bu•reau•cra•cy noun \byuÌ‡-ËˆrÃ¤-krÉ™-sÄ“, (3) a system of administration marked by officialism, red tape, and proliferation. (As per Merriam Webster)
Spoiler alert: This post is likely to be controversial!
Bureaucracy. The word conjures up immediate images of (perhaps typically government) paper pushers, inefficiency, and a general inability to get anything done. Google suggests “bureaucracy as organization pathology” before “bureaucracy as a form of organization”.
Software, on the other hand, is supposed to be based on more evolved, new-gen principles, employing as it does the millennial generation, and organized to what Charles Hecksher calls the Post-Bureaucratic model of organization (excerpted here). According to Hecksher, this form of organization aims to “replace the giants of the past century who thrived on bureaucratic systems”.
I believe that moving through the three stages of organizational design is necessary before reaching the third, post-bureaucratic stage.
Start-ups are pre-bureaucratic. Smaller organizations need to be pre-bureaucratic as this enables a smaller number of committed people (“Heroes’) to ‘do what it takes’ in order to achieve outputs, first to survive and then to thrive. These Heroes are critical to success at this stage.
With growth, companies tend to add process quickly internally, (of the ‘you can no longer do that informally- please raise a request’ variety). However, the same needs to be applied in customer facing processes as well. If customer-facing processes continue to rely on Heroes – the primary problem is an inability to scale. Demand for Heroes grows faster than supply!
Many software companies that develop products closely in alignment with markets, clients and consumers have moved to design and collaboration as the defining element of success, and this favors a post-bureaucratic model of organization. However, if we examine the work products delivered by most services companies (or the Indian operations of many MNC IT corporations), we quickly find that at the moment, the work is often analogous to the assembly line operations of old economy service companies than the supposed true dialogue and consensus of new-gen software development.
Look at any services business (not just software) and you will see that innovation is delivered via the Service Delivery Process, and the number of people engaged in creative process design is far lower than the number of service employees for the organization. Likewise, IT service innovation tends to be process led, with winners having better structures and process, rather than necessarily better people (at scale); might this work be most profitably delivered using a bureaucracy?
I once consulted for a BPO client who went out of the way to make the workplace cool and fun, but could not hide the fact that the work was, in fact, repetitive and script driven. Efforts to create a workplace that is not aligned with the underlying nature of work will only end in dissonance for employees. So what’s wrong with bureaucracy?
Now, a badly run bureaucracy is just as bad as badly run anything else, but that is another story. What do you think?