Organizations are some of the most important entities in the modern world. They make significant contributions to the society in terms of providing specific products, services, and employment. Through organizations, societies are able to develop and experience growth. Given this importance of organizations, scholars have carried out intensive research with the aim of coming up with the most efficient organization systems that can ensure the success of these important entities. One of the organizational systems developed by economic and social scientists is the bureaucratic system.
Since its conception in the 18th century, the concept of bureaucracy has been subjected to harsh criticism by many economists. For this reason, the term bureaucracy is often presented in a negative light. Altay (2013) confirms that most scholars on bureaucracy have thought of bureaucracy as an evil. The negative image of bureaucracy is taken as a reality in spite of the fact that there is only little empirical evidence to support this notion. This paper will engage in a critically evaluation of the concept of bureaucracy in order to show that this concept is still an effective system to run an organization in modern times.
Bureaucracy can be defined as a system of administration characterized by a hierarchical structure with delegation of authority taking place from the top to the bottom on an organization. Bendix defines Bureaucracy as the “universal tendency of men who are employed in hierarchical organizations to obey directives and to identify their own interest and ideas with the organization and with all those persons in it who share this identification” (Styhre & Borjesson 2006, p.6). The bureaucratic system of administration has a series of official positions occupied by trained professionals who operate according to certain prescribed rules.
In this system, there are a number of formal rules and regulations that dictate the operations of the organization and the behaviours of the employees. Members of the organization stand the chance to move up the hierarchy based on their qualifications and performance. Altay (2013) elaborates that continuity is a main feature of the bureaucratic organization and a career structure is in place offering the prospect of regular advancement for the individual worker.
Bureaucracy as an Effective System of Organization
Bureaucracy increases the chances of optimum results being achieved since it encourages specialization and the use of technically qualified personnel. For an employee to be given a position in the bureaucratic system, he/she must possess the necessary skills required at that level. The technically qualified personnel are utilized in each sector to carry out tasks and achieve organizational goals.
The division of labour encouraged by bureaucracies results in economic and technological dynamism (Visitchaichan 2003). Due to the focus on specialization, the employees learn more and more through constant practice. This leads to the development of highly skilled workers who have the capability to deliver the best results for the organization. By using these employees, the organization gains great effectiveness and is able to achieve its goals.
The concept of bureaucracy promotes objectivity in the organization leading to increased effectiveness. A key concept of bureaucracy is that functions are carried out purely on objective considerations. Styhre and Borjesson (2006) elaborate that following the objective discharge of business; only calculable rules are used when determining business operations with no regards for persons.
The modern bureaucracies are characterized by impersonality meaning that the workers operate based on logic and predetermined rules as opposed to emotions or the personal preferences of the employee. Bouie (2012) states that the procedures put in place are executed in a manner that will result in the accomplishment of predetermined goals. These goals are imbedded in the accountability system and there is little risk of deviation from the goals. The organization is therefore more effective than one where subjective considerations are allowed to influence the discharge of business.
The bureaucratic system emphasizes on merit and expertise leading to the availability of competent staff to carry out tasks necessary to achieve organizational goals. Volti (2008) states that when it comes to filling positions within the bureaucracy, candidates are chosen based on their ability to perform the tasks assigned to them. The individual’s performance of the employee determines his position in the organization.
In each department, the worker is given specialized training to increase his/her proficiency. In the bureaucracy, the individual is promoted up to the level of his competence. According to Volti (2008), promotion in bureaucratic organizations is based on objective assessments of performance meaning that the most competent employees are offered high level positions. The prospect of promotion also serves as a major incentive for staff to perform exemplarily. Employees in the system are motivated by the desire to move to higher level positions within the bureaucracy (Bouie 2012). This motivation causes them to work hard and accomplish goals in order to increase their chances of promotion.
Bureaucracies increase effectiveness in large organizations where coordination of activities is crucial. Large organization might employ hundreds or even thousands of employees and have numerous specialized jobs to be carried out. In such an environment, there is a huge potential for chaos to occur. Bureaucracies bring about order in such environments by creating and enforcing rules, regulations, and strict procedures that have to be followed by all members of the organization.
These ensure that all employees know what is expected of them leading to order. In addition to the formal rules, there is a hierarchical authority in bureaucratic organization. This hierarchical structure delineates responsibilities and aids in the coordination of work leading to organizational efficiency. There is general agreement that bureaucracy is still “the most efficient way to organize large-scale activities” (Visitchaichan 2003, p.136).
Bureaucracies contribute to the endurance of an organization by ensuring that it is able to survive even catastrophic failures in the market. This system provides a template that can be used at all times with predictable results. By emphasizing on rules and competence, the bureaucracy is able to serve as a blueprint for efficiency. Visitchaichan (2003) documents that even under high uncertainty environments, bureaucracies are able to survive since the established rules and positions ensure that resources are allocated appropriately and the cost of operation is reduced. Volti (2008) documents that historically, the extension and endurance of successful preindustrial empires such as Rome and dynastic China can be attributed to the effective use of bureaucracies.
Finally, there is a great relationship between bureaucracy and quality management. For quality assurance to be present there has to be consistency and predictability in the production process. The bureaucratic system has consistency and predictability as some of its core attributes. Bureaucracy is therefore effective in producing consistent results. In most organization, there is a drive to produce uniform products of a high quality.
Variance in product quality is undesirable in these circumstances. Guy (2009) reveals that bureaucracy is characterized by standardization and adherence to set procedures and rules. Theuvsen (2004) confirms that many bureaucratic features can be identified in the quality assurance schemes implemented by most organizations. Bouie (2012) notes that in most cases, bureaucracy encourages the use of best practices leading to the production of standardized goods and services that are of a superior nature.
Criticism of Bureaucracy
A key criticism levelled against bureaucracy is that it leads to poor performance and increases the cost of carrying out organizational operations (Pamela, Goodman, Fandt & Michlitsch 2006). Many economists regard bureaucrats as budget maximizers since these individuals tend to utilize all the money allocated to their department even when huge savings could be made. This increases the expenses of the organization leading to reduced profitability.
Another criticism levelled against bureaucracy is that it has failed to adapt to environmental changes. Visitchaichan (2003) admits that the bureaucratic approach reinforces and sustains traditional patterns of power and control. This rigid structure does not favour constant change. This is in spite of the fact that the rate of change in the business world over the 21st century has been getting faster with each decade. Due to this prevalence of rapid change, economists argue that flatter structured organizations are better suited to cope with the rapid changes in the market.
The lack of focus on consumers and the organization’s shareholders has been cited as an important drawback of bureaucracies. Modern organizations are market oriented and geared towards increasing consumer satisfaction in order to promote consumer loyalty and subsequent sales increase. In addition to this, modern organizations adopt corporate governance strategies that are oriented to the values of the shareholders.
Contrary to this, bureaucracies are based on rigid regulations and standards that govern the operations of the organization (Pamela et al. 2006). The impersonality of bureaucracies leads to a perception by consumers that they are treated as numbers and not as people. Such a perception hurts the productivity of the organization since consumer satisfaction is crucial to the success of the company.
In some cases, bureaucracy is blamed for killing ambition and destroying initiative among employees. As has been noted, this system places great emphasis on specialization and rigid job descriptions. Many employees in bureaucracies therefore engage in repetitive work for most of their career. This leads to boredom causing some workers to do the bare minimal work possible (Visitchaichan 2003). The rigid job specification makes it hard for employees to be innovative therefore killing ambition.
Discussion and Conclusion
There has been a tendency by many scholars to write off bureaucracy as an obsolete system that should be displaced by new forms of organization management. This inclination has been encouraged by the overemphasis on the negative attributes of bureaucracy and the extensive focus on dysfunctional bureaucratic organizations. Volti (2008) declares that while there is some truth to the stereotype that bureaucracies are semi-competent plodders ensnarled in red tape, these systems have many positive features and their virtues far outweigh their vices. Visitchaichan (2003) notes that in spite of assertions by certain scholars that bureaucracy is already dead and its structure has become obsolete, the reality is that bureaucracies are still everywhere. Successful multinationals such as McDonalds have had spectacular success using this system.
Organizations where precision, safety and clear accountability are crucial, such as surgical wards and finance offices, continues to implement bureaucratic approaches successfully. Bureaucratic organizations continue to be relevant since they possess a technical superiority over other organization systems (Theuvsen 2004). The precision, speed and continuity of the bureaucratic system results in great effectiveness, leading to the implementation of these systems by many modern organizations.
This paper set out to provide a critical evaluation of bureaucratic systems with the aim of showing that they can be effective structures for running an organization. It began by noting how contemporary scholars have mostly presented bureaucracy as an inefficient system that should be abandoned in favour of other systems. The paper then defined bureaucracy and highlighted how the system leads to significant economic and productivity benefits for the organization. This paper has shown that contrary to common views, bureaucracy is not a threat to market activities. Instead, this system can be used to promote stability and continuity in an organization.
The paper has observed that in spite of the stereotype that bureaucracies are slow and inflexible, these systems continue to be prevalent in modern society. This underscores the fact that this system has numerous benefits and it increases organizational efficiency. From the analysis provided in this paper, it is clear that while there are negative consequences of bureaucracy, these consequences are not as vast as opponents of this system suggest. As such, it can be stated that while bureaucratic structures are not suited for all organization, these systems result in more effective organization in many instances.
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