Dualism of the mechanical and the organic is not new in western philosophical thought. In fact, it’s about 500 years old, tracing its roots back to Francis Bacon in the 1600′s. And as recently as 120 years ago, Emile Durkheim helped establish modern sociology using these concepts as central parts of his ideas and theories on the ties that bind people together.

Continuing the tradition of the dualism set forth by Bacon, Durkheim, and others, we fast-forward to the 20th century and the 1960′s work of Tom Burns and George Stalker which had much impact in the field of organization theory, with their study of innovation, management, and structure of Scottish electronics firms. In their writing on mechanistic and organismic structures, they outlined the differences between the two types and solidified the concept in the minds of future generations of organizational theorists and business scholars. [Updated: for a critique / deconstruction of Burns and Stalker's M/O binary, read David Boje's 1999 essay "Five Centuries of Mechanistic-Organic Debate" - Apr 18/11 GR]

Burns and Stalker claimed “a mechanistic management system is appropriate to stable conditions” whereas an “organismic form is appropriate to changing conditions, which give rise constantly to fresh problems and unforeseen requirements for action which cannot be broken down or distributed automatically arising from the functional roles defined with a hierarchic structure.”

The properties of both types of firms are described by Burns and Stalker below:

Mechanistic Systems:

  1. the specialized differentiation of functional tasks into which the problems and tasks facing the concern are broken down.;
  2. the abstract nature of each individual task, which is pursued with techniques and purposes more or less distinct from those of the concern as a whole; i.e., the functionaries tend to pursue the technical improvement of means, rather than the accomplishment of the ends of the concern.;
  3. the reconciliation, for each level in the hierarchy, of these distinct performances by the immediate superiors, who are also, in turn, responsible for seeing that each is relevant in his own special part of the main task.
  4. The precise definition of rights and obligations and technical methods attached to each functional role;
  5. the translation of rights, and obligations, and methods into the responsibilities of a functional position;
  6. hierarchic structure of control, authority and communication;
  7. a reinforcement of hierarchic structure by the location of knowledge of actualities exclusively at the top of the hierarchy, where the final reconciliation of distinct tasks and assessment of relevant is made;
  8. a tendency for vertical interaction between members of the concern, i.e., between superior and subordinate;
  9. a tendency for operations and working behavior to be governed by the instructions and decisions issued by superiors;
  10. insistence on loyalty to the concern and obedience to superiors as a condition of membership;
  11. a greater importance and prestige attaching to internal (local) than to general (cosmopolitan) knowledge, experience, and skill.”

Organic Systems:

  1. the contributive nature of special knowledge and experience to the common task of the concern;
  2. the realistic nature of the individual task, which is seen as set by the total situation of the concern;
  3. the adjustment and continual re-definition of individual tasks through interaction with others;
  4. the shedding of responsibility as a limited field of rights, obligations and methods. (Problems may not be posted upwards, downwards or sideways as being someone else’s responsibility)’;
  5. the spread of commitment to the concern beyond any technical definition;
  6. a network structure of control, authority, and communication. The sanctions which apply to the individual’s conduct in his working role derive more from presumed community of interest with the rest of the working organization in the survival and growth of the firm, and less from a contractual relationship between himself and a non-personal corporation, represented for him by an immediate superior;
  7. omniscience no longer imputed to the head of the concern; knowledge about the technical or commercial nature of the here and now task may be located anywhere in the network; this location becoming the ad hoc center of control, authority and communication.
  8. a lateral rather than a vertical direction of communication through the organization, communication between people of different rank, also, resembling consultation rather than command:
  9. a content of communication which consists of information and advice rather than instructions and decisions;
  10. commitment to the concern’s tasks and to the ‘technological ethos’ of material progress and expansion is more highly valued than loyalty and obedience;
  11. importance and prestige attach to affiliations and expertise valid in the industrial and technical and commercial milieu external to the firm.”

Source: Burns and Stalker, Organizational Theory (D.S. Pugh), Penguin, 1990

This description, again written nearly 50 years before systems of engagement became a real possibility inside modern organizations, describes the traits and characteristics that many social business pundits describe in near-utopian terms. Network structures vs. hierarchy, knowledge at the top vs. knowledge everywhere, lateral communication vs. vertical (silo’d) communication, fuzzy definition of roles vs. highly prescriptive job descriptions: the language of the organic organizational model as described by Burns and Stalker reads like an Enterprise 2.0 sales brochure.

So why should we privilege one model over another? Why is it that we think organic models are “better” somehow? Why has this model (to some) become an imperative?

That argument lies at the heart of their article, that ties structure to performance. A commonly observed sentiment is that businesses today face increasingly complex markets, situations, problems, and the model that is best suited for this type of environment is the organic, not the mechanistic. This idea is related to the foundation of Contingency Theory (also developed in the 1960′s), that “there is no one best way of organizing / leading and that an organizational / leadership style that is effective in some situations may not be successful in others.” Organic is more applicable / effective in the complex.

Do organic organizations outperform mechanistic organizations in complex environments? It bears asking the question after all, even if the idea of an organic organization simply feels like the right thing to do in complex situations.

I managed to find this 2006 article by Sine, Mitsuhashi, and Kirsch that revisited the work of Burns and Stalker to attempt to answer that very question, by looking at the performance and organizational models of emerging Internet firms in the late 1990′s (instead of the mature firms often studied and indeed part of the original Burns & Stalker research). And not to spoil it for those of you interested in reading this article, but the conclusion they draw is that a mixture of both mechanical and organic, well-defined and designed in some areas and more undefined, ambiguous, and fluid in others, results in overall better performance.

So while conceptually in “opposition” to each other, the mechanistic vs. organic is really a continuum, with many shades of gray in between, and rarely does one firm entirely exhibit the archetypal characterization at either end of the spectrum. This should be common-sensical to anyone involved in running a business. Some areas are mechanical. Other areas are organic. These can co-exist and should continue to co-exist in order to keep the firm alive and thriving.

Instead of spending time debating one model over another as some kind of debate about universal organizational forms, I think I’ll side with the contingency theory types, who boldly answer, “Well, it depends…” And that means focusing on how to recognize the problem domain you currently face (simple, complicated, complex, chaotic), effectively utilize these two metaphors and their corresponding organizational design characteristics, and ask how technology can then support your organization’s individual and collective decision making efforts.

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