Designing individual Positions: Behavior Formalization in Organization

A second parameter of organizational design, related to individual posi- tions, has, in the opinion of David Hickson (1966-67), been a virtual obses- sion of organization theorists. In fact, Hickson’s list of who has focused on this parameter reads like a veritable Who’s Who of writers in manage- ment—Taylor, Fayol, McGregor, Argyris, Simon, Crozier, and so on. Often referred to as the formalization of behavior, this parameter represents the organization’s way of proscribing the discretion of its members, essen- tially of standardizing their work processes. Behavior may be formalized in three basic ways:

  • By the position, specifications being attached to the job itself, as in a job description
  • By the workflow, specifications being attached to the work, as in the case of a printing-order docket
  • By rules, specifications being issued in general, as in the various regulations—everything from dress to the use of forms—con- tained in so-called policy manuals

No matter what the means of formalization—by job, work flow, or rules—the effect on the person doing the work is the same: His behavior is regulated. Power over how that work is to be done passes from him to the person who designs the specifications, often an analyst in the tech- nostructure. Thus, formalization of behavior leads to vertical specialization of jobs. Also, it stands to reason that formalization is related to horizontal specialization: the narrowest of the unskilled jobs are the simplest, the most repetitive, and the ones most amenable to high degrees of for- malization.

1. Why formalize behavior?

Organizations formalize behavior to reduce its variability, ultimately to predict and control it. One prime motive for doing so is to coordinate activities. As noted earlier, standardization of work content is a very tight coordinating mechanism. Its corresponding design parameter, behavior formalization, is used therefore when tasks require precise, carefully pre- determined coordination. Firemen cannot stop each time they arrive at a new fire to figure out who will attach the hose to the hydrant and who will go up the ladder; similarly, airline pilots must be very sure about their landing procedures well in advance of descent.

Formalization of behavior is also used to ensure the machinelike con- sistency that leads to efficient production. Tasks are specialized in the horizontal dimension to achieve repetition; formalization is then used to impose the most efficient procedures on them.

Formalization is also used to ensure fairness to clients. The national tax office must treat everyone equally; that is why it tends to emphasize formalization of behavior. Government organizations are particularly sen- sitive to accusations of favoritism; hence, they tend to proliferate rules and specifications. Sometimes rules are instituted to protect the clients, at other times the employees. For example, promotion by seniority is used to pre- clude arbitrary decisions by managers.

Organizations formalize behavior for other reasons as well, of more questionable validity. Formalization may, for example, reflect an arbitrary desire for order. Some tennis courts require all players to wear white, yet it is difficult to understand what difference it would make if some appeared in mauve. The highly formalized structure is above all the neat one; it warms the hearts of people who like to see things orderly—everyone in his proper box on the organigram, all work processes predetermined, all con- tingencies accounted for, everyone in white.

2. Bureaucratic and organic forms of structure

Organizations that rely primarily on the formalization of behavior to achieve coordination are generally referred to as bureaucracies. It is appro- priate at this point to take a close look at this important concept, since it lies at the very heart of a great deal of discussion about organizational structure.

The word bureaucracy had an innocent-enough beginning—it derived from the French word bureau, meaning “desk” or “office.” But since Max Weber, the great German sociologist, used it at the turn of the century to describe a particular type of organizational structure, it has had a rather tumultuous existence. Weber intended the term as a purely technical one, and it retains that sense today in the literature of organizational theory and sociology. But elsewhere, the word has taken on a decidedly pejorative meaning—it has become a dirty word. Here the reader is asked to put aside this pejorative meaning and accept the word in its technical sense.

Weber described bureaucracy as an “ideal type” of structure, “ideal” meaning not perfect but pure. He delineated the characteristics of this pure structural type as follows:

  1. There is the principle of fixed and official jurisdictional areas, which are generally ordered by rules, that is, by laws or administrative
    1. The regular activities required for the purposes of the bureaucratically governed structure are distributed in a fixed way as official duties.
    2. The authority to give the commands required for the discharge of these duties is distributed in a stable way and is strictly delimited by rules concerning the coercive means, physical, sacerdotal, or other- wise which may be placed at the disposal of officials
    3. Methodical provision is made for the regular and continuous fulfill- ment of these duties and for the execution of the corresponding rights; only persons who have the generally regulated qualification to serve are employed.
  2. The principles of office hierarchy and of levels of graded authority mean a firmly ordered system of super- and subordinate in which there is a supervision of the lower offices by the higher one.
  3. The management of the modern office is based upon written documents (“the files”), which are preserved in their original or draught form.
  4. Office management, at least all specialized office management—and such management is distinctly modern—usually presupposes thorough and expert training.
  5. The management of the office follows general rules, which are more or less stable, more or less exhaustive, and which can be learned. Knowl- edge of these rules represents a special technical learning which the officials possess. It involves jurisprudence, or administrative or business management. (Gerth and Mills, 1958: 196-98)

Weber’s description brings together a number of the concepts we have already discussed—division of labor, specialization, formalization of behavior, hierarchy of authority, chain of command, regulated commu- nication, and standardization of work processes and of skills. But how well do all these defining characteristics hold together in real organizations? In other words, does Weber’s “ideal type” really exist, or are there, in fact, different types of bureaucratic structures, each exhibiting some but not all of these characteristics?

We shall investigate this question more fully later. It is sufficient at this point to note that the research has been inconsistent, some studies finding, for example, that although measures of specialization and formal- ization intercorrelated, ones related to decentralization did not. The im- plication was that there may be some bureaucracies where decision-mak- ing power is centralized and others where it is not. With this finding in mind, we can define a structure as bureaucratic to the extent that its behavior is predetermined or predictable, in effect standardized (whether by work processes, outputs, or skills, and whether or not centralized). This seems to be the main thread running through Weber’s description.

So far, we have talked only of bureaucratic structure. But if some organizations emphasize standardization, others presumably do not. They are characterized by flexible working arrangements, basing their coordina- tion on mutual adjustment or direct supervision. We shall define organic structure by the absence of standardization in the organization. In effect, we put bureaucratic and organic structure at the two ends of the con- tinuum of standardization.

3. Some dysfunctions of highly formalized structures

Perhaps no topic in management has generated more heat than the conse- quences of extensive formalization of behavior in organizations. Early in this century, before the Hawthorne studies of the 1930s, mentioned earlier, industrial psychologists were concerned primarily with the physiological fatigue caused by monotonous work. This was, in fact, the original focus of the Hawthorne studies themselves. But there it became apparent that fa- tigue was only the tip of the iceberg, that such work—highly repetitive, formalized, and specialized horizontally and vertically—created psycho- logical as well as physiological problems for many workers. Subsequently, people like Argyris, Bennis, Likert, and McGregor build their careers on the analysis of the psychological dysfunctions of highly formalized struc- tures. They pointed out man’s inherent propensity to resist formalization and impersonalization, and they showed the organizational “pathologies” that result from excesses in this direction. The dysfunctional consequences take various forms: the ossification of behavior, with the automatic rejec- tion of all innovative ideas, the mistreatment of clients, increases in absen- teeism, high turnover, strikes, and sometimes the subversion of the opera- tions of the organization.

Michael Crozier (1964) looked into these issues too, in the context of two French government bureaucracies, but he came up with some very different results. For one thing, he found that many of the rules were favored by the operators, because, even though these rules may have limited their own discretion, they also reduced the arbitrary power their managers could exercise over them. The rules in effect protected the opera- tors, giving rise to a kind of perverse democracy at lower levels in the hierarchy: everyone was treated more or less equally because everyone was controlled by the same overwhelming set of rules. As a result, howev- er, the decisions not covered by the rules (including those to determine the rules themselves) had to be made elsewhere, at distant headquarters, which often lacked the local information needed to make such decisions.

Crozier also found that rules ‘and central authority could not regulate quite everything. A few areas of uncertainty had to remain, and it was around these that informal power relationships developed. People who could deal with uncertainties achieved great influence. This was the case for the maintenance men in the government tobacco factories Crozier stud-ied; these men were the only ones able to deal with machine breakdown, the one major uncertainty in these highly regulated plants.

4. Behavior formalization by part of the organization

One key relationship should be evident by now: the more stable and repetitive the work, the more programmed it is and the more bureaucratic that part of the organization that contains it. Thus, there can be consider- able differences in formalization of behavior and bureaucratization across the various parts of a single organization. Although we can (and will) characterize certain organizations as bureaucratic or organic overall, none is uniformly so across its entire range of activities.

In the operating core, the part of the organization that the other parts seek to insulate and protect, we would generally expect to find the most stable conditions and the most repetitive tasks, leading to the most bureau- cratic structure. This should not be taken to mean that the work of the operating core is always formalized or bureaucratized. Some organiza- tions, such as creative research centers and small entrepreneurial firms, tend to be rather organically structured even in their operating cores. Nev- ertheless, relatively speaking, behavior formalization is most common in the operating core of the organization.

As we leave the operating core and climb the hierarchy of authority, we would expect the work to become increasingly less repetitive and so less formalized. The middle-line manager closest to the operating core would tend to be most influenced by the conditions there, and those far- thest away would operate in the most organic conditions. Of course, there can be variations in formalization at a given level of the hierarchy, depend- ing on the work in the unit supervised and the boundary conditions it faces. Thus we might expect to find the work of a production manager more formalized than that of a corresponding sales manager, although the two may be peers in terms of their positions in the hierarchy. One is concerned primarily with stabilizing the work of the operating core; the other must remain flexible to deal with the variability of customer demands.

At the strategic apex, which typically comes face to face with the most fluid boundary—the environment at large—the work is the least programmed, and so we should expect to find highly organic conditions. This conclusion became apparent in over fifty studies of different organiza- tions carried out by student groups of ours at McGill University. Time and again, the organigrams were put on the blackboard and the students pro- ceeded to explain why they were not accurate at upper levels of the hier- archy. The charts specified formal authority, but they did not describe the communication patterns and power relationships that really existed there. These relationships were simply too fluid to formalize; the structure had to evolve naturally and to shift continually. In a word, it had to be organic.

In the support staff, we would expect to find a range of structures, according to the work done and the boundary conditions faced. Support units that face little uncertainty and do repetitive work, such as the plant cafeteria, would tend to be highly formalized. In contrast, in a research laboratory, where the need for creativity is high, or in a public relations department, where there are significant work variations from day to day, little of the work can be formalized and so we would expect the structure to remain relatively organic, at least if the units are to be effective.

Similarly, in the technostructure, we would expect that those units closest to the operating core, such as production scheduling, would have many rules and rather formalized work procedures. Others with more variable work, such as operations research, would probably adopt rela- tively organic structures. (It should be noted here that whatever its own structure, it is the technostructure that takes primary responsibility for the formalization of everyone else’s work in the organization.)

Finally, it should be noted that organizations with strong orientations toward either bureaucratic or organic structure sometimes set up indepen-dent work constellations with the opposite kinds of structure to do special tasks. For example, in highly bureaucratic manufacturing firms, the new product or “venture” team is created as a pocket of organic structure isolated from the rest of the organization administratively, financially, spa- tially, and sometimes even legally. In this way, it is able to innovate, free of the restraints of bureaucracy.

Source: Mintzberg Henry (1992), Structure in Fives: Designing Effective Organizations, Pearson; 1st edition.

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