The last century saw the perfection of the bureaucracy -- a form of organization that has been enormously successful and is the result of thousands of years of trial and error evolution. Max Weber outlined the key characteristics of a bureaucracy:

  1. specification of jobs with detailed rights, obligations, responsibilities, scope of authority
  2. system of supervision and subordination
  3. unity of command
  4. extensive use of written documents
  5. training in job requirements and skills
  6. application of consistent and complete rules (company manual)
  7. assign work and hire personnel based on competence and experience

Today, many of these principles seem obvious and commonplace. However, they are all inventions --- organizations did not always have these features.

Today we also think of bureaucracies as inefficient, slow and generally bad. In Weber's time, they were seen as marvelously efficient machines that reliably accomplished their goals. And in fact, bureaucracies did become enormously successful, easily outcompeting other organization forms such as family businesses and adhocracies. They also did much to introduce concepts of fairness and equality of opportunity into society, having a profound effect on the social structure of nations.

However, bureaucracies are better for some tasks than others. In particular, bureaucracies are not well-suited to industries in which technology changes rapidly or is not yet well-understood. Bureaucracies excel at businesses involving routine tasks that can be well-specified in writing and don't change quickly.

Weber's Rational Bureaucracy

(this discussion based on the discussion in "The Organizational Age" by Rodney Stark in Sociology, 3rd Edition)

At the turn of the century a sociologist named Max Weber began to study the new forms of organization being developed for managing large numbers of people in far-flung and complex activities. Since he was German, he was very familiar with Moltke's development of the General Staff (see course packet material on 19th Century Bureaucracies). Furthermore, Germany had been an early leader in developing a civil service. At the same time, German industry was beginning to adopt the organizational methods developed in the United States. Surveying this scene, Weber attempted to isolate the elements common to all of these new organizations.

Weber concluded that all these new large-scale organizations were similar. Each was a bureaucracy. Today many of us regard bureaucracy as a dirty word, suggesting red tape, inefficiency, and officiousness As we shall see, bureaucracies can develop these features, especially if authority is highly centralized. Weber's purpose, however, was to define the essential features of new organizations and to indicate why these organizations worked so much better than traditional ones. Let us examine the features that Weber found in bureaucracies.

Above all, Weber emphasized that bureaucratic organizations were an attempt to subdue human affairs to the rule of reason-to make it possible to conduct the business of the organization "according to calculable rules." For people who developed modern organizations, the purpose was to find rational solutions to the new problems of size Weber saw bureaucracy as the rational product of social engineering, just as the machines of the Industrial Revolution were the rational products of mechanical engineering. He wrote:

"The decisive reason for the advance of bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any former organization. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organizations exactly as does the machine with non-mechanical modes of production." [Weber, 1946].

For Weber the term bureaucracy was inseparable from the term rationality. And we may speak of his concept as a "rational bureaucracy" But what were the features developed to make bureaucracies rational? We have already met them: (1) functional specialization (2) clear lines of hierarchical authority, (3) expert training of managers, and (4) decision making based on rules and tactics developed to guarantee consistent and effective pursuit of organizational goals.

Weber noted additional features of rational bureaucracies that are simple extensions of the four just outlined, To ensure expert management, appointment and promotion are based on merit rather than favoritism, and those appointed treat their positions as full-time, primary careers.

To ensure order in decision making, business is conducted primarily through written rules records, and communications.

Weber's idea of functional specialization applies both to persons within an organization and to relations between larger units or divisions of the organization. We have already seen how this applied to Swift & Co. Within a Swift packing plant, work was broken down into many special tasks, and employees were assigned to one or a few such tasks, including the tasks involved in coordinating the work of others. (Such coordination is called administration or management.) Furthermore, Swift was separated into a number of divisions, each specializing in one of the tasks in the elaborate process of bringing meat from the ranch to the consumer. Weber argued that such specialization is essential to a rational bureaucracy and that the specific boundaries separating one functional division from another must be fixed by explicit rules, regulations, and procedures.

For Weber it was self-evident that coordinating the divisions of large organizations requires clear lines of authority organized in a hierarchy. That means there are clear "levels of graded authority." All employees in the organization must know who their boss is, and each person should always respect the chain of command; that is, people should give orders only to their own subordinates and receive orders only through their own immediate superior In this way, the people at the top can be sure that directives arrive where they are meant to go and know where responsibilities lie.

Furthermore, hierarchical authority is required in bureaucracies so that highly trained experts can he properly used as managers. It does little good to train someone to operate a stockyard, for example, and then have that manager receive orders from someone whose training is in advertising. Rational bureaucracies can be operated, Weber argued, only by deploying managers at all levels who have been selected and trained for their specific jobs. Persons ticketed for top positions in bureaucracies are often rotated through many divisions of an organization to gain firsthand experience of the many problems that their future subordinates must face. [Recall how Moltke rotated his General Staff officers through various regiments.]

Finally, Weber stressed that rational bureaucracies must be managed in accordance with carefully developed rules and principles that can be learned and applied and that transactions and decisions must be recorded so that rules can he reviewed. Only with such rules and principles can the activities of hundreds of managers at different levels in the organization be predicted and coordinated. If we cannot predict what others will do, then we cannot count on them.

Moltke had to be sure that staff officers faced with an unexpected crisis would solve it as he would. To ensure that, officers had to be trained in Moltke's tactical principles and rules. Similarly Gustavus Swift had to know that his stockyards would not buy meat faster than his packing plants could process it or that more meat would not be shipped than his eastern refrigerators could accommodate, of course, it is impossible to spell out detailed rules to fit all contingencies. Therefore, decision makers must be highly trained and must report their decisions promptly and accurately to their superiors.

For a long time, Weber's rational bureaucracy model dominated social science thinking about large, modern organizations. If organizations did not operate quite as Weber had said a bureaucracy should, then the solution was to bring them in line with the ideal bureaucratic procedures. However by World War II, sharp criticism of Weber's ideas began to surface. social scientists began to argue that Weber had ignored much of what really went on in organizations-the conflicts, the cliques, and the sidestepping of rules and the chain of command. The problem, according to Philip Selznick 1948,1957), lay in the fact that bureaucracies were not and could not be like machines because they consisted of human beings. In the final analysis, people will simply not imitate machines.

Copyright 1996 Stephen P. Borgatti Revised: April 02, 2002 Go to Home page