzberg 2015)? Why is that?
This blog opens a conversation on influence and the notions of organizational and individual influence, how these engines operate, the tensions they exert, the approaches being privileged today, and the range of networks and audiences (influencees) they involve. At the heart of this inquiry, we explore ways in which organizational influence has capsized, and consequently morphed our world.
For the next few blogs, we will be discussing a number of facets associated with influence, particularly the tensions, contradictions, and approaches that are mobilized through influence in today’s global world.
We ask questions, share ideas, seek your thoughts and invite your questions. We look forward to hearing from you!
 For further explanation see forthcoming article, Robert Stewart and Charles Lusthaus, “Organizational influence.”
 Rockefeller Foundation, Influence: A Pathway to Impact, p. 4
Co-written by Dr. Charles Lusthaus and Dr. Sonia Cancian
For over 30 years, Dr. Charles Lusthaus (@CharlesLusthaus) was a Professor in the Department of Administration and Policy Studies in Education at McGill University. During that time, he taught Educational Management courses in organizational theory and behaviour, strategic management, organizational development, planning, and monitoring and evaluation to over a thousand graduate students. Dr. Lusthaus is also a founding partner of the Universalia Management Group and is reputed for having pioneered an approach to institutional and organizational assessment (IOA). Today, the framework is used by a variety of international bodies including CIDA, IDRC, IDB, IUCN, and ILO.
Dr. Sonia Cancian is a historian with a large number of publications on gender, family, and emotions in migration studies in Canada, the United States, and Italy. She has taught at Concordia University’s Dept. of History, and is affiliated with the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) at McGill University as well as with the Simone de Beauvoir Institute at Concordia University.