decoupling, engineers, occupations, standardization, work, institutional theory, professional norms


This paper presents an inductive account of how two divisions of the same corporation sought to standardize their engineering work. Although both groups achieved ISO 9000 certification, each was guided by historical antecedents and internal processes that left different legacies: a culture of cynicism and chaotic work practices in one division vis-a-vis a system of standardized work practices that are voluntarily (and often enthusiastically) followed in the other. The contrasting cases shed light on what happens when an external standard is adopted by an organization, converted into a formal directive, and then confronted by the norms and practices of an existing occupational community. More generally, the paper articulates how three common modes of social regulation—standards, directives, and norms—are interconnected in the process of implementing a standard in an organization, and the conditions under which institutional exigencies are either decoupled from or tightly coupled to technical work.

Original Publication Citation

Sandholtz, Kurt W. 2012. “Making Standards Stick: A Theory of Coupled vs. Decoupled Compliance.” Organization Studies 33 (5–6):655–79.

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Article

Publication Date


Permanent URL


Sage Publications Ltd.




Marriott School of Management



University Standing at Time of Publication

Assistant Professor