When I studied management science, the work of two researchers stuck in my mind: Henry Mintzberg and Charles Handy. What made these two stick was the linkage I saw between their ideas.
Mintzberg proposed that there are only a limited number of ways an organisation can be structured. He started out with five, adding a sixth later:
- Simple structure – fairly loose organisation with a clear focal point, something most organisations start with.
- Machine bureaucracy – highly structured with standardised working – often the intention shown in common organisational charts. An example would be an army, which has a well defined hierarchy and command structure.
- Professional bureaucracy – administration may be centralised but the organisation’s main services are delivered by professionals who hold their own authority. Think of a medical practice.
- Divisionalised or matrix structure – semi-autonomous units, possibly a mix of the preceding two types. A project organisation would be like this with project teams drawn from a range of discipline groups.
- Adhocracy – vey loose structure that changes according to need.
- Missionary – an organisation running along idealistic principles.
Handy looked at organisational culture, suggesting just four broad types:
- Club culture – this is where the power is held centrally, such as in a small family run organisation (or a golf club); nothing significant happens without a decision from the centre. It’s usually depicted as a spider’s web.
- Role culture – each individual’s role, position and authority is well defined by their job description. Depicted as a stylised temple, this is the ultimate bureaucracy – what you do is defined by your job title, not your ability. Power is exercised through position.
- Task culture – a more dynamic system where roles change and is represented by a lattice. People within this culture need to be comfortable with multiple lines of reporting.
- Person culture – the ultimate in flexibility, where individuals decide what is needed (singly or collectively) and little formal hierarchy. It’s depicted as a circle enclosing a number of individual spots.
Both of the above are very much simplified but, to me, there were some clear fits between structure and culture: the machine bureaucracy needs the role culture, the simple structure will probably work best with a club culture; similarly I’d expect a person culture within a professional bureaucracy and a task culture with a matrix structure. The culture within adhocracies or missionary organisations will, almost by definition, vary according to the current need though I’d expect a person culture to predominate.
And the purpose behind this? It’s relatively easy to change the structure of an organisation – we do it regularly – but it’s a lot harder to change the culture. When auditing or advising, it’s easy to find out the structure as it will usually be defined within the management system documentation; it’s just as important to determine the prevailing culture. If the structure doesn’t fit the culture, expect trouble. This is just a brief overview that hardly does the subject justice – a quick search online will yield a lot more – and will be well worth the effort.