The Characteristics of Weber’s Bureaucracy
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A bureaucracy is a large organization that is designed to achieve a common goal through a hierarchical organization. The classic perspective on bureaucracy was proposed by German sociologist, Max Weber at the beginning of 20th century. Weber developed a theory of authority structures and described organizational activity based on authority relations. He described an ideal type of organization that he called a “bureaucracy”.
The characteristics of Weber’s bureaucracy
* Division of labor – Each person’s job is broken down into simple, routine and well defined tasks. * Well-defined authority hierarchy – A multilevel formal structure, with a hierarchy of positions or offices, ensures that each lower office is under the supervision and control of a higher one. * High formalization – Dependence on formal rules and procedures to ensure uniformity and to regulate the behavior of job holders. * Impersonal nature – Rules and controls are applied uniformly avoiding involvement with personalities and personal preferences of employees. * Employment decisions based on merit – Selection and promotion decisions are based on technical qualifications, competence and performance of the candidates. * Career tracks for employees – Managers are professional officials rather than owners of the units they manage. They work for fixed salaries and pursue their careers within organization. * Distinct separation of members’ organizational and personal lives – The demands and interests of personal affairs are kept completely separate to prevent them form interfering with rational impersonal conduct of the organization’s activities.
Bureaucracy, as described by Weber, emphasize rationality, predictability, impersonality, technical competence, and authoritarianism. The central theme in Weber’s bureaucratic model is standardized structure and processes.
2. Advantages of Bureaucracy
Weber sincerely believed that his model could remove the ambiguity, inefficiencies, and patronage that characterized most organizations at that time. This model became the design prototype for most large organizations until less than a decade ago.
2.1 Learnable rules
Rules and regulations may be constraints on what you can and can not do, but they reduce ambiguity and increase uniformity of actions. Absence of policy, therefore, leaves managers open to reprimand for any decision made, however trivial. Similarly, if staff members do something wrong, they want to be assured that they are not unduly penalized.
2.2 Without regard to person
Weber’s model seeks to purge the organization of favoritism. It sought to bring objectivity to employee selection by reducing nepotism and other forms of favoritism by decision makers and replacing it with job-competence criteria.
2.3 Giving employees’ security in employment
Commitment to the organization, protection against arbitrary actions of senior management and inducement to master skills that may have limited marketability, learn those skills that may have little value outside the organization but that, nevertheless, are important for the organization’s success. Japanese employees have traditionally been granted permanent employment, regardless of the business cycle. In response, Japanese firms have some of the most loyal and productive employees in the world.
2.4 Vertical hierarchy
There is clarity in lines of authority, rules, duties, specification of procedures, and so on. For managers, only when the structure and relationships are clear, authority is delegated.
3 Disadvantages of Bureaucracy
Some Criticisms are:
3.1 Goal displacement
Bureaucracy is attacked most frequently for encouraging goal displacement – the displacement of organizational goals by sub-unit or personal goals.
3.2 Inappropriate application of rules and regulations
It is the undesirable effect of members’ applying formalized rules and procedures in inappropriate situations; i.e. responding to a unique situation as if it were routine, resulting in dysfunctional consequences. The bureaucracies’ high formalization makes it difficult to respond to changing conditions.
3.3 Employee alienation
Members perceive the impersonality of the organization as creating distance between them and their work. It is frequently difficult to feel committed to the organization. High specialization further reinforces one’s feeling of being irrelevant – routine activities can be easily learned by others, making employees feel interchangeable and powerless.
3.4 Concentration of power
The concentration of power is a fact that bureaucracy generates an enormous degree of power in the hands of a very few. If you perceive this an undesirable or counter to the values of a democratic society, as some do, you will find this attribute a negative consequence of the bureaucratic form.
3.5 Non-member frustration
Another negative consequence relates to those outside the organization who must deal with the bureaucracy. Members are remunerated for their work in bureaucracies.
4 Five basic elements of an organization
According to Henry Mintzberg, an organization’s structure is largely determined by the variety one finds in its environment. For Mintzberg, environmental variety is determined by both environmental complexity and the pace of change. Mintzberg defines five basic organizational subunits.
source: Henry Mintzberg, Structure in Five :Designing Effective Organization, 1983,p.262. Reprinted by permission of Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs,NJ.
SubunitExample positions from a manufacturing firm.
Strategic ApexBoard of Directors, Chief Executive Officer
Technostructure Strategic Planning, Personnel Training, Operations Research, Systems Analysis and Design Support StaffLegal Counsel, Public Relations, Payroll, Mailroom Clerks, Cafeteria Workers Middle LineVP Operations, VP Marketing, Plant Managers Sales Managers Operating CorePurchasing Agents, Machine Operators, Assemblers, Sales Persons, Shippers
4.1 The Machine Bureaucracy
A clear configuration of the design parameters has held up consistently in the research: highly specialized, routine operating tasks; very formalized procedures in the operating core; a proliferation of rules, regulations, and formalized communication throughout the organization; large-sized units at the operating level; reliance on the functional basis for grouping tasks; relatively centralized power for decision making; and an elaborate administrative structure with sharp distinctions between line and staff. Because the machine bureaucracy depends primarily on the standardization of its operating work processes for coordination, the techno structure – which houses the analysts who do the standardizing – emerges as the key part of the structure. Machine bureaucratic work is found, above all, in environments that are simple and stable.
The work of complex environments cannot be rationalized into simple tasks, and that of dynamic environments cannot be predicted, made repetitive, and so standardized. The machine bureaucracy is typically found in the mature organization, large enough to have the volume of operating work needed for repetition and standardization, and old enough to have been able to settle on the standards it wishes to use. Machine bureaucracies tend also to be identified with regulating technical systems, since these reutilize work and so enable it to be formalized. For example, Singapore Immigration and Custom Authority (ICA) work as machine bureaucracy, it relies on standardized work processes for coordination and control. For those foreign students applying for student pass to stay in Singapore, then must fill some forms, ICA processes within 3 working days, the students collect the pass. That is standard procedure to apply student pass and it is used for many years.
4.2 The Professional Bureaucracy
The professional bureaucracy relies for coordination on the standardization of skills and its associated design parameter, training and indoctrination. It hires duly trained and indoctrinated specialists -professionals- for the operating core, and then gives them considerable control over their work. Control over his own work means that the professional works relatively independently of his colleagues, but closely with the clients he serves. Most necessary coordination between the operating professionals is handled by the standardization of skills and knowledge – in effect, by what they have learned to expect from their colleagues. Whereas the machine bureaucracy generates its own standards – its techno structure designing the work standards for its operators and its line managers enforcing them – the standards of the professional bureaucracy originate largely outside its own structure, in the self-governing association its operators join with their colleagues from other professional bureaucracies.
The professional bureaucracy emphasizes authority of a professional nature – the power of expertise. The strategies of the professional bureaucracy are largely ones of the individual professionals within the organization as well as of the professional associations on the outside. The professional bureaucracy’s own strategies represent the cumulative effect over time of the projects, or strategic “initiatives,” members are able to convince it to undertake. The technical system cannot be highly regulating, certainly not highly automated. The professional resists the rationalization of his skills – their division into simply executed steps – because that makes them programmable by the technostructure, destroys his basis of autonomy, and drives the structure to the machine bureaucratic form. Hospitals are just the types of organizations that employ staff with professional expertise.
The doctors work in different departments in the hospital and their in charge of their own department. These professionals acquire their skills through years of study, leading to their admission to professional bodies. They perform their activities relatively autonomously, but the structure is high in complexity and there are many rules and regulations; however, the formalization is internalized rather than imposed by the organization itself.
5 The Coming Death of Bureaucracy
One of the best-known arguments presented against the Machine Bureaucracy was made by social psychologist, Warren Bennis. The four factors are direct threats to bureaucracy:
5.1 Rapid and unexpected change
Bureaucracy’s strength is its capacity to manage efficiently routine and predictable activities that take place in a stable and predictable environment. Bureaucracy, with its nicely defined chain of command, its rules and its rigidities, is poorly adapted to the rapid change the environment now demands.
5.2 Growth in size
While in theory there may be no natural limit to the height of a bureaucratic pyramid, in practice the element of complexity is almost invariably introduced when there is a considerable increase in size. Increased administrative overhead, tighter controls, greater impersonality, outmoded rules – all are examples of what happens in bureaucracy as size increases – act to hinder organizational growth.
5.3 Increasing diversity
Today’s activities require people of very diverse, highly specialized competence. Hurried growth, rapid change, and increased specialization are incompatible with bureaucracy’s well-defined chain of command, rigid rules and procedures and impersonality.
5.4Change in managerial behavior
Managers are undergoing a subtle but perceptible change in philosophy. These changes are undermining the ideology that surrounded and supported bureaucracy. Specifically, managers have a new concept of human beings, based on increased knowledge of their complex and shifting needs, which replaces oversimplified, innocent, push-button idea of men and women.
In summary, Bennis saw the bureaucratic structure as too mechanical for needs of modern organizations. He argued that the structure has become obsolete because it is designed to deal with stable environments, whereas the contemporary need is for a structure that is designed to respond effectively to change.
6 Bureaucracies Are Everywhere
Despite the criticism directed at bureaucracy, you cannot ignore the obvious. Bureaucracies are everywhere! The vast majority of large organizations are predominantly bureaucratic in structure and, for all but a few, bureaucracy represents the most efficient way for them to organize. A number of possible explanations of bureaucracy still alive as below:
6.1 It works
Forgetting the contingency factors that would predict non bureaucratic structures for a moment, it is obvious that bureaucracy works. Regardless of technology, environment and so on, bureaucracies are effective in a wide range of organized activities: manufacturing, service firms, hospitals, schools and colleges, the military and voluntary associations. As one proponent remarked, bureaucracy is “a form of organization superior to all others we know or can hope to afford in the near and middle future. 6.2 Large size prevails
Organizations that succeed and survive tend to grow to large size and we know that bureaucracy is efficient with large size. Small organizations and their nonbureaucratic structures are more likely to fail, so over time, small organizations may come and go, but large bureaucracies stay. It may also be that size is the dominant criterion determining structure and, therefore, that increased size may cause bureaucracy. 6.3 Natural selection favors bureaucracy
There are potentially many types of organizations in our society. But although they differ, they all retain certain design elements, because those elements are inherently more efficient and it able to compete more efficiency. Bureaucracy’s structural features are the ones that are selectively retained because they achieve reinforcing consequences, while non bureaucratic features are selectively eliminated. 6.4 Societal values are unchanging
A counterpoint to Bennie’s position that management’s philosophy is shifting to greater humanism is that Australian values favor order and regimentation. Australians have traditionally been goal-oriented and comfortable with authoritarian structures. Parents are controlling in the home, the church seeks order and rationality in parishioner’s behavior. Employees in organizations look with disfavor on jobs that are ambiguous and where job responsibilities are vague. Bureaucracy is consistent with the values of order and regimentation. 6.5 Environmental turbulence is exaggerated
The media project that “The times, they are a changing”. A more correct observation might be that changes are no more dynamic now than at any other time in history and that the impact on the organization of uncertainties in the environment are substantially reduced as a result of managerial strategies.
6.6 The professional bureaucracy has emerged
The professional bureaucracy provides the same degree of standardization and control as machine bureaucracy. The increased need for technical expertise in organizations and the rapid expansion of knowledge-based industries has been handled neatly by the professional bureaucracy. The bureaucratic form has demonstrated the ability to adjust to its greatest threat- the knowledge revolution-by modifying itself. The goal of standardization has proven to be achievable by more than one path. 6.7 Bureaucracy maintains control
High standardization, preferably with centralized power in the hands of the dominant coalition, is desired by those in control. Bureaucracy obviously meets that end. From the power- control perspective, therefore, we would predict bureaucracy to be the preferred structure because it is the most effective mechanism structurally for maintaining control of large organizations. Consistent with this conclusion is the observation that a modern degree of routineness pervades all organizations.
Bureaucracy is the dominant organizational form in society and has achieved its distinction because it works best with the type of technologies and environments that most organizations have. Importantly, it is also consistent with maintaining control in the hands of the organization’s dominant coalition. Today we think of bureaucracies as inefficient, slow and generally bad. In Weber’s time, they were seen as marvelously efficient machines that reliably accomplished their goals. And in fact, bureaucracies did become enormously successful, easily out competing other organization forms such as family businesses and adhocracies. They also did much to introduce concepts of fairness and equality of opportunity into society, having a profound effect on the social structure of nations. However, bureaucracies are better for some tasks than others. In particular, bureaucracies are not well-suited to industries in which technology changes rapidly or is not yet well-understood. Bureaucracies excel at businesses involving routine tasks that can be well-specified in writing and don’t change quickly.
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