The Five Configurations of Organization as One System

Do any of these configurations really exist? This is a strange question to raise after so many pages of discussion, filled with illustrations. But it is worth asking, in order to draw a tighter line between the five configura- tions and the reality they purport to describe.

In one sense, the configurations do not exist at all. After all, they are just words and pictures on pieces of paper, not reality itself. Real organiza- tions are enormously complex, far more so than any of these five configu- rations on paper. What these constitute is a theory, and every theory necessarily simplifies and therefore distorts the reality. That was why the reader was warned at the outset to proceed under the assumption that every sentence in the last five chapters (including this one) was an overstatement.

But that should not lead to a rejection of the configurations. For the reader’s choice is not between theory and reality so much as between alternative theories. No one carries reality around in his head; no head is that big. Rather, we carry around thoughts, impressions, and beliefs about reality, and measures of it we call facts. But all this is useless unless it is ordered in some way, just as a library of books is useless unless the books are catalogued. So, most important, we carry around in our heads com- prehensible simplifications—concepts or models or theories—that enable us to catalogue our data and experience. The reader’s choice then becomes one of alternative systems of cataloguing—that is, alternative theories.

The reader can trust the theories he builds himself, based on his own experiences, or else he can select from among those offered in books like this one, based on the experiences of the organizations reported in the research (as well as one author’s own experiences). Or, more realistically, he selects from among them in building up his own models of reality. His choice of theories is normally based on two criteria: how rich the description is—that is, how powerfully it reflects the reality (or, alternatively, how little it distorts the reality)—and how simple it is to comprehend. The most useful theories are simple when stated yet powerful when applied, like E = MC2.

And so in another sense—at least if I have done my job well—the configurations do indeed exist, in the reader’s mind. The mind is where all knowledge exists. The classical principles of structure existed because peo- ple believed in them and so made them part of their reality. So, too, the concept of informal structure exists, and of the situational relationships. The five configurations will also exist if they prove to constitute a simple yet powerful theory, more useful in some ways than the others currently available.

To give the theory of the configurations a little push toward that end, this section discusses a number of possible applications of it. First, we discuss it as a set of five pulls acting on almost every organization; second, as a set of five pure types that reflect the structures and situations of many organizations; third, as the basis for describing hybrid structures; and fourth, as the basis for describing transitions from one structure and situa- tion to another. Figure 13-1 seeks to capture the spirit of these four discus- sions. Symbolically, it shows the five configurations as forming a pen- tagon, bounding a reality within which real structures and situations can be found.

Each configuration sits at one of the nodes, pulling real organizations toward it. The Simple Structure, the first stage for many organizations, sits at the top. At the next level, on either side of it, are the two bureaucracies, Machine Bureaucracy on the left and Professional Bureaucracy on the right. Down at the third, bottom level are the two most elaborate configu- rations, the Divisionalized Form on the left and Adhocracy on the right. Some real organizations fall into position close to one node—one of the pure types—and others fall between two or more, as hybrids, perhaps in transition from one pure type to another.

1. The configurations as a set of basic pulls on the organization

To repeat a point made in Chapter 7, the configurations represent a set of five forces that pull organizations in five different directions. These pulls are shown in the pentagon and are listed below:

  • First is the pull exercised by the strategic apex to centralize, to coordinate by direct supervision, and so to structure the organiza- tion as a Simple Structure.
  • Second is the pull exercised by the technostructure, to coordinate by standardization—notably of work processes, the tightest kind—in order to increase its influence, and so to structure the organization as a Machine Bureaucracy.
  • Third is the pull exercised by the operators to professionalize, to coordinate by the standardization of skills in order to maximize their autonomy, and so to structure the organization as a Profes- sional Bureaucracy.
  • Fourth is the pull exercised by the middle managers to Balkanize, to be given the autonomy to manage their own units, with coordi- nation restricted to the standardization of outputs, and so to struc- ture the organization as a Divisionalized Form.
  • Fifth is the pull exercised by the support staff (and by the operators as well, in the Operating Adhocracy), for collaboration (and inno- vation) in decision making, to coordinate by mutual adjustment, and so to structure the organization as an Adhocracy.

Almost every organization experiences all five of these pulls. Take, for example, the case of the theater company, as described by Goodman and Goodman (1972:104). They note “the sense of ownership expressed by the directors,” also their power “to a certain extent [to] shape a play into their own image,” to choose the team to perform that play, and even to limit the creative contributions of members of that team. All these con- stitute pulls toward Simple Structure. Of course, put a number of such directors in the same organization and there emerges a pull toward the Divisionalized Form, where each can maximize his autonomy. One direc- tor kept “a detailed book which he made and used in the production of a large-scale musical comedy.” That book, of course, constituted a pull to- ward Machine Bureaucracy. Sometimes, however—say, in experimental theater—the “ability to do detailed planning diminishes,” the director being “less firm in knowing what he wants” and cuts and additions being more frequent. The pull is toward Adhocracy. The members of theater companies are generally professional and work largely on their own: the “choreographer usually creates a dance sequence to fit music that has already been composed and to fit the space available given the existing set design. The three people need never see or speak to each other and are often working in separate locations ” (p. 496). The pull is toward Pro-fessional Bureaucracy.

What structure the organization actually designs depends in good part on how strong each of the pulls turns out to be. As we shall see below, when one dominates, we expect the organization to emerge rather close to one of the pure types of configurations, close to one of the nodes on the pentagon. When two or more pulls coexist in relative balance, we expect a “hybrid” of our configurations to emerge. And as one pull displaces an- other as dominant, we should be able to describe the organization in a state of transition between two of the configurations.

2. The configurations as a set of pure types

In this second application of the system, the set of configurations is treated as a framework, or typology of pure types, each one a description of a basic kind of organizational structure and its situation.

Our examples throughout this section suggest that a great many orga- nizations, being dominated by one of the five pulls, tend to design struc- tures rather close to one of the configurations. No structure matches any one configuration perfectly, but some come remarkably close—like the small entrepreneurial firm controlled by its president in an almost pure Simple Structure, or the conglomerate corporation that fits virtually all the characteristics of the pure Divisionalized Form.

In the preceding five chapters, we have, in fact, labeled and discussed a number of examples and variants of each of the pure types. All these are listed on the pentagon of Figure 13-1, next to their own configurations. Their number gives some justification for treating the configurations as a typology of pure types.

Support for the notion of a pure type comes from the configuration hypothesis, which was introduced in Chapter 6: effective structuring re- quires an internal consistency among the design parameters. In other words, the organization is often driven toward one of the configurations in its search for harmony in its structure. It may experience pulls toward different configurations but it often exhibits a tendency to favor one of them. Better to be consistent and selective than comprehensive and half- hearted. In fact, we saw in the extended configuration hypothesis of Chap- ter 6, and in a good deal of evidence presented in the preceding five chapters, that this search for harmony and consistency extends to the situational factors as well. The organization with an integrated structure also favors an environment, a technical system, a size, even an age and a power system consistent with that structure.

Thus, we sometimes find that different organizations in the same industry prefer different configurations, depending on which pull (and segment of the industry) they decide to respond to. To return to the theater company, one may prefer Simple Structure because of a strong-willed di- rector (or Divisionalized Form because of many of them), another Machine Bureaucracy because it chooses to produce musicals by the book, another Professional Bureaucracy in order to perfect its performance of Shake- speare year after year, and a fourth Adhocracy to produce experimental plays. Likewise, the restaurant can structure itself like a Simple Structure, Machine Bureaucracy, Divisionalized Form, or Professional Bureaucracy, depending on whether it wishes to remain a small “greasy spoon,” grow larger through the serving of simple basic standards, such as steak and lobster, perhaps even through franchises, or develop the gourmet skills of its chefs through the offering of dishes difficult to prepare but highly standardized. (The restaurant structured as an Adhocracy in order to ex- periment with each dish it served would probably not attract enough cli- ents to survive!)

3. The configurations as a system for describing structural hybrids

In this third application of the system, the set of five configurations can be treated as the basis for describing structural hybrids.

We have seen in our discussion that not all organizations choose to be consistent in designing their structures, at least not as we have described consistency. They use what we call hybrid structures, ones that exhibit characteristics of more than one configuration. Some of the hybrids we have come across in our discussion seem to be dysfunctional, indications of organizations that cannot make up their minds or, in wanting the best of more than one world, end up with the worst of many. Consider the organi- zation that no sooner gives its middle managers autonomy subject to per- formance control, as in the Divisionalized Form, than it takes it away by the proliferation of rules and regulations, as in the Machine Bureaucracy. Or the highly regulated Machine Bureaucracy that believes it can give its workers job autonomy, as in the Professional Bureaucracy, through an overambitious quality-of-working-life program. The resulting confusion can render the organization less effective than the pure type of structure, despite its own inherent limitations.

In some cases, however, organizations have no choice: contradictory situational factors over which they have no control force them to adopt dysfunctional hybrids. We saw evidence of this in school systems, police forces, and other organizations with trained operators, that seem to require Professional Bureaucracy yet are driven by concentrated external control (usually governmental) to take on certain characteristics of Machine Bu- reaucracy, to the detriment of their performance.

But other hybrids seem perfectly logical, indications of the need to respond to more than one valid force at the same time—like the symphony orchestra, a simple professional bureaucracy, discussed in Chapter 10, that hires highly trained musicians and relies largely on their standardized skills to produce its music yet also requires a strong, sometimes autocratic leader to weld them into a tightly coordinated unit. Or the related-product corporation, discussed in Chapter 11, that needs to divisionalize yet also must coordinate certain critical functions near the strategic apex as in func- tional Machine Bureaucracy. Or the entrepreneurial adhocracy of Chapter 12, where the chief executive, an expert himself, is able to retain a sem- blance of central control despite the use of multidisciplinary project teams. All the hybrids discussed in the preceding five chapters are shown on the pentagon of Figure 13-1, each on a line between the two configurations from which it draws its characteristics.

The hybrids of Figure 13-1 all involve two configurations. But noth- ing precludes a combination of the characteristics of three or more configu- rations. Thus, one McGill student group described an effective church-run convalescent hospital as being tightly controlled by its chief executive—the students referred to her as the “top nun”—yet having a proliferation of its own work rules, and also being dependent on the skills of its medical staff. Here we have a Simple Structure-Machine Bureaucracy-Professional Bu- reaucracy hybrid. Another McGill group described a subsidiary of a Ja- panese trading company as “a divisionalized professional machine ad- hocracy.” (Good thing it wasn’t simple!)

Does the existence of such hybrids negate the theory? It is certainly true that the more common the hybrids, the more they should be called pure types and the configurations treated as the hybrids. But the presence of hybrids in a typology does not negate it. There is always gray between black and white. The theory remains useful as long as it helps us to de- scribe a wide variety of structures, even hybrid ones. What matters is not that the theory always matches the reality, but that it helps us to under- stand the reality. That is its purpose. If we can better describe the Japanese trading company by using terms such as adhocracy, machine, professional, and divisionalized, then the theory has served us. By identifying its nodes, we are able to map the pentagon.

So far we have talked of the hybrid only as a combination throughout an organization of the design parameters of different configurations. But there is another kind of hybrid as well, the one that uses different config- urations in different parts of the organization. In this way, there can be consistency in the structure of each part, if not in the overall organization. We saw an example of this in the case of the newspaper, with its editorial function structured like an Adhocracy and its printing function structured like a Machine Bureaucracy.

Is this notion of different structures in different parts of the organiza- tion inconsistent with the theme running through the preceding five chap- ters, that whole organizations can be described in terms of single configu- rations? Not necessarily. There are forces that drive a great many organizations to favor one configuration overall. But within these organiza- tions, there are always forces that favor different structures in different places. (This point was noted in Chapters 2 to 5, in the concluding discus- sions of each of the design parameters by part of the organization.) Each part of the organization strives for the structure that is most appropriate to its own particular needs, in the face of pressures to conform to the most appropriate structure for the overall organization, and it ends up with some sort of compromise. NASA’s cafeterias are, no doubt, run as bureau- cracies, but they may prove to be more organic than most; likewise, Gener- al Motors’ research laboratories no doubt favor Adhocracy structure, but they would probably prove to be more bureaucratic than those at NASA. And so, even though the theory may be a convenient tool to describe a whole organization in terms of a pure type, that description should always be recognized as a simplification, to be followed by deeper probes into the structure of each of its component parts.

In Chapter 10, for example, of the five configurations, we found that Professional Bureaucracy seemed best to describe the overall structure of the general hospital. But we also noted that the support staff tended to be structured along the lines of a Machine Bureaucracy. And then in Chapter 12, we noted that the research function might best be described as an Adhocracy. Professional Bureaucracy, in effect, really applied to the clini- cal mission, albeit the most critical one. But even when we look deeply within this mission, we find a range of interdependencies, with resulting variations in the use of the design parameters. Hospitals use incredibly complex structures; to understand them fully, we must look intensively at all their component parts—housekeeping and research and clinical medi- cine, and obstetrics and radiology and surgery, and plastic surgery and cardiovascular surgery and thoracic surgery.

Again, we conclude by emphasizing that the five configurations are meant to be treated not as five mutually exclusive systems, but as one, as an integrated frame of reference or theory—a pentagon—to guide us in trying to understand and to design complex real-world organizations.

4. The configurations as a system for describing structural transitions

The system of the configurations can also be used as a basis to help us to understand how and why organizations undertake transitions from one structure to another. Our discussion of the last five chapters has been laced with comments about such transitions—for example, from Simple Struc- ture to Machine Bureaucracy as an organization ages and grows, or from Operating Adhocracy to Professional Bureaucracy as an organization tires of innovation and seeks to settle down. All the factors discussed in these chapters that cause a transition from one configuration to another are recorded on the pentagon, along arrows running between them.

Two major patterns have appeared among these transitions, both related to stages in the structural development of organizations. The first pattern applies to organizations that begin in simple environments; it flows around the left side of the pentagon starting at the top. Most organi- zations begin their lives with something close to the Simple Structure. As they age and grow, and perhaps come under external control, they tend to formalize their behaviors and eventually make a first transition toward Machine Bureaucracy. When these organizations continue to grow, they eventually tend to diversify and later may begin a second structural transi- tion, toward the Divisionalized Form. They may stop along the way, with one of the intermediate, hybrid forms—such as the by-product or related- product form—or else go all the way to the pure Divisionalized Form. But as we noted in Chapter 11, this may prove to be an unstable structure, and pressures may arise for another transition. In the recognition of divisional interdependencies, the organization may consolidate back toward Machine Bureaucracy or else establish a new hybrid on the way to Adhocracy.

Of course, a number of other forces can intervene to change this sequence. Should the environment of the new organization become com- plex or its technical system sophisticated, it will find itself drawn toward Adhocracy instead of Machine Bureaucracy. Likewise, should the organi- zation with a structure like Machine Bureaucracy find itself facing more complexity and less stability, perhaps owing to product competition or the need to use a more sophisticated or even automated technical system, it, too, will tend to shift toward Adhocracy. And should any of the later-stage organizations suddenly find themselves with a hostile environment, they will tend to revert back toward Simple Structure temporarily. Should exter- nal control instead become a strong force, the transition will be made back toward Machine Bureaucracy.

The second pattern among the transitions applies to organizations that are born in complex environments. This pattern begins at the bottom right side of the pentagon and then moves up and to the left. In this case, organizations adopt Adhocracy structures soon after birth, eager to devel- op innovative solutions to wide ranges of contingencies. Sometimes they remain there, perhaps locked in complex, dynamic environments. But many wish to escape, and some in fact are able to. As they age, these organizations become more conservative. In their search for stability, they begin a transition to bureaucracy. Some concentrate on a few contingencies at which they can become expert, and structure themselves like Profes- sional Bureaucracies. Others focus on single, simple contingencies and shift toward Machine Bureaucracy.

Of course, some organizations also begin early with Professional Bu- reaucracy, imitating the structure of other established professional organi-zations. They often maintain these structures throughout their lives, un- less rationalization of the professional tasks or external control eventually drives them toward Machine Bureaucracy, or the desire for more experi- mentation on the part of their professional operators, perhaps a reflection of a new dynamism in the environment, drives them toward Adhocracy. It should be noted that structural transitions often lag the new condi- tions that evoke them. Structural change is always difficult, necessitating major rearrangements in established patterns of behavior. So there is a tendency to resist it. Such resistance, in fact, explains many of the dysfunc- tions found in structures—as in the case of the entrepreneur who hangs on to a Simple Structure even though his organization has grown too large for it, or the organization that continues to formalize even though its environ- ment, having grown complex and dynamic, calls for a structure closer to Adhocracy. Their structures may be internally consistent, but they have outlived the conditions that supported them.

As the need for structural change is finally recognized, the organiza- tion begins its transition, perhaps gradually to soften the blow. We saw this in the case of the Machine Bureaucracy that diversifies in steps, pass- ing through tFe by-product and related-product hybrids on its way to the pure Divisionalized Form. But some organizations never complete the transition; they remain in an intermediate, hybrid state because they expe- rience contradictory forces—new ones calling for change, old ones for re- tention of the current structure. Thus, many corporations remain perma- nently in the by-product or related-product hybrid: they have diversified, but interdependencies remain among their product lines. But when the forces calling for change are unequivocal, the transition is probably best effected quickly and decisively. Wavering between two configurations— the old, established one no longer appropriate and the new, uncertain one now necessary—leads to a kind of organizational schizophrenia that may be the most damaging state of all.

To conclude, we have seen in this discussion a number of applica- tions of our five configurations as a single system or theory. Together they help us to understand how organizations can be designed for effective- ness. But neither they nor the pentagon that represents them as a system completely bounds our reality—not only of possible organizational designs but also of the means toward organizational effectiveness.

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

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