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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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2.3.4 The problem of rationality and control

One of the most basic problems of modern management is that the mechanical way of thinking is so ingrained in our everyday conceptions of organization that it is often difficult to organize in any other way.

(Source: Morgan, 1986, p. 14)

So wrote Gareth Morgan in his book Images of organizations. In this book he sought to explain ways of understanding and thinking about organisations. He argued that by exploring different metaphorsfor organisations, managers could learn the art of reading and understanding them. The metaphors opened up new insights into the world of organisations. He developed several different metaphors to describe organisations: machines, organisms, brains, cultures, political systems, psychic prisons, flux and transformation, and instruments of domination.

The following box sets out the different concepts associated with each of Morgan’s metaphors.

Archetypical metaphors for organisations (and associated concepts)


Efficiency, waste, maintenance, order, clockwork, cogs in a wheel, programmes, inputs and outputs, standardisation, production, measurement and control, design


Living systems, environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, recycling, needs,homeostasis, evolution, survival of the fittest, health, illness


Learning, parallel information processing, distributed control, mindsets, intelligence, feedback, requisite variety, knowledge, networks


Society, values, beliefs, laws, ideology, rituals, diversity, traditions, history, service, shared vision and mission, understanding, qualities, families

Political systems

Interests and rights, power, hidden agendas and backroom deals, authority, alliances, party-line, censorship, gatekeepers, leaders, conflict management

Psychic prisons

Conscious and unconscious processes, repression and regression, ego, denial, projection, coping and defence mechanisms, pain and pleasure principle, dysfunction, workaholism

Flux and transformation

Constant change, dynamic equilibrium, flow, self-organisation, systemic wisdom, attractors, chaos, complexity, butterfly effect, emergent properties, dialectics, paradox

Instruments of domination

Alienation, repression, imposing values, compliance, charisma, maintenance of power, force, exploitation, divide and rule, discrimination, corporate interest

(Source: Lawley, 2001)

We will now explore three of these metaphors and how they have shaped management thinking about organisations. The first and most pervasive is the notion of the organisation as being like a machine. The other two metaphors we explore are ‘psychic prisons’ and ‘political systems’.

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Figure 7 The organisation as a machine

Early thinking on business organisations assumed the economic model of rational persons purposively pursuing their ends or objectives. Max Weber (1864–1920), a German sociologist, described bureaucracy as the ultimate model of efficient organisation. He was concerned with the problem that still vexes managers about why people do as they are told. He saw this as stemming from some individuals having the power and authority to issue commands that are viewed as legitimate and therefore obeyed by others. We do not need at the moment to look at all three types of authority he identified (the others are traditional and charismatic authority), but we want to focus on the kind of authority that he saw as typifying modern society – legal-rational. The organisational form that flows from this is bureaucracy. Pugh and Hickson describe this in the following box.

Bureaucracy: the ultimate form of organisation

Weber’s third type of authority system [is] the rational-legal one with its bureaucratic organizational form. This Weber sees as the dominant institution of modern society. The system is called rational because the means are expressly designed to achieve certain specific goals (i.e. the organization is like a well-designed machine with a certain function to perform, and every part of the machine contributes to the attainment of maximum performance of that function). It is legal because authority is exercised by means of a system of rules and procedures through the office which an individual occupies at a particular time. For such an organization Weber uses the name ‘bureaucracy’.In common usage bureaucracy is synonymous with inefficiency, an emphasis on red tape and excessive writing and recording. Specifically it is identified with inefficient public administration. But in terms of his own definition, Weber states that a bureaucratic organization is technically the most efficient form of organization possible. ‘Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction, and material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration.’ Weber himself uses the machine analogy when he says that the bureaucracy is like a modern machine, while other organizational forms are like non mechanical methods of production.

The reason for the efficiency of the bureaucracy lies in its organizational form. As the means used are those which will best achieve the stated ends, it is unencumbered by the personal whims of the leader or by traditional procedures which are no longer applicable. This is because bureaucracies represent the final stage in depersonalisation. In such organizations there is a series of officials, whose roles are circumscribed by written definitions of their authority. These offices are arranged in a hierarchy, each successive step embracing all those beneath it. There is a set of rules and procedures within which every possible contingency is theoretically provided for. There is a ‘bureau’ for the safe keeping of all written records and files. It being an important part of the rationality of the system that information is written down. A clear separation is made between personal and business affairs, bolstered by a contractual method of appointment in terms of technical qualification for office.In such an organization authority is based in the office and commands are obeyed because the rules state that it is within the competence of a particular official to issue such commands. Also important is the stress on the appointment of experts. One of the signs of a developing bureaucracy is the growth of professional managers and an increase in the number of specialist experts with their own departments.

For Weber, this adds up to a highly efficient system of co-ordination and control. The rationality of the organization shows in the ability to ‘calculate’ the consequences of its actions. Because of the hierarchy of authority and the system of rules, control of the actions of individuals in the organization is assured; this is the depersonalization. Because of the employment of experts who have their specific areas of responsibility and the use of files, there is anamalgamation of the best available knowledge and a record of past behaviour of the organization. This enables predictions to be made about future events. The organization has rationality: ‘the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of means’.

Source: Pugh and Hickson, 2007, pp. 7-8

In the 1880s an engineer called Frederick Taylor carried this rational approach to the logical conclusion and devised a way of analysing and synthesising workflows to achieve, as he saw it, the most effective ways of working. He observed people working, measured how long it took them to do tasks, and sought to devise the most efficient way of doing these tasks. This has sometimes been referred to as a ‘time and motion’ study.

With the invention of the conveyor belt, Henry Ford in particular carried this thinking forward. This view of control focused on extrinsic factors, using the conveyor belt to control the pace of work and offering high monetary rewards for tolerating this. This clearly increased the efficiency with which the workers produced cars but at a cost to social relations and job satisfaction. Charlie Chaplin’s 1929 masterpiece Modern times viciously satirised this approach to management, as illustrated in the film stills reproduced here.

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Figure 8 Still from Modern Times (1929)
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Figure 9 Still from Modern Times (1929)

Stop and reflect

We laugh today at the ludicrous situation Chaplin depicts, but it is worth reflecting on the extent to which these ideas still permeate the approach to modern management. To what extent is control and measurement of work a key feature of your work environment?

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