An approach to administrative theory

This program needs to be considered step by step. First, what is included in the description of administrative situations for purposes of such an analysis? Second, how can weights be assigned to the various criteria to give them their proper place in the total picture?

1. The Description of Administrative Situations

Before a science can develop principles, it must possess concepts. Before a law of gravitation could be formulated, it was necessary to have the notions of acceleration” and “weight.” The first task of administrative theory is to develop a set of concepts that will permit the description, in terms relevant to the theory, of administrative situations. These concepts, to be scientifically useful, must be operational; that is, their meanings must correspond to empirically observable facts or situations. The definition of “authority” given earlier in this chapter is an example of an operational definition.

What is a scientifically relevant description of an organization? It is a description that, so far as possible, designates for each person in the orga- nization what decisions that person makes, and the influences to which he is subject in making each of these decisions. Current descriptions of administrative organizations fall far short of this standard. For the most

mal structure of authority. They give little attention to the other types of organizational influence or to the system of communication.

What does it mean, for example, to say: “The Department is made up of three Bureaus. The first has the function of———–, the second the function of———–, and the third the function of———–”? What can be learned from such a description about the workability of the organizational arrangement? Very little, indeed. For, from the description, there is obtained no idea of the degree to which decisions are centralized at the bureau level or at the departmental level. No notion is given of the extent to which the (presumably unlimited) authority of the department over the bureau is actually exercised, nor by what mechanisms. There is no indication of the extent to which systems of communication assist the coordination of the three bureaus, nor, for that matter to what extent coordination is required by the nature of their work. There is no description of the kinds of training the members of the bureau have undergone, nor the extent to which this training permits decentralization at the bureau level. In sum, a description of administrative organizations in terms almost exclusively of functions and lines of authority is completely inadequate for purposes of administrative analysis.

Consider the term “centralization.” How is it determined whether the operations of a particular organization are “centralized” or “decentralized”? Does the fact that field offices exist prove anything about decentralization? Might not the same decentralization take place in the bureaus of a centrally located office? A realistic analysis of centralization must include a study of the allocation of decisions in the organization, and the methods of influence that are employed by the higher levels to affect the decisions at the lower levels. Such an analysis would reveal a much more complex picture of the decision- making process than any enumeration of the geographical locations of organizational units at the different levels.

Administrative description suffers currently from superficiality, over- simplification, lack of realism. It has confined itself too closely to the mechanism of authority, and has failed to bring within its orbit the other, equally important, modes of influence on organizational behavior. It has refused to undertake the tiresome task of studying the actual allocations of decision-making functions. It has been satisfied to speak of “authority,” “centralization,” “span of control,” “function,” without seeking operational

definitions of these terms. Until administrative description reaches a higher level of sophistication, there is little reason to hope that rapid progress will be made toward the identification and verification of valid administrative principles.

2. The Diagnosis of Administrative Situations

Before any positive suggestions can be made, it is necessary to digress a bit, and to consider more closely the exact nature of the propositions of administrative theory. The theory of administration is concerned with how an organization should be constructed and operated in order to accomplish its work efficiently. A fundamental principle of administration, which follows almost immediately from the rational character of “good” administration, is that among several alternatives involving the same expenditure the one should always be selected which leads to the greatest accomplishment of administrative objectives; and among several alternatives that lead to the same accomplishment the one should be selected which involves the least expenditure. Since this “principle of efficiency” is characteristic of any activity that attempts rationally to maximize the attainment of certain ends with the use of scarce means, it is as characteristic of economic theory as it is of administrative theory. The “administrative man” takes his place alongside the classical “economic man.”16

Actually, the “principle” of efficiency should be considered as a definition rather than a principle: it is a definition of what is meant by “good” or “correct” administrative behavior. It does not tell how accomplishments are to be maximized, but merely states that this maximization is the aim of administrative activity, and that administrative theory must disclose under what conditions the maximization takes place.

Now what are the factors that determine the level of efficiency which is achieved by an administrative organization? It is not possible to make an exhaustive list of these, but the principal categories can be enumerated. Perhaps the simplest method of approach is to consider the single member of the administrative organization, and ask what the limits are to the quantity and quality of his output. These limits include (a) limits on his ability to perform, and (b) limits on his ability to make correct decisions. To the extent that these limits are removed, the administrative organization approaches its goal of high efficiency. Two persons, given the same skills, the same objectives and values, the same knowledge and information, can rationally decide only upon the same course of action. Hence, administrative theory must be interested in the factors that will determine with what skills, values, and knowledge the organization member undertakes his work. These are the “limits” to rationality with which the principles of administration must deal.

On one side, the individual is limited by those skills, habits, and reflexes which are no longer in the realm of the conscious. His performance, for example, may be limited by his manual dexterity or his reaction time or his strength. His decision-making processes may be limited by the speed of his mental processes, his skill in elementary arithmetic, and so forth. In this area, the principles of administration must be concerned with the physiology of the human body, the laws of skill-training, and of habit. This is the field that has been most successfully cultivated by the followers of Taylor, and in which has been developed time-and- motion study and the therblig.

On a second side, the individual is limited by his values and those conceptions of purpose which influence him in making his decisions. If his loyalty to the organization is high, his decisions may evidence sincere acceptance of the objectives set for the organization; if that loyalty is lacking, personal motives may interfere with his administrative efficiency. If his loyalties are attached to the bureau by which he is employed, he may sometimes make decisions that are inimical to the larger unit of which the bureau is a part. In this area the principles of administration must be concerned with the determinants of loyalty and morale, with leadership and initiative, and with the influences that determine where the individual’s organizational loyalties will be attached.

On a third side, the individual is limited by the extent of his knowledge of things relevant to his job. This applies both to the basic knowledge required in decision-making—a bridge designer must know the fundamentals of mechanics—and to the information that is required to make his decisions appropriate to the given situation. In this area, administra- . tive theory is concerned with such fundamental questions as these: what the limits are on the mass of knowledge that human minds can accumulate and apply; how rapidly knowledge can be assimilated; how specialization in the administrative organization is to be related to the specializations of knowledge that are prevalent in the community’s occupational structure; how the system of communication is to channel knowledge and information to the appropriate decision-points; what types of knowledge can, and what types cannot, be easily transmitted; how the need for intercommunication of information is affected by the modes of specialization in the organization. This is perhaps the terra incognita of administrative theory,

Perhaps this triangle of limits does not completely bound the area of rationality, and other sides need to be added to the figure In any case, the enumeration     will   serve   to   indicate   the   kinds   of     considerations   that   must go into the construction of valid and noncontradictory principles of administration.

An important fact to be kept in mind is that the limits of rationality are variable limits. Most important of all, consciousness of the limits may in itself alter them. Suppose it were discovered in a particular organiza-tion,    for    example,    that    organizational    loyalties    attached    to    small    units had frequently led to a harmful degree of intra-organizational competition. Then, a program which trained members of the organization to be conscious of their loyalties, and to subordinate loyalties toward the smaller group to those toward the larger, might lead to a very considerable alteration of the limits in that organization.17

A related point is that the term “rational behavior,” as employed here, refers to rationality when that behavior is evaluated in terms of the objectives of the larger organization; for, as it has just been pointed out, the difference in direction of the individual’s aims from those of the larger organization is just one of those elements of nonrationality with which the theory must deal.

3. Assigning Weights to the Criteria

A first step, then, in the overhauling of the proverbs of administration is to develop a vocabulary, along the lines just suggested, for the description of administrative organization. A second step, which has also been outlined, is to study the limits of rationality in order to develop a complete and comprehensive enumeration of the criteria that must be weighed in evaluating an administrative organization. The current proverbs represent only a fragmentary and unsystematized portion of these criteria.

When these two tasks have been carried out, it remains to assign weights to the criteria. Since the criteria, or “proverbs,” are often mutually competitive or contradictory, it is not sufficient merely to identify them. Merely to know, for example, that a specified change in organization will reduce the span of control is not enough to justify the change. This gain must be balanced against the possible resulting loss of contact between the higher and lower ranks of the hierarchy.

Hence, administrative theory must also be concerned with the question of the weights that are to be applied to these criteria—to the problems of their relative importance in any concrete situation. This question is an empirical one, and its solution cannot even be attempted in a volume like this one. What is needed is empirical research and experimentation to determine the relative desirability of alternative administrative arrange- ments. The methodological framework for this research is already at hand in the principle of efficiency. If an administrative organization whose activities are susceptible to objective evaluation be studied, then the actual change in accomplishment that results from modifying administrative arrangements in these organizations can be observed and analyzed.

There are two indispensable conditions to successful research along these lines. First, it is necessary that the objectives of the administrative organization under study be defined in concrete terms so that results, expressed in terms of these objectives, may be accurately measured. Second, it is necessary that sufficient experimental control be exercised to make pos- sible the isolation of the particular effect under study from other disturbing factors that might be operating on the organization at the same time.

These two conditions have seldom been even partially fulfilled in so- called “administrative experiments.” The mere fact that a legislature passes a law creating an administrative agency, that the agency operates for five years, that it is finally abolished, and that an historical study is then made of its operations is not sufficient to make of that agency’s history an “administrative experiment.” Modem American legislation is full of such “experiments” which furnish orators in neighboring states with abundant ammunition when similar issues arise in their bailiwicks, but which provide the scientific investigator with little or nothing in the way of objective evidence, one way or the other.

In the literature of administration, only a handful of research studies satisfy these fundamental conditions of methodology—and they are, for the most part, on the periphery of the problem of organization. There are, first of all, the studies of the Taylor group which sought to determine the technological conditions of efficiency. Perhaps none of these is a better example of the painstaking methods of science than Taylor’s own studies of the cutting of metals.18

Studies dealing with the human and social aspects of administration are even rarer than the technological studies. Among the more important are the whole series of studies on fatigue, starting in Great Britain during the First World War, and culminating in the Western Electric experiments.

In the field of public administration, almost the sole example of such experimentation is the series of studies that have been conducted in the public welfare field to determine the proper case loads for social workers.8

Because, apart from these scattered examples, studies of administrative agencies have been carried out without benefit of control or objective measurements of results, they have had to depend for their recommenda- tions and conclusions upon a priori reasoning proceeding from “principles of administration.” The reasons have already been stated in this chapter why the “principles” derived in this way cannot be more than “proverbs.”

Perhaps the program outlined here will appear an ambitious or even a quixotic one. There should cettainly be no illusions, in undertaking it, as to the length and deviousness of the path. It is hard to see, however, what alternative remains open. Certainly neither the practitioner of administration nor the theoretician can be satisfied with the poor analytic tools that the proverbs provide him. Nor is there any reason to believe that a less drastic reconversion than that outlined here will rebuild those tools to usefulness.

It may be objected that administration cannot aspire to be a “science,” that by the nature of its subject it cannot be more than an “art.” Whether true or false, this objection is irrelevant to the present discussion. The question of how “exact” the principles of administration can be made is one that only experience can answer. But as to whether they should be logical or illogical there can be no debate. Even an “art” cannot be founded on proverbs.

As already indicated, the present volume will attempt only the first step in the reconstruction of administrative theory—the construction of an adequate vocabulary and analytic scheme. In saying that other steps must follow, one must be careful not to underestimate the importance or necessity of this first one. To be sure, the literature of administration has not been lacking in “theory,” any more than it has in descriptive and empirical studies. What has been lacking has been a bridge between these two, so that theory could provide a guide to the design of “critical” experiments and studies, while experimental studies could provide a sharp test and corrective of theory. If this volume is successful, it will contribute toward the construction of such a bridge.

Source: Simon Herbert A. (1997), Administrative Behavior, Free Press; Subsequent edition.

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