Culture and Structure

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:
  1. Simple structure – fairly loose organisation with a clear focal point, something most organisations start with.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Adhocracy – vey loose structure that changes according to need.
  6. Missionary – an organisation running along idealistic principles.
 Handy looked at organisational culture, suggesting just four broad types:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.