The Principal Characteristics Of The Weberian Ideal Type Bureaucracy


Describe the principal characteristics of the Weberian "ideal type" bureaucracy. What are the roles of power and authority in this model? Discuss strengths and weaknesses of the bureaucratic form of organization.

Achieving the goal is the basic purpose of every organization. The management has to plan and find the way to reach this objective. Strategies, marketing and other factors are raised to discuss but the most important element which should be the primary consideration is the organizational structure because it is the fundamental of the organization. However, the suitable structure is the hardest question to answer because each organization has differences in purposes and requirements. Therefore, the organizational structure theories which come from sociological and managerial ideas are created to manage organizations such as theory of capital from Karl Marx and Scientific Management theory from Frederick Winslow Taylor (Hatch 2006). The bureaucratic structure is one of the well-known organizational structures which are successful in managing organizations. There are many international firms which are successful by managing with bureaucratic structure such as McKinsey, United Parcel Service (UPS) and KPMG. Furthermore, the concept of bureaucracy can be applied in many structures such as division of labor and formalized rules. However, bureaucracy seems to be an ineffective organizational structure. When the world has changed, the organization needs more flexibility and speed in responding to change in environment and competitive world. From these arguments, it is wondering that why many firms achieve in their business although bureaucracy seems outdated. This paper will try to clarify the key concept of bureaucracy and compare between the strengths and limitations of this theory.

Principal characteristics

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The bureaucratic theory was coined by Vincent de Gournay, French economist in the eighteenth century but it was proposed and explained by Karl Emil Maximillian (Max) Weber, German Sociologist, in the early twentieth century. The inspiration of his idea came from the growth of large firms which make them more complex to manage and lead to many problems in organization therefore Weber's theory concentrated on the methods to manage the large and complex firms effectively (Boddy and Paton 1998).

Weber did not describe the meaning of bureaucracy in detail but he explained his idea through the characteristics of bureaucratic which is defined as "ideal type" (Mullins 2010). Hatch (2006) states that there are three major characteristics of bureaucratic structure that are division of labor, hierarchy of authority, formalized rules and procedures but Boddy and Paton (1998), Senior (1997) and Mullin (2010) explain that impersonality and impartiality is also the one of major characteristics.

Firstly, "division of labor" is the method that assigns duty of members to each unit which task and responsibility are different such as sale department, marketing department and workers in assembly line. The result of the segregation of duty is specialization of members because the ability is improved and developed by routine job and working environment.

"Hierarchy of authority" is the second key characteristic. This characteristic is an essential element in managing organization because the supervisors need an authority to control their subordinates to achieve company's goals. If leaders do not have an authority of their level or position, the organization may lack of unity. Hatch (2006) states that the hierarchy of authority ranks from the top management to the lowest staff. Higher position can command and evaluate lower position legally. In contrast, workers have to report to their commander directly. However, Senior (1997) claims that Weber's theory did not explain about the suitable of the number of level (tall) and the number of subordinate per one commander (flat) but Senior (1997) concludes that the designation of structure is the responsibility of the management to choose the best structure which is suitable with for their organization because it can be created in many different ways.

The next major characteristic is "Formalized rules and procedures". This characteristic is the fundamental element for every organization the same as law which is the essential element in the society. The organization needs the regulation and formalized direction to be standard and working instructions to be used in controlling members in both of individual and overall. In addition, Boddy and Paton (1998) state that although the organization has a high employee turnover rate, the organization can operate continuously by procedures of each position. The explicit examples of formalization which should be considered first in organization are rules, regulations, policies, procedures and job descriptions.

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The last major characteristic is "impersonality and impartiality". This feature associates directly with formalized ruled and procedure characteristic. It concentrates on fairness and equal rights within the organization. Every member is treated in the same practice following the organization's rules and regulation. Furthermore, assessment and promotion of each member is based on individual qualification, performance and capability without bias of authorized person (Boddy and Paton 1998). It seems that this characteristic tries to distinguish between working life and private life of each employee completely.

The other characteristics which are mentioned by other scholars such as separation of organizational and personal lives, office constitutes career for office holder, appointment not election and remuneration by fixed salaries with a right to pensions are included in those major characteristics which are mentioned above in this paper. For instance, the separation of organizational and personal live is an idea of impersonality. Moreover, these characteristics are related to each other therefore the management should design them appropriately. For example, if the organization's rules and regulations are not designed properly, it will affect efficiency of impersonality in the organization.

Power and Authority

Another essential factor for bureaucratic structure apart from those characteristics is an authority which has an important role in bureaucratic structure. However, there are questions that what is an authority and is it similarity with power. Therefore, this section will distinguish between power and authority and describe the role of them in bureaucracy. In general, the meaning of power and authority are nearly the same but they are different in term of bureaucratic concept.

Dahl (cited in Hatch 2006:254) defined the meaning of "power" is "A has power over B to extent that he can get B do something that B would otherwise not do". Gordon (cited in Senior 1997: 150) defined the meaning of "Power" is "the potential or actual ability to influence others in a desired direction. An individual, group, or other social unit has power if it controls information, knowledge, or resources desired by another individual group, or social unit". From these statements above, it seems that power is relationship between actors that one person has capability to control or induce other people to do something although that people do not willing to do.

French and Raven (cited in Boddy and Paton, 1998) identified five sources of power that are reward power, coercive power, legitimate power, referent power and expert power. These sources of power can be grouped together into two groups, those are, personal (informal) power and legitimate (organizational) power as described by Mullins (2010). The personal power derives from individual ability which is accepted by other people such as referent power and expertise power. In contrast, the legitimate power derives from position in the organization which is power from rules and regulations. The example of organizational power is legitimate power and coercive power.

Meanwhile, authority is a kind of formal power which derives from role in the organization. (Mintzberg 1983). Hatch (2006:254) supports this idea by stating that "an individual's formal authority derives from their structural position in hierarchy. But formal authority is only one source of power in organizations". It could be said that authority is a part of power but it is the formal power which derives from rules and regulations in organizations. In addition, the major difference between power and authority in organizations is that the authority operates from the top management to the lowest staff only, whereas other power sources can operate in many ways such as exercise from subordinates to supervisors and between colleagues. The example of the exercise of power is that the supervisors have to accept advice from expert staffs.

However, in the bureaucratic structure, Weber focused on the idea of authority which is one kind of power and explained that there are three ideal types of authority (Casey 2004). The first two of them occurred before the industrialization society. They are traditional authority and charismatic authority. Traditional authority is the authority which derives from custom or culture in the society. The clear example is parents have the authority to take care their children. While charismatic authority is the authority which derives from personal capability such as bravery, expertise and good behavior which is perceived and respected by society. The explicit example is the King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand who is accepted his goodness by Thai people and the world. However, in this case, his authority does not derive from his character only but also tradition of Thai people and rational-legal authority which is described in next paragraph.

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The third authority is rational-legal authority which was created after the industrialization for managing organization by rationalization and legitimacy. In this authority, the relationship and activities between members are governed by the rules and regulations of an organization. (Linstead et al. 2004). For example, subordinates have to comply with the command of their superiors in order to follow the organization's rules and regulations although they have more experience and seniority than them. In addition, these three types of authority are possible to co-exist in the organization (Handy cited in Senior 1997), For instance, the expert supervisors have charismatic authority from their expertise and rational-legal authority from their position.

However, the most essential element of the authority in the organization is willingness and respect from members to accept supervisors' authority and rules of the organization because if leaders have legitimate authority but subordinates do not accept their authority or rules, they cannot manage the organization effectively. It could be said that respect from the subordinates is also important for supervisors.

The strengths and weaknesses

On the one hand, bureaucratic concept explores many benefits to social. It can be proved by the successful firm such as UPS and KPMG. The first advantage is expertise of member which is the result from division of labor. Haberberg and Rieple (2001) agree with this idea by stating that the specialization derives from clear specific job description and responsibility for each worker. This idea is also supported by Gross (1964:55) who stated that "the longer stays, the more he knows and the more important his additional knowledge becomes". Furthermore, workers can improve and develop their skill from their colleagues and experienced leaders through work, training, monitoring and assessment. (Jones and George 2003) It can be seen that the organization can benefit from this expertise because when workers are specialist in their role, their performance is more effective.

The second positive aspect of this model is clear hierarchy of authority. Leaders can control and monitor their subordinates effectively while subordinates can report their superiors directly (Hatch 2006). Furthermore, the members are inspired by the hierarchy of the organization because they see opportunity in their career path (Boddy and Paton 1998). It seems that the organization can be more unity and operate effectively when the hierarchy of authority is defined clearly. However, nowadays, reporting to leaders has changed. Hatch (2006) states that there are more acceptable in dual reporting such as matrix structure.

The last explicit strength is fairness and impartiality. This strength derives from clear rules and regulations which are formalized by the organization. When every member is treated equally, they are satisfied to work for the organization. They will feel constantly in their position and their career path is predictable because the rule is fair and they are evaluated base on their performance, ability and good conduct. This advantage leads to loyalty and efficient work of members. It could be said that these strength of bureaucratic structure can help the management to manage and control the organization effectively.

On the other hand, the bureaucracy is criticized by many theorists. Osborne and Plastrik, Osborne and Gaebler and du Gay (cited in Courpasson and Clegg 2006) point out that bureaucracy is the symbol of inefficient and outdated. The first weakness may the result from the division of labor. The effect from routine job of worker leads to resistance to change role or improve the working method which can help them work more effective. Furthermore, as the result of specialization, workers have enormous power to negotiate with the organization over management and other workers because without them company cannot operate continuously (Linstead et al. 2004). The example of this idea is cabin crew workers of British airways who struck for 22 days in March 2010 and costing was around 150 million pounds. They did not only destroy the image of the organization, company's performance and customers lose their confidence in service of British airways but also destroyed harmony and unity in the organization.

The second disadvantage is there is too much hierarchy of authority in bureaucracy which is call "red tape" or "top heavy" (Hatch 2006). When the organization has an inappropriate hierarchy, it can reduce efficiency of the organization and also makes unnecessary cost. For example, there are too many documents to record and working process cannot be flexible with the situation in that time because of the rigid rules and regulations. Moreover, sometimes one leader has to response many subordinates which affect to work speed and work's quality (Butler cited in Senior 1997). It can be seen that this disadvantage is quite a major problem for large organization in response to competitive world such as departments of government.

The next drawback is "iron cage" which results from the working condition under strict rules and regulations in bureaucratic structure. Gabriel (2005), Hatch (2006) and Courpasson and Clegg (2006) supported this idea by stating that bureaucracy represents members as component of machine and control them by the rules and procedures which is legitimate power without thinking of their feeling. This situation leads to lack of motivation, ambition and initiative because they have to follow instruction although their ability or method is better. For example, an employee who has outstanding performance but company cannot promote his/her position because his/her degree does not meet higher position's qualification therefore employee do not have motivation in their work and use all capability for the organization.

The last weakness is goal displacement which is the confliction in goals between organization and subunit or individual. This confliction derives from the division of labor and strict rules and regulation. Each department has to achieve their standard which is set by company therefore they concentrate on their department only without considering other departments or firm's target. (Boddy and Paton 1998) For example, in audit firm each department is set its goal and budget by firm. Audit department does not have enough human resources but HR department cannot recruit new employees because it has to control a number of employees and salary expenditure to follow firm's budget. The result of this confliction is that the quality of audit work is ineffective because audit employees have to work overload and lastly it will affect firm's image. Another example is conflict between production department or organization and sale department. Sale department want to achieve their target without consideration of company performance and production capacity which may result in lower profit of company and over capacity of production department. It can be seen that there are conflicts in organization if the management cannot set the compatible goal and budget in organization appropriately.

In conclusion, the bureaucracy is the one of classical theories which is mentioned by many theorists. The characteristics of bureaucratic structure are the key element of Weber concept to manage with a large number of people in the organization however power and authority is another essential factor which is very important in the bureaucratic structure. In the past bureaucracy was a very successful organizational structure in management large-scale organization but now it seems as the label of ineffective and outdated structure. There are many weaknesses which once a time was the great benefit. It may be caused by changing of business environment which the firms have to adapt themselves and consider many factors to survive in competitive world such as cost benefit. However, it is not suitable to say that this structure is disappearing if the organization can adapt or apply the key concept of bureaucracy in response to the changing environment and business world. It can be proved by many international firms which are successful in their business by the bureaucratic structure. For example, Olsen (2005) stated that rules and regulations should be more flexible which can make the management manage more effectively. Moreover, they can apply bureaucracy with other organizational models to create a new organizational structure (hybrid or flexible organizational structure) which can improve or develop the weaknesses of bureaucracy.