Mechanistic and Organismic Organisations

Tom Burns, a sociologist, teamed up with G. M. Stalker, a psychologist, to look at the impact of technical innovation on organisations in the 1960s. The question was how a traditional firm in Scotland, moved into electronics in order to have a future and was therefore moving from a position of (diminishing) stability to one of fast moving change. The findings were pessimistic in that they doubted whether traditional structures could incorporate fast moving change. They could not attract electronics research and development engineers into their organisations.

This is because the individual in a traditional pyramidal organisation is not simply committed to the company. There is the group or department with a stable career structure. Its sectional interests can be in conflict with other groups' interests. If something new comes into the firm, these establish sections compete for control over the added functions and resources. This is against the company as a whole, inefficient, and adaptations which do take place accentuate the problem. These are pathological systems.

There are three typical pathological system responses:

Vertical referral

  • To the appropriate specialist if there is one with sufficient authority
  • To a superior
  • The superior puts fast changing events up the hierarchy
  • Much goes to the chief executive
  • The chief executive is overloaded
  • The chief executive delegates to selected people producing an unofficial hierarchy
  • Senior managers in the formal system feel bypassed
  • People learn the unofficial hierarchy and its seeming preferences.
Bureaucratic addition

  • Additional departments are created
  • Contract managers are added
  • Liaison officers operate
  • The bureacracy tries to keep its hierarchy and yet works every which way
  • Decisions shoot up and around the system and responsibilities get confused leading to several conflicting decisions
  • As change continues, the jungle of acquired responsibilities thinkens
  • This is called the mechanistic Jungle
Committee System

  • Committees are developed with special responsibility
  • The hierarchical system is left untouched
  • Committees can increase in number and responsibility with fast change
  • Committees rarely becomes several minds working as one with good results
  • It is not a long term managerial solution
  • In the end the formal system that was is shown to be inadequate
  • As in government it smacks of kicking into long grass
  • It smacks of inefficient government administration

In an organisation three social systems are involved:

Formal authority system

  • This is overt, providing the language of change
  • It is based on the aims of the organisation
  • It is based on its technology
  • It is about relating to the business environment
Preferment systems of people
(Burns: Co-operative Systems)

  • This is about career aspirations and career structures
  • This is about competition for promotion.
  • Intentions are to have a bigger impact on decisions and directions

This is an area people really think about: their status in the organisation. They promote this by using the formal authority system because, of course, decisions in the formal system impact on the career structure. If they can achieve power then all to the good (for themselves)
Political system

  • This is about competing and cooperating for power.
  • It is about effective ways and means to achieve preferment in the second authority system
  • The language of politicking is the first formal authority system

So this is the means to an end. The end can be (in many a hierarchy) no more than the status given to a position, and for those decisions to be carried through. And end may be real decisions and real impact as individuals climb up the greasy pole.

Burns and Stalker have an alternative and this is the organismic or Organic form of management (and called Systemic). Gone are the formal roles and specialisms based on assigned, precisely defined, tasks. Gone is the idea that overall knowledge and co-ordination is found only at the top of the hierarchy.

In organismic management a continual adjustment and flexibility in individual tasks is emphasised. Knowledge is collaborative rather than restricted into specialisms. Communication is horizontal, vertical and diagonal as required by the types of work involved. An organisational chart would depend on which job is being done and what process it involves, and it may not last long. Everyone should consult and consider the overall aims of the company as the situation keeps changing.

Technical additions and fast change means that experts are needed. Experts may know more than many managers. Expert career structures go beyond the organisation (just as do top executives) and may be based on individual reputations. The politicking then is more diffuse. The power system leaks out at many levels.

There are a number of sociological analyses here. One is the Weberian ideal types of mechanistic and organismic organisations. So they are not actual expected organisations but tendencies for analysis. The mechanistic relates to Weber also on bureaucracy and its rational-legal authority. This seemed to be the depressing summit of capitalist organisation. However, they have shown it needs stability. Without any reference to human fulfilment, they have argued for a need for a more human and responsive type of institution. So there is more than a hint of the Parsonian sociology of functional systems with adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance (Haralambos, Holborn, 1995, 873), with manifest and latent functions - actually, motivations - in terms of people using the manifest language of the overt system of formal control while operating latently with other motivations (Merton, 1949, in Coser, Rosenberg, 1976, 528). One organisation then adapts successfully to a stable system, and one to a changing system.

There is also history. A firm has to know its past and reveal to itself the three systems of motivation. The mechanistic organisation defends itself through its people in positions of power, career climbing and purposive decision taking. It takes a huge change to become organismic if it can be done.

Because of the use of sociological categories, the mechanistic and the organismic can be applied elsewhere. I applied it to historical and broad Christian Churches. Heterodox liberal Christians inside these organisations were organismic (or systemic) in authority, because they took it upon themselves to be the experts and specialists of theology in their very diverse writings. Those heterodox who left to join specialist liberal denominations pursued instead human relations authority, because they were essentially re-creators of open gatherings that discussed truth. Orthodox liberal Christians are bureaucrats and compromisers, unable to hold together a Church that is spiralling away into its new denominational constituents, each with their own types of authority, namely the charismatic, traditional and systemic.


Pugh, D. S., Hickson, D. J., Hinings, C. R. (eds.) (1971), Writers on Organizations, Second Edition, London: Penguin, 44-48.

Refers to:

Burns, T. (1963), 'Industry in a New Age', New Society, 31 January 1963, no. 18.

'On the Plurality of Social Systems', in Lawrence, J. R. (ed.) (1966), Operational Research and the Social Sciences, Tavistock.

Croome, H. (1960), 'Human Problems of Innovation', Problems of Progress in Industry, no. 5, 1960, HMSO.

Burns, T., Stalker, O. M. (1968), The Management of Innovation, Tavistock.


Haralambos, M., Holborn, M. (1995), Sociology: Themes and Perspectives, London: Collins Educational.

Merton, R. K. (1949), Social Theory and Social Structure, Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press in Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (eds.) (1976), Sociological Theory: A Book of Readings, London: Collier Macmillan, 527-533.

Worsfold, A.J. (1989), New Denominationalism: Tendencies Towards a New Reformation of English Christianity, unpublished Ph.D thesis, Hull: University of Hull.