Modern Organization

Modern Organization

by Victor A. Thompson

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Modern Organization is a classic text of organization development that addresses the complications that occur in power structures within which workers with specialized skills are managed by superiors without those skills. Thompson is interested in exploring and righting the creative tensions between knowledge and power, demonstrating that within hierarchical structures, the wielders of power often lack not only the technical know-how of their employees but charisma and other attributes that would win the loyalty and confidence of those employees.   Thompson coins the phrase “bureaupathic” behavior to describe the rise in a perceived need for regulations and rituals that result from the insecurity in these structures. This behavior only confounds working life and efficiency. Technical specialization is rapidly advancing, while cultural definitions of authority are not. Authority must be redefined in order to make allowances for its limitations. What once made a leader, namely charisma, may no longer suffice. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817389727
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 05/31/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 220
File size: 274 KB

About the Author

Victor A. Thompson earned a PhD from Columbia University and taught at Illinois Institue of Technology (1950-62) and the University of Florida, Gainesville (1971-81). His books include Bureaucracy and Innovation and Bureaucracy and the Modern World.

Read an Excerpt

Modern Organization

By Victor A. Thompson

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 1977 Victor A. Thompson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-8972-7



1. Thesis

Current interest in problems of organization reflects the great extent to which modern man's life is organized for him. His education, his livelihood, his recreation, and even his religion are products of the planned and co-ordinated activities of great numbers of people most of whom he has never met and never will. He is a product of modern organization. His fate is vitally affected by his understanding of it. The purpose of this book is to describe and to explain organization in modern society.

Unspecialized primitive man was organized in kinship groups — family groups which served all of his needs. Such organization was inadequate for specialized man, and new forms developed. In the highly specialized industrial society of today, the predominant form of organization is a highly rationalized and impersonal integration of a large number of specialists co-operating to achieve some announced specific objective.

Superimposed upon the highly elaborated division of work in such organizations is an also highly elaborated hierarchy of authority. We propose, following Max Weber, to call this form of organization "bureaucracy." Examples would be governmental departments and business corporations. There are many nonbureaucratic kinds of organization — for example, families, clubs, political parties, associations, interest groups, churches, and schools. As some of these break away from tradition, however, rationalize their activities, divide their work on the basis of specialized, expert knowledge and ability, they become more bureaucratic. Thus, educational organizations and even some religious ones are showing signs of bureaucratization.

As the bureaucratic form has developed, associated as it is with the advance of specialization, the most stubborn problem has proved to be the securing of co-operation among individual specialists. If the problem of co-operation can be solved, it seems that specialization is capable of accomplishing almost any material objective. Increasingly large amounts of time, effort, and thought are expended on the securing of co-operation.

Today in the highly specialized societies of the West most people spend much of their time as small cogs in the machinery of large impersonal bureaucracies. It is through these structures that they must find success, that they must find their livelihood. The demands of bureaucracy govern them during most of their waking moments. The influence of bureaucracy is felt in nearly all aspects of life.

Being a cog in such machinery, the individual has lost much of the control over his own destiny. Many people have a feeling of powerlessness, of alienation, and they respond with various kinds of behavior. Some are able to manipulate organization sufficiently well to achieve important aims of their own. Others submit to bureaucratic standards of achievement and find bureaucracy a natural and comfortable habitat. Whatever the form of adjustment, behavior patterns and character types emerge which are bureaucratically conditioned to some important extent. Modern man is becoming a bureaucratic man, or, as he has been called, an "Organization Man." A new ethic of co-operation begins to replace the older one of self-reliance. A new management technology appears which is concerned with the recalcitrance of people, rather than with the hardness of materials.

These changes have not escaped criticism from those who look nostalgically back to an earlier age. In general, critics deplore the subordination of the individual to the group, "over-conformism," the derogation of individual brilliance and invention, the affectation of good will and good feeling, the devaluation of technical competence as compared to merely "getting along," the insistence on avoiding conflict. They deplore the loss of individual freedom and initiative. They deplore the bureaucratization of society.

Modern bureaucracy is an adaptation of older organizational forms, altered to meet the needs of specialization. Modern specialization is grafted onto it, but old traces of the past remain. Along with technological specialization we find survivals of Genghis Khan and aboriginal war chiefs. We find the latest in science and technology associated with the autocratic, monistic, hierarchical organization of a simpler time. We find, in short, specialization and hierarchy together.

Our analysis will revolve around the relationships between specialist and hierarchical roles. Roles, not jobs or individuals, are the basic units of analysis. For example, we will not be concerned with the "executive" as such, but with the roles he fills. Many executives perform both specialist and hierarchical roles. With increasing specialization, however, executives lose more and more of their specialist activities to other specialists. At the upper reaches of large bureaucracies the executive job and the hierarchical role become almost synonymous, and as specialization advances they undoubtedly will become completely so.

We have said that modern bureaucracy attempts to fit specialization into the older hierarchical framework. The fitting is more and more difficult. There is a growing gap between the right to decide, which is authority, and the power to do, which is specialized ability. This gap is growing because technological change, with resulting increase in specialization, occurs at a faster rate than the change in cultural definitions of hierarchical roles. This situation produces tensions and strains the willingness to co-operate. Much bureaucratic behavior can be understood as a reaction to these tensions. In short, the most symptomatic characteristic of modern bureaucracy is the growing imbalance between ability and authority. Such is our thesis.

2. A Note on Method

Although we intend to use relevant experimental findings of laboratory research, we disclaim any intention of seeking in this way a spurious empirical validity for our argument. We realize that copious reference to laboratory experiments is often so used. Many of these experimental findings are of doubtful value to real life, involving, as the experiments often do, contrived situations with small groups of students or children. It is sad, but very often in social science what can be quantified is trivial. It would be foolish, however, to overlook this experimental material, and such will be presented as suggestive rather than conclusive.

Some students of organization attempt to base their study of the subject upon a consideration of how individuals within organizations decide to do what they do. This orientation gives rise to the currently popular "decision-making" approach. The basic tool of this approach is an individualistic psychology. Although "decision-making" theory has undoubtedly made valuable contributions to the understanding of organizations, we believe its usefulness for our purpose is very limited. An organization is not merely the chance result of a number of decisions made by a number of rational decision makers. Only decisions of decision makers already in the organization, and only their organizational decisions, are relevant. The organization, therefore, must first be accounted for, or decision-making theory never gets beyond individual psychology.

The choice mechanism operates on those elements in the situation which are not handed down or given in advance. The elements which are given in advance are not subject to choice. They constitute the structure of the decisional situation. They are the environmental conditions of choice. They give order to choice. Without referring to these given elements we could not explain order, and we could not predict. When we have specified these given elements in an organizational situation, we have described the organization. We have also explained the system of order which is the organization. Looked at from this point of view, the study of decision making and the study of organization appear as theoretically separate fields. An organization is a particular kind of ordering of human behavior. The task of organization theory is to describe and explain this particular kind of order.

The decision-making approach, with its individualistic psychology, tends to hide the institutional bases of events, the structure of the situations within which decisions occur, and consequently the structural determinants of action. For this reason it tends to be ideological; it tends to protect and to preserve the institutional status quo. Our basic approach, on the contrary, will be sociological. It will concentrate on the structural determinants of behavior and will attempt to analyze behavior functionally.

As used here, "structure" refers to the persistent qualities or given elements in the environmental conditions of choice or action which make it possible to explain and perhaps to predict action. Once we understand the structure of the decisional situation, the action followed by the deciding person becomes logically understandable.

By "function" is meant the practical result produced by an action, relationship, event (or a combination of them) in relation to some value or group of values. People and groups have purposes; activities have functions. Whether the purpose is achieved or not, the act will have functions. Behavior may be functional with regard to one set of values, may preserve or promote them, but dysfunctional with regard to another. The principal focus of our functional analysis will be two-fold: first, the formal, objective, external goal of the organization; and secondly, the personal goals which participants hope to achieve by associating with the organization. That is to say, we shall be interested in the impact of various organizational activities and relationships upon these two sets of values.

One final point needs to be made. Organization theory is not concerned with personality. Personality theory attempts to account for variations in individual behavior. Organization theory attempts to account for order in behavior. A bureaucratic organization is a structure composed of authority, status, technical, and social relationships. This structure can tolerate considerable variation in personalities. Organization theory, therefore, assumes a very general standard personality. Not all behavior of persons in organizations can be explained by organization theory; some will have to be referred to psychological and psychoanalytic techniques and categories of explanation; some will yield only to physical, physiological, or even chemical techniques of explanation. A full account of the behavior of people sitting at their desks would include the laws of gravity, the chemistry of desk and chair, the physiology of the people sitting there, and many other considerations, including temperature and the time of day. Organization theory is only concerned with those aspects of behavior which are determined by organizational structures.

This exclusion of personality from our account may seem wrong to many persons in supervisory positions. Many may feel that most of their problems stem from individual idiosyncrasies. They feel this way because they take the organization for granted. The few "personality cases" are easy to see, and they take up time. The enormous system of order, the organization, goes unnoticed. The deviant is a "personality problem" precisely because he does not respond to organizational determinants; his behavior cannot be explained by organization theory and must be referred to personality theory. Fortunately, the very general standard personality assumed by organization theory fits most people, otherwise, organizations would have to be managed from top to bottom by psychiatrists.

There is undoubtedly some interplay between personality and organization structure. This subject has received little systematic attention as of yet. To explore it will require a theory of organization somewhat more completely worked out than we have had up to the present time. It is our hope that this book will make some contribution toward the development of such a theory.



1. Max Weber and the Theory of Bureaucracy

The great German sociologist, Max Weber, was the first to attempt a systematic theory of bureaucratic organization. His views remain important to us not only because of his enormous influence on American social scientists, but also because of the continuing validity of much of his analysis.

Weber pictured an evolution of organizational forms in terms of the kind of authority relations within them. At one extreme is a simple, relatively nonspecialized kind of organization in which followers give almost unqualified obedience to a leader endowed with "charisma" — presumed unusual, generally magical powers. Such organization was primitive in the sense that it was based upon belief in magic. Since their prerogatives depended upon their leader's charisma, his immediate staff felt insecure and sought a firmer legitimation of these prerogatives. Their fears came to a head at the time of succession in the leadership. Routinization of methods used to obtain a successor and thus to secure staff prerogatives resulted in the traditionalistic form of organization. Monarchy would be an example.

Weber conceived of the world as becoming progressively rationalized and demystified, with corresponding change in organizational forms. Both charismatic and traditional authority become harder to maintain, and a new, rationalized, legalistic kind of authority and structure emerged. He called this kind of organization "bureaucracy."

Weber believed in a cycle of change from charismatic to traditionalistic and bureaucratic forms of organization against a background of increasing rationalization. Charisma disrupts and is antithetical to the process of rationalization. Charismatic leadership is needed when existing routines cannot cope with growing problems or crises. The charismatic personality emerges and overshadows routine and procedure.

Weber specified a list of criteria for the fully developed bureaucratic form, including technical training of officials, merit appointments, fixed salaries and pensions, assured careers, the separation of organizational rights and duties from the private life of the employee, and a fixed and definite division of work into distinct offices or jobs. He noted that all offices were arranged in a clear hierarchy of subordination and superordination, that members of the organization were subject to strict and systematic control and discipline, and that a rationalized set of rules and regulations tied the whole organization together. He said that it should make no difference how these rules and regulations were adopted, whether they were autocratically imposed or adopted by consent. He also said that obedience to commands should be prompt, automatic, unquestioning.

He noted that the principal general social consequences of this organizational form were a tendency toward social leveling, resulting from the attempt to get the broadest possible basis for recruitment of technical competence; a tendency toward plutocracy, resulting from an interest in the greatest possible length of technical training; and the dominance of a spirit of formalistic impersonality, resulting in the minimization of hatred, of affection, and of enthusiasm.

He felt that the superiority over other forms of organization lay in its capacity to command and to utilize technical knowledge; or as we would say, in specialization. "The choice is only that between bureaucracy and dilettantism in the field of administration."

2. Some Characteristics of Modern Bureaucracy

Although Weber sought to explain bureaucracy by means of a perhaps dubious historical law of increasing rationality, his description of bureaucratic organization seems, in effect, to be consistent with our own. Modern organization has evolved from earlier forms by incorporating advancing specialization. In an earlier period organizations could depend much more on the "line of command." The superior could tell others what to do because he could master the knowledge and techniques necessary to do so intelligently. As science and technology developed, the superior lost to experts the ability to command in one field after another, but he retained the right as part of his role.


Excerpted from Modern Organization by Victor A. Thompson. Copyright © 1977 Victor A. Thompson. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 • Introduction,
2 • Bureaucracy,
3 • Specialization,
4 • Hierarchy,
5 • Conflict,
6 • Ideology,
7 • Dramaturgy,
8 • Bureaupathology,
9 • Co-operation,

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