Five Centuries of Mechanistic-Organic


David Boje

July 1, 1999



This is a brief summary of two six year projects with my colleagues Gephart and Rosile to deconstruct mechanistic/organic (M/O). The M/O binary is reproduced in over a thousand journal articles and is generally recognized as the foundational study of contingency theory, the view that M/O systems rationally and deterministically adapted to an environment made up of contingencies. It is fascinating h ow writers creatively use storytelling to rewrite and even fictionalize the original Burns and Stalker accounts. But then B&S appropriated and fictionalized the duality from a five century debate, well known to philosophy. If we can resituate this mos t fundamental of dualities, we can shake the foundations of managerialism.


What follows are brief exerts from a six year project with Gephart & Rosile (see end notes for references).


Since the 1960s much of the organization theory (OT) writing is a never-ending debate between the machine/organ analogies, and attempts to develop growth models of how simple mechanistic forms can grow into the more complex organic forms. Few have stopped to question the silliness of this theory of semantic illusions, or to look at the five-century debate in philosophy about the machine philosophies of Locke, Hume, Newton and the reemerging organic philosophy. I approach this from a storytelling pe rspective.



Part I: An Overview of the Burns and Stalker Book

The Management of Innovation has been published in three editions: 1961, 1966 and 1994. The editions are the same except for a 17 page preface added in 1966 and an additional 14 page preface added in 1994. I will tell you our conclusion at t he outset. Our reading, is that Burns and Stalker's storied data show that organizations, even organic ones, do not consistently adapt to environmental contingencies. Our reading is at odds with the field of OT. As this is the foundational study of contin gency theory, and much of OT, a deconstruction of the study is in order. Burns and Stalker offer an explanation which is all but ignored by subsequent writers eager to embr ace deterministic and dualistic contingency theory: the political and status behavior of managers intercedes in the theorized system to environment fit process. I will briefly take you through the steps of the deconstruction that I am doing with Gephart a nd Rosile (1997a, b).


Part II: Deconstructing M/O


1. Dualism Analysis. Mechanistic and organic make their first appearance in Chapter One: "One system, to which we gave the name ‘mechanistic’, appeared to be appropriate to an enterprise operating under relatively stabl e conditions. The other, ‘organic’, appeared to be required for conditions of change" (Burns and Stalker, 1961: 5). After this introduction, the authors note that neither system "was fully and consistently applied in any firm.

While it may seem obvious that mechanistic-organic is a duality, Burns and Stalker were quite explicit in theorizing mechanistic-organic as a continuum and not a dichotomy (1961: 122, 126). Yet, Burns and Stalker’s construction excludes, represses, and conceals the constituting aspects of organic practices in the mechanistic ideal form, and vice versa.


2. Exploring the Hierarchy of the Duality. First, in dualities one term has power over the other. For Burns and Stalker (1961) mechanistic is foundational to organic since mechanistic metaphors are used to define the organic side of the continuum. For example, the organic meetings in the Switchgear firm are described by Burns and Stalker as an "instrument" and a "device" for connecting "part-functions" distributing authority, information, and technical competence in the hierarchal management structure (p. 88-9). The organic is again described in mechanistic language as "only part of the machinery of the work organization at the management level" (p. 151). There is thus clearly a form reductionism here reflected by using machine la nguage to define organic.


Second, mechanistic tends to be a natural, privileged systems state: "there is a tendency for every working organization to revert to a mechanistic system, since this persists as the dominant model of organization" (p. 210). Thus "organic" is d efined as the exception to the more efficient, formal, and rational mechanistic system. Organic is the fallen term: less efficient, more wasteful, more unpredictable, and more informal. Once the organic can be dispensed with, the system reverts to mechani stic. For example, several firms in the English sample became even more mechanistic after their experimentation with organic practices "… with revived redefinitions of responsibility and executive function" (137).


Third, this dualism privileges and reproduces a discourse of managerialism and hence it is not neutral in another way. Managerialism is the accumulation of knowledge for the exclusive use of managers (and other experts) to effect their will to power, domination and control over labor and the Natural environment. "For managers, the search for knowledge of the general principles of work organizations has always been motivated by the desire for greater control over the workforce" (Mills & Simo ns 1995: 69) It is the managing director that reads the environment and makes the decisions about mechanistic and organic choices. The managing director speaks the "right version" of competing stories of the firm and its environment (Burns and Stalker, 19 61: 233). Both mechanistic and organic metaphors are constructed within a managerialist perspective: both types are introduced as "rational" forms of deliberate human exp loitation in the name of efficiency. Both are an "instrument" and a "device" to "connect" the "part-functions" (p. 88-9). They are "part of the machinery of the working organization at the management level" (p. 151).

Finally, in the English study, in the most organic firm in their sample, the practice of making middle managers insecure by blurring boundaries between levels as well as between functions, is described as the "mainspring" of the approach (p. 2- 3). For Burns and Stalker, human exploitation was more extensive in the organic because "the individual yields himself as a resource to be used" (p. 122). In sum, organic is a supplement rooted in a mechanistic string of signifying metaphors. Both mechani stic and organic privilege an underlying managerialist interpretation of the world. The manager decides the state of the environment and the appropriate adaptive design.


3. Reversing the Hierarchy. There is a rhetorical operation that produces the ground of this argument. The premise that mechanistic systems are not (ever) adaptive and its corollary that organic systems (always) do adapt to changes in it s environment is only a part of the story, since there are claims in Burns and Stalker that contradict and undermine both the premise and its corollary. Yet, mechanistic organizations adapt all the time.

First, in the English and Scottish study, most of the firms adapted by becoming even more mechanistic. In the example of the Scottish firms, they could adapt by networking to a much larger English firm in order to share its laboratory and train ed design engineers.

Second, in two cases an organic concern was mis-adapted to an environment where a mechanistic form would be more appropriate. A significant point is that only two of the 20 some firms examined in the research were organic when the situation dem anded.

Third, only one firm, the Rayon Mill, which was not part of the two main studies in the book, was said to be properly mechanistic when the situation demanded. And in all three of these cases the environment had not shifted. The rayon mill had a stable environment all along and the two television producers in the English sample were already situated in a changing technological and commercial context.

Finally, environment itself is defined by a language system that is managerialist. This managerialist interpretation picks out some aspects of the environment: commercial markets and technology, while excluding other aspects such as Nature and social community.


Part III: Putting M/O in Context


Main Points. We assume that organizations are enacted through storytelling (Boje 1991; 1995; Czarniawska, 1997a) and that organizational theorists rely (to some degree) upon metaphors and stories to construct their theories of organi zation and environment. The narrative devices allow the fiction of an "organization" bounded by an (external and deterministic) "environment" to seem tenable. I prefer a storytelling organization perspective. "Organization" and {environment" can exist unharmed and separate only in texts built on metaphors connected by formal logic; an excursion into stories reveals that boundary-making is a tiresome job, sometimes exhau sting most of the organizing energy (Czarniawska, 1997b: 26). STO is a discursive metaphor,.

The M/O narrative held that the universe was a machine (metaphor) governed by mechanical forces and mathematical laws and that everything, even people , plants, and animals were just machines and not sentient, organic beings.

The Long Debate The use of mechanistic-organic metaphors to theorize the cosmos, society, organization, and the human being is an even older set of categories that pre-dates Weber and Durkheim and other work noted by Burns and Stalker by several centuries. Before Durkheim and Weber, writers such as Locke, Bacon, Hume, Descartes, and Newton sought to overthrow the organic framing of the world as a "living system" that had been the way of thinking of the world since before Aristotle. In 11 59 John of Salisbury used the organic society metaphor as the basis for a story of the person-writ-large as a hierarchical society:


Its body was endowed with life and ruled by reason in the form of the prince, who, together with the clergy, functioned as its soul. Judges and governors, who communicated its dictates to the provinces, represented its sense organs--the eyes, ears, and tongue. The good of the commonwealth was invested in its senate, which occupied the position of the heart. Of the hands, one was armed and protected the citizenry from outside attack, while the other, unarmed, disciplined them from within.... Keepers of the state’s finances were confined to the stomach and intestines, who for the body’s health must avoid anal retention and congestion of their holdings. The feet were farmers, craftspeople , and menial workers, so numerous as to cause the organism to resem ble a centipede, rather than a human" (Merchant, 1982: 70).


Mechanical solidarity was based upon the metaphor of less evolved life forms, such as Durkheim’s example of the worm to represent the segmented systems of Indian tribes and clans. Mechanistic system thinking was part of the 15th and 16th century, Carte sian revolution of science over religion, a triumph of western civilization over the native. Descartes, for example, awoke from a great dream of a universal mathematics with a zeal to erect a mechanistic model of science based upon measurement (Randall, 1 926: 240-1).

"As I [Descartes] considered the matter carefully it gradually came to light that all those matters only are referred to mathematics in which order and measurement are investigated, and that it makes no difference whether it be in numbers, figures, sta rs, sounds or any other object that the question of measurement arises. I saw consequently that there must be some general science to explain that element as a whole which gives rise to problems about order and measurement, restricted as these are to no s pecial subject matter. This, I perceived, was called universal mathematics."

The universe, world, and man’s institutions were thought by Descartes, Locke, Newton and others to be part of an all-encompassing social order that could be explained by a mathematics of nature. Living systems, be they planets, trees or humans were jus t machines and nothing more. By 1651 Hobbes wrote a mechanical model of society that opposed organic systems, in his book: Leviathan. It is ironic, that organicism (or animism), the view that the world and cosmos, has life and spirit, never left in digenous thinking and is now being reinvented by western society.


Many authors have wondered at the struggle between mechanistic and organic systems and ideologies over the last five centuries. There are several important books by authors such as John Randall, Jr. (The Making of the Modern mind: A survey o f Intellectual Background of the Present Age, 1926), Stephen C. Pepper ( World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence, 1942),Thomas Berry (The Dream of the Earth, 1988), Fritjof Capra (Turning Point, 1982), Morris Berman (The Reenchan tment of the World, 1981), Carolyn Merchant (The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution, 1980) that describe the five century struggle between these two ways of thinking. These are books that do not get much citation in o rganization theory (OT).


For example, Capra (1982) does not position it as an either or phenomenon as do Burns and Stalker. "System thinking is process thinking; form becomes associated with process, interrelation with interaction, and opposites are unified through os cillation" (p. 267). Mechanistic operations take place within living systems. Capra seeks to look at reduction and holism together in their proper balance (1982: 267-8). "... The distinction between machine and organism becomes quite subtle" (1982: 268). Living systems have a high degree of "nonlinear" interconnectedness. They are not linear in the sense of being environmentally or technologically determined. "A living organism is a self-organizing system, which means that its order in structure and funct ion is not imposed by the environment but is established by the system itself... interaction does not determine their organization" (1982: 269). Capra’s approach side steps the usual duality of mechanistic versus organic systems. It is as if OT invented s ystems theory and systems ideology, began with the work Burns and Stalker (1961), without paying too much attention to Weber or Durkheim, and no attention at all to the centuries of work and debate about the struggle for mechanistic understandings in the 16th century that all but did away with centuries of organic views of man, organization, society, and the cosmos.


In sum, In the mechanistic story, humans, societies, and worlds were reduced to parts in mechanical systems governed by law and scientific rationality. This manner of storytelling decontextualizes the time, place, and mind of nature. In the mec hanistic story, the self was characterized as "rational master of the passions housed in a machinelike body" rather than self as a living part of the living system of the society and cosmos (Merchant, 1982: 214). The plot of this story is human domination over nature and male domination over women. The story of the mechanistic narrative is one of progressive disenchantment with organic accounts (Berman, 1981: 16). The narrative held that the universe was a machine governed by mechanical forces and mathema tical laws and that everything, even people, plants, and animals were just machines and not sentient, organic beings.


Part IV:

Resituating the Mechanistic-Organic Binary. Gender Analysis.


Our reading is that mechanistic and organic are a gendered bi-furcation that is based on what Derrida terms "phallogentric" discourse. Phallogentric combines logocentric and phallocentric in one and the same discourse. Logocentric is the valuin g of the more rational and logical term in a dualism. There is a right and a wrong structure and the senior managers know what it is. Phallocentric is the privileging of male language terms. The phallogentric marginalizes emotion and non-rational action, while constructing male and rational as "privileged signifiers" (Culler 1992: 172). The authoritarian, paternalistic, and phallocentric order -- mechanistic system -- is opposed by marginal, organic, local knowledge. Organic stands as the inefficient, sup plement to the logical and rational mechanistic term. All senior managers, engineers, and foremen in the study are male ("boys" and "men" e.g. p. 28, "he" and "the boss"). The few reports of females refer to "girls" doing programmed work on the assembly l ine in the electronics factory and " a girl" pushing carts of acid in the rayon mill (p. 68 and p. 79 respectively). In both cases of female employment, Burns and Stalker refer to women as "unskilled" and the "girls." Males are always "skilled," "men." Bu rns and Stalker men and girl-stories discursively produce a gendered workforce (Scott 1988: 46). Organic, like woman, is a supplement to (male) MAN-AGE-ment (Gephart, Boje and Thatchenkery, 1996: 10).

The control of the individual no longer requires supervision nor the hierarchy: the individual has become a self-steering, self-subordinated agent of capital. The 'manager' and 'the worker' in the organic system are both driven by internalized valu es and needs, and by the external control of the work group in the quest for improved performance. The needs of capital are for what Lyotard (1984) terms, "performativity" and hence performativity comes to colonize other areas of one's lifeworld, displaci ng both family life and outside friendships.


What Happens to M/O in Modern OT? First, Burns and Stalker are frequently reduced to a minor extension of Weber: instead of one ideal type they make two, but it was Weber who is credited with conceputalization of the bureaucratic type. Weber 's scheme is then substituted for the mechanistic dimensions. Second, the matrix organization is one example of an organizational form theoretically falling in the middle of the mechanistic-organic continuum. Yet in texts, the position of the matrix form oscillates. Martix organizations are sometimes added to the organic side of the continuum (Gordon 1993: 552), but at other times the matrix form is placed in the middle (Ivancevich, Lorenzi, Skinner & Crosby 1994: 277), or in a post-organic space beyo nd the continuum. "The matrix design attempts to capture the strengths and reduce the weaknesses of both the mechanistic and organic designs" (Ivancevich et. al (1994: 271). Third, in their chapter supplements-for-students, writers sometimes include self- assessments of one's mechanistic-organic orientation with question like: "I believe that governmental regulation of industry is (a.) usually best for all, or (b.) rarely good for anyone" (Greenburg and Baron 1993: 618); or "The U.S. Army would be a nice p lace to work? Mostly agree --- Mostly disagree" (Robbins 1991: 525). "Indicate your general preference for working in one of these two organizational structures by circling the appropriate response:


Mechanistic 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Organic.


" Thus mechanistic and organic forms are supplemented with a mechanistic/orgnic orientation as a psychological construct inherent in actors. These supplements are used to advise students on which type of organization they should aspire to work in, but in fact reflect the substitution of managerialist motives and a commitment to performativity for actors' own personal motives and well being. "Administrative procedures should make individuals 'want' what the system needs in order to perform well" (Lyotar d 1984: 62). "Theoretical reifications, expressive of pre-reflective (type one) and pre-theoretical reifying consciousness (type two), can themselves become reified, hardening into dogmas and cutting off the possibilities of the world as an expressive fab ric" (Berger & Pullberg, 1966: 66, additions mine).

Oftentimes, text writers will invent dimensions that were not what Burns and Stalker constructed. They are lumped together with studies using entirely different dimensions, such as Woodward (1965) and Lawrence and Lorsch (1967). Since text authors rewrite each other's (re)writings of Burns and Stalker, there are interpretations piled on top of interpretations.

The fiction which is offered is sustained by two assumptions: 1) that there are perfect-control organizations and environments that follow regular, continuous functions; and 2) that perfect, total knowledge of the states of the environment is possible.

Gephart, Rosile, and I have sampled the best selling texts and analyzed them in monographs too long to present here. An examples will serve. Perhaps the most inventive substitution is evidenced by Robbins (1991: 487-503). Robbins story is that a residual variance in structure of 40% to 50% remains unexplained after measuring strategy, size, technology, and environment (p. 500). Without indicating that Burns and Stalker's (1961) original theory posited an explanation for the variance as politica l, power and status struggles among management, Robbins reinvents the theory and labels it "power-control." Like other authors, he uses the mechanistic-organic as a dualistic category scheme to classify other designs into one of the two types (p. 487). Ro bbins suggests small firms can use direct surveillance of managers and centralized decisions to effect control, but as size increases, so do the costs of this surveillance. Increases in size make it more economical to decentralize (p. 491). Then, in a mos t interesting rhetorical move, Robbins exorcises mechanistic-organic. He explains that while organic structures receive considerable attention from academics, "the vast majority of real organizations ... are mechanistic" (p. 502). Mechanistic is real, but organic is an unreal, academic category. In a second move, Robbins manages to further de-nature his theory of organization, by pointing out that since managers can control their environments, in comparison to size, strategy, and technology, the environme nt is a relatively unimportant determinant of design (p. 522). Further, " ... these labels are too generic and abstract to be of much practical value. They really don't capture much of the details in actual organization designs" (p. 503). Robbins turns to Mintzberg's five types of structures (machine bureaucracy, professional bureaucracy, divisional form, simple structure, and adhocracy). But, Robbins can not let himself exorcise the mechanistic-organic demon. In a penultimate move, Robbins "for simplicit y's sake" reintroduces the dualism to classify Mintzberg's design offerings. Machine and professional bureaucracies along with divisional forms are mechanistic, while the simple structure and the adhocracy are organic forms (p. 520).

Mechanistic in the subsequent texts tends to glorify managerialism and words sterotypically associated with masculine gender. "Woman has typically been viewed as environment to man and therefore as the object of domination, the inferior term" (Monuori & Purser 1995: 192). So Robbins' (1991), for example, concludes most "real" organizations are mechanistic. Following this logic, if there are any real, organic (female) organizational structures they would be Mintzberg's de-privileged or lesser catego ries of simple structure and adhocracy. Further, Robbins fails to address the implication that organic structures may be non-existent because of the subordination of women in the workplace and the glass ceiling which women encounter which prevent the emer gence of tacitly female organizational forms. Managerialism is thus implicit in the privileging of mechanistic structures, and this managerialism also (re)produces and perpetuates a discourse of male control.

Enviornmental Determinism. By defining the external environment as an objective phenomenon which determines in part the appropriate form of control, the subsequent text writers construct greater control over technical and commercial aspec ts of the environment, but they ignore natural and social environments. Management has its rights and the environment has none. Gibson, Ivancevich, and Donnelly (1991: 509), for example, assert that it is the manager in a situation that influences the eff ectiveness of a design choice. It is always the manager that studies the variables and decides which structure fits their reading of the environment. In stable environments with slowly changing technology, the advice to the manager is to simply select a m echanistic control structure (e.g. Robbins 1991: 487-8; Ivancivich et al, 1994: 270-1; Rue & Byars, 1995: 249; Davis and Newstrom 1989: 240; Gordon 1993: 503).



A mechanistic management system is appropriate to stable conditions. It is characterized by:

(a) the specialized differentiation of functional tasks into which the problems and tasks facing the concern are broken down.;

(b) 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 accomp lishment of the ends of the concern.;

(c) 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.

(d) The precise definition of rights and obligations and technical methods attached to each functional role;

(e) the translation of rights, and obligations, and methods into the responsibilities of a functional position;

(f) hierarchic structure of control, authority and communication;

(g) 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;

(h) a tendency for interaction between members of the concern to be vertical, i.e., between superior and subordinate;

(i) a tendency for operations and working behavior to be governed by the instructions and decisions issued by superiors;

(j) insistence on loyalty to the concern and obedience to superiors as a condition of membership;

(k) a greater importance and prestige attaching to internal (local) than to general (cosmopolitan) knowledge, experience, and skill. (120-122).

Source: Burns and Stalker, 1961: 119-20.

The organic form is appropriate to changing conditions which give rise constantly to fresh problems and unforseen requirements for action which cannot be broken down or distributed automatically arising from the functional roles defined within a hierarchic structure. It is characterized by:

(a) the contributive nature of special knowledge and experience to the common task of the concern;

(b) the 'realistic' nature of the individual task, which is seen as set by the total situation of the concern;

(c) the adjustment and continual re-definition of individual tasks through interaction with others;;

(d) 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)';

(e) the spread of commitment to the concern beyond any technical definition;

(f) 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 gr owth of the firm, and less from a contractual relationship between himself and a non-personal corporation, represented for him by an immediate superior;

(g) 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.

(h) a lateral rather than a vertical direction of communication through the organization, communication between people of different rank, also, resembling consultation rather than command:

(i) a content of communication which consists of information and advice rather than instructions and decisions;

(j) commitment to the concern's tasks and to the 'technological ethos' of material progress and expansion is more highly valued than loyalty and obedience;

(k) 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, 1961: 121-2.


The above exerts are from much more detailed and much longer monographs. Someday we will get them into publishable form:

David Boje, Robert Gephart, and Grace Ann Rosile

1997 Storytelling Practices in the Writing of Organization Theory:

Part 1 Deconstructing Burns & Stalker Stories of a Mechanistic - Organic Continuum March 1996; Revision: September 19, 1997


Robert Gephart , David Boje, and Grace Ann Rosile.

1997 Storytelling Practices in the Writing of Organization Theory: Part II: The Knowledge-Filtering of Burns and Stalker’s Mechanistic - Organic Ideal Types in 35 years of Citation . March 1996; Revision: September 19, 1997.




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