What are the features of bureaucracy?

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There are many possible ways to describe the features of a bureaucracy.  I will use a famous enumeration of these features put forward by Max Weber.  I will examine five features of bureaucracy that Weber identifies.

The first aspect of bureaucracy is a division of labor.  In a bureaucratic system,...

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there have to be different people who do different jobs.  If you have a loose group of (for example) three lawyers who are together in an office simply to share rent and the cost of a receptionist, there is no bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy only exists if there are different people doing specific different jobs.

The second aspect is a hierarchy of authority.  A true bureaucracy needs to have a chain of command.  There must be set lines of authority where each person in the bureaucracy knows who they report to and whose commands they must obey.

Third, there are written rules and regulations.  A bureaucracy is run on the basis of formal rules.  Bureaucracies are not run on the whims of their employees.  A manager does not get to simply make up the rules on a day-to-day basis.  Instead, there are written rules so that everyone knows what is required of them.

Fourth, a bureaucracy is impersonal.  What that means is that it does not take into account personalities or the identity of people involved in any particular issue.  If, for example, you want to take vacation, you get exactly the number of days that the rules say you get, regardless of whether you are the boss’s nephew.  If you violate rules, you incur the consequences, again regardless of your personal connections to anyone. 

Finally, employment in a bureaucracy is based on competence and qualification.  It is sometimes said that life is about “who you know, not what you know.”  In a bureaucracy, this should not be the case.  You get hired or promoted based on whether you are qualified for a given job, not based on whether you have personal connections.

In these ways, bureaucracies are very rationalized, formalized systems for getting work done.

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What are the features of bureaucracy in business?

A bureaucracy in business has a number of features.  The most important of these include:

They are hierarchical.  In a business that has a bureaucracy, there are clear differences in power and authority.  A manager at a McDonald’s gets to tell all of the cooks what to do.  They do not have the power to tell the manager what to do.  The rules of the bureaucracy define who is superior to whom in the organization.

They have a clear division of labor.  One distinctive feature of a bureaucracy is that it has work rules.  It has these rules to define who does what job and to make sure that people do not do jobs that do not “belong” to them. 

It has strict rules and procedures.  There is no room in a bureaucratic organization for freelancing or deciding how to do a particular job.

Of course, a business can be more bureaucratic or less bureaucratic.  McDonald’s is a very bureaucratic business with clear rules that govern essentially every action a worker takes.  By contrast, a teacher works in a less bureaucratic business.  There is a principal who has authority and there are rules, but there are not such detailed rules and procedures telling them (for example) exactly how they will teach their class.  So, while all bureaucracies have certain features, the features are not present to the same degree in all businesses.

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