Bureaucracy, which is an important model of organization defined by rules and series of hierarchical relationships, has been the dominant role for understanding organization for decades (Grey, 2007). Since the 1960s, numerous criticisms in mainstream thinking keep emerging toward the bureaucracy asserted that the imminent death of bureaucracy is coming because the defects associated with applying rules would lead to several problems such as poor employee motivation and goal-displacement. In view of this, the implication of a move from bureaucracy to post-bureaucracy has emerged and it is being depicted as a new label of flexible specialization in volatile market.
Based on trust and empowerment, post-bureaucracy and other terms including post-hierarchical, post-fordism and post-modern organization are also employed in the same sense (McSweeney, 2006). While some expert judge that the post-bureaucracy are actually more rhetorical than real and it has its own problems such as the risk, unfairness and loss of control, others highlight that the advent of the new post-bureaucratic era is still arriving since the market has been experienced a moving from mass production towards niche production in today’s business environment.
While it can not be denied that the concern on the aspect of its design and efficiency in mainstream thinking toward the bureaucracy did lead to some problems in a sense, this essay will attempt to demonstrate that the bureaucracy is still relevant for understanding organizations in current business environment and the existence of post-bureaucracy should be questioned. In order to demonstrate this, according to the mainstream thinking, critiques towards bureaucracy at different perspectives and the feasibility of post-bureaucracy will be discussed at the beginning.
Then it will argue the limitation of the mainstream thinking and how bureaucracy can still be relevant for understanding organizations by using examples from literatures.
According to Weber, rational-legal is the basis of bureaucracy and it becomes widely adopted because it refers to a highly efficient form of organization while critiques towards the bureaucracy in mainstream thinking are basically to do with the aspect of its design and efficiency in contrast. In the popularist critiques, bureaucracy is viewed as a form of organization which is like a predictable machine with standard operations and leads to the unnecessary delay and excessive obsession with rules. Based on the mainstream thinking, Grey (2007) summarized some important problems from the popularist critiques related with the inertia and ‘Red Tape’ mentality. Specifically, because simply following the rules in bureaucracy gives rise to have little personal commitment and low interest for the workers in the organization, job satisfaction and responsibility in their minds will not be guaranteed and leads to a poor motivated customer service as well as the procrastination in paper work.
In the view of the customers, due to the impersonal rules from bureaucracy, sometimes it facilitated the employees in organizations to be ‘jobsworth’ and lead to ‘buck-passing’ by hiding behind the rules when no decision is being made towards a rule-against problem until ‘authority’ comes because the typical mind in their heads. However, some managerialists such as Crozier (1964, cited in Grey, 2007) and Gouldner (1954, cited in Grey, 2007) might deal a blow to the idea that bureaucracy is rigid and impersonal because rules sometimes are completely ignored by employees in their observation. For example, safety regulations as well as equal opportunities regulations in organizations are usually being ignored because they are viewed as a commonplace and sometimes the inconvenience would get in the way of the their jobs. But it was not assured that whether the result of the observation is suit to the organizations in other industries.
Yet, more overriding controversial problem in bureaucracy is the goal-displacement within organizations. In the managerialist critiques, as Robert Merton (1940) addressed in his study, bureaucracy would not always lead to the best outcome because people are more likely to follow the rules as a goal rather than its effect. In this way, it gives rise to deliver sub-optimal outcomes in organizations by ‘doing the thing right’ rather than ‘doing the right thing’. A defense for the goal-displacement would be that solutions are not all the optimum ones in every case, but bureaucracy offers an optimum average at overall level.
However, another particular version of goal-displacement given by Philip Selznick (1949, cited in Grey, 2007) also poses a blow to the bureaucracy. He suggests divisionalized structures on organizations would lead to different aims towards the divisions by pursuing divisional interests but not the whole organization as the rules designed. Individual prejudices would play a central part in decision making and different aims in divisions within the organizations would very much debunk the rational image of bureaucracy. These insights above are very much pointing to the emergence of post-bureaucracy in organization.
Admittedly, apart from overcoming the demerit of bureaucracy, as new forms of organizations with an open boundary based on trust and empowerment, post-bureaucracy would be more suitable for the organizations while the market is even more volatile in today’s business environment. However, post-bureaucracy has its own problems on the aspect of control and risk in mainstream thinking. Without applying rules in organizations, it is not easy to sustain the operation of organizations in an open boundary while trust and empowerment is so fragile that there is a danger that post-bureaucracy will descend into anarchy. Besides, giving employees more freedom to work in their ways would lead to the risk of making wrong decisions. Because employees might have adopted an even less efficient approach to the problems, the efficiency in the post-bureaucratically organizations would be less efficient at all times (Grey, 2007).
However, some experts would try to advocate the post-bureaucracy in a different perspective. While the present business environment is moving from mass production towards niche production, organizations are chasing the trend of fitting with the flexible specialization in producing (Piore and Sabel, 1984, cited in Grey, 2007) and the rise of the network society and network organizations also provide a favorable environment for the post-bureaucracy (Castells, 1996, cited in Grey, 2007). But managerialists such as Warhurst and Thompson (1998) and McSweeney (2006) acute that the critiques towards the mass production is by no means decreasing over the world, and the new forms of operation with post-bureaucracy based on trust and empowerment are actually more rhetorical than real because few and limited practical cases of detailed type post-bureaucracy could be found in recent period so far. Therefore, the existence of post-bureaucracy within organizations should be questioned in a sense.
Back to the argument discussed in the front, some limitations are worth noticing in the mainstream thinking. Although bureaucracy has its shortcomings in multiple perspectives, Paul du Gay (2000) claims that bureaucracy actually embodies fairness. It is true because people would chase for the maximum efficiency due to the demand of instrumental rationality. Ethic of impersonality and fairness in bureaucracy are required so that employees and customers are treated without prejudice and discrimination. In George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (2000), it also provides the idea that impersonality is the central of bureaucratic ethos that guarantee fairness as du Gay mentioned and this can be related to the merit of standardization in organizations.
Specifically, Ritzer utilizes Mcdonaldization and sees it as the template for contemporary forms of bureaucratization. By focusing on the four dimensions including efficiency, calculability, predictability and control through non-human technology, he exemplifies the logic of standardization in bureaucracy has several advantages including economic and material reasons and contends that the proliferation of standardization has spread into more and more sectors in all kinds of area. Scientific management in bureaucracy is still very evident in organisational systems over the period.
Another noticing limitation could be found on the one-sided aspect of the restriction focused on efficiency. The critiques towards bureaucracy as well as post-bureaucracy in mainstream thinking might have a different understanding if the vision is shifted from different perspectives. According to du Gay (2000), it is fundamentally doing with the power. But more importantly, it is about the question of a binary logic. Mainstream thinking concerning about the efficiency towards bureaucracy is more likely to divide whether the bureaucracy is good and post-bureaucracy is bad or post-bureaucracy is good and bureaucracy is bad. However, the division between bureaucracy and post-bureaucracy was actually much less clear-cut in current business environment.
For example, in Richard Sennett’s (1998) study, he revisits what previously was a Greek bakery operating with bureaucratic rules and workers are stable unionized few decades ago. However it becomes a multinational firm with large scale and uses shifting workforce of non-unionized workers for operating the bakery machines. In this way, products are easily to shift from type to type while workers know nothing about the techniques of baking but just simply pressing the button on the bakery machine. It clearly shows how new working environment of post-bureaucracy about flexibility in production do not simply imply an empowered kind of organizational life and the ways of working are as dehumanizing as before — the combination of bureaucracy and post-bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is still very much alive in the new forms of organization.
In conclusion, the concern on the aspect of its design and efficiency in mainstream thinking toward the bureaucracy did lead to some problems in a sense. However, while bureaucracy has been proclaimed is ending since 1960s and it leads to the view of emergence towards the new form of organization, post-bureaucracy has its own problems and its existence should be questioned. However, bureaucracy actually does embody fairness. While the world is stepping into a new business environment, organization operate in bureaucracy still has several advantages including economic and material reasons and the proliferation of standardization has spread into more and more sectors in all kinds of area. Bureaucracy is still very much alive and evident in modern organizational and social life, even combined within the new organisational systems.
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