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Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive

By Adler, Paul S.; Borys, Bryan | Administrative Science Quarterly, March 1996 | Go to article overview

Two Types of Bureaucracy: Enabling and Coercive


Adler, Paul S., Borys, Bryan, Administrative Science Quarterly


Organizational research presents two conflicting views of the human, or attitudinal, outcomes of bureaucracy. According to the negative view, the bureaucratic form of organization stifles creativity, fosters dissatisfaction, and demotivates employees. According to the positive view, it provides needed guidance and clarifies responsibilities, thereby easing role stress and helping individuals be and feel more effective. This article develops a partial reconciliation of these two views with a new conceptual model.

There is a practical need for some theoretical reconciliation. Notwithstanding the burgeoning literature on the demise of the bureaucratic form of organization (e.g., Dumaine, 1991; Heckscher and Donnellon, 1994), surveys show that the vast majority of employees work in establishments with extensive formal procedures: over 74 percent have written job descriptions, and 80 percent have rules and procedures manuals (Marsden, Cook, and Knoke, 1994). Managers of such organizations are pulled in contradictory directions by conflicting recommendations. Lawler (1994) highlighted the tensions between the recommendations of total quality management (TQM) and employee involvement (EI) currently offered practitioners. TQM's emphasis on work process codification seems to contradict EI's focus on increasing employee discretion, a contradiction similar to that between the "lean" and "team" approaches described by Applebaum and Batt (1994). The conflict between these approaches is particularly visible in the debate over appropriate organizational and job designs in repetitive operations such as auto assembly (e.g., Womack, Jones, and Roos, 1990; Berggren, 1992; Adler and Cole, 1993). Similar debates concern the organization of far less repetitive activities such as software development (Cusumano, 1991; Lecht, 1991; Soat, 1991). These debates reflect contradictory assessments of the core features of the bureaucratic form - workflow formalization, specialization, and hierarchy. We seek to identify and reconcile the valid elements of these assessments. We focus on workflow formalization and reserve for the conclusion some thoughts on how our analysis can be extended to encompass other dimensions of bureaucracy. Formalization - the extent of written rules, procedures, and instructions - is a central feature of Weber's bureaucratic ideal type and an extensively researched dimension of organizational structure (Pugh and Hickson, 1976; Mintzberg, 1979). This research, however, has started often from conflicting theoretical premises and resulted in conflicting empirical findings. We argue that this divergence reflects the fact that while research to date has focused on the impact of different degrees of formalization, it has paid insufficient attention to different types of formalization. If we interpret formalization as an organizational technology, we can draw inspiration from recent research on the design of equipment technology to differentiate two generic types of formalization - formalization designed to enable employees to master their tasks, and formalization designed to coerce effort and compliance from employees. The attitudinal outcomes are likely very different.

FORMALIZATION

Research on the attitudinal effects of formalization has generated contradictory assessments. The basic divergence can be traced back to what many commentators, starting with Parsons (1947: 58), believe to be a profound ambiguity in Weber's analysis. Weber (1947: 339) identified two very different sources of authority in bureaucracies: "incumbency in a legally defined office" and "the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge." Gouldner (1954: 22-23) believed that Weber "thought of bureaucracy as a Janus-faced organization, looking two ways at once," since on the one hand, "it was administration based on discipline," and, on the other, "an individual obeys because the rule of order is felt to be the best known method of realizing some goal.

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