What Is a Bureaucracy?

This old prison is an excellent example of a bureaucracy!

"You keep on talking about bureaucracies! But what do you mean with that?" That is what a client asked me recently. Good question! And so far, there is even no Results2Match blog mentioning bureaucracies! Time for a bureaucracy checklist!

In 1979 Henry Mintzberg wrote his book The structuring of organizations. This book, still for sale for a few dollars on amazon.com, should be your 'bible' if you seek really detailed information on organization theory and practice. It contains all you wanted to know about bureaucracies, and much more!

Today the discussion on the definition of bureaucracy still goes on. The Wikipedia definition of bureaucracy:

Bureaucracy is the combined organizational structure, procedures, protocols, and set of regulations in place to manage activity, usually in large organizations. The bureaucracy is often represented by:

  • a standardized procedure (rule-following) that guides the execution of most or all processes within the body;
  • formal division of powers;
  • hierarchy; and
  • relationships, intended to anticipate needs and improve efficiency.

Note that the page is tagged with the request to clarify the text, and present more references!

In this blog I will share with you some highlights on the bureaucracy type organization from Mintzberg, defined by him as "machine bureaucracy".

How do you recognize a bureaucracy? The next table identifies the most important characteristics of a bureaucracy:

Characteristics of a bureaucracy
Prime coordinating mechanism Standardization of work processes
Key part of organization Techno-structure
Main design parameters
  • Behavior formalization
  • Vertical and horizontal job specialization
  • Usually functional grouping
  • Large operating unit size
  • Vertical centralization
  • Limited horizontal decentralization
  • Action planning
Contingency factors
  • Old
  • Large
  • Regulating
  • Non-automated technical system
  • Simple, stable environment
  • External control
  • Not fashionable

I think these characteristics do not need any clarification except for external control. External control means the organization's behavior is strongly influenced by external factors. An example of external control is government rules, or political influence.

So, a bureaucracy:

  • Is highly specialized.
  • Practices routine operating tasks.
  • Has very formalized procedures in the operating core.
  • Has a proliferation of rules, regulations, and formalized communication throughout the organization.
  • Has large-sized units at the operating level.
  • Relies on the functional basis for grouping tasks.
  • Has a relatively centralized power for decision making.
  • Has an elaborate administrative structure with a sharp distinction between line and staff.

In a bureaucracy formal communication is favored at all levels, and decision making tends to follow the formal chain of authority. It emphasizes division of labor and also unit differentiation. It is obsessed by control:

  1. Attempts are made to eliminate all possible uncertainty, so that the machine can run smoothly, without any interruption.
  2. By the specialization design, the structure is ridden with conflict, even the control system is required to contain it.

Top management is mostly concerned with fine tuning the bureaucracy. A good deal of their energy goes to keeping the structure together in the face of conflicts. A good deal of the power rests with top management. The only ones to share any real information power with top managers are the analysts of the techno-structure. That is because their task is to standardize everyone else their work. Strategy planning is done top-down, with an emphasis on action planning.

When a set of simple, repetitive tasks must be performed precisely and consistently by human beings, the bureaucracy is the most efficient structure. Treating people as 'means', 'as categories of status and function rather than as individuals' has the 'consequence of destroying the meaning of the work itself'. Democratizing does not eliminate the conflict between engineering efficiency against individual satisfaction.

Coordination is done through direct supervision. The administrative center does not have a role there. That results in that the filtered and aggregated information that reaches top management is so bland that they cannot rely on it. So they have the choice between being over-burned by details, or making decisions on superficially inadequate and abstract information.

If top management pursues changes her actions will be killed completely if the next 2 conditions are not met:

  1. Strategies must be formulated outside the bureaucratic structure if they are to be realistic.
  2. The dichotomy between formulation and implementation ceases to have relevance if the change is unpredictable.

Therefore a bureaucracy is fundamentally a non-adaptive structure, ill-suited to changing their strategies. Top managers can only succeed in changing the bureaucracy by reverting temporarily to a leaner, more flexible organization structure.

How do you change your organization? We like to hear from you. Share your experiences with the Results2Match Community!

Are you looking for ways to change your organization? Do you want your options validated by an independent management consultant? Have you ever considered a business strategy change round table that let you inspect your organization from a complete new perspective? Contact Hans Lodder now, and invite him to help you!

Do you prefer your own employees to be capable of guiding strategic sessions? Did they have the appropriate training? Are they guided and coached? Let Hans Lodder run your business competence improvement program!


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