Some Issues Associated with Professional Bureaucracy

The Professional Bureaucracy is unique among the five configurations in answering two of the paramount needs of contemporary men and women. It is democratic, disseminating its power directly to its workers (at least those who are professional). And it provides them with extensive autono- my, freeing them even of the need to coordinate closely with their peers, and all the pressures and politics that entails. Thus, the professional has the best of both worlds: he is attached to an organization, yet is free to serve his clients in his own way, constrained only by the established stan- dards of his profession.

As a result, professionals tend to emerge as responsible and highly motivated individuals, dedicated to their work and the clients they serve. Unlike the Machine Bureaucracy, which places barriers between the opera- tor and the client, this configuration removes them, allowing a personal relationship to develop. Here the technical and social systems can function in complete harmony.

Moreover, autonomy allows the professionals to perfect their skills, free of interference. They repeat the same complex programs time after time, forever reducing the uncertainty until they get them just about per- fect, like the Provençal potter who has spent his career perfecting the glazes he applies to identical pots. The professional’s thought processes are “convergent”—vascular surgeon Spencer (1976) refers to them as de- ductive reasoning. He quotes approvingly the bridge aficionado who stood behind champion Charles Goren during a three-day tournament and con- cluded, “He didn’t do anything I couldn’t do, except he didn’t make any mistakes” (p. 1181). That captures nicely the secure feelings of profes- sionals and their clients in Professional Bureaucracies. The Provençal pot- ter expects few surprises when he opens his kiln; so, too, do Dr. Spencer’s patients when they climb onto his operating table. They know the program has been executed so many times—by this surgeon as well as by the many whose experiences he has read about in the journals—that the possibility of mistakes has been minimized. Hospitals do not even get to execute new programs on regular patients until those programs have been thoroughly tested and approved by the profession. So the client of the Professional Bureaucracy can take satisfaction in the knowledge that the professional about to serve him will draw on vast quantities of experience and skill, will apply them in a perfected, not an experimental procedure, and will proba- bly be highly motivated in performing that procedure.

But in these same characteristics of democracy and autonomy lie the major problems of the Professional Bureaucracy. For there is virtually no control of the work aside from that by the profession itself, no way to correct deficiencies that the professionals themselves choose to overlook. What they tend to overlook are the major problems of coordination, of discretion, and of innovation that arise in these configurations.

1. Problems of coordination

The Professional Bureaucracy can coordinate effectively in its operating core only by the standardization of skills. Direct supervision and mutual adjustment are resisted as direct infringements on the professional’s au- tonomy, in one case by administrators, in the other by colleagues. And standardization of work processes and of outputs are ineffective for the complex work with its ill-defined outputs. But the standardization of skills is a loose coordinating mechanism at best, failing to cope with many of the needs that arise in the Professional Bureaucracy.

There is, first of all, the need for coordination between the profes- sionals and the support staff. To the professional, that is simply resolved: He gives the orders. But that only catches the support staffer between two systems of power pulling in different ways, the vertical power of line authority above him and the horizontal power of professional expertise to his side.

Perhaps more severe are the coordination problems among the pro- fessionals themselves. Unlike Machine Bureaucracies, Professional Bu- reaucracies are not integrated entities. They are collections of individuals who come together to draw on common resources and support services but otherwise want to be left alone. As long as the pigeonholing process works effectively, they can be. But that process can never be so good that client needs do not fall in the cracks between the standard programs. The world is a continuous intertwined system. Slicing it up, although necessary to comprehend it, inevitably distorts it (this book admittedly being no excep- tion). Needs that fall at the margin or that overlap two categories tend to get forced—artificially—into one category or another. In contemporary medicine, for instance, the human body is treated less as one integrated system with interdependent parts than as a collection of loosely coupled organs that correspond to the different specialties. For the patient whose malady slots nicely into one of the specialties, problems of coordination do not arise. For others—the patient who falls between psychiatry and inter- nal medicine, for instance—it means repeated transfers in search of the right department, a time-consuming process when time is critical. In uni- versities, the pigeonholing process can be equally artificial, as in the case of the professor interested in the structure of production systems who fell between the operations and organizational behavior departments of his business school and so was denied tenure.

The pigeonholing process, in fact, emerges as the source of a great deal of the conflict of the Professional Bureaucracy. Much political blood is spilled in the continual reassessment of contingencies, imperfectly con- ceived, in terms of programs, artificially distinguished.

 2. Problems of discretion

The assumption underlying the design of the Professional Bureaucracy is that the pigeonholing process contains all the uncertainties in single pro- fessional jobs. As we saw above, that assumption often proves false, to the detriment of the organization’s performance. But even where it works, problems arise. For it focuses all the discretion in the hands of single professionals, whose complex skills, no matter how standardized, require the exercise of considerable judgment. Such discretion is, perhaps, appro- priate for professionals who are competent and conscientious. Unfortu- nately, not all of them are. And the Professional Bureaucracy cannot easily deal with professionals who are either incompetent or unconscientious.

No two professionals are equally skilled. So the client who is forced to choose among them—to choose in ignorance, since he seeks professional help precisely because he lacks the specialized knowledge to help him- self—is exposed to a kind of Russian Roulette, almost literally so in the case of medicine, where a single decision can mean life or death. But that is inevitable; little can be done aside from using the very best screening procedures for applicants to the training schools.

Of greater concern is the unconscientious professional—the one who refuses to update his skills after graduation, who cares more for his income than his clients, or who becomes so enamored with his skills that he forgets about the real needs of his clients. This last case represents a means-ends inversion common in Professional Bureaucracies, different from that found in Machine Bureaucracies but equally serious. In this case, the professional confuses the needs of his clients with the skills he has to offer them. He simply concentrates on the program that he favors to the exclusion of all the others—perhaps because he does it best or simply enjoys it most. This presents no problem as long as only those clients in need of that favorite program are directed his way. But should other clients slip in, trouble ensues. Thus, we have the psychiatrists who think that all patients (in- deed, all people) need psychoanalysis; the consulting firms prepared to design the same planning system for all their clients, no matter how dy- namic their environments; the professors who use the lecture method for classes of 500 students or five; the social workers who feel the compulsion to bring power to the people even when the people do not want it.

Dealing with this means-ends inversion is impeded by the difficulty of measuring the outputs of professional work. When psychiatrists cannot even define the words cure or healthy, how are they to prove that psycho- analysis is better for manic-depressives than chemical therapy would be? When no one has been able to measure the learning that takes place in the classroom, how can it be demonstrated with reliability that lectures are better or worse than seminars or, for that matter, than staying home and reading? That is one reason that the obvious solution to the problems of discretion—censure by the professional association—is seldom used. An- other is that professionals are notoriously reluctant to act against their own—to wash their dirty linen in public, so to speak. In extreme cases, they will do so; certain behavior is too callous to ignore. But these instances are relatively rare. They do no more than expose the tip of the iceberg of misguided discretion.

Discretion not only enables some professionals to ignore the needs of their clients; it also encourages many of them to ignore the needs of the organization. Professionals in these structures do not generally consider themselves part of a team. To many, the organization is almost incidental, a convenient place to practice their skills. They are loyal to their profession, not to the place where they happen to practice it. But the organization has need for loyalty, too—to support its own strategies, to staff its administra- tive committees, to see it through conflicts with the professional associa- tion. Cooperation, as we saw earlier, is crucial to the functioning of the administrative structure. Yet, as we also saw, professionals resist it furiously. Professors hate to show up for curriculum meetings; they simply do not wish to be dependent on each other. One can say that they know each other only too well!

3. Problems of innovation

In these structures, major innovation also depends on cooperation. Exist- ing programs can be perfected by individual specialists. But new ones usually cut across existing specialties—in essence, they require a rear- rangement of the pigeonholes—and so call for interdisciplinary efforts. As a result, the reluctance of the professionals to work cooperatively with each other translates itself into problems of innovation.

Like the Machine Bureaucracy, the Professional Bureaucracy is an inflexible structure, well suited to producing its standard outputs but ill- suited to adapting to the production of new ones. All bureaucracies are geared to stable environments; they are performance structures designed to perfect programs for contingencies that can be predicted, not problem- solving ones designed to create new programs for needs that have never before been encountered.

The problems of innovation in the Professional Bureaucracy find their roots in convergent thinking, in the deductive reasoning of the profes- sional who sees the specific situation in terms of the general concept. In the Professional Bureaucracy, this means that new problems are forced into old pigeonholes. The doctoral student in search of an interdisciplinary degree—for, after all, isn’t the highest university degree meant to encour- age the generation of new knowledge?—inevitably finds himself forced back into the old departmental mode. “It must be a D.B.A. or a D.Ed.; we don’t offer educational administration here.” Nowhere are the effects of this deductive reasoning better illustrated than in Spencer’s (1976) com- ments, “All patients developing significant complications or death among our three hospitals . . . are reported to a central office with a narrative description of the sequence of events, with reports varying in length from a third to an entire page”; six to eight of these cases are discussed in the one- hour weekly “mortality-morbidity” conferences, including presentation of it by the surgeon and “questions and comments” by the audience (p. 1181). An “entire” page and ten minutes of discussion for cases with “significant complications”! Maybe enough to list the symptoms and slot them into pigeonholes; hardly enough even to begin to think about cre- ative solutions. As Lucy once told Charlie Brown, great art cannot be done in half an hour; it takes at least forty-five minutes!

The fact is that great art and innovative problem solving require induc- tive reasoning—that is, the inference of new general concepts or programs from particular experiences. That kind of thinking is divergent—it breaks away from old routines or standards rather than perfecting existing ones. And that flies in the face of everything the Professional Bureaucracy is designed to do.

So it should come as no surprise that Professional Bureaucracies and the professional associations that control their procedures tend to be con- servative bodies, hesitant to change their well-established ways. Whenever an entrepreneurial member takes up the torch of innovation, great political clashes inevitably ensue. Even in the Machine Bureaucracy, once the man- agers of the strategic apex finally recognize the need for change, they are able to force it down the hierarchy. In the Professional Bureaucracy, with operator autonomy and bottom-up decision making, and in the profes- sional association with its own democratic procedures, power for strategic change is diffuse. Everybody, not just a few managers or professional representatives; must agree on the change. So change comes slowly and painfully, after much political intrigue and shrewd maneuvering by the professional and administrative entrepreneurs.

As long as the environment remains stable, the Professional Bureau- cracy encounters no problem. It continues to perfect its skills and its given system of pigeonholes that slots them. But dynamic conditions call for change—new skills, new ways to slot them, and creative, cooperative efforts on the part of multidisciplinary teams of professionals. And that calls for another configuration, as we shall see in Chapter 12.

4. Dysfunctional responses

What responses do the problems of coordination, discretion, and innova- tion evoke? Most commonly, those outside the profession—clients, non- professional administrators, members of the society at large and their representatives in government—see the problems as resulting from a lack of external control of the professional and of his profession. So they do the obvious: try to control the work with one of the other coordinating mechanisms. Specifically, they try to use direct supervision, standardiza- tion of work processes, or standardization of outputs.

Direct supervision typically means imposing an intermediate level of supervision, preferably with a narrow “span of control”—in keeping with the tenets of the classical concepts of authority—to watch over the profes- sionals. That may work in cases of gross negligence. The sloppy surgeon or the professor who misses too many classes can be “spoken to” or ultimate- ly perhaps fired. But specific professional activities—complex in execution and vague in results—are difficult to control by anyone other than the professionals themselves. So the administrator detached from the work and bent on direct supervision is left nothing to do except engage in both- ersome exercises. As in the case of certain district supervisors who sit between one Montreal school board and its schools and, according to the reports of a number of principals, spend time telephoning them at 4:59 on Friday afternoons to ensure that they have not left early for the weekend. The imposition of such intermediate levels of supervision stems from the assumption that professional work can be controlled, like any other, in a top-down manner, an assumption that has proven false again and again. Likewise, the other forms of standardization, instead of achieving control of the professional work, often serve merely to impede and dis- courage the professionals. And for the same reasons—the complexity of the work and the vagueness of its outputs. Complex work processes can- not be formalized by rules and regulations, and vague outputs cannot be standardized by planning and control systems. Except in misguided ways, which program the wrong behaviors and measure the wrong outputs, forcing the professionals to play the Machine Bureaucratic game—satisfy- ing the standards instead of serving the clients. Back to the old means-ends inversion. Like the policeman in Chicago who described to

Studs Terkel the effects of various such standards on his work:

My supervisor would say, “We need two policy arrests, so we can be equal with the other areas.” So we go out and hunt for a policy operator. . . .

So many points for a robbery, so many points for a man having a gun. When they go to the scene and the man with the gun has gone, they’ll lock up somebody anyway, knowing he’s not the one. The record says, “Locked up two people for UUW”—unlawful use of weapons. The report will say, “When we got there, we saw these guys and they looked suspicious.” They’ll get a point even if the case is thrown out of court. The arrest is all that counts. (1972:137, 139-40)

Graphic illustration of the futility of trying to control work that is essen- tially professional in nature. Similar things happen when accountants try to control the management-consulting arms of their firms—”obedience is stressed as an end in itself because the CPA as administrator is not able to judge the non-accountant expert on the basis of that expert’s knowledge” (Montagna, 1968:144). And in school systems, when the government tech- nostructure believes it can program the work of the teacher, as in that of East Germany described proudly to this author by a government planner, where each day every child in the country ostensibly opens the same book to the same page. The individual needs of the students—slow learners and fast, rural and urban—as well as the individual styles of the teachers have to be subordinated to the neatness of the system.

The fact is that complex work cannot be effectively performed un- less it comes under the control of the operator who does it. Society may have to control the overall expenditures of its Professional Bureaucracies—to keep the lid on them—and to legislate against the most callous kinds of professional behavior. But too much external control of the professional work itself leads, according to Hypothesis 14, to centralization and formal- ization of the structure, in effect driving the Professional Bureaucracy to Machine Bureaucracy. The decision-making power flows from the opera- tors to the managers, and on to the analysts of the technostructure. The effect of this is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Technocratic controls do not improve professional-type work, nor can they distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behavior—they constrain both equally. That may, of course, be appropriate for organizations in which responsible behavior is rare. But where it is not—presumably the majority of cases—technocratic controls only serve to dampen professional conscientiousness.

Controls also upset the delicate relationship between the professional and his client, a relationship predicated on unimpeded personal contact between the two. Thus, Cizanckas, a police chief, notes that the police officer at the bottom of the pecking order in the “paramilitary structure” is more than willing, in turn, “to vent his frustration on the lawbreaker” (paraphrased by Hatvany, 1976:73). The controls remove the responsibility for service from the professional and place it in the administrative structure, where it is of no use to the client. It is not the government that teaches the student, not even the school system or the school itself; it is not the hospital that delivers the baby, not the police force that apprehends the criminal, not the welfare department that helps the distraught family. These things are done by the individual professional. If that professional is incompetent, no plan or rule fashioned in the technostructure, no order from an administra- tor can ever make him competent. But such plans, rules, and orders can impede the competent professional from providing his service effectively. At least rationalization in the Machine Bureaucracy leaves the client with inexpensive outputs. In the case of professional work, it leaves him with impersonal, ineffective service.

Furthermore, the incentive to perfect, even to innovate—the latter weak at the best of times in Professional Bureaucracy—can be reduced by external controls. In losing control over their own work, the professionals become passive, like the operators of the Machine Bureaucracy. Even the job of professional administrator, never easy, becomes extremely difficult when there is a push for external control. In school systems, for example, the government looks top-down to the senior managers to implement its standards, and the professionals look bottom-up to them to resist the stan- dards. The strategic apex gets caught between a government technostruc- ture hungry for control and an operating core hanging on to its autonomy for dear life. No one gains in the process.

Are there then no solutions to a society concerned about its Profes- sional Bureaucracies? Financial control of Professional Bureaucracies and legislation against irresponsible professional behavior are obviously neces- sary. But beyond that, must the professional be left with a blank check, free of public accountability? Solutions are available, but they grow from a recognition of professional work for what it is. Change in the Professional Bureaucracy does not sweep in from new administrators taking office to announce major reforms, nor from government technostructures intent on bringing the professionals under their control. Rather, change seeps in by the slow process of changing the professionals—changing who can enter the profession, what they learn in its professional schools (norms as well as skills and knowledge), and thereafter how willing they are to upgrade their skills. Where such changes are resisted, society may be best off to call on the professionals’ sense of responsibility to serve the public, or, failing that, to bring pressures on the professional associations rather than on the Professional Bureaucracies.

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

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