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In Defense of Bureaucracy

Posted on: 14 May '13

bu•reau•cra•cy noun \byu̇-ˈrä-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?

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  • Ronak Sutaria

    Hi Avinash,

    The point about having bureaucracy as a part of a profitable Service Delivery Process is valid. I do not feel there is anything wrong in having processes in place. But I feel that the downfall of any bureaucratic process happens when it hinders well-meaning people and employees to apply “practical wisdom” to their jobs. The loss of practical wisdom has been very well outlined in a talk by Barry Schwartz here:

    He says in his talk, ” “Practical wisdom,” Aristotle told us, “is the combination of moral will and moral skill.” A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing.”

    In India, we have often seen that once a process sets in, people stop being able to think and rely solely on checklists to take decisions. As mentioned in the talk, job profiles from janitors to presidents of companies need to interact with other people, and as soon as they start giving more importance to processes and bureaucracies and start ignoring the context or do not apply their moral will to the situation, it is then that a process turns into red-tape and badly run bureaucracy.

    It has been said that “We must ask not just ‘Is it profitable?’ but ‘Is it right?'”. And I do strongly believe that ‘Is it right’ is something which each and every employee and human being is able to answer without being made aware of or trained in complex processes.

  • Anshuman Singh

    I think there are three issues at play here: Process, Innovation, and building complexity.

    Let’s tackle building complexity first. When people dislike Bureaucracy, they are alluding to cumbersome or unnecessary complexity. In your example, people detest logging tickets as opposed to picking the phone because logging a ticket is mostly required for the Manager overseeing the KRA for the Support Team (this is thought as the most obvious way to track resolutions & KRA). It is of very little value to the person who is facing the problem. In many companies the onus of logging the ticket is on the helpdesk and not on the individual. This is also a question of mindset: do you treat your internal-customers as a customers or ‘producer of problem tickets’). You can either connect the Pizza Hut’s restaurant bell to a counter or build extensive survey management tools – it’s obvious what is more intuitive.

    Next comes the question of Process. The processes as you rightly said work well for fairly well defined problems. Else you need to rely on Heuristics (your other blog :)). Software Development still hasn’t reached that point. Assembling cars definitely has (long ago) or selling burgers for that matter. And, Heuristics is a function of ‘Smart’ People or Heroes.

    Lastly Innovation: Within the Systematic Innovation domain, we have five levels of innovation. Innovation within Service Delivery would be largely result in better built or cheaper products – not necessarily different. For that you would still need a small team of heroes.

  • R S Yadav

    I fully endorse the views expressed by Mr Avinash Rao.Bureaucracy sets in a formal structure where all stake holders know their place and also know how the work is to be done. It may sound impersonal but it increases efficiency,brings in required checks and balances and makes the organisartion and it’s processes run smoothly irrespective of old people (heroes as Mr Avinash calls them) leaving it and
    new persons joining them.It brings in predictability, a sense of safety and sureness.However , the dedication and sincerity of people manning various echelons of the bureaucracy make that organisation good or bad.Bureaucracy brings in a method in the madness !