Mechanistic Organizations As Machines: Good Or Bad?

The most debilitating stereotype of our time is that mechanistic organizations are essentially machines. This is patently absurd, and yet it is deeply held by many people in power. It has become entrenched through such modern folk stories as Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Dilbert11 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial and The Castle.

Bureaucracy Is What Runs The Machine

The latter is very important to European and US thinking about organizations, as it not only depicts remorseless bureaucracy as a soulless machine but also as a psychic prison from which it is impossible to escape. The idea of the helpless individual, employee, and victim, trapped in a never-ending bureaucratic nightmare is a very powerful twentieth-century mindset that needs changing if we are to achieve healthy twenty-first-century organizations.

Sympathy For The Employee

Why is the image of the employee-as-victim so powerful? One answer is that we fool ourselves into believing that such a concept must be true if everyone repeats it enough. For example, we have a great belief in the importance and efficacy of ‘organization charts‘ or ‘organograms.’ We draw organization charts to explain to ourselves and others the current functions and hierarchies to ‘show how the mechanistic organization works. Divisions, units, and workgroups have symmetrical lines drawn between them to reinforce the hierarchies.

Are Hierarchies Implemented?

These are patently untrue. Go into any organization armed with its formal organization chart and compare it to what is actually happening informally. At the most prosaic level, some people will be away – ill, on holiday, at a conference, or being trained. Some positions will be vacant because they are still seeking candidates or just cannot get them, or there has been a freeze on recruitment. Some jobs, or even whole departments, will have been disbanded through euphemistically termed ‘lean and mean’ cutbacks. On any one day, it is simply not the organization, as shown in the chart. Yet, it still works informally with a degree of effectiveness and efficiency.

This is because the people who comprise it want it to. They do not buy the impersonal, machine model of organizations and act out their belief that their organization is a living, complex, adaptive organism. The organization is where they get their protection, association, status, recognition, self-esteem, and pay. Their reasons may be of the highest moral and ethical level, as seen in Quaker, Amish, kibbutzim, Islamic or Buddhist communities, or they may be of the lowest and most venal – the important fact is that they fulfill most of their needs through this organization. It sustains them, and in the best cases, nurtures and develops them. It also demands a lot from them.

It has often been argued that mechanistic organizations are about achieving tasks and nurturing people, particularly since the research work of the Tavistock Institute, London identified the concept of the socio-technical systems in 1947. This is necessary but not sufficient, as it still allows a binary, ‘either – or’ view to be too readily accepted.

In the current, bottom-line-oriented climate, such a view will inevitably tilt the balance of a mechanistic organization in the direction of task fixation. We want to see organizations agreeing that they can only achieve tasks through nurturing and developing people – staff, customers, suppliers, directors, managers, and local communities – rather than viewing people as the major obstacles to task achievement.


There is solid business evidence to support the theory that a positive emotional climate allows fewer mistakes and nurtures learning, effectiveness, efficiency, customer satisfaction, and supply-chain relationships, so creating greater shareholder value and longer-lasting organizations.
The business value of a positive, people-orientated approach can be clearly seen, for example, in programs designed to reduce mistakes and accidents. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive says that each year the UK loses 33 million working days through work-related accidents and illness at a cost to the economy of £16 billion. The average direct cost to business is £200 for every employee per year, excluding the cost of damage to the business’s reputation and of reprocessing lost orders.

Creating a positive emotional climate from the top is the antidote to the poisonous tendency to improve short-term bottom-line results to the long-term detriment of the total organization -what Charles Hampden-Turner so aptly referred to as ‘the wet dreams of the rearguard of Western imperialism.’ Yet the belief is still prevalent that organizations are machines to be tinkered with, and the people can be fitted in later – the Lego approach to organizational theory and practice.

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