Informal Relations within Bureaucracies
This article focuses on the formation of informal relations within a bureaucracy. In any situation within which individuals are interacting and working together for a period of time, informal groups tend to develop. Informal groups have been shown to serve many purposes within an organization. This article discusses the purposes that informal groups serve as well as the outcome and importance of the Hawthorne Studies. In this vein, participative management and self-directed work teams are introduced as alternatives to the traditional formal organization approach.
The average person spends the bulk of their existence in some type of social organization. There are different types of social organizations, including government, religion, education, family, and work (formal). Sociologists sometimes interchange the words, "organization" with "institution." According to Jonsson (2007), an organization can be defined a group of people striving to accomplish a goal with specific procedures, policies, and structure in place to operate appropriately. Institutions can be defined as a "group of individuals who pursue a set of collective purposes and have established a division of labor (roles), methods of coordination, decision-making, and conflict resolution (procedures), common values and beliefs (culture), and a delimitation of geographical scope (space)" (Jonsson, 2007, p. 2). In addition, institutions control how an organization is structured and the types of activities and behaviors that are deemed acceptable (Martin, 2004; North, 1990; Scott, 1995). Regardless of the terminology, both structures describe how an entity governs its activities by establishing roles and structures for a group of people to function. If one wishes to study and understand the structure and processes, one must first "start from the premise that organizations are complex, ambiguous, and paradoxical" (Morgan, 1986, p. 322).
Formal organizations can be found all over the world as different societies attempt to meet their basic needs. Many believe that organizations attain stability in the long run and the people that are a part of the entity harbor a sense of belonging. In order for the organization to be successful, a formalization process must take place to a certain extent to ensure that conflict is managed and goals are achieved.
Formal organizations are established to complete a specific set of goals and objectives, and can be viewed as "a formal, rationally organized structure involving clearly defined patterns of activity in which ideally, every series of actions is functionally related to the purposes of the organization" (Merton, 1957, p. 195). In order to meet the goals and objectives, many organizations implement an administrative structure, which some refer to as a bureaucracy. Max Weber, a sociologist, has been credited for pioneering work in this area. Another scholar, Robert Merton, has been credited with building on Weber's work by discussing the dysfunctions of bureaucracy. Both researchers have made significant contributions to our understanding of how bureaucracies can influence the operations of an organization.
Depending on to whom one speaks, bureaucracy can take on a positive or negative connotation. Max Weber looked at the concept of bureaucracy from a positive standpoint. He described the ideal organization as one that was rational in its operation. In order to operate logically, an organization must have a structure that will govern and regulate the human nature of employees. Bureaucracy was seen as a positive way for an organization to operate properly from a structural and humanistic approach. Weber's philosophy became known as "rational bureaucracy." This concept consists of seven key principles which include:
- Specification of jobs with detailed rights, obligations, responsibilities, scope of authority
- System of supervision and subordination
- Unity of command
- Extensive use of written documents
- Training in job requirements and skills
- Application of consistent and complete rules (company manual)
- Assign work and hire personnel based on competence and experience (Borgatti, 2004, par 1).
The work of the classical theorists exploded during the late 19th century as organizations began to grasp the new concept of rationality. Researchers such as Weber, Fayol, and Taylor were promoting organizations to be rational about their decision making. For example, hiring a person based on credentials versus nepotism had more merit for the organization, and "the goal is to work smarter versus harder."
Although the rationality perspective was popular, there were subsets of the new concept (i.e. Scientific Management). Some theorists believed there was a correlation between rationality and motivational theories. For example, it was believed that people are more productive when they can see the benefit that they will receive. In most cases during this time period, many argued that the prime motivator was money. Experiments such as the Hawthorne Studies were conducted to validate this perspective. However, others countered that people needed more than money to meet their social needs. These theorists suggested that human beings needed to be around other people and reap other perks such as respect, power, and autonomy in order to function and be motivated to produce.
Informal Structures within Bureaucracies
Informal groups tend to develop in situations consisting of regular interactions between individuals of a group. Informal groups can serve many purposes within an organization. Although focus is often placed on the social interaction aspect of informal relationships, an informal group is itself structured with leaders and followers. The dynamic of the informal groups within an organization has the power to affect the dynamic of the whole. The existence and significance of informal relations was highlighted during the early 1900s with Hawthorne Studies, which were conducted at Western Electric Company by Elton Mayo and fellow researchers from MIT.
Within every formal organization, there is a sub-culture of informal relations operating. The activities of this group are both positive and negative (i.e. creation of the grapevine, creation of new models of organizations, peer pressure in the workplace). It should be noted that the activities of the sub-groups do not correspond with the formal organizational structure. However, their impact can be as powerful as the recognized structure (Borgatti, 2002).
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