My lack of posting much recently owes to my having had the opportunity to do some work with a couple of different organizations, each with very different cultures, though the leadership of each would describe them in terms very similar to each other. Both are service organizations, and both profess a style of operation that in bureaucratic parlance would be termed a professional bureaucracy.
Ah, but then there comes the difference between what people say and what they do.
Or as one friend creatively put it, “there’s a bifurcation of expression and action.”
In one instance, that of the organization exhibiting a pronounced bifurcation, leadership had a habit of trying to impose elements of machine bureaucracy in the operation of its purported professional bureaucracy, to the consternation of its professional bureaucrats. Consternation enough, in fact, to result in some backlash. The leadership met the challenge as all good machine bureaucracies do: they circled the wagons, so to speak, and treated their challenging professional bureaucrats as disloyal, at least, and enemies, at worst. To their credit, they got help to see the forest for the trees, and a face-saving way forward was worked out.
The second organization, also a professional bureaucracy, experienced a similar challenge from within, and instead of circling up against the challengers, kept the process wide open, with lots of give and take and frank discussion, all of which was always conducted with great respect for all parties. It was really an impressive thing to see in operation.
As one might guess, the time, effort and resources spent in the first situation was roughly ten times that of the second, and would have been much more had the organization kept the wagons circled.
What this kind of problem boils down to is whether or not the powers that be feel the need to exercise power over others, as opposed to exercising power in a cooperative way that accomplishes more, faster, and at less cost.
Yes, there are machine bureaucracies that should be machine bureaucracies which function well only as machine bureaucracies. But when an organization’s leaders try to impose machine bureaucracy modes of operation and metrics on a professional bureaucracy, that’s a recipe for organizational disaster.