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How Renowned Sociologist Tom Burns’ Management Systems Respond-React to Change

A former university professor of marketing and communications, Sallie is an independent publisher and marketing communications consultant.


Study in Management Classics and Change Management

This is the second and final of two discussions where I am taking a look at aspects of “classic” or foundational management theories. In this discussion, I am examining, briefly, theories of renowned Sociologist Tom Burns and how styles of management/organizational behavior based on his theories might respond or react to societal and technological change in the twenty-first century.

Tom Burns, 1913-2001, was a prominent sociologist, author and fellow of the British Academy. He founded the Sociology Department at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland where he was a professor from 1965-1981, and he also taught at Harvard and Columbia universities in America. A researcher who studied different types of organizations examining the effect of communication patterns on management, Burns is noted for his studies on the effects of change on organizations with emphasis on organizational dynamics related to technological changes. First published in 1961, he authored, along with G.M. Stalker, The Management of Innovation, a widely read business classic considered by many to be one of the most influential books ever published about business organizations.

Essential Components of Organizational “Inside” Relationships

Burns saw three social systems as necessary to relationships inside organizations that can lead to an understanding of how organizations function. Formal authority is the first relationship system. This is an overt form of authority which attempts to control its environment by using as a means of survival the mission of the organization and all of its human and technological resources.

The second relationship system is the cooperative system. This is the system of people who make up the organization. These people have personal and professional goals, dreams, needs and desires. They will use the organizational structure to advance their professional and personal interests. The overt system of formal authority affects the cooperative system, because it makes decisions affecting the careers of individuals. These decisions, in turn, are evaluated by individuals who will then respond and react in some manner.

Burn’s third system is the political relationship system of organizations. This system is characterized by how individuals in the cooperative system gain power.


Is Your Organization Mechanical or Organic?

During his study of organizations, as Burns looked for approaches to organizational innovation, he identified two major types of structures that he considered as “ideal.” He labeled them using the terms “mechanistic” and “organismic” (also called organic). The mechanistic structure Burns examined bears a striking resemblance to Weber’s rational-legal structure (discussed in my Hub titled "How Max Weber's Management Styles Might Respond-React to Change," link inserted at the end of this article). Both are bureaucratic styles of authoritarian management relying heavily on procedural guidelines and roles for organizational control. The only difference between these two systems is based on why they are used. The rational-legal bureaucratic structure is used to protect lower-level administrative jobs/roles from the subjective or random actions of higher-level managers or owners. Rules, policies, and precisely outlined job descriptions protect responsibilities, wages, and work hours. The mechanistic structure, in contrast, is more task-oriented. It is used to increase efficiency in organizations where environmental conditions and use of technologies are relatively stable, and its purpose is to maximize production while minimizing waste, often at the expense of creativity and innovation. Intent on operating like a “well-oiled machine,” this structure essentially ignores the more “human” needs of individuals in the system.


A Look at Burns’ “Mechanistic” Organization

Many people work for companies that are more mechanistic in nature than organic. In these type of organizations, greater importance/value is attached to internal “politics,” than to knowledge, experience, or skills, in general (meaning, who you know is more important than what you know). Burns believed the mechanistic structure is appropriate for organizations in stable environments, especially for routine tasks requiring efficiency and predictability. The vertical hierarchy of authority is well-defined and centralized in the mechanistic organization, with decision-making being kept as high up in the organization as possible. Most communication is vertical/downward, between superior and subordinate, and loyalty and obedience to superiors is valued more than knowledge or skills.

Organizations operating using this structure require much specialization and many routinized procedures—of which Burns believed the levels required could only lead to internal skirmishes over functions and resources. Specialization is manifested in the organizational structure as work units, departments, and functions. Burns felt the types of struggles bred by the mechanistic system ultimately detract from an organization’s efficiency and productivity, leading it to become tangled up in its structure.

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Change and the Mechanistic Organization

One of the most ominous threats of the mechanistic organization is that to operate efficiently, the system requires stable environmental conditions; something that is not always under the control of any organization. Change is inevitable in all organizations, and the rigidly stable environmental requirements for this system of organization can only lead to problems handling change. Mechanistic systems are not created to handle change in a positive manner. The bedrock of the foundation of such systems, after all, is environmental stability. Individuals working within this type of system have clearly and precisely defined roles and tasks fitting within clearly and precisely defined specializations. When environmental change occurs at a rapid pace, flexibility is required. However, when something becomes unstable that affects the entire mechanistic system and all of its specialized roles, tasks and functions, conditions can only become ripe for confusion and chaos. In such systems, employees are much more concerned with tasks and individual responsibilities, and not so much with the “bigger picture” that higher-ups have to handle. And, since vertical communication occurs mostly from the top down as instructions, decisions, and rules that are to be implemented, there is little room for upward traveling input. Employees going through stressful internal changes often need a way to provide individual input and suggestions for concerns affecting their role and responsibilities.


Burns identified three types of “pathologies” he saw as resulting from the mechanistic organizational structure and its attempt to deal with societal and technological change. As environmental uncertainty and instability increases, organizational decisions are passed further and further upward until they reach the highest levels of the hierarchy. This is what Burns labels the “ambiguous-figure system” pathology. Once this individual becomes overburdened and managers under him begin to feel overlooked, there is often the creation of even more levels of management to handle increasingly specialized problem areas. The creation of more levels of the hierarchy, instead of solving the problem, creates Burn’s second kind of pathology, the “mechanistic jungle.” His third type of pathological response to change in the mechanistic organization is what Burns has termed the “super-personal” or committee system. This system is activated when individuals and hierarchy cannot deal effectively with rapid and impending internal and external environmental changes. While Burns sees the committee approach as an acceptable temporary measure for handling some problems, he feels that as a permanent device it can become inefficient and counterproductive if/when it is allowed to come into conflict with existing roles and/or departments within the organization.


A Look at Burns’ “Organismic” Organization

The opposite of the mechanistic structure is what Burns labeled his organismic structure. This particular type of organizational structure is related to systems theory which views organizations as living organisms, rather than as machines. The organismic structure operates under less stable environmental conditions. It fills in where the mechanistic model cannot by handling difficulties stemming from all types of environmental changes within and outside the organization. Task forces and teams are the primary integrating structures of this system, and the model allows tasks and roles to be adjusted as needed. It is not rigidly structured as is the mechanistic and bureaucratic models. The leadership employed by the organismic model is less structured to the point of being almost anti-structure and anti-hierarchy. Mutual agreement is sought instead of standardization of work processes since this system is designed for conditions where work processes are unstable and unpredictable.


Change and the Organismic Org

The organismic system has a contribution-oriented nature. In such a system, the structure of control/authority, as well as communication, starts with interest in the health of the organization, presumed to be held by all concerned. For this reason, this type of structure is designed to handle change. Specialized knowledge and experience, while valued greatly, may be located anywhere in the organization, but also prized highly is external affiliations and expertise that is valued not just internally, but also by organizations outside of the organization.

Since individual tasks are looked at realistically, taking into consideration the nature of the task and situational issues and concerns regarding the task, change-related adjustments and redefining of tasks are done through continual interaction with others. Problems and concerns are handled locally, and are not routinely sent to upper, lower, or lateral levels. That means flexibility is built into the system since no rigid set of rules is needed to address/handle local problems. In addition, tasks are completed in a way that accomplishes goals lending to organizational progress, and this is more important to the organization than loyalty and obedience.


Since authority is decentralized in the organismic organization, communication is lateral and consultative in nature. Information, advice, and suggestions are the mainstay of communications, rather than the passing down of rules, commands, and decisions. There is also much more verbal communication/face-to-face contact. The organismic organizational system views structure and hierarchy almost as impediments to progress and to the successful functioning of the organization. It views separating into divisions as an avenue for individuals and groups to become “turf protectors” who look out primarily for their own welfare at the expense of others and ultimately at the expense of the organization. This system sees the bureaucracy, such as that of the mechanistic system, as an organization’s way of “shooting itself in the foot” by establishing structures, procedures and rules leading individuals to work against the system. Therefore, Burn’s organismic model, the way it responds to change, is the theoretical opposite of the mechanistic and bureaucratic systems of organization.

You might also want to read, by this author:

How Max Weber's Management Styles Might Respond-React to Change

© 2012 Sallie Beatrice Middlebrook PhD

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