George Ritzer (1993; 2004) has coined the term ‘McDonaldisation’ to describe the way in which, increasingly, things are produced in similar, standardised ways, updating, amplifying and extending Weber's theory of rationalisation. Ritzer points out that he does not bear any particular animosity towards McDonald's: ‘It is no better or worse than most other fast-food restaurants and other manifestations of the rationalization process. I have labeled the process of concern here "McDonaldization" because McDonald's was, and is, the most important manifestation of the process’ (Ritzer, 2004, p. xiii).
Certainly, McDonald's has an impressive global presence: in 2004, there were more than 30,000 branches of McDonald's in 119 countries. It has also become a symbol of American capitalism and, on occasions, a focal point for anti-American or anti-capitalist protests. For example, in 1999, the world's media were filled with pictures of Serbs smashing windows at two McDonald's restaurants in Belgrade, while nearby stores featuring American products (Levi jeans and Harley Davidson motorcycles) were untouched and operated normally (Ritzer, 2004, p. 206).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Daniel Bell and others argued that advanced industrial countries had moved to a post-industrial society in which there is a shift from industrial age manufacturing to the provision of services. Since then, industrial age employment has declined dramatically in leading Western economies and there are growing expectations that knowledge age work and the creative contributions of knowledge workers will signal a departure from the modern bureaucratic organisation associated with fixed rules and the production-line assembly of fixed components. In contrast, the postindustrial organisation will reflect postmodern influences such as more flexible, ‘flatter’ organisational structures and more permeable boundaries between insiders and outsiders that allow knowledge generation by networking across traditional boundaries. However, Ritzer argues that low-status service occupations are central to today's ‘McDonaldised society’ and show no sign of disappearing: ‘the postindustrial thesis is not wrong but is more limited than many of its adherents believe. Postindustrialization coexists with McDonaldization’ (Ritzer, 2004, p. 191).
The model of McDonald's is a metaphor for a highly rationalised approach to business processes ‘by which the principles of the fast-food restaurants are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world’ (Ritzer, 1993, p. 1). It does not stop at the fast-food store but spreads to all areas of everyday life: to recreation, informal and interpersonal relationships, and even love and intimacy. For example, the practice of ‘speed dating’, in which potential partners gather for a production-line style of short face-to-face meetings with each other (as a basis for exploring whether they would like to get to know the other person better), commodifies and speeds up the normally time-consuming process of meeting a variety of people. Thus, even those places and activities that used to offer some release from a routinised world have now been rationalised.
For Ritzer, McDonaldisation symbolises the commodification of standardised products in an impersonal society. Indeed, The Economist magazine uses a Big Mac Index, based on the local price of a McDonald's Big Mac (the embodiment of a standard global product) in US dollars to illustrate disparities in the cost of living and the valuation of local currencies. Ritzer (2004, p. 7) notes that, in 2003, a Big Mac cost an average of US$2.71 in the USA compared with US$1.20 in China and US$4.52 in Switzerland – suggesting that the local currency was undervalued in China and overvalued in Switzerland.
According to Ritzer, McDonaldisation embodies four principal processes: efficiency, calculability based on quantitative indicators, predictability as standard products are delivered in predictable ways, and control through non-human technology. Indeed, at one level, it is difficult to envisage global progress towards less efficient, less predictable, less quantitative economic processes based on less sophisticated technology.
Efficiency means utilising the least output to gain the highest return. In mechanics, where the term comes from, efficiency is defined in terms of minimising losses to extraneous physical activities, such as heat or friction in the transmission of energy. In business, efficiency implies instrumental rationality: given a goal, such as to maximise profits, what is the most instrumentally efficient way of achieving this outcome? Or in simple terms, if the organisation is a tool that is managed to achieve specific purposes, how can waste of resources be minimised around the tool's use? One way is to transfer the costs to the consumer. The McDonald's model dispenses with waitresses and offers only preformatted menus. Call centres reflect a similar principle: customers pay to be lined up to wait on the telephone, possibly for a long time, to speak to someone about their problem – although the person to whom they eventually speak is constrained by a menu of options on the computer in front of them. There is little scope to develop more than a superficial appreciation of the customer's problem.
Calculability means cheapening the assembly costs of the standard product. It is calculably cheaper to make reality TV shows where there is no script development cost and where there are no actors’ and agents’ fees, just a bunch of people happy to try to grab their fifteen minutes of ‘fame’ – or notoriety – along with possible opportunities for merchandising and promotional activities.
Predictability means that a McDonaldised service or product should be essentially the same anywhere in the world every time. There should be no surprises. It means leaving nothing to the imagination, scripting everything – ‘You want French fries with that?’ – and using standardised procedures to produce always standardised outputs. Every day at Disneyland should be just the same experience, irrespective of the ‘team members’ inside the suits, on the rides, or serving in the cafeteria. And the team members are typically young, cheap and interchangeable.
Control means minimising variation in every ingredient in the organisational assembly of people and things: customers and employees, raw materials, labour processes, and markets.
It often means substituting machine processes that are utterly controllable for people who are not. Where people cannot be eliminated, they can be drilled – in the manner of call centre operators and McDonald's staff – to always perform the same routines to a consistent standard. Moreover, the organisation can try to ensure that even physical appearance is controlled: Ritzer cites the example of the Euro-Disney employees who had strict rules applied about their weight-to-height ratios, facial appearance, hair length, jewellery, make-up and underwear. Control means learning to do and to be as one is told, even down to smiling on cue, as Mills (1996) demonstrates in his analysis of flight attendants.
McDonald's may be instrumentally rational as a profit centre, but its rationality might be viewed differently from other perspectives. It uses enormous quantities of grain to grow cereals to feed to cattle to kill in rationalised slaughterhouses (which were the original inspiration for Henry Ford's idea of the moving production line). It packs the burgers in sweet bread that some judge to be unhealthy and serves it in disposable containers (whereas conventional crockery and cutlery can be reused). Ritzer's McDonaldisation metaphor illustrates an approach to standardisation that has a global impact. For some, the triumph of routine predictability over uncertainty can be part of the appeal of McDonaldisation. As Ritzer (2004, p. 201) points out, the capacity to serve food almost instantly, or the ability of Amazon.com to deliver one of its million-plus books in a day or two, can be ‘enchanting’. However, the standardised approach discourages spontaneity, creativity and joy in discovery. When most things are reduced to the cheapest way of making them the same every time, there will be few surprises in store.
Regular customers at McDonald's typically know what they can expect and how much it is likely to cost. To what extent is McDonaldisation useful as a metaphor for effective knowledge management?
As we noted, Ritzer's McDonaldisation metaphor embodies the amplification and extension of one dimension of Weber's theory of rationalisation in a bureaucratic organisation – that dealing with routinisation, standardisation and formalisation of tasks. From a knowledge-based perspective, the achievements of bureaucracies are typically tied to the organisation and its members having a clear idea of what they are doing: formal rules link the individual to the collective. If things stay the same, the established way of doing things might be reliable and robust; change threatens routine, however. When the context in which the bureaucracy operates changes and new modes of knowing are required to compete effectively, bureaucracies seem cumbersome, in the manner of giants lumbering across a landscape where the capacity to compete depends on agility rather than size. Being big and settled in steady routines is fine when the tracks of those routines extend seamlessly from the past into the future, much like a prairie road that stretches straight to infinity. In the Australian outback, ‘road trains’ (where a single truck pulls a succession of trailers) are great for transporting goods from A to B across relatively flat terrain where the road is straight and long and there is not much space on the road. In cities, where the directions are unclear, the competition intense and the space packed, their size becomes a major problem; operators have to disassemble the road train or transfer its goods to more appropriate vehicles. Bureaucracies are like these road trains: they consume vast amounts of resources to do one or two things efficiently under certain environmental conditions. Yet, if bureaucracies are suddenly exposed to rapidly changing operating environments, or have to do different things quickly, their lack of agility might become all too obvious. Agility requires a capability to maintain balance while changing course, to understand interpretively and act on many simultaneous cues, and to discard what is known in favour of what might be learned.
Knowledge management in a bureaucracy might be seen as the arrangement of information about things that are already known. For a ‘steady-state’ organisation operating in a stable environment, the main challenge for knowledge managers might be ensuring that the right information is in the right place at the right time. Nevertheless, improving efficiency by moving information from one place to another is often more concerned with helping the organisation do better at what it already knows how to do than it is with its doing something entirely new. In contrast, innovation involves some degree of uncertainty: the lack of information that would be needed to make a ‘rational’ decision. In the absence of relevant information, people have to make a judgement based on their experience of ‘dwelling’ in the particulars of problems at hand. People who become familiar with a particular task (such as the ‘chicken sexers’ mentioned in Section 1.1) tacitly integrate clues that would escape the casual observer. Yet, the tacit knowing that is necessary to integrate the clues (and thereby perform in a competent manner) can take a long time to learn. Although the learning process might be facilitated by explicit information of the type that can be manipulated by knowledge management initiatives, the development of judgement depends on learning in practice. Would you trust an airline pilot who had done no more than read the manuals or flown on the simulator?
Organisations that operate in rapidly changing environments typically require their staff to exercise a high degree of flexibility. Effective coordination using fixed rules and bureaucratic structures can be less than appropriate when the organisation's ‘pilots’ regularly have to fly in previously unimagined weather conditions. In the face of increased uncertainty – the lack of available information on which to make a rational decision – there is typically a higher premium on sound judgements. Moreover, if organisational insiders fail to generate broadly coherent judgements, the capacity of the organisation to act in a coordinated way – the supreme achievement of bureaucracy – can be undermined. In this respect, close colleagues who have worked together for a long time often generate a capacity to act as if they were in each other's minds: they develop a huge amount of apparently redundant knowledge about their colleagues that, nevertheless, enables them to imagine how their colleagues might respond when something unexpected happens. Yet, the capacity to know in practice’ cannot be objectified in the manner of a conventional asset.
Innovation and creativity depend on the capacity of individuals and groups to integrate information in new and original ways. To the extent that McDonaldisation stresses standardised and fixed ways of doing things, it might be a good way to arrange information in a stable, efficient bureaucracy but less appropriate when managing uncertainty.
Arguably, long before McDonaldisation occurred, the precursor for what has come to be known as knowledge management was evident in ‘Taylorisation’ and scientific management – as we will explore in Section 4.1.