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Classical organization theory


Max Weber
(1864-1920)
Bureaucracy, power and control

Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge (Weber, 1947). For the sociologist, power is principally exemplified within organizations by the process of control. Max Weber distinguished between authority and power by defining the latter as any relationship within which one person could impose his will, regardless of any resistance from the other, whereas authority existed when there was a belief in the legitimacy of that power. Weber classified organizations according to the nature of that legitimacy:

  • Charismatic authority, based on the sacred or outstanding characteristic of the individual;
  • Traditional authority: essentially a respect for custom;
  • Rational legal authority, which was based on a code or set of rules.

The latter is the predominant form of authority today, replacing the crude use of naked power and historical practices. According to Weber rational legal authority is attained through the most efficient form of organization: bureaucracy. He argued that managers should not rule through arbitrary personal whim but by a formal system of rules. He listed the beliefs which underlie rational legal authority:

  1. a legal code can be established which can claim obedience from members of the organization
  2. the law is a system of abstract rules which are applied to particular cases; and administration looks after the interests of the organization within the limits of that law
  3. the person exercising authority also obeys this impersonal order
  4. only through being a member does the member obey the law
  5. obedience is due not to the person who holds the authority but to the impersonal order which has granted him this position

Weber is usually described as having believed that bureaucracy is the most efficient form of organization. In fact, Weber believed bureaucracy to be the most formally rational form of organization. As such, Weber conceived of bureaucracy as being more effective than alternative forms. In his day administration was based on written documents. This tended to make the office (bureau) the focus of organization. He did not share the modern conception of a bureaucratic organization as being slow, rigid and inefficient. His primary concern was to establish ways of behaving which avoided the corruption, unfairness and nepotism characterizing most 19th century organizations. Based on his ideas concerning the legitimacy of power, Weber outlined the characteristics of bureaucracy in its purest form. Such an organization is characterised by:

  1. '...a continuous organization of official functions bound by rules';
  2. Specialization: each office has a defined sphere of competence, involving division of labour. The tasks of the organization are divided into distinct functions given to separate offices. These functions are clearly specified so that the staff know exactly what is expected of them. Job-holders are given the authority necessary to carry out their roles;
  3. A clearly defined hierarchy of offices: a firm system of supervision based on clear levels of authority. Each official knows whom to report to with specified rights of control and complaint procedures;
  4. Rules: a stable, comprehensive system of conduct which can be learned and may require technical qualifications to understand and administer;
  5. Impersonality: no hatred or passion with equality of treatment for all clients of the organization. Staff members are free of any external responsibilities and constraints. They are able to attend to their duties in a fair and objective way;
  6. Free selection of appointed officials: selected that is on the basis of professional qualifications, with proof shown by a diploma gained through examinations. They are appointed rather than elected so that there is no question of bias or favour;
  7. Full-time paid officials: usually paid on the basis of hierarchical rank, the office being their sole or major concern. Officials are appointed on the basis of a contract. They have a monetary salary, and usually pension rights. The salary is graded according to the position in the hierarchy. The officers can leave their posts, and under certain circumstances employment can be terminated;
  8. Career officials: there is a career structure and a system of promotion based on seniority or merit based on the judgment of superiors;
  9. Private/public split: separates business and private life. The official works in a detached fashion from the ownership of the organization. The finances and interests of the two should be kept firmly apart: the resources of the organization are quite distinct from those of the members as private individuals. Officials may appropriate neither posts nor the resources which go with them. A radical notion at a time when bribery was the norm and officials regularly took a cut of any fee or payment due to their office;
  10. There is a strict, systematic discipline and control of the official's work.

Despite being based on the idea of formal rationality, Weber's concepts were idealistic. He believed that bureaucratic control would lead to a number of social consequences (Weber, 1947):

a a tendency to a levelling of the social classes by allowing a wide range of recruits with technical competence to be taken by any organization;

b plutocracy, because of the time required to achieve the necessary technical training;

c greater degree of social equality due to the dominance of the spirit of impersonality or objectivity.

Key criticisms of classical organization theory

References:

Weber, Max (1947) The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Translated by A. M. Henderson & Talcott Parsons,The Free Press.



Organization Theory: Selected Classic Readings

Organization Theory: Selected Classic Readings
by Derek Pugh
  This book spans seventy years of theory from Max Weber's seminal writings on bureaucratic organization to the latest management thinking represented by Handy, Peters and Waterman. Covering three main areas of interest, those of the structure of organizations, management and decision making, as well as that of organizational behaviour, this thoroughly revised and updated edition contains a vast amount of new contributions.
  More information and prices from:
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