When Max Weber portrayed bureaucracies, he characterized them as iron cages (Max Weber, Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. University of California Press, 1978: 1403). This metaphor reflected his belief that, because bureaucracies were so efficient, all organizations would have to conform to them, if they were to survive in a competitive, capitalist environment. Organizations would become isomorphic as a result. And so they did!
Thinking about this argument in today’s terms, we might view Weber as an early complexity theorist, based on his claim that changes in the socioeconomic environment, or as we might say now–(the fitness landscape)–require appropriate adaptations in organizational behavior. Â On the other hand, the very notion of an iron cage, secured by rule-based self reinforcing feedback, suggests that bureaucracies are especially prone to lock in. Â One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and the complexity and uncertainties it entails.
One must wonder, then, how present day bureaucracies will successfully adapt to the changing nature of capitalism and all the complexity and uncertainties it entails.
Dealing with complexity requires continuous feedback from, and adaptation to, an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. For this reason, Beinhocker,Â in his book The Origin of Wealth suggests that the best way for organizations to cope with complexity is to incorporate it within. However, this is a daunting task. Bureaucracies tend to be relatively closed systems, in which behavior is reinforced through daily reenactment. For this reason, many businesses employ monitoring systems and change mechanisms, such as benchmarking, large scale interventions, and the use of outside consultants.Â
But what about universities, a type of organization that–as one might imagine–is very close to my heart? Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail. As a result, change is incremental, at best.
Universities exemplify many features associated with bureaucracies: roles are highly differentiated; rules are rigidly reenacted; boundaries are well defended, and politics prevail.
In their book, The Social Life of Information, Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown warn against assuming that resistance to organizational change is evidence of Luddite behavior. Doing so, according to the authors, will lead to unintended, and undesirable, consequences. They suggest, instead, to look at the substance of resistance for clues about how to build upon the existing organizational context to better design a plan for change.
How might this insight pertain to universities? Let’s consider disciplines. Perhaps nothing is more entrenched in the university setting than academic disciplines. Functioning much like communities of practice, academic disciplines provide a shared sociocultural environment (habitus to use Bordieu‘s terminology) that serves to govern and maintain a set of beliefs and code of behavior. Efforts to relax the boundaries separating disciplines have typically focused on fostering collaboration among them. However, in an increasingly complex environment, in which enhanced feedback is critical, perhaps collaboration around points of interdisciplinary agreement is not what is needed. Instead, we might look to academic disciplines to challenge each other’s assumptions, and thereby enhance the Â overall pool of knowledge–what Beinhocker call the design space. Organizations such as the Santa Fe Institute have demonstrated the rewards of this kind of cross training. Ironically, efforts such as these have typically taken place outside of the university environment. It is time to bring complexity inside!