Bureaucracy has been described by Max Weber (1997) as the formal division of labor and functions within an administration, and hierarchy of authority. “All positions within an organizational hierarchy exist by their own right however, the holders of these positions have no privileges to certain offices, thus a person cannot be said to own his job.” Griffin & Moorhead (2009).
The term originates from the French word “bureau”, which means office, hence decisions arising from an office. Bureaucracy tends to increase as organizations grow in size and functionality, due to the complexity of the hierarchal structure in large organizations.
How it works
In a bureaucratic organization, labor and authority are well defined among personnel and offices. The organizational structure is characterized by rules and routine procedures that are to be followed. Though bureaucracy does not in itself create rules or policies, the structures put in place are there to enforce the established policies. Decisions made are mainly based on written laws relating to the functioning of the particular organization.
Majority of laws and rules are established in the early stages of an organization, with modifications made after a consensus from key decision makers. There are also written rules that govern procedures that deal with recruitment, training and development of employees within an organization. Most organizations, especially corporations, have human resources departments to serve this purpose.
Organizations have hierarchal structures, organized in such a way that gives more authority to upper offices, and day to day operational decision making is delegated to middle management. Consequently, functions of various offices are defined, and participants usually sign contracts that keep them in office while ensuring that they conform to certain performance levels.
In addition, formal networks are evident in hierarchal structures that facilitate the flow of information and bring about co-operation within the organizations. Tullock & Rowley (2005) notes “Bureaucracy is applicable in most modern governments, corporations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), courts, hospitals, professional and academic associations as well as social and sporting clubs.”
Bureaucratic organizations are characterized by a set of ordered rules. The administrative regulations are distributed in fixed systems, such as through official responsibilities. Authority to discharge duties is regulated by a clearly mapped organization structure, and only competent people are allowed to serve specific offices.
Also, there are principles relating to office hierarchy grade authority which ensure that there is a structured system that creates super- and subordination whereby, lower offices are under the supervision of higher offices (Tullock & Rowley 2005).
Documentation is inclusive in most organizations, whereby “files” are used for communication purposes or govern the elements of the organization. Organizations use publications to communicate with the outside world, and memos for internal communication. Management of hierarchal offices follows general rules, which have a slight degree of flexibility.
Duties are specialized, where managers and personnel have assigned responsibilities that work towards broader organizational objectives. These basics in bureaucracy apply to most modern governments and advanced private corporations.
Advantages and Disadvantages
In Max Weber’s account of the ideal bureaucracy, rules and codes of conduct apply to all, hence impersonal decisions made bring orderliness to the organization and stability for the organization as a whole as noted by Griffin & Moorhead (2009). Division of labor within an organization leads to specialization, which causes efficiency in operations. Well-organized organizations have a clear line of command, which encourage responsibility and effective decision making mechanisms.
Crozier (2009) criticizes bureaucracy in organizations, citing faults that cause bureaucratic dysfunctions. The author argues that power struggles are brought about by internal politics and strategic games, as employees seek to gain control or take over new job positions.
The power struggles discourage co-operation and coordination within the concerned departments, so the organization will not realize its true potential by not having an efficient workforce. Corruption and nepotism may be evident in bureaucratic structures, as people fight for positions, a disadvantage for the organization since job positions may be given to people who do not have the required qualifications.
The decision making process becomes slower, especially in tall hierarchal structures. As a result, the organization becomes rigid and cannot quickly adapt to changing environments or learn from its mistakes.
Another disadvantage is that in the bid to retain impersonal decision making procedures, decisions are likely to be made by persons who will not directly be affected by the outcomes, such as people from other departments. Therefore, people who make such decisions may lack direct knowledge pertaining to certain issues, and inappropriate decisions may be made.
Bureaucracy, in the right amount, can bring effectiveness to an organization due to its influence on responsibility. The same has also been attributed to the fall of many organizations, especially due to power struggles. Organizations that emphasize on bureaucracy fail since such structures discourage creativity, innovation and risk taking.
Consequently, such structures fail to retain quality employees who opt to move to institutions where they will be free to enhance their careers. Organizations should therefore avoid bureaucracy as it causes more harm than good due to its mostly unnecessary regulations and complications.
Crozier, M. (2009). The Bureaucratic Phenomenon. London: Transaction Publishers.
Griffin, R W. & Moorhead, G. (2009). Organizational Behavior: Managing People and Organizations. Stanford, CT: Cengage Learning
Tullock, G. & Rowley, C. K. (2005). Bureaucracy. Cambridge, UK: Liberty Fund.
Weber, M. (1997). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization Cambridge, UK: The Free Press.