Mechanistic and Bureaucratic Organisations - Organisational Learning

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Coursework Title: Mechanistic and bureaucratic organisations will probably struggle to encourage organisational learning. Critically evaluate this statement in relation to the Mechanistic and Learning perspectives.

Word Count: 2183 words

The purpose of this essay is to discuss why mechanistic and bureaucratic organisations will probably struggle to encourage organisations learning. I’m strongly agreed with this statement and I will be using some relevant theories and examples to support my argument. The first part of this paper will be focus on how decision-making authority in this organisation leads to inefficiency in decision making. The second part is about how highly formalisation structure would discourage organisational learning. Moreover, lack of communication in mechanistic organisation caused lesser learning possibilities take place will be my third point. The forth part will focus on why bureaucratic organisation will probably struggle to encourage organisational learning is because organisation starts limiting themselves. Finally, I will summarised the arguments and begin this essay by giving the explanations of learning and mechanistic perspective framework.

Mechanistic organisation is one of the organisational archetypes and bureaucracy is the best term to describe mechanistic organisation. Bureaucracy is always emphasis on “precision, clarity, regularity, reliability, division of tasks, hierarchical supervision and detailed rules and regulations” (Morgan, 2006). Mechanistic organisation and bureaucracy are usually used interchangeably. The best description of mechanistic organisation is performing job as a machine. There are certain rules, requirements and procedures which must be followed in order to produce what is expected. Employees are given specific job descriptions delineating their roles and responsibilities. Accuracy is highly demanded so employees have to learn all the particular rules and then used it in various situations. Generally, mechanistic organisation is all about the demand for control via emphasis of the rules (March and Simon, 1967a). Nevertheless, not all the circumstances can be foreseen in advance, so not all of the rules and procedures can be created in advance. Usually people in mechanistic organisation will follow the rules and procedures in performing their duties in ordinary manner until something unforeseen appears. Action is only taken when such condition happened. Moreover, emphasis on the rules and predictable nature of employee behaviour are things which result in rigid behaviour of employees (March and Simon, 1967b).

Machine type organisations are learning only as a sum of learning individuals (Senge, 1999). There are no sharing of views and opinions, no discussion on common issues for further improvement and they are no ready-made responses because when new problems arise they are often ignored. Employees are doing what they are designed to do and therefore learning only for themselves. There are no information and individual opinions to be shared among the entire subordinate and throughout an organisation. All insights are remaining in each individual. Consequently, there is no advantage for an organisation since the learning is not spread throughout the whole organisation (Kropaite, 2009a). Communications tends to follow the formal channel. These structures are usually rigid and resist change so this caused employees unsuitable for innovativeness and taking fast responses and action. These forms have the downside of inhibiting entrepreneurial action and discouraging the use of individual initiative on the part of employees. The design of mechanistic structure discourages group interaction. The possibilities for organisational learning are very unlikely to be present in this kind of organisation.

Organisations need to learn how to survive and accommodate with this uncertain environments. An organisation needs managers who can make right decisions through skill, judgment and experience. Organisations need to improve its capability of learning new behaviours over a period of time in order to have a successful decision-making (Hedberg, 1981). Organisational learning is a process for organisation in the face of swift pace of change. Miller (1996) defined organisational learning as the knowledge acquisition made by individual or groups and these can be applied in decision making process, or use it to influence others within the organisation. Nonetheless, most companies know how to ensure ‘organisational learning’ but fail to understand how to build ‘learning organisation’ in their company. In the analysis of the organisational learning, March (1991) handled two types of strategies which are ‘exploration’ and ‘exploitation’. March defined exploration as in which organisational members seek for new organisational activities and procedures to increase effectiveness of a company. While exploitation is meaning that which organisational members improve and modify the existing organisational activities and procedures.

Kolb sees learning as a lifelong process which is determined by reflective observation, tangible experience, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. When organisational learning is viewed from Kolb’s perspective, learning is seen as a cyclical process whereby planning, actions and concepts are modified by reflecting on experiences rather than by outcome or results (Kolb, 1984). For instance, Argyris and Schon (1978) have highlighted the links between the laboratory and T-group values established by Kurt Lewin in the 1940s which emphasized the need for the integration of theory and experiential learning. Their work has stimulated the core values of participative management philosophies to which the culture of learning organisation can be traced. They maintain that learning from experience is important for individual and organisational effectiveness. Furthermore, learning can occur only in situations where personal values and organisational norms support action based on valid information, informed choice and internal commitment (West, 1994).

However, Argyris and Schon (1978) stated that organisational learning can, and do occur. Employees act as learning agents for the organisation. They are responding to changes in the external and internal environments by detecting and correcting the errors in the organisational theory in use. They defined single-loop learning as individuals respond to changes in the internal and external environments by perceiving errors and modifying strategies within the existing norms of the organisation. They detect a match or mismatch of outcome to expectation. They must then create new strategies to keep organisational performance within the existing norms, based on new assumptions to correct error and evaluate the results of the action. Next, double-loop learning is response to the error in original norms to resolve the problems and make new organisation norm. Double loop stands for two feedback which relate the observed error to the organisational strategies and the organisational served by them. When in changing of values, strategies and assumptions might be changed simultaneously but also can be modified as the result of the changed values at the first place (Argyris & Schon, 1996).

Organisational structures play an important role in organisational learning. Burns and Stalker (1961) created a dichotomy of organisational structures corresponding to differential abilities to process information in mechanistic structure. The first attribute is high centralisation which means the decision-making authority is positioned in the higher level of a hierarchical relationship (Robbins and Decenzo, 2001a). High centralisation produces less delegation of decision-making authority and it creates a non-participatory environment which discourages involvement with duties and projects throughout the organisation (Sividas and Dwyer, 2001a). It depletes opportunities for employees to learn from their colleagues. So, it discourages learning in mechanistic organisation since learning have to be in a way of more informal character, with few established hierarchical levels and the interaction process between the employees is needed. Many companies find that the centralisation of operations leads to inefficiencies in decision making. For instance, in the 1980s, Caterpillar which is the equipment manufacturer suffered the consequences of centralized decision making. There is a sales representative who working in Africa wanted to give a discount on a product. But, all the pricing decisions were made in the corporate headquarters in Peoria, Illinois. So before any decision making, sales representative have to deal and check with headquarters. Headquarters did not always have accurate or updated information about the markets to make an effective decision. Therefore, Caterpillar was at a disadvantage against competitors such as the Japanese firm Komatsu. Caterpillar underwent several dramatic rounds of reorganisation in the 1990s and 2000s to overcome this problem.

As stated above mechanistic organisation is a highly formalisation structure. It derives from the strict adherence to the operating instructions, job descriptions, rules and regulations (Robbins and Decenzo, 2001b). Highly formalised organisations make extensive use of written procedures and rules. This organisation eliminates the discussion about how work should be done, what is the problems occurred and reduces the alternatives to develop “creative solutions”. The organisation only communicates pre-selected information to its members through its information system (Martinez-Leon and Martinez-Garcia, 2011a). Additionally, the only learning in mechanistic organisation is rule learning. This avoids individual initiatives at work and hence inhibits employees’ motivation. In order to encourage organisational learning, organisation has to be low formalisation and job behaviours are relatively unstructured so that employees have much freedom in dealing with their relevant jobs (Sivadas and Dwyer, 2000b). By doing this, the social interaction among employees is more often and they are more willing to discuss alternatives when implementing to their jobs (Robbins and Decenzo, 2001c). Less formalised work place promotes social interaction and stimulates creativity. These arguments justify reducing employees’ creativity and impeding the necessary spontaneity and flexibility for organisational learning. There are very few if any learning possibilities left in such organisation. For example, Southwest airlines do a very good job of empowering their employees to handle complaints and problems. In many other airlines, lower-level employees have limited power to solve customer problems and also constrained by rules that provides by company on how to react with customers when customers facing problems (Gittell, 2004).

Besides, lack of communication among the organisation is also one of the factors. For mechanistic organisation, it is high horizontal job specialisation. Employees are doing the consistent task every day, repeatedly. It caused them difficult to create a variety of perspectives and point of views on the same information. Additionally, it will reduce the chance of getting extra information within the organisation and restrict the knowledge of opportunities and activities. The learning possibility is very low in this organisation. To encourage organisation learning, organisation needs to be having different tasks which are included in a job description. This can create series of perspectives on the same information and increase the knowledge of employees (Martinez-Leon and Martinez-Garcia, 2011b). In addition, all way communication throughout the whole company can increase the interaction among employees. They can discuss about the issues, and reflection of the past decision. Work in a team is a best way of learning from each other and bringing addition value to the final result. Employees are pooling their knowledge together and collectively striving for reaching the goal of company by working in a group. This brings advantages for both individual and organisation. Organisation gain extra information from exchanged knowledge while individual are learning themselves from each other. Next, employees have to be take part in the design and control of their own work. It provides them with the freedom to create a new knowledge, improving their knowledge and expertise which in turn facilitates organisational learning (Mintzberg, 1979). For example, I have been working in a book producer firm as my internship. I have given an employee handbook containing with rules and procedures. All my communications are only between me and my supervisor who will answer to the department head. I only act comply with the company’s rules, policies and procedures, and with the consent of my direct supervisor. There is no communication between me and other employees or top management.

Arguably, mechanistic and bureaucratic organisation will probably struggle to encourage organisational learning is because organisation starts limiting themselves. The internal environment for mechanistic organisational is not encouraging openness and discussion. Problems are increasing and the unsolved problems will be harmful for the organisation. When employees are hiding the problems, no one is analysing the problem and it will remains unsolved. There are no chances for others employees to learn from mistakes. No learning occurred if the problems are kept unsolved (Kropaite, 2009b). However, this is closely related with the reward-punishment theory. Employees engage themselves into which they are trying to avoid doing things that might be punished for. Consequently, problems which they might be held responsible will kept in secret. In the future, other employees might face the same problems as well, and they will just continue doing the same thing in the way that what a company asking for. Moreover, employees are worries that disclosure of mistakes or some other failures would cause them loss their job and they are unwilling to take responsibilities of their actions. So, they choose to create a good picture of them by hiding all the problems. Thus, learning is hardly to take place in this organisation and all the characteristics are very harmful for organisational learning. There have few examples of companies which had their organisational power associated with past success and unfortunately ended up as bankruptcy disasters especially in the financial industry such as Barings bank and Northern Rock.

In a nutshell, this paper has illustrated a wide ranging understanding of how organisational learning occurred and can be created. However, mechanistic and bureaucratic organizations are too cumbersome under these dynamic conditions. Highly centralisation and formalisation in mechanistic structure will probably discourage organisational learning. In order to encourage organisational learning, company should promote open environment for employees to discuss and strengthen cross communication. Therefore, the characteristic of mechanistic organisation contrast the factor for organisational learning to occur so that bureaucratic organisation will struggle to enhance organisational learning.

References

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