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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 all this.

Argyris (1957) noted that if classical principles of formal organization are used, employees work in an environment in which:

  1. They have minimal control over their working lives.
  2. They are expected to be subordinate, passive and dependent.
  3. They work to a short-term perspective.
  4. They are 'induced to perfect and value the frequent use of a few skin-surface shallow abilities'.
  5. 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



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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