Classical organization theory - key criticisms
Thompson and McHugh (2002: 87) point out that early 20th century management theory was
promoted by engineers (among other groups) who were trying to 'extend the boundaries of
their profession by trading on the general rise of interest in management and planning that was
characteristic of the early part of the century.' Citing P.Armstrong from 1984, they observe that
engineers found it difficult to 'sustain the privileged role as the focal point of management' as
their own knowledge base became 'increasingly disconnected from their productive expertise.'
Thompson and McHugh regard these theories as being essentially prescriptive. That
is to say that there was an implicit belief in underlying principles or 'laws' that governed
management activities and functions. But there were also some assumptions about the role of workers in
Argyris (1957) noted that if classical principles
of formal organization are used, employees work in an environment in which:
- They have minimal control over their working lives.
- They are expected to be subordinate, passive and dependent.
- They work to a short-term perspective.
- They are 'induced to perfect and value the frequent use of a few skin-surface
- Their working conditions are conducive to psychological failure.
In short, people are treated more as infants than competent human beings:
"...organizations are willing to pay high wages and provide adequate seniority if mature
adults will, for eight hours a day, behave in a less than mature manner!"
This approach is entirely at variance with the rhetoric (but perhaps not the reality) of
modern management thinking with its emphasis on empowerment, team-work and motivated performance.
Another weakness in classical organizational theory is the assumption that all organizations
are somehow alike. Thompson and McHugh (2002: 6) quote Salaman (1979: 33) who states that:
"a genuine sociology of organizations is not assisted by the efforts of some
organization analysts to develop hypotheses about organizations in general, lumping together
such diverse examples as voluntary organizations, charities and political organizations ... It
also obstructs the analysis of those structural elements which are dramatically revealed in
employing organizations, but not necessarily in all forms of organization.
Thompson and McHugh point out that most of the literature about organizations is
about work organizations. They argue that the distinctive nature of management, control and
other social relations in such organizations is due to their profit-seeking nature. But they also
concede that all large organizations share some characteristics noting (p7) that '...as Weber
recognised, there are continuities of structure and practice deriving from the bureaucratic
form present within all large-scale organizations.' They also acknowledge that many organizations
within the public sector have been operating within a market environment.
Classical organization theory
Classical organization theory modified