Seventy-four years ago, in his definitive work The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, sociologist Max Weber predicted the arrival of corporate man, says Stuart Crainer.
The ying and yang of business theory are the de-humanising view of commerce and a more optimistic, humane interpretation: machines versus people; science versus art. The de-humanists portray industrialisation as the triumph of machine over man. The humanists argue that organisations are created and driven by people, that business is an unpredictable art not a predictable science. The debate rumbles on and will, no doubt, continue to do so as the machines become smarter and smarter.
The ultimate form of organisation
The man saddled with the reputation of being the founding father of the mechanistic world view is Max Weber. Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany in 1864 and was educated at Heidelberg, Berlin and Gottingen universities.
Though he taught law, history, political economy and economics at some of the finest universities in central Europe, it wasn't until the end of his life that he finally recognised himself as a sociologist.
Weber's thinking, outlined in The Theory of Social and Economic Organization (published posthumously in 1924), is often misrepresented. Weber argued that the depersonalising effects of industrial growth were inevitable.
Large organisations require the people involved to put the the organisation before themselves. While Karl Marx saw industrialisation as trampling over the rights to the ownership of labour, Weber offered a more pragmatic view - the subjugation of individuals to organisations was reality, not a stepping stone to proletarian utopia.
The trouble is that The Theory of Social and Economic Organization does not read like pragmatism. The ultimate form of organi-sation in this newly industrialised world was the bureaucratic system. This, as envisaged by Weber, was impersonal. People got on with their work. It was entirely hierarchical. It was remorselessly rational with carefully structured promotions and demarcations. The organisation operated as a machine. Each cog in the system, each bureaucrat, fulfilled a clearly defined role.
The machine's aim was to work efficiently - no more, no less. Efficient machines were productive and, therefore, profitable. 'The purely bureaucratic type of administrative organisation', wrote Weber, 'is, from a purely technical point of view, capable of attaining the highest degree of efficiency and is in this sense formally the most rational known means of carrying out imperative control over human beings. It is superior to any other form in precision, in stability, in the stringency of its discipline and in its reliability.'
But, this does not mean that Weber advocated the bureaucratic system.
He simply described it. The system was the eventual outcome, if the trends observed by Weber continued. In many ways the bureaucratic world mapped out by Weber is similar to Orwell's 1984: a nightmare scenario rather than a prediction.
In some respects, the nightmare came to pass. Henry Ford echoed many of Weber's thoughts in his faith in strict demarcations and a fervently mechanistic approach to business. Ford preferred science to art. 'How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well,' he lamented.
Ford was not alone. Corporations were routinely organised in ways similar to those imagined by Weber. The bureaucratic model became the organisational role model. There arose corporate man, adept at smothering individuality and creativity under a dull suit. Unquestioning loyalty was the route to progression up the carefully mapped out corporate hierarchy.
Dream dominates 20th century
The image of the corporation as a great machine has largely lasted throughout the 20th century. The fashion for re-engineering at the beginning of the 1990s was perhaps the most potent proof of the longevity of the machine image. Re-engineering suggested that companies could, in mechanical parlance, be reverse engineered, taken apart and rebuilt in more efficient ways. But many re-engineering programmes bit the dust as companies discovered that mechanical dreams were no match for human reality.
Only in recent years have new metaphors emerged to describe late 20th-century organisations. Today's organisations are talked of in terms of fractals and amoebas - elusive and ever-changing rather than efficient and static. The regularity of the machine age has given way to the tumult, ambiguity and complexity of the information age.
Even so, Max Weber remains important. In his book, Gods of Management, Charles Handy chose as one of the gods, Apollo, characterised by a Weber-like faith in rules and systems. Weber's bureaucratic model stands as a constant reminder of what could be. Aspects of the bureaucratic model remain alive in many organisations. Weber's world lives on and not only in our nightmares.