On Management: Procedures and protocols

An historical comparison shows that all large organisations need and rely on bureaucratic characteristics.

by Christopher Grey
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Where should the managers of 21st century knowledge-intensive firms look for ideas to run their businesses better? One place would be an organisation that existed more than 60 years ago, in complete secrecy and which had a decisive impact on the course of the second world war: the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park in England, the place where the supposedly unbreakable Enigma code, used by Nazi Germany, was unravelled. Actually, Bletchley Park was not an 'organisation' in the conventional sense of the word, but rather a node connecting a whole array of different networks, encompassing military and civilian employees performing a complex mix of different functions.

Put that way, it may begin to seem less surprising that it offers insights for firms today, which often also have a network quality. Add to that the fact that the work of codebreaking involved highly specialised, esoteric knowledge of maths and languages and constant innovation, leading, famously, to the birth of modern computing, and it should be even more obvious that there could be lessons for modern businesses.

Some of these lessons are quite straightforward. The codebreakers were selected on the basis of high intelligence - some, such as Alan Turing, could be called geniuses - and they formed meritocratic work groups, which had high levels of trust and mutual respect. The codebreakers shared a strong sense of common purpose, derived from the wartime situation. Idiosyncratic and downright eccentric personalities - Turing, again, is a well-known example - were allowed to flourish. Perhaps crucially, having been brought together, they were given an extraordinary degree of freedom to deliver the goods.

So far, so obvious - although it is remarkable how many of today's managers speak the language of empowerment and trust, but refuse in practice to relinquish control. But what is less obvious, especially to those whose knowledge of Bletchley Park is confined to the received image of the eccentric boffin, is that codebreaking was only one part of what went on.

The efforts of a few hundred codebreakers made a difference only because of an army, numbering around 10,000, of dispatch riders, indexers, clerks, mechanics and many other people besides. It was their work that not only supplied the codebreakers with the raw materials to work on, but which also allowed the intelligence value of the material gathered to be realised. In particular, the painstaking cross-referencing of millions of decoded messages was crucial.

All of this activity, most of which was of a very mundane character, performed by people who because of the need for secrecy had no idea of the value of what they were doing, was organised bureaucratically. Rigid rules, set procedures, command-and-control structures were the only way that systematically reliable results could be achieved. Nowadays, we usually draw a contrast between knowledge-intensive organisations and bureaucratic ones. Bletchley Park suggests that this is too polarised a view.

But is this just an historical curiosity? Surely the one thing that we are all agreed on is that bureaucracy is 'a bad thing'? In fact, recent research on knowledge-intensive organisations suggests otherwise. Leading researchers in the field, such as Mats Alvesson and Dan Karreman of Lund University in Sweden, have conducted a series of studies of successful international consultancy and professional services firms. Their work shows a much more complex picture. Firms that bear all the hallmarks of knowledge-intensivity also have, on closer examination, many bureaucratic characteristics. This research suggests that hybridity is the best way of understanding such organisations. In other words, they conform to the Bletchley Park model.

Bletchley Park helps us to understand this better because nowadays many of the bureaucratic features of knowledge-intensive forms are hidden. For example, knowledge-management systems substitute for the labour-intensive work of the indexing and cross-referencing at Bletchley Park. Yet these systems rely for their efficacy on rigid procedures and protocols that are the essence of bureaucracy.

In the drive for innovation, adaptivity and fluid organisational forms, it is easy to forget that all large organisations also require fixed systems of rules if they are to avoid anarchy. In demonising bureaucracy, there is a danger of throwing the baby of efficiency out with the bathwater of inflexibility. Looking back over half a century to Bletchley Park is, ironically, a way to understand the organisations of the future.

Christopher Grey is professor of organisational theory at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Reopening: Your duty is not to the economy, it’s to your staff

Managers are on shaky ground if they think they can decide for people what constitutes...

How COVID changes the world forever: A thought experiment

Silicon Valley ‘oracle’ Tim O’Reilly imagines how different sectors could emerge from the pandemic.

The CEO's guide to switching off

Too much hard work is counterproductive. Here four leaders share how they ease the pressure....

What Lego robots can teach us about motivating teams

People crave meaningful work, yet managers can so easily make it all seem futile.

What went wrong at Debenhams?

There are lessons in the high street store's sorry story.

How to find the right mentor or executive coach

One minute briefing: McDonald’s UK CEO Paul Pomroy.