- Discuss organic versus mechanistic models for organizational structure
We’ve spent some time now understanding the elements of an organizational structure, and the types of structures an organization might choose to use when organizing their work and employees. Some of those structures are very strict and hierarchal, like the bureaucratic model, and some of the structures, like boundaryless, are pretty loose and free-wheeling. They all have their advantages and disadvantages.
When managers combine the basic components and elements of an organizational structure together, the result has certain characteristics that are best understood by looking at it through the lens of organic and mechanistic organizations.
Organic organizations have a low degree of formality, specialization and standardization. Their decision making is decentralized and their activities are well-integrated. The organic model is usually flat, and it usually uses cross-hierarchical and cross-functional teams and possesses a comprehensive information network that features lateral and upward communication in addition to downward communication.
Organic organizations look a lot like boundaryless organizations. They allow for employees to cultivate more ideas and be more creative because the business is not as rigidly structured. Organic structures are used in dynamic, unstable environments where the business needs to quickly adapt to change, as the structure gives the organization the flexibility to deal with fast-paced environmental change and many different elements.
A good example of an organization that uses an organic structure might be a consulting firm. A consulting firm responds to customer issues as they come up, and those issues change with the business environment. Consulting firms want to respond to change quickly, so by choosing an organic structure they’re able to be nimble and address their customers’ needs.
Mechanistic organizations have centralized decision making and formal, standardized control systems. Essentially, they are bureaucracies.
Mechanistic organizations work well in stable, simple environments. Managers integrate the activities of clearly defined departments through formal channels and in formal meetings. Often, they feature many hierarchical layers and a focus on reporting relationships.
General Motors is a good example of an organization using the mechanistic model. Why do they use that? For one, they’re very large, and when that many people and functions are involved, order is needed. But they’re also in a stable, if not somewhat simple, environment. The car market fluctuates with the economy, yes, but the company builds cars and trucks. Across all their divisions, that function is basically the same.
Another example of a mechanistic model is the Department of Motor Vehicles. When you get your new driver’s license, you go from one department to another, taking a written test, taking an eye exam, taking an actual driving test, filling out the paperwork, and then finally, getting your driver’s license. The structure for this is very mechanistic—every person looking to get a driver’s license has to be treated exactly the same. It’s simple and stable.
Here’s a table comparing the basic characteristics of both models:
|General tasks||Specialized tasks|
|Loosely defined departments and hierarchy||Well-defined departments with clear hierarchy|
|Decentralized decision making by many individuals||Centralized decision making by a few people|
|Integration achieved by managers and employees interacting and exchanging information as needed||Integration achieved by formal manager meetings|
|Flexibility and capability of rapid change||Clear and efficient reporting relationships|
Most companies find themselves falling somewhere in between the two extremes of organic and mechanistic. Each organization designs its structure to enable its mission, goals, and strategy. If the structure fits with other contextual elements, it has a better chance of being effective in supporting the organization.
Now that we fully understand the difference between organic and mechanistic structures, let’s use those to gain a better understanding of what kind of organizational structures work best for different organizations—and why.