It is often that we may hear the term “bureaucracy” in modern day organization management. According to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary, the term “bureaucracy” refers to a group of people who operates an organization but was not elected by the member of that organization. Another definition is a system of business that involves established, fixed and complicated rules and indicates how performance should be carried out, according to the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. In the early days, bureaucracy referred to non-elective government authorities who made the policy in any society, but today, it is used more in the context of organisations and business where a system of administrative functions is established and required compliance from employees and organisation members (Raadschelders, 1998).
According to Theuvsen (2004), “bureaucracy” could have arisen as early as in the 18th century when monarchies established the system of central administration. According to Theuvsen (2004) adapted from Derlien (1992), Vincent de Gournay, a French economist, was known as the first man to use this phrase in referring to the civil servants as “unproductive bureaucrats”. Later on, Max Weber, a German sociologist and economist suggested that bureaucracy be used in the modern organization as a sociological theory. Weber (1997) studied the German organizations at that time and pointed out key components of bureaucracy. According to Weber (1997), impersonality, efficiency and rationality were all important elements of this type of structure. The most comprehensible and significant points about bureaucracy are that a series of rules, regulations, work processes, actions, codes of practice, etc. are written down and be complied to by all members. According to Theuvsen (2004) adapted from Weber (1997), characteristics of a bureaucratic organization include: goal-orientation; written rules procedures and standards; specialised division of employees; hierarchical authority with direct flows of command and information; written guidelines and rules for business operations; achievement-based promotion for staff; etc. In terms of organization structure, taller management structures often are more bureaucratic in running (Ingram, n.d.). According to Weber (1997), a bureaucratic organization involves a continuous hierarchy, with many layers and levels of management and each has monitoring responsibility with the one below it. Within such organization, responsibilities of each position or individual are specified clearly in writing (Weber, 1997). Due to the long line of management, decision making therefore is hence, a long process passing down from the top-level manager to the lower level managers or employees. It is believed by many that bureaucracy is an efficient and stable form of organizational structure due to its clear and specific procedures which helps to save time, cost and prevents conflicts during sessions such as decision-making. At the same time, bureaucracy is said to be inflexible, rigid and does not promote creativity and empowerment. Both sides will be critically observed and assessed based on shared ideas of different writers and the student’s own perspective.
Writers who are in favor of bureaucratic organization structures such as Weber (1997) , Adler and Borys (1996), Derlien (1992) stated the various advantages of the bureaucratic organizational structure. According to Weber (1986) adapted by Theuvsen (2004): “The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any former organization.” (Weber, 1986, p.227). To Weber (1986), an organization without bureaucracy is like a machine without mechanical “modes of production”. Weber (1986) stated that bureaucracy helps an organization to become precisive, fast, unambiguous, knowledgeable, discrete, unified, strict, cost-saving and time-saving at the most optimal point. According to Theuvsen (2004), pre-modern forms of structure such as traditional and charismatic structure are less consistent and continuous in operating due to the fact that faults are placed upon specific individuals instead of impersonal rules. Theuvsen (2004) emphasized the essentiality of procedures for monitoring task progresses; prevent miscomprehensions of each individual’s responsibility and promoting good impact on commitment. According to Adler and Borys (1996), in the past many researches had been carried out and results were found that bureaucracy creates a good impact on motivation and satisfaction in the workplace. In addition, it is indispensible to establish procedures and rules in the work place, it helps the organisation in monitoring, managing and keep track of the operations, people and process, according to Theuvsen (2004). This is most important in cases that employees come in and out, hired and fired from the company on a regularly basis. Without established procedures for doing things and keeping track of things, how would the company manage such changes and how the person who later replaces a previous person would be able to take on from where the latter left off. For example, within a company, if a finance manager retired and a new finance manager was appointed from outside the company, then the only way that the new manager will be able to catch on is if there was an established system of arranging documents, a well-designed process of handling financial statements and a detailed job description and specification that indentified the financial manager’s role and scope of responsibilities. Some industries and sectors that may require a bureaucratic organizational structure may include: the food industry, the software industry, the medical sector and others. In the food industry, standards and procedures are highly important in food processing, therefore it is substantial that rules and regulations are established and follow to ensure freshness, well-cooked and edible. This also applies to the medical sector as well. When you are ill and you have to visit a hospital, a medical staff cannot just handle the problem to her belief or interest. She must comply with a chain of designed procedures that tells her what steps she has to take because it directly affects the well-being of the patient. In the software industry, processes are very important in order to ensure consistency, accuracy and compliance to technological and technical standards.
These same writers had a very objective perspective to bureaucracy when they also took into account the negative sides of this type of organizational structure. Weber (1986) suggested that in specific circumstances, bureaucracy could be unfair since the system only regards materialistic objectives and imposes strict impersonal rules upon the employees, not paying attention to their individual cases and belief. According to Theuvsen (2004), this may lead to dehumanization-which is the deprivation of human characteristics, personality, qualities, values, belief and aspirations (The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary). Adler and Borys (1996) also pointed out several studies that assessed the negative aspect, or the inefficiencies of bureaucracy as an organizational structure. These may include the fact that a high level of specialization and inflexibility in work tasks may lead to serious threats and conflicts among the managers and employees. Moreover, in such case, the communication within the organization in both internal and external aspects will be limited, according to Theuvsen (2004). Bureaucracy brings about a high degree of formality, strictness and seriousness, in which rules and regulations be complied to reluctantly and involuntarily, according to Theuvsen (2004). In addition, bureaucratic organizations often have a sense of conservativeness, due to the strict, rigid, and unchangeable rules and procedures, according to Theuvsen (2004). This may often lead to crises, dissatisfactory and conflicts. The multiple layers of management in a bureaucratic organization also create many issues, according to Theuvsen (2004). Information going up and down in the defined flows takes a long time to get through. Sometimes the information are even distorted and changed that by the time they get to the top-level manager, or the lowest level staff, it is not the original message that the other group wanted to convey anymore, according to Theuvsen (2004). Employees working in a bureaucratic organization often feel a social and organizational distance among the company and the people or among managers and employees. In such cases, bureaucracy may evidently result in dissatisfaction, demotivation, stress, pressure, low commitment, disempowerment, high staff turnover and many other consequences, according to Theuvsen (2004). Digging deeper into the people aspects, bureaucracy does not highly promote or encourage creativity, innovation, proactiveness, role empowerment, according to Theuvsen (2004). Companies those have such strict and inflexibility in operation often find it hard to cope with changes in the market, employees from these companies who later transfer to other companies also encounter difficulties in fitting in. Some sectors and industries that do not require a bureaucratic organizational structure may include arts, graphic designs, events coordination and others. For the arts industry, creativity and individualism are highly preferred and encouraged. Within such area, there are often no boundaries and procedures to doing things but to encourage people to think and do further beyond their normal routines. For a graphic designer, there are often no rules saying he must follow certain steps in order to think, plan and conduct a graphic design; but there are procedures to take for a banker who are doing transaction for a client. Similarly, in an event organizing company, there may be certain rules and procedures for things like greeting guests, writing contracts or in handling complaints; but mostly, in this area, creativity, feedbacks and ideas from staff are highly appreciated due to the nature of the work.
In conclusion, according to Adler (1999) and Adler and Borys (1996) adapted by Theuvsen (2004), we cannot directly associate the characteristics of bureaucracy with positivity or negativity. According to Adler (1999) and Adler and Borys (1996) adapted by Theuvsen (2004), the degree of positiveness or negativeness depends on the level of bureaucracy that is applied within the organization. A coercive structure is created aiming at incompetent and irresponsible members whereas an enabling structure is designed to “support the work of the doers rather than to bolster the authority of the higher-ups” (Adler, 1999, p. 38). In other words, if an organization applies the enabling structure, then perhaps the employees will feel more empowerment, satisfaction, motivation whilst still complying to a set of rules and procedures; rather than a structure that deprives the staff off their personalities and qualities. According to Adler (1999) and Adler and Borys (1996) adapted by Theuvsen (2004), it is important that we define the structure either as a tool or a weapon against the employees and the perceptions that the management levels have on employees. In addition, bureaucracy is not particularly good or bad. The issue is that companies should decide when it is suitable for their organization. As analyzed above, this depends on the nature of the company, the industry that it is operating in and the sort of routines they do on a daily basis. There are evident effectiveness and ineffectiveness to bureaucracy but the essential thing is that we must identify when and where to apply this structure and to what extent shall we apply it to our organization.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary. [Online] Available at: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bureaucracy Accessed 7 September 2014.
Raadschelders, J.C.N. (1998). Handbook of Administrative History. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.
Theuvsen, L. (2004). On Good and Bad Bureaucracies: Designing Effective Quality Management Systems in the Agrofood Sector. [Online] Available at: http://ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/24993/1/sp04th01.pdf Accessed 7 September 2014.
Weber, M. (1997). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. The Free Press.
Ingram, D. (n.d.) What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of a Bureaucratic Organization Structure? The Chronicle. 28 (3). pp.5-6.
Weber, M. (1986). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press: Berkeley
Adler, P. S.; Borys, B. (1996). Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive. Administrative Science Quarterly 41: 61-89.
Adler, P. S. (1999). Building Better Bureaucracies. Academy of Management Executive 13, No. 4: 36-47.
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