The Basic Idea
Picture a company with 20 people and a company with 200 people. How do you imagine each might operate? Would they have a similar organizational structure, or would there be different positions based on the size of the company? Maybe you pictured the company with 200 people to be more structured in responsibilities and knowledge. Following the organizational structure of a professional bureaucracy, this would certainly be the case.
Within a professional bureaucracy, there is a key group of employees with whom middle managers interact - they are the professional operating core of the organization.1 In this case, “professional” refers to the standardization of skills, such that jobs are highly specialized so workers are trained extensively on the skills required for their role. This tends to encourage some decentralization, since it is difficult for those in higher positions of power to possess all the specialized skills required across roles. Professional bureaucracies are typically found in complex but stable environments such as hospitals and schools.
Theory, meet practice
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The way that an organization is structured will define how certain activities - like supervision or the allocation of tasks - are designed to achieve the company’s goals.2 This is because organizational structures impact the way projects are divided and procedures are formatted (i.e. who does what). There have been many different models of organizational structure since different organizations have different needs in order to be efficient, flexible, and innovative. As a result, organizational structures have been a distinct field of study since the 1940s, an emergence mostly attributed to sociologist and political economist Max Weber.
Weber presented the concept of bureaucratic structures - among the existing organizational structures - as analogous to a machine: precise, fast, and unambiguous.3 He outlined how bureaucratic structures would have a certain degree of standardization and be better suited for more complex or larger administrations. Ultimately, there were three main characteristics for bureaucracies: clearly defined roles and responsibilities; respect for merit; and a hierarchical structure. In terms of hierarchy, bureaucracies would have people in different levels of the organization, with policies regulating the decision making and actionable powers afforded to individuals at each level. In other words, everyone would know and respect their place.
In the 1970s, Henry Mintzberg reviewed the literature on organizational structure that had manifested since Weber’s conceptualizations in the 1940s.1 Mintzberg noticed that although the literature was quite varied, the number five kept standing out. He realized that, when compiled, all the research articles seemed to break down into fives: five basic parts of an organization, five basic mechanisms of coordination in the organization, and five organizational configurations. This inspired Mintzberg to publish his 1980 paper, Structure in 5’s: A synthesis of the research on organization design.
In his paper, Mintzberg started by outlining the five basic parts of organizations:
- The operating core, which includes all employees who produce the basic products and services of the organization; the lowest level.
- The middle line, which includes the middle level managers who are situated between those in the operating core and strategic apex.
- The strategic apex, which includes the highest level leaders.
- The technostructure, which includes analysts (i.e. accountants, planners, schedulers).
- The support staff, which includes those who provide indirect support to the organization (i.e. human resources, lawyers, public relations).
Mintzberg then described the five ways that coordination of tasks could be carried out:
- In direct supervision.
- In the standardization of work processes, where work is coordinated through standards regarding how to do the work.
- In the standardization of outputs, where work is coordinated through standard performance measures or specifications on work outputs.
- In the standardization of skills, where work is coordinated by workers internalizing the skills and knowledge required for their work.
- In mutual adjustment, where individuals coordinate their own work through informal communications.
Finally, Mintzberg presented five organizational structures that he felt were a result of the different organizational parts and coordination of tasks:
- Simple structure, where the strategic apex and direct supervision dominate the organization.
- Machine bureaucracy, where the technostructure and standardization of work processes dominate the organization.
- Professional bureaucracy, where the operating core and standardization of skills dominate the organization.
- Divisionalized form, where the middle line and standardization of outputs dominate the organization.
- Adhocracy, where the support staff and mutual adjustment dominate the organization.
A Canadian academic working in the domains of business and management, Mintzberg has been appointed to the Order of Canada and the Royal Society of Canada for his contribution to organization theory.4 Specifically, his organizational configurations framework described five valid organizational configurations, outlining the coordination of tasks within each configuration and their basic parts.1 Mintzberg has also contributed to business strategy theories, emphasizing the strength of emergent strategy, which arises informally at any level in an organization, over deliberate strategy, which is determined consciously by top levels of management.5
Mintzberg’s formalizations of the different organizational structures including professional bureaucracy have influenced the way organizations are designed, as there are now unique models to address different needs.6 As outlined in Mintzberg’s original sketch for professional bureaucracies, hiring practices now typically ensure a large operating core.1 Employees are now usually provided extensive training to standardize their skills and are offered significant autonomy. As an extension, there are also often lots of support staff to help professionals do their jobs, and committees with targeted responsibilities. There is very little technostructure, and the strategic apex and middle line also tend to be relatively small. Professional bureaucracies have been commonly adapted for institutions like education systems, law firms, and healthcare facilities.6
While organizational change is difficult to install and maintain, the success of change processes depends partly on how organizations are structured.6 Many social policies such as mental health deinstitutionalization and school desegregation have been implemented through professional bureaucracies and through the cooperation of different, formalized stakeholders within the organization. Scholars have identified efficient strategic decision making as another advantage of professional bureaucracies, as individual committees are responsible for their respective areas and there are therefore fewer levels of people that need to approve decisions.7
Some have criticized bureaucracies, holding that their standardizations discourage creativity and innovation.8 To this end, professional bureaucracies have been criticized for not considering power relationships and the negative implications of pigeonholing. By designating specific employees to specific areas of the organization, they may feel unable or unwelcome to participate in other aspects of the company’s work. Some critics worry that this may stunt professional growth and prevent beneficial ideas from being shared.
Additionally, some have misinterpreted Mintzberg’s five configurations as a concrete typology, instead of how they were intended to be used: as conceptual frameworks that can help people understand organizational behavior.1
Related TDL Content
We’re trying to cover it all! If you are interested in learning about other organizational structures like adhocracy, this article will offer some great insights. Using case studies may be especially helpful in understanding how different organizational structures are advantageous for different organizations’ needs.
Take a look at this article to gain insight into the chain of command, one of Max Weber’s main tenets of a hierarchical structure.
Our interview with Olivier Sibony is available in both podcast and transcript versions. A researcher on decision making and strategic thinking, Sibony discusses organizational structures and makes a case for bureaucracy, all while acknowledging the loss aversion of businesses.
- Mintzberg, H. (1980). Structure in 5’s: A synthesis of the research on organization design. Management Science, 26(3), 322-341.
- Scott, W. R. (1975). Organizational structure. Annual Review of Sociology, 1(1), 1-20.
- Lutzker, M. A. (1982). Max Weber and the analysis of modern bureaucratic organization: Notes toward a theory of appraisal. The American Archivist, 45(2), 119-130.
- Mintzberg, H. (n.d.). Résumé. https://mintzberg.org/resume
- Mintzberg, H. (1994). The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving roles for planning, plans, planners. Free Press.
- Cheng, S. (1990). Change processes in the professional bureaucracy. Journal of Community Psychology, 18(3), 183-193.
- Provan, D. J., Dekker, S. W. A., & Rae, A. J. (2017). Bureaucracy, influence and beliefs: A literature review of the factors shaping the role of a safety professional. Safety Science, 98, 98-112.
- Zey-Ferrell, M. (1981). Criticisms of the dominant perspective on organizations. The Sociological Quarterly, 22, 181-205.