"Bureaucracy, a gigantic power set in motion by dwarfs" - Honoré de Balzac (1889)
Have you ever wondered why bureaucracies, despite being designed to efficiently achieve a goal, can deviate from their purpose and become sluggish giants? Sociologists have famously studied this phenomenon and provided insightful perspectives on the issue.
Robert K. Merton, in his work "Bureaucratic Structure and Personality" (1940), describes the unintended consequences of bureaucratic rules becoming a goal in themselves for actors in administrative organizations. He introduced the concept of Sociological Ambivalence to express the idea that the social world is full of contradictions, not harmonious as previously believed. Merton's work highlights that the supposed advantages of bureaucracies, such as having expert personnel, also bring disadvantages, like professional deformation leading to rigidity and a lack of flexibility.
Philip Selznick's 1943 paper "An Approach to a Theory of Bureaucracy" critiques the understanding of bureaucratic organizations as essentially rule-based. He believes that organizations deviate from their goals due to informal structures centered around factors like prestige and recognition, which are based on personal relationships that are power relationships centered on control.
Alvin W. Gouldner's "Patterns of Industrial Bureaucracy" (1954) is a study of the impact of leadership change on the social structure of organizations. Gouldner argues that bureaucracies are inhabited by groups of individuals with different goals and that there are multiple types of bureaucracies, not just one harmonious-purposeful bureaucracy.
Peter M. Blau's "The Dynamics of Bureaucracy" (1955) uses empirical research to examine how formal rules are adapted, altered, or bypassed in practice in two government agencies. Blau argues that rule deviations can be functional for an organization and highlights the importance of colleagues' collaboration.
Michel Crozier, in his study "The Bureaucratic Phenomenon" (1963) argues against theories that overemphasize the rationality and objectification of bureaucracy. He analyzes informal practices as a result of power and exchange relationships in organizations and observes that bureaucratic rules protect employees from arbitrary decisions but also centralize decision-making and create isolated and non-cooperative groups. This mutual reinforcement creates bureaucratic vicious circles.
These works have provided an understanding of the functioning of bureaucracies and the reasons behind their deviations from expected goals. Understanding these perspectives can help organizations to improve their functioning and achieve their goals more effectively.