Tuesday, March 9, 2010

An Evaluation of Post Bureaucracy

The idea of post bureaucracy has been around for several decades, arising as a proposed answer to the flaws of the bureaucratic system. However, while the idea of post bureaucracy is designed to rectify these short comings, the critical approach suggests it has several pitfalls. This essay will critically evaluate the major imperfections of post bureaucracy and endeavour to make a suggestion on how the negative effects can be minimised. Although many companies such as McDonalds like to view themselves, and claim that they are, post bureaucratic, many academics such as Heckscher and Donnellon claim that there is no such thing as a pure post bureaucratic organisation. They do, however, acknowledge the existence of the central ideas of post bureaucracy in several organisations such as the Saturn Corporation, GE-Canada and Shell-Sarnia. These fundamental aspects of post bureaucracy, “trust, empowerment, personal treatment and shared responsibility” (Knights & Willmott, 2007), are the issues which this essay will analytically discuss, exploring the mainstream and critical views of each. These attributes also double as Knights and Willmott’s definition of post bureaucracy. Overall this essay will demonstrate that while the quintessential principles of post bureaucracy have positive implications, the potential negative effects vastly outweigh the benefits for a pure post bureaucratic organisation.

Trust is an important feature of the post bureaucratic system. While the idea of trust between employers and employees in an organisation is desirable and can lead to many advantages, it can also be socially and economically costly to the business. The idea of post bureaucratic trust refers to a lack of rules and discipline, and the use of normative control. It acts on the assumption that employees and customers are motivated by a desire to serve the organisation they are a part of, as well as to do the right thing. It assumes that an implication of rules would likely be detrimental to the organisations relationship with its employees and customers. From a mainstream point of view trust in post bureaucracy is believed to be a combatant against the demoralising onslaught of regulations and rules within bureaucracy. It is designed so that employees, customers, and other stakeholders of the organisation feel as if they are a vital part and essential to that organisations function. The aspect of trust also allows for personal emotion and judgement to arise, which is closely linked with the other characteristics of post bureaucracy. In others words, the concept of trust is used to the ensure happiness of all the people related to the organisation. A successful occurrence of this is within the Hells Northcross store, where general staff are trusted by the managers of the organisation enough that they are given the password for issuing monetary discounts to customers. The privilege of having this information could easily be misused and cause Hells Northcross a lot of monetary loss if the staff used the password for personal gain. However the failure of this post bureaucratic hall mark is evident in many website community organisations, such as ‘Christ Almartyr’, ‘Audiobooks For Download, Your Number 1 Source’ and ‘Totally Free Movie Download’. Although these particular organisations have few, if any, employees, the trust aspect is between the organisation and its customers. These websites do not necessarily have a particular rule or disciplinary measure restricting its users from abusing the material and service they provide. Instead they rely on trust, and the honesty of that user. These particular organisations allow access to copyrighted material for free, but instead of having the rules and regulations in place that a bureaucratic organisation would have, ‘Christ Almartyr’, ‘Audiobooks For Download, Your Number 1 Source’ and ‘Totally Free Movie Download’ assume that the people visiting the website will not misuse their services. However, while this is an ideal situation, it is rare for an organisation like this not to be exploited by any individual. For example websites such as these almost halved the revenue of the film industry in Hong Kong between 1997 and 2004 (“In 1997, Hong Kong-made films generated HK$700 million in revenues. By 2004, this had almost halved to HK$380 million, a decline that has been largely attributed to piracy.” (Rochester, 2008)). It is evident from these figures that the ability to download copyrighted material is being abused, and the confidence of organisations has been broken. This illustrates that the trust aspect of post bureaucracy is flawed and defective as suggested by the critical approach.

Alongside trust, empowerment is a major component of post bureaucracy. It represents organisations awarding power and authority to those lower in the organisational hierarchy (Knights & Willmott, 2007). The intention of empowerment in the post bureaucratic society is to create an environment where the organisations employees are empowered enough, and awarded the ability to make decisions, so that they begin to feel as a sense of individuality and personal identification with that organisation (Iedema, 2003). Although the fundamental ideals behind empowerment are exhilarating and in the right environment would allow a business and other types of organisations to flourish, the critical approach would have us believe that there are some considerable downsides to allowing the empowerment of employees in a work place. While in the perfect situation, empowerment would allow the organisations workers to function without managerial governance and effectively increase the organisations performance efficiency, the human element is responsible for disintegrating this potential. People as whole are unpredictable and potentially irrational; because of this the empowerment of employees is an impending disaster for business. In keeping with the Hells Northcross example, the staff privileged with the knowledge of the manager’s password are empowered. If one of these staff members were to betray the trust of their employer and use the information they were empowered with for personal gain, applying discounts to orders where none should be given, the business would suffer economically. While this example is hypothetical and has only a small effect on the business, empowerment can cause much more devastating effects, including the liquidation of organisations. In a large organisation, for example an innovation firm such as IdeaConnection, the empowerment issue can be even more costly and occur further up the hierarchical ladder. Assume one of IdeaConnection’s empowered employees made a decision based on their own limited experience and expertise. Because the idea of empowerment is to allow employees to construct, and implement, such decisions without the prior approval of higher authority the statistical probability of an incorrect and detrimental decision being put into practice increases dramatically. IdeaConnection is an organisation designed to, and a self proclaimed problem solver for the good of the public (Online Data Services Ltd., 2007). This means that IdeaConnection is an organisation which other organisations and business can look to and confide in, when it comes to their problems. If the situation occurred where an employee of IdeaConnection made an inadequate and grave decision on the behave of the company hiring them as a consultant, the ramifications could result in massive monetary loss, job loss and even liquidation for that organisation. Although many of the arguments for and against post bureaucracy are based purely on theory as a result of lack of physical evidence, the potential for disaster is extremely clear. The critical analysis of the theoretical data exemplifies that the post bureaucratic system is far from perfection.

The organisation system of bureaucracy has an underlying emphasis on impersonality, post bureaucracy on the other hand emphasises personal treatment. The problem with impersonality in organisations is the fact that the distance created from treating the stakeholders as if they don’t matter breeds alienation. Post bureaucracy set out to amend this negative impact. To do this personal treatment arose, however while personal treatment does negate the feeling of being just another cog in the machine (Kamenka & Krygier, 1979), it creates its own problems. According to Heckscher & Donnellon the ideal post bureaucratic type has people treated as individuals (Heckscher & Donnellon, 1994). The idea behind treating the stakeholders (employees, investors, and customers) as individuals is so that there is no alienation, and all the individuals associated with the organisation are satisfied with their role, or roles, within and concerning that organisation. Along with the other fundamentals of post bureaucracy, the flexibility entailed in personal treatment is all about the emotional well-being of the people involved with an organisation. When successfully executed, personal treatment can make an experience with an organisation bearable when it would otherwise be demoralising and painful for the individual. Trade Me New Zealand while predominantly a bureaucratic organisation does however employ the post bureaucratic ideal of personal treatment and is a prime example of successful execution of this aspect. Even though each customer is given a member number they have the ability to select a name for themselves, such as sentosa1, and when they contact the organisation for advice or about an issue relating to their experience within the Trade Me organisation the email responses are personalised and use the individual’s name. This, while accurately addressing any issues presented in the users email, assures the individual that they are being looked after and are in fact a valued member of the organisation. While Trade Me can effectively employ the use of personal treatment, many other organisations both in New Zealand and all around the world suffer the pitfalls of this feature of post bureaucracy. Personal treatment, literally means to treat each individual personally, this often, and undoubtedly, leads to discrimination within the organisation. Prejudice and discrimination in a post bureaucratic organisation are unavoidable, whether an individual be discriminated against because of ethnic background, gender, religion or sexual orientation, personal treatment can effectively eliminate the chance of organisation recruiting and employing the best possible staff for the job. Discrimination against employees is not the only worry. Customers may also be discriminated against negatively impacting on their experience with that organisation. An example of the negative effects of personal treatment can be seen in job applications. If a single position was available and there were multiple applicants, it is possible that the employer could make a decision based on personal bias rather than what is best for the organisation. The employer may discriminate against an applicant because of their sex, for example, and consider only the male applicants where in fact it was the female applicant who was best qualified for the vacant position. Because of this, while the idea is genuine, personal treatment and post bureaucracy is not the optimal system for organisation, particularly when dealing with the task of employment.

Shared responsibility is an equally important part of the post bureaucratic organism (Knights & Willmott, 2007). With the post industrial era emerging in the 1970s, shared responsibility within organisations was given increasingly more emphasis. It is based around the idea of involving everybody in the work place and gives all the organisations employees a voice. This means that the tasks, and responsibilities that come with them, within an organisation are divided up and allocated to the employees based on competence regardless of their hierarchical status (Heckscher & Donnellon, 1994). It also refers to the segmentation of responsibility spread between several project and functional managers, removing the dictatorship effects of a single authoritative figure. Shared responsibility is designed to satisfy the desire for autonomy in workers and a world in which their personal opinions are recognised and count in the broader context (Kamenka & Krygier, 1979). While this overlaps with the idea of personal treatment, shared responsibility approaches the ‘cog in the machine’ problem from another angle, aiming to boost morale through awarding employees with greater liabilities. In the ideal post bureaucratic organisation, shared responsibility will allow the concepts of the most qualified employees’ minds to flourish regardless of the hierarchy structure. However, this can also be detrimental to the organisation. Assume that responsibility was allocated out to various employees, this would confuse the centralised control and hierarchical authority within the organisation. This can lead to decisions being made, and policies being implemented, that harm the organisation. The loss of control is one of the three significant downfalls of the post bureaucratic system, coupled with this, is the increased risk. Shared responsibility brings these two chief issues into a reality, emphasising the negative effects of post bureaucratic trust and empowerment. While many organisations such as JB Hi-Fi and several government departments do not employ shared responsibility in the sense of low level employees being allocated high level responsibility, they often use shared responsibility in a more bureaucratic way. Division of labour is one the key elements to bureaucracy, JB Hi-Fi uses this element when it comes managerial staff, departmentalising the responsibilities into multiple sections with each branch being allocated a separate manager. Through this JB Hi-Fi is able to respond to customer needs quickly and efficiently, because the managers are able to focus on one particular category of the organisation. This example of shared responsibility at the management level within an organisation illustrates the potential benefits of it successful execution. However, if JB Hi-Fi were to increase the level of shared responsibility, leaking the managerial duties down the hierarchical ladder to the bottom level employees, the probability for errors increase dramatically and the organisation would imminently start to lose control. While the danger associated with shared responsibility within organisations is clear through critical analysis, it is also obvious that there are considerable advantages indicating that the post bureaucratic system is not entirely flawed when applied in moderation.

In my personal opinion, while post bureaucracy has several aspects which may be inviting from both an employer and employee perspective, as the mainstream approach would like everyone to think, the critical approach suggesting there is several flaws in the organisational system has a legitimate argument. From examining organisations and the resources relevant to post bureaucracy, it is my opinion that a purely post bureaucratic organisation does not, and will not, exist. However I believe that the fundamentals of post bureaucracy will be kept alive in some form through an ever changing organisational structure, balancing the aspects of both bureaucracy and post bureaucracy. This hybrid structure will soon become the dominant organisational structure throughout the world, as organisations try to find the most efficient and successful way to operate. It is my opinion that post bureaucracy will not take over the bureaucratic form, but instead be absorbed into it, forming the hybrid structure.

Through the critical evaluation of the key attributes of the post bureaucratic system, examining both the mainstream and critical approaches of its application in organisations, this essay has shown that the potential for economic disaster vastly outweighs the benefits that it offers. While the idea behind post bureaucracy has merit, a purely post bureaucratic organisation would suffer from its obvious deficiencies caused by the trust, empowerment, personal treatment and shared responsibility aspects of the organisational system. The same can be said about an organisation that is purely a bureaucracy. Ironically the downfalls of post bureaucracy can be solved by using the organisational system it set out to correct, bureaucracy. Because of this it is apparent that the most successful businesses of the future, and present, would be those that are able to the balance the fundamentals of both bureaucracy and post bureaucracy within their organisation, thus creating a hybrid structure. This alternate view, the hybrid system, will become the dominate form in organisations and would be easily able to keep the impersonality aspect of bureaucracy without alienating employees or customers as well as have some rules and regulations in place while being flexible and adaptive. Overall, regardless of the positives behind the post bureaucratic system the pitfalls will cause an evolutionary change in organisational structure, with the hybrid system being the child of this evolution.

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Knights, D., & Willmott, H. (2007). Introducing Organisational Behaviour & Management. London, United Kingdom: Thomson Learning.

Rochester, A., (2008). What Effect Has BitTorrent Had On The Media Industry? Reading Room. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from http://www.lawdit.co.uk/ reading_room/room/view_article.asp?name=../articles/7006-What-effect-has BitTorrent-had-on-the-media-industry.htm

Iedema, R., (2003). Discourses of Post-bureaucratic Organization. Amsterdam, the Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Online Data Services Ltd. (2007). IdeaConnection. About the Company. Retrieved March 23, 2009, from http://www.ideaconnection.com/about.html

Heckscher, C. & Donnellon, A. (1994). The Post-Bureaucratic Organization: new perspectives on organizational change. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Kamenka, E. & Krygier, M. (1979). Bureaucracy: The Career of a Concept. London, United Kingdom: Edward Arnold.

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