The Garbage Can Model reopened: Toward improved modeling of decision-making in higher education

Thomas Nelson Wilfrid, University of Pennsylvania


This project has sought new insights from the Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice, developed by Cohen, March and Olsen (CM&O) in 1972 to describe decision making behavior in organizations with unclear goals and technologies and fluid participation. These characteristics apply somewhat to most organizations, and especially to colleges and universities. The Garbage Can metaphor is often invoked; this project undertook serious scrutiny of the CM&O model. Models of organizational decision making behavior establish frameworks for normative theories of how to administer wisely. This project sought to update the normative insights Cohen and March drew from the CM&O model in their 1974 classic Leadership and Ambiguity: The American College President. This thesis suggests that the CM&O analytic model has fallen victim to the Garbage Can metaphor. The enchanting "Garbage Can" label captures the disorderliness assumed by the CM&O model, but adds superfluous connotations and fails to characterize one of the model's essential assumptions--that participant energy drives ambiguous decision processes. This project's ultimate goal was to upgrade the Garbage Can metaphor into something more true to the CM&O model. The CM&O FORTRAN simulation was reconstituted in BASIC for dynamic color graphic representation on PCs. An energy-based approach to evaluating decision process outcomes was developed. Key model assumptions were modified, and outcomes analyzed with spreadsheets. Modified parameters included problem and participant movement, choice and problem entry sequences, and problem and participant energy additivity. Results have shown that the CM&O model is sensitive to modified assumptions. Observed patterns have face validity: decision making efficiency varies with organizational structure and energy load, and is generally enhanced by task-oriented leadership, by appropriate planning, by trade-offs between related problems, and by synergistic collaborations. Directions for future research are suggested. New normative insights are also proposed. Whereas previous insights emphasized orchestrating specific decisions by manipulating decision processes, these reference energy efficiency in organizational decision making. The Garbage Can metaphor is upgraded to Resource Recovery; wise organizational leaders become Resource Recovery managers, orchestrating optimum investment of available energy toward the processing of participant inputs into sound organizational decisions.

Subject Area

Higher education|School administration|Management

Recommended Citation

Wilfrid, Thomas Nelson, "The Garbage Can Model reopened: Toward improved modeling of decision-making in higher education" (1990). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9026670.