A bureaucracy is a type of organisational structure that is found in many large-scale organisations. It appears in both public and private organisations and is a structure that still exists in the majority of industrial organisations in the world, despite being around since the 18th century. Ideally bureaucracy is characterised by hierarchical authority relations, defined spheres of competence subject to impersonal rules, recruitment by competence, and fixed salaries. The main aims of a bureaucracy are to be rational, efficient, and professional. German sociologist, Max Weber was the most important student of bureaucracy, and he described bureaucracy as technically superior to all other forms of organization.
Weber did not give an exact definition of what bureaucracy is, but he did attempt to identify what he believed to be the main characteristics of this type of organisation. According to Weber in a bureaucracy the tasks of an organisation are allocated as official duties among various positions. Bureaucracies also have clear & explicit rules outlining exactly how employees should perform tasks. Weber stated a bureaucracy has an implied clear-cut division of labour and a high level of specialisation, as well as a clearly defined hierarchy. He also believed that employment by a bureaucratic organisation is based on technical qualifications and constitutes a lifelong career and an employee should receive a fixed salary, and no commission.
Despite being a very old type of organisational structure bureaucracies continue to be a highly influential template for designing and managing organisations. This is due to the many advantages a bureaucratic system brings to the overall running and efficiency of a business and its employees. In a bureaucracy each employee of the organisation knows precisely what their duties are within the organisation, and therefore many tasks will be performed a lot quicker and more efficiently.
The clear-cut rules set by bureaucratic systems also enable the organisation to respond readily to demands that are set and make decision making easy. Bureaucratic systems have a greater sense of direction and purpose than other types of organisation structure and this helped by the hierarchy of positions and well developed rule system that is consistent in a bureaucracy. The clear-cut criteria of a bureaucratic system enables the organisation to appoint successors when an employee leaves with out little trouble, and therefore causes as little disruption as possible. Bureaucracies also enable individual cases to be evaluated in terms of a well-developed rule-system, and offer the organisation consistency on decision-making and to a certain extent prevents preferential treatment.
Although the bureaucratic system is a very effective way of structuring an organisation it does also offer various drawbacks. Due to the bureaucratic systems being well suited to predictable and stable situations, they are not very flexible and therefore find it hard to deal with conditions of change. The rules of a bureaucracy are very rigid and are designed to achieve organisational objectives. However due to the rigidity it may obstruct the attainment of goals and lose sight of its overall organisational objectives. Another characteristic of a bureaucracy is the individuality of its employees.
Although this can have a positive effect on the organisation it could also cause alienation and sense of purposelessness from workers within the system. Working in a large bureaucratic organisation may induce the feeling that they are mere ‘cogs’ in a huge machine, and therefore lead to unmotivated staff and a decrease of efficiency. Communication through the hierarchy may well be slow in a bureaucratic system, due to the tendency towards centralisation, which would affect the initiative at the lower levels.
The two main types of bureaucratic organisations are machine and professional. Machine bureaucracy is the type of bureaucracy described by Weber and is normally used by organisations. Machine bureaucracies embrace control exercised through rules, technology and the supervisor’s control. Organisations that use the machine bureaucracy include the army, police, government, and the post office.
In Machine bureaucracies there are many layers of hierarchy and all the important decisions are made at the top of the organisational pyramid. Large proportions of employees in a machine bureaucracy are normally unskilled, and rely on basic machines to do most of the work. The employees could well be considered as machines themselves as their work is often very repetitive and the tasks they are set are often the same each day. This type of organisation structure was adopted by Frederick Taylor who developed a technique called scientific management, which focussed on the planning of the job to be set by the management and the doing of the work left to the employees.
Professional Bureaucracy is rational discipline imposed by employees rather than external influences. Amongst others Universities, hospitals and public accounting firms use the professional bureaucratic structure. Professional bureaucracies rely on skilled employees throughout the organisation, which therefore makes them de-centralised. In order to for the professional bureaucratic system to be used effectively the organisation needs to be stable throughout. As apposed to machine bureaucracy that contains a majority of unskilled workers, professional bureaucracy contains mostly skilled workers who are trained to learn difficult tasks establishing a well-defined job. Employees in a professional bureaucracy are offered more power than those in machine and left to make important decisions on their own.
Although bureaucratic systems have come under quite a lot of criticism, the majority of the world’s large-scale organisations contain at least some of the features of a bureaucracy. The number of bureaucratic systems is on the rise, mainly due to increasing size and complexity of organisations, and although it does offer some drawbacks if organised correctly it can be a very effective and efficient way of running an organisation.