As opposed to some classical theories of organizations, contingency theories posit that there is no one best way to lead, and propose that the structure and management of an organization should be a reflection of the conditions in which it must operate. One of the more well-known of these theories regards the continuum between mechanistic and organic organizations. Mechanistic organizations have highly centralized decision making authority, narrow spans of control, formal procedures and practices, and specialization of functions. Organic organizations have flat structure, relatively less formalized practices and procedures, low levels of specialization, and decentralized decision-making authority. The distinctions between mechanistic and organic organizations can occur not only between organizations but within them, with different departments or groups within a single organization often needing different structures and management approaches. Far from being a theory of interest only from a historical perspective, the theory of mechanistic and organic organizations has great applicability in the twenty-first century as postindustrial societies find themselves continuing to rely on scientific advancements and technological innovations to be competitive in a global marketplace.
Keywords Centralization; Contingency Theories; Industrialization; Innovation; Management; Mechanistic Organization; Organic Organization; Organizational Structure; Postindustrial; Span of Control; Survey; Turnover
Social Interaction in Groups
Every year, Fortune magazine publishes as list of the top 100 best companies to work for in the United States. The criteria on which this classification is made range from the perquisites ("perks") offered, history of job growth, pay rates, turnover rates, and treatment of women and minorities. Indeed, there are any number of characteristics of an organization that can make it a better or worse place to work depending on one's personality type and work style. Some organizations are very formal, requiring one to strictly adhere to an extensive set of rules, while other organizations are informal, allowing one to perform one's job within broad parameters as long as the job gets done well and on time and within budget. Some organizations empower their employees and give them the authority to make decisions when the problem occurs, while other organizations are more hierarchical in nature and require employees to refer a decision up the chain of command for consideration.
Each of these approaches to running an organization—and the innumerable variations in between—are based on different underlying assumptions and each of these approaches to running an organization are more appropriately applied in some situations than in others. For example, fast food chains are well-known for the detailed ways in which they specify how employees should perform their jobs. Tasks are analyzed and mechanized whenever possible, and procedures for tasks performed by humans are described in minute detail including the length of time (often down to the level of seconds) it should take to perform each task. Employees are not allowed to deviate from the prescribed pattern, but must refer any exceptions or decisions up the line to management. This approach makes for a smooth running fast food restaurant where the emphasis is on fast rather than on food (or its quality). As a result, fast food restaurants meet their organizational goals of serving consistent food quickly to customers. Such an approach is more likely to work well with employees that have less education, are not used to making decisions, or prefer to be told what to do. On the other hand, scientific "think tanks" are, in many ways, the organizational opposite of fast food restaurants. The goal of these organizations is to encourage the creative process in their employees. As a result, they tend to be much less structured and rigid in their approach to management and give their employees great latitude in how they do their jobs as well as allow them to make many of the decisions that need to be made. Using this approach in the fast food restaurant would lead to chaos and the inability of the organization to meet its goals. Similarly, applying the principles of management used in a fast food restaurant in the think tank would slow down the research process if not bring it entirely to a grinding halt.
Many theorists have observed the differences in organizations and have tried to articulate the general differences between organizations and in which types of organizations each pattern of organizational structure and management style is best applied. Many classical theories of organizations posit that there is one best way to structure an organization. On the other hand, contingency theories posit that the appropriate design of an organization must take into account the organization's circumstances. Some contingency theories, for example, posit that organizations that produce small batches of specialty products one at a time are typically better managed differently than organizations that mass produce large batches of products (e.g., assembly line manufacturing organizations) or those that are in continuous production (e.g., petroleum refineries, distilleries).
One of the best known of the contingency approaches was articulated in the 1960s by Burns and Stalker (1961) and Lawrence and Lorsch (1967). This approach to organizational theory looks at organizations as being either mechanistic or organic. A mechanistic organization is highly structured with centralized decision-making authority (with decisions typically being made at higher levels in the organization), narrow spans of control, formal procedures and practices, and specialization of functions. An organic organization, on the other hand, has a flat organizational structure (i.e., wide span of control), relatively less formalized practices and procedures, low levels of specialization, and decentralized decision-making authority (with decisions typically being made at middle levels).
According to Burns and Stalker (1978), mechanistic management systems are most appropriately used when the conditions of the organization are stable. Mechanistic organizations tend to break down the tasks facing the organization as a whole into differentiated specializations. Each of the individual tasks tends to be abstract in nature, and is approached with techniques and purposes that are typically less distinct than those of the organization as a whole. Within mechanistic organizations, immediate supervisors tend to reconcile the distinct performances and ensure that each task is relevant within the larger task of the department or organization. The immediate supervisors also are responsible for precisely defining the rights and obligations as well as the technical methods for each functional role and position. Mechanistic organizations are also characterized by hierarchical structures of control, authority, and communication (i.e., authority and control vested in the upper levels of the organization and communication tending to flow downwards). The hierarchical structure of mechanistic organizations is reinforced by the fact that the knowledge of the actualities of the organization are located exclusively at the top of the hierarchy (i.e., with upper-level management). Interactions and communication within mechanistic organizations tend to be vertical, between supervisors subordinates rather than between peers. There is also a tendency in mechanistic organizations for work practices and operations to be regulated by the decisions made by and instructions issued from higher levels within the organization. Mechanistic organizations also typically insist on loyalty to the organization and obedience to one's superiors (e.g., insubordination may be punishable by termination). Finally, mechanistic organizations tend to attach a greater importance and prestige to internal knowledge, experience, and skills related to the organization rather than to knowledge, experience, and skills in general.
Burns and Stalker (1978) propose that the organic form of management is more appropriate to organizations that are characterized by changing conditions that result in a continuing need for ongoing problem solving and flexibility to adapt to unforeseen requirements for action that cannot be articulated or solved a priori. In organic organizations, all members...
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