The following paper has been written to determine how and why the metaphor of an organisation as a machine can be applied to the organisation structure known as a bureaucracy. In order to do this, a definition and explanation of an organisation will be given, followed by an explanation of the metaphor of an organisation as a machine. A description of the organisational structure defined as a bureaucracy will then be examined through a study of an established bureaucracy. Lastly, an application of the metaphor of an organisation as a machine will be applied to the organisational structure known as a bureaucracy.
According to Robbins and Barnwell an organisation is, ‘a consciously coordinated social entity, with a relatively identifiable boundary, that functions on a relatively continuous basis in order to achieve a common goal or set of goals’ (2002, p. 6). In the broad spectrum of the term organisation, one may see that they ‘exist to achieve goals and objectives’ (Forrest and Johnstone 2004, p. 10). Thus it can be said that an organisation has a specific goal, and the members of that organisation coordinate their efforts to achieve the goal or goals of that organisation. Clinton and Scheiwe state that the goal of an organisation should be the ‘starting point of any organisation as seen in its mission statement’ (1998, p.174). As an example, NSW Justice Health has as its mission statement: ‘to achieve measurable and sustained health care outcomes leading to international best practice for those within the NSW Criminal Justice System’ (NSW Justice Health 2005). To do this, as an organisation, Justice Health has employed Doctors, Nurses, Corrective Service Officers, Dieticians, Physiotherapists, Occupational therapists and Pharmacists to work, in a coordinated fashion, to produce the organisation’s goal: ‘better health for its clients.’
Pinnnock states: ‘traditional management theory has relied on the metaphor of the organisation as a machine’ (2004, p.1). According to the Oxford English Dictionary the term metaphor means, ‘a name or descriptive word that is transferred to an object or action different from, but analogous to, that to which it is literally applicable’ (1993, p.1758). For example, one may write, ‘he had a heart of stone’ giving the view of a man with a hard, cold, stone-like character. According to the Oxford English Dictionary a Machine is, ‘an apparatus applying mechanical power, having several parts each with a definite function’ (1993, p. 488). Similarly an organisation is compiled of several parts, each fulfilling a specific function in order achieve the set coordinated goals or ‘the mechanical power.’ This concept will be further examined by a study of Mintzberg’s five elements of an organisation.
Henry Mintzberg’s five elements of an organisation include: ‘the operating core, strategic apex, middle line, technostructure, and support staff’ (Mintzberg1983, p. 262). The operating core, which includes the ‘employees who perform the basic work related to the production of products and services’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 111) could be considered as the cogs and wheels in a machine that allow it to physically function. In Justice Health this would include the nurses, officers, dieticians and other various staff as they have direct interaction with the clients.
The strategic apex includes the, ‘top level managers, who are charged with the overall responsibility of the organisation’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 111) These managers could be viewed as the computer chips or decision making part of the machine. In Justice health, this would entail the Chief Executive Officer, Nurse Managers, and Directors.
The middle line managers include, ‘managers who connect the operating core with the strategic apex’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 111). In Justice health this would include Clinical Nurse Unit Managers who make decisions regarding their designated ward but are still accountable to the top-level mangers. These may be considered as the computer chips in the ABS brakes, as they control specific aspects of the machine.
The technostructure, which are the, ‘analysts who have the responsibility for effecting certain forms of standardisation in the organisation’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 111) could be seen as the control settings on a machine.
The support staff, which includes, ‘the people who fill the staff units that provide indirect support services for the organisation’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 111) could be seen as the oil that make the machine run smoothly. In Justice Health this could be Human Resources, Administration, warehousing and stores.
This concept of the metaphor of an organisation as a machine is further exemplified by considering the words one often uses to describe our organisations. For example our vocabulary is compiled of words that delineate an organisation as a machine-like military unit, such as: ‘headquarters, division, strategy, officer, policy unit, fostering campaign, tactics, or front-line staff’ (Pinnock 2004, p.1). They help create an image of a place where activities are directed and regulated through central command systems. These words convey comforting ideas of order, clarity, control, conformity and perfect communication. They imply that the people at the top can specify and foretell desired actions and all organisational staff have to do is follow orders. It is for these reasons that many people have come to develop the metaphor of an organisation as a machine. In this concept, we get the image of all the people in the organisation as cogs, wheels and mechanical parts of a machine. If everyone does their part then the organisation, run by humans will function as a machine does, smoothly, in coordination, without flaw.
However, on the other hand, a machine could be considered to be uncaring and non-emotional. It has its purpose to fulfil and rolls over anything in its path to achieve its own personal objective without seeing ‘the big picture’ or in fact, the human side of an organisation and goal achievement. Such could be considered the case with the organisational structure known as a bureaucracy.
According to Robbins and Barnwell a bureaucracy can be defined as, ‘an organisational form characterized by a division of labour, a well-defined authority hierarchy, high formalization, impersonality, employment decisions based on merit, career tracks for employees and distinct separation of members organisational and personal lives’ (2002, p. 487).
Max Weber, a German sociologist, developed in the early part of the 20th century what is known today as the organisational structure called a bureaucracy. Weber described his ideal type of organisation that he called a bureaucracy as ‘a system characterized by a divisions of labour, a clearly defined hierarchy, formal selection, formal rules and regulations, impersonality and career orientation’ (Robbins, Bergman, Stagg and Coulter 2000, p.48).
Through a study of these seven principles, one can see that the health organisation Wentworth Area Health Service is an example of the organisational structure known as a bureaucracy.
Wentworth Area Health Service has a strict division of labour in which, ‘jobs are broken down into simple, routine and well-defined tasks’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, a Ward Clerk organises the medical records of clients and as such is not allowed to assist in lifting clients as that is considered to be a Wardsperson’s job. Similarly, a Wardsperson would not be expected to organise medical records as a Ward Clerk would.
Wentworth Area Health Service has a well-defined authority hierarchy, through which, ‘a multi-level formal structure, with a hierarchy of positions, ensures that each lower position is under the supervision and control of a higher one’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, the CEO may partake in the original decision on how many beds to have in each ward of a hospital, then the senior Doctors and Nurse Unit Manager of a ward may make a decision, based on the amount of nurses, beds and equipment available whether or not to accept a new patient from another hospital. Once that patient arrives, the treating Doctor may order the Nurse to administer specific drugs, but the Nurse cannot order the Doctor to administer specific drugs.
There is a high level of formalisation, such as, ‘a dependence on formal rules, and procedures to ensure uniformity and to regulate the behaviour of job holders’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, each medical procedure has a formal written protocol describing the exact steps for how that procedure should be conducted and by what person, such as a Doctor, Nurse, Wardsperson or Ward Clerk.
A high degree of impersonality occurs, such as ‘sanctions applied uniformly and impersonally to avoid involvement with individual personalities and personal preferences of members’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, decisions on who to treat first are based on a prioritising triage system, that objectively considers who needs to be seen most urgently, and not based on personal decisions about liking/disliking a client.
Employment decisions are based on merit such as, ‘promotion decisions based on technical qualifications, competence and performance of the candidates’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, equal employment opportunity is seen to be enforced and discrimination or preferential treatment of specific members or minorities is not allowed.
There are career tracks for employees and ‘members are expected to pursue a career in the organation’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, a Registered Nurse may become better qualified and specialise in a specific field such as Intensive Care Nursing, then become a Clinical Nurse Specialist, an Educator, a Clinical Nurse Unit Manager, Nurse Unit Manager, Nurse Manager (for the hospital) or eventually a Director or even the CEO.
There is a distinct ‘separation of members’ organisational and personal lives such as ‘completely separate personal affairs and kinship ties from work-related activities’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p.308). For example, an employee is not supposed to engage in a romantic relationship with another co-worker, unless their roles in the organisation are completely separate.
Although many characteristics of Weber’s bureaucracy are still evident in large organisations, his model is not as popular as it was a decade ago. According to Robbins et al many managers today feel that a bureaucracy’s emphasis on a strict division of labour, adherence to formal rules and regulations, and impersonal application of rules and control, ‘takes away the individual employee’s creativity and flexibility to respond to the dynamic and complex changes taking place in the global market, making them more like machines, and less like self-thinking humans’ (2000, p. 49). Morgan further emphasizes this concept by stating that a ‘bureaucracy can have dehumanizing effect upon employees, making them more like machines, especially those at the lower levels of the organsational hierarchy’ (1986, p.35).
A bureaucracy relies on, ‘standardised work processes for coordination and control’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 114). A ‘machine bureaucracy has highly routine operating tasks, formalized rules and regulations, tasks that are grouped into functional departments, centralized authority and a decision making system that follows the chain of command’ (Robbins and Barnwell 2002, p. 114).
The bureaucracy form is very standardized; rules regulations and protocols are officially formalized. Morgan describes a bureaucratic organisation as, ‘an organisation that is designed and operated as if they were machines’ (1986, p. 22). As a consequence, ‘we tend to expect them to operate as machines: in routinized, efficient, reliable and predictable ways’ (Morgan 1986, p. 220).
A bureaucracy can cause conflicts within the organisation due to the separate units and individuals placing their own unit’s objectives before all others, including the organisation as a whole. Problems arise when change is needed within the organisation, as employees within a bureaucratic organisation are ‘influenced by the rules and regulations and therefore adapting to change becomes difficult’ (Duffield and Stein-Parbury 1992, p. 35).
According to Coser, Weber wrote in 1946 that, ‘the decisive reason for the advance of the bureaucratic organisation has always been its purely technical superiority over any former organisation. The fully developed bureaucratic mechanism compares with other organisations exactly as does the machine with non-mechanical modes of production’ (as sited by Coser 1977, p. 231).
Weber argued for bureaucracy’s, ‘indispensability for the attainment of the goals of any organisation in an industrial or capitalist society’ (Coser 1977, p. 231). In Weber’s idealized bureaucracy, no personal relations or feelings interfered with the job, making his bureaucratic officials rather robotic and thus mechanistic.
It can be seen that the bureaucracy as a machine has negative features in real practice. The most influential arguments against a bureaucracy were developed by Robert Merton. Merton wrote in 1940 that there was a tendency for ‘the rules to become more important than the ends they were designed to serve, resulting in goal displacement and loss of organisational effectiveness’ (Merton 1957, p.196). He argued that the demands on officials to conform to bureaucratic regulations led to ritualism, rigidity, and difficulties in dealing with the general public. Almost from its beginning the common complaints about bureaucracy have been concerning its impersonal nature and its inefficiency, which seem to be the same complaints we have today.
An example of an organisation known as a bureaucracy may act like a machine and become difficult to work with is the health organisation Wentworth Area Health Service (WAHS). In WAHS there is a protocol regarding the removal of oxygen cylinders from a resuscitation trolley, which states, ‘The oxygen cylinder is never to be removed from resuscitation trolley’ (WAHS Resuscitation Trolley Protocol, p. 7). In an emergency a patient went into a respiratory arrest and required oxygen. The resuscitation trolley was then taken to the patient and the Doctor attempted to intubate the patient. After three attempts the Doctor decided to manually bag the patient with a lurdel bag and transfer the patient to the Intensive Care Unit where she would try to intubate again. The senior nurse on the ward, who was an officious bureaucratic machine in the organisation known as WAHS, followed the Resuscitation Trolley Protocol to the exact word, as a machine does, and said that the Doctor would have to have an oxygen cylinder sent up to the ward from somewhere else because the oxygen cylinder on the Resuscitation Trolley is not to be removed. The Doctor argued that this was the specific purpose with which the oxygen bottle is required, but the Nurse argued that the Protocol is specific and therefore she must go find her own oxygen bottle from somewhere else.
The following paper has therefore been written to determine how and why the metaphor of an organisation as a machine can be applied to the organisation structure known as a bureaucracy. In order to do this, a definition and explanation of an organisation has been given, followed by an explanation of the metaphor of an organisation as a machine. Specifically, the concept of Henry Mintzberg’s five elements in an organisation was applied to the health organisation Justice Health. A description of the organisational structure defined as a bureaucracy was then examined through a study of the established health organisational bureaucracy known as Wentworth Area Health Service. Lastly, an application of the metaphor of an organisation as a machine was applied to the organisation structure known as a bureaucracy and an example of WAHS was examined to see how true this concept really was.