Bureaucracy Basics

In the past, organizations were commonly structured as bureaucracies. A bureaucracy is a form of organization based on logic, order, and the legitimate use of formal authority. Bureaucracies are meant to be orderly, fair, and highly efficient. Their features include a clear‐cut division of labor, strict hierarchy of authority, formal rules and procedures, and promotion based on competency.

Today, many people view bureaucracies negatively and recognize that bureaucracies have their limits. If organizations rely too much on rules and procedures, they become unwieldy and too rigid—making them slow to respond to changing environments and more likely to perish in the long run.

But management theory doesn't view all bureaucratic structures as inevitably flawed. Instead, they ask these critical questions:

  • When is a bureaucracy a good choice for an organization?

  • What alternatives exist when a bureaucracy is not a good choice?

Research, conducted in England by Tom Burns and George Stalker in the early 1960s, attempted to answer these questions. Burns and Stalker studied industrial firms to determine how the nature of each firm's environment affected the way the firm was organized and managed. They believed a stable, unchanging environment demanded a different type of organization than a rapidly changing one. Although a stable environment worked well under a bureaucracy, managers in constantly changing, innovative environments needed an organizational structure that allowed them to be responsive and creative.

As a result, two distinct frameworks, the mechanistic and organic structures, were identified.

The mechanistic structure, sometimes used synonymously with bureaucratic structure, is a management system based on a formal framework of authority that is carefully outlined and precisely followed. An organization that uses a mechanistic structure is likely to have the following characteristics:

  • Clearly specified tasks
  • Precise definitions of the rights and obligations of members
  • Clearly defined line and staff positions with formal relationships between the two
  • Tendency toward formal communication throughout the organizational structure

Perhaps the best example of a mechanistic structure is found in a college or university. Consider the very rigid and formal college entrance and registration procedures. The reason for such procedures is to ensure that the organization is able to deal with a large number of people in an equitable and fair manner. Although many individuals do not like them, regulations and standard operating procedures pretty much guarantee uniform treatment. But those same rules and procedures, with their time‐consuming communication and decision‐making processes, tend to bog down organizations.

Mechanistic organizations are appropriate when the external environment is fairly stable. The biggest drawback to the mechanistic structure is its lack of flexibility, which may cause an organization to have trouble adjusting to change and coping with the unexpected.

The organic structure tends to work better in dynamic environments where managers need to react quickly to change. An organic structure is a management system founded on cooperation and knowledge‐based authority. It is much less formal than a mechanistic organization, and much more flexible. Organic structures are characterized by

  • Roles that are not highly defined.
  • Tasks that are continually redefined.
  • Little reliance on formal authority.
  • Decentralized control.
  • Fast decision making.
  • Informal patterns of both delegation and communication.

Because the atmosphere is informal and the lines of authority may shift depending on the situation, the organic structure requires more cooperation among employees than does a bureaucracy.

One example of an organic structure is the Salvation Army. Although branches are located throughout the nation, the organization does not have a complex structure; it encourages different units to take on new challenges. The Salvation Army does not rely heavily on written rules and procedures. Therefore, this organization can create the procedures that work best as different situations arise. The Salvation Army's ability to take on new tasks and to fulfill its mission regardless of the circumstances it faces is one reason why it's a hallmark of organic organizations.