Theories of Practice: The Structural Frame
"bureaucracy" has taken on a negative connotation in most institutions
During the 20th century, one approach to organizing human activity has predominated: the rational-technical approach. This model likens work and the workplace to a machine, assuming that human work can be configured and re-configured in such ways that, as problems arise, they can be minimized, if not eliminated. Productivity, then, can be improved as managers implement strategies which stimulate humans to work more in more routine, predictable, efficient, and reliable ways.
Historically, the notion of "work" in the 18th century denoted, for the most part, agricultural endeavors and those subsidiary activities that supported rural life. However, powerful social forces were stirring, including the rise of industrialization, the influx of immigrants, and urbanization which coalesced by the early-20th century and challenged people to re-think the notion of work. During this transformative period, workers—who possessed little formal education and who were desperately seeking employment—provided fodder for the nascent industrial machine.
For this machine to function efficiently, however, a new approach to work was needed and theorists began to envision methods to design and control work in such a way as to reduce worker discretion. Borrowing from and building upon the pioneering work of Frederick the Great in reorganizing the Prussian army, the German sociologist Max Weber devised an organizational theory for industry. Weber's theory, emphasizing precision, speed, clarity, regularity, reliability, and efficiency, seemed to describe accurately just what the industrial machine needed. Weber believed the ideals embedded in his theoretical construct could be achieved by integrating a fixed division of tasks, hierarchical supervision, and detailed rules and regulations into the industrial organization. Weber’s theory seemed to be a perfect match, given the historical pressures exerting themselves at the time. Work could be designed in such a way that workers would not have to think; they would only have to follow orders. Managers, on the other hand, could be trained to develop and refine the standard procedures that would guide work in factories (cited in Morgan, 1997, pp. 15-16).
In the United States, the forces of industrialization and urbanization were also at work. One theorist, Frederick Taylor (1911/1967), pressed beyond Weber’s theoretical model by rationalizing a new management theory. "Scientific management theory," as Taylorism has come to be known, organized the workplace, not just workers, in a precisely-defined command and control structure where rational systems fostered industrial efficiency. First, Taylor used scientific methods to determine the work to be performed. From that, he wrote manuals which codified the work to be performed in minute detail and set performance standards for workers. Then, Taylor organized recruitment and training plans and specified a comprehensive assessment system as well. These elements provide the basic ingredients of Taylors recipe for organizational success.
At the time, Taylors model not only revolutionized the industrial complex but also spawned the "mental revolution" Taylor himself envisioned (Nelson, 1992). The degree to which this mental revolution changed attitudes about work was unforeseen but vital toward the emergence of an industrial base and the improvement of living conditions. The scientific method of managing work reflects a fundamental belief in rationality and a faith that the right formal arrangements can minimize organizational problems. Unfortunately, the model’s strengths also belie some inherent limitations which cast human beings and their work in a rather dark relief. Taken to an extreme, Taylor's theory bred the "Iron Cage" Weber (1930/1992) envisioned descending upon workers in his classic work, The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism. According to H. L. Menken, this theory also evidences itself in those "bureaucratic" civil servants who "...in point of fact, are seldom if ever moved by anything rationally describable as public spirit; there is actually no more public spirit among them than among so many burglars or street-walkers. Their purpose, first, last and all the time, is to promote their private advantage, and to that end, and that end alone, they exercise all the vast powers that are in their hands...."
In contrast, Gerstner (2002) argues that the rival, total decentralization, also is problematic, especially in "today's highly competitive, rapidly changing world." He argues:
As maligned as bureaucracies are today and with all of the bad press they receive, could it be true that the structural frame and its theories should instead be praised? Peter du Gay believes so. In his book, In Praise of Bureaucracy, du Gay defends “the bureaucratic ethos” and discusses its continuing relevance to the achievement of social order and good government in liberal democratic societies.
du Gay, P. (2000). In praise of bureaucracy: Weber − organization − ethics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gerstner, L. (2002). Who says elephants can't dance? New York: HarperCollins.
Morgan, G. (1997). Images of organization (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Nelson, D. (Ed.) (1992). A mental revolution: Scientific management since Taylor. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Taylor, F. W. (1911/1967). The principles of scientific management. New York: W. W. Norton.
Weber, M. (1930/1992). The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (A. Giddens, Trans.). New York: Routledge.