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Organisations as machines


By far the most common metaphor used to think about organisations is the notion of the organisation as a machine. In this metaphor the organisation is viewed as made up of interlocking parts that fit together. When we draw a typical organisation chart, with a hierarchy of roles and reporting relationships, we are - generally unconsciously - using a machine metaphor of the organisation. When we think in terms such as improving efficiency, raising productivity, driving change, re-engineering, devolving responsibility or cascading objectives, we are using the machine metaphor. The machine metaphor is so deeply ingrained that many of us do not realise that we are using it or that there may be other ways of thinking about organisations.

Morgan writes:

Consider, for example, the mechanical precision with which many of our organizations are expected to operate. Organizational life is often routinized with the precision demanded of clockwork. People are frequently expected to arrive at work at a given time, perform a predetermined set of activities, rest at appointed hours, and then resume their tasks until work is over. In many organizations, one shift of workers replaces another in methodical fashion so that work can continue uninterrupted twenty-four hours a day every day of the year. Often, the work is very mechanical and repetitive. Anyone who has observed work in the mass-production factory or in any of the large "office factories" processing paper forms such as insurance claims, tax returns, or bank checks will have noticed the machinelike way in which such organizations operate. They are designed like machines, and their employees are in essence expected to behave as if they were part of machines.

The industrial revolution and the development of many new machines meant that organisations adapted to the use of machines. Many people moved from agriculture or craft work into relatively unskilled work in factories. Division of labour, increased supervision, reduced individual discretion and tighter discipline supported the rigorous routine of factory production.

Ideas were borrowed from the military, notably Frederick the Great of Prussia, who, in the middle of the eighteenth century, sought to shape his army into a reliable and efficient instrument. He introduced ranks and uniforms, regulations, standardised equipment, training and drills, and a command language. His vision of a mechanised army gradually became a reality in factory and office settings too.

The German sociologist, Max Weber, observed the parallels between the mechanisation of industry and the spread of bureaucratic forms of organisation. He noted that a bureaucracy routinises the process of administration just as machines routinise production. Just as in a factory, a bureaucratic organisation uses division of labour, supervision and regulations to achieve precision, speed and reliability.

Frederick Taylor, an American engineer and manager, wrote The Principles of Scientific Management, first published in 1911 at a time when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. In Taylor's view, the principal objective of management is to ensure the maximum prosperity of the employer coupled with the maximum prosperity of each employee. Taylor's four key principles were:

Replace working by 'rule of thumb', or simple habit and common sense, and instead use the scientific method to study work and determine the most efficient way to perform specific tasks. Taylor gathered information about how work was done by talking to and observing workers and by using time-and-motion-study methods.

  1. Rather than simply assign workers to just any job, match workers to their jobs based on capability and motivation, and train them to work at maximum efficiency. Taylor was a strong advocate of training.
  2. Monitor worker performance, and provide instructions and supervision to ensure that they are using the most efficient ways of working. Taylor was an advocate of incentive pay to encourage and reward high productivity, but, equally, was in favour of moving or dismissing workers who refused to accept new ways of working.
  3. Allocate the work between managers and workers so that the managers spend their time planning and training, allowing the workers to perform their tasks efficiently. Taylor saw work as divided into two parts: managers planned and monitored the work, and the role of the worker was to perform the job itself.
  4. This meant that managers must specify in detail what each worker had to do, step by step; and then supervise closely to ensure that instructions were properly carried out. To provide positive motivation, pay was linked to performance.

This approach to scientific management is still found today in assembly lines and other factories, retail organisations, offices and fast-food chains. Work is analysed in minute detail, the most efficient procedures are identified, and people are trained to carry out duties in a very precise way. All of the 'thinking' is done by managers and designers, leaving the 'doing' to employees.

This approach has led to enormous increases in productivity and in material living standards. At the same time, it has often caused the replacement of skilled craftspeople by unskilled workers, often at huge human cost. It is sometimes described as McDonaldization to reflect the use in that fast-food franchise of ruthless efficiency, standardisation, control and deskilled jobs, which are sometimes referred to as McJobs.

Morgan points out that the machine metaphor works well under conditions where machines work well. These conditions include a straightforward task that needs to be replicated over and over, a stable environment, and a context where the human parts are compliant and well behaved. In situations where precision, safety and clear accountability are required, mechanistic approaches can be very effective.

A mechanistic approach to organisations works less well when circumstances change. Thus in times of environmental change or internal reorganisation, the machine metaphor has limitations and may even - as any metaphor can - be misleading. A mechanistic approach can lead to mindless and unquestioning bureaucracy. It can also have a dehumanising effect on employees, particularly those low down in the organisational hierarchy. Morgan writes:

The whole thrust of classical management theory and its modern application is to suggest that organisations can, or should be, rational systems that operate in as efficient a manner as possible. While many will endorse this as an ideal, it is easier said than done, because we are dealing with people, not inanimate cogs and wheels.

Watch this video clip which explores the machine metaphor of an organisation: