Management, Digital Transformation and Requisite Bureaucracy

I recall that the first question posed to me by the External Examiner for my doctoral viva (a thesis on the application of cybernetic ideas to organisations) was:

          “So John, is what you are proposing here an alternative bureaucracy?”

Frankly I have no idea how I answered it at the time, well enough I suppose since I passed. It is a useful question to come back to 30 years later because it seems to me that much management thinking and doing remains rooted in an essentially bureaucratic approach and not always in a good way. What we perhaps need, within a systemic mindset, is a comprehension and application of the ideals of bureaucracy suited to the evolving contemporary context.

Our collective habit of subsuming new technology into established processes and paper-based data capture, recording and distribution, means management is perhaps unconsciously Luddite, limiting the realisation of benefits. Technology is often accepted when it does the same thing differently, i.e. it reinforces the existing bureaucracy while at least creating the illusion of increased efficiency. Applications of technology that seek to deliver desired outcomes through radically different thinking challenge the hegemonic, often fragile, control asserted through the established way of doing things. Examples of this abound where the possibilities understood by those proposing transformational projects are perceived by managers as too high risk and the scope becomes limited to the cheapest possible change which, inevitably, delivers the lowest possible benefit. It requires imagination and courage to envisage both doing things differently and doing different things; kowtowing to the establishment means we often end up with a slightly better version of ‘now’ rather than a wholly different approach, a missed opportunity.

Blending a reconceived understanding of bureaucracy to a true comprehension of the capabilities of the technologies now available to us has the potential to truly transform our organisations, their effectiveness and their efficiency but bureaucracy and risk-taking are ill-matched.

What IS bureaucracy?

Weber (ref 1), arguing for a rational-legal form of organisation rather than those rooted in the charismatic (such as religious orders) or the traditional (such as the monarchical), suggested that:

“The choice is only that between bureaucracy and dilettantism in the field of administration”

So, what is bureaucracy? Weber, writing as large scale administrative organisations were coming into being, proposed that adopting ‘rational-legal authority’ a bureaucracy was and is a ‘system of offices’ featuring:

  • Specialisation: Each office having a defined area of expertise
  • Hierarchy: Supervision and control of lower offices by higher ones
  • Rules: Exhaustive, stable rules, learned by all
  • Impersonality: Equality of treatment within the rules
  • Appointment: Selection according to competence not election
  • Full-time: Occupation of the ‘office’ or ‘bureau’ as the primary occupation
  • Career: Promotion, tenure and seniority within the system
  • Segregation: official activity being separate from private activity

We can explore one hundred years on how this system can and should be interpreted in our changed and changing social, political and organisational context but what we cannot deny is that the core ideas both pervade our organisations and are fundamentally helpful. They allow us to distil consistency, coherence and order from potentially chaotic situations. We can also observe that where these principles are not adhered to we see organisations (or the officers of them) engaging in actions that are experienced as discriminatory, preferential, biased and incompetent. We also observe that where official activity is NOT distinctly separate from private activity then individuals become open to allegations of corruption or malfeasance.

It is notable that the devices we now rely on to do our work and engage with others display common characteristics of bureaucracy. They are broken down into specialist functions (graphical, mathematical, input, output, power etc), are hierarchical – they have a ‘central processing unit’ (CPU) that ‘controls’ all the sub-units, they run on exhaustive rule-sets (and would not run without them) and are impersonal – they treat every instruction in precisely the same way. The technology reflects the way that we work, and need to work, to realise our goals, it underpins the notion of organisation and we should seek to capitalise on that.

What ISN’T bureaucracy?

What is not bureaucracy is the set of behaviours that can be seen to emerge from strict adherence to the set of ‘rules’ on which it is founded. This attitude of ‘more than my job’s worth’ acts to protect the individual officer:

“I was only following orders”

 while failing to deliver the desired outcome to the customer:

“I’d love to help but the rules……”

This is the nub of the problem for our organisations in the turbulent contemporary situation; the behaviours we experience and, perhaps, exhibit, are functions of management attitude not the bureaucratic model.

What we observe and often experience in bureaucratic organisations is unhelpful, obstructive responses from individuals just following the rules. As I have said elsewhere, ‘computer says no’ is not a punch line but an excuse and it is important to recall that in the bureaucratic organisation “power” attaches to the office, not its occupant, it is limited to the exercise of those powers which deliver the legitimate outcome and is transitory.

The obstructiveness that we seem to experience from the (pejoratively) bureaucratic organisation arises from a combination of several things:

  • Attempts to over-simplify complex customer requirements to a ‘yes-no’ decision with very limited flexibility;
  • Inadequate investment in the training and development of the individuals conducting the tasks and a lack of trust in them;
  • Constraint upon the autonomy of individuals to ‘solve the problem’;
  • Dysfunctionally overcentralised decision making (especially in the application of discretion);
  • Lack of competence and self-confidence or self-assurance in those who supervise, oversee and manage;
  • Pursuit of short-run efficiency over longer-term effectiveness;
  • Lack of constancy of purpose and the rationale or identity of the organisation.

These things are products of inadequate thinking about the relationship between any organisation and its customers, especially thinking which is producer rather than consumer led. The processes of the organisation, the tasks and procedures that make them up and the skills and behaviours that are needed to make them effective are all under-invested in.

Increasingly, the attempt is made to lower the cost of engaging in complex customer relationship activity by employing technology (software and hardware) which seeks to force conformance and standardisation by the consumer to the inadequate designs of the organisation. Recent and continuing examples of this abound in banking call centres, GP surgeries, booking systems, where the system appears to designed to obstruct the customer rather than help, imposes delay and exports cost (mainly of time) to the customer.

Not only will the customers, given a choice, vote with their feet, but such an approach reduces even further the limited autonomy available to each organisational actor to close the gap between the process and the customer need. This limits the use of initiative and reflects lack of investment in individuals who are thereby set up to fail themselves, the organisation and most importantly the customer.

Many organisations seem to have forgotten Drucker’s (Ref 2) admonition that ‘with every pair of hands we hire we get a free brain’.

If we are not meeting the needs of our customers then we have forgotten the purpose (the reason we are all there) and our future is necessarily limited! The experience of bureaucratic behaviour rests not in the rules of bureaucracy but in the attitudes and behaviours of those who purport to manage, lead or supervise them.

The Challenges to the Underlying Assumptions

All models of management rely on sets of assumptions, implicit or explicit about the nature of the organisation, communication, the skills and capabilities of individuals and, underlying that, the power structures that generates its hierarchy.

Bureaucracy is no exception. Setting aside the limitations noted above in relation to staff members, it seems to me that bureaucracy as typically applied relies on these assumptions (some might call them rules!):

  • Customer requirements are finite and can be completely understood;
  • All challenges can be resolved within the rules that already exist;
  • Once a problem is solved it stays solved;
  • Every problem that is similar to this problem can be addressed with the same solution;
  • The boss ALWAYS knows best.

The effect is to assert that the customer is always wrong! This is, of course, a nonsense, except that many services are run this way, especially in the absence of meaningful choice and/or where the service is producer or provider led.

A further challenge is the assumption of underlying stability, the belief that solved problems stay solved. Stafford Beer wrote (Ref 3) “absolutum, obsoletum” or “if it works, it’s out of date.” Beer wrote about the change in the rate of change, at a time when facsimile machines and telex were state of the art, when the idea and definition of the personal computer was still being resolved and consideration of the “paperless office” was trailed. Fifty years on the processing power of our mobile telephones, let alone our personal computers, vastly exceeds what could have been envisaged when Beer made his assertion. The rate of change of technology, of consumer demand, of the potential to transform the whole idea of work and the way we do it has been and continues to be extraordinary so here we have a tension to resolve.

Technological progress demands that we radically change our organisations in order for them to be relevant, efficient, effective in the contemporary, continually changing environment. The power of technology to transform the ways in which we capture, process, analyse and synthesise data into information for decisions goes vastly beyond the realisations of most of us and certainly of the capabilities of our bureaucratic organisations. We must have continuing innovation, courage to experiment and risk failure in order to capitalise on this potential. Yet, we need the bureaucratic form of organisation to maintain control, to produce results, to maintain order, integrity, justice, equality (in all its dimensions).

How do we resolve this tension?

Towards Requisite Bureaucracy

We need to develop, much as suggested by my examiners’ question, an alternative bureaucracy, one which is requisite.

A ‘requisite bureaucracy’ is one which is indispensable, necessary and, very importantly, sufficient for the needs of the organisation. It balances the need for consistency, coherence, control with the contrasting need for creativity, inventiveness, ideation and origination and does so by recognising, very explicitly the circumstances and demands of each. The task of management is to maintain the balance. A requisite bureaucracy remembers that, as Peter Dudley and I (ref 4) have consistently argued:

“no matter how long you make the process chart, you never quite reach the customer”

A requisite bureaucracy knows, as do its human actors, that it is necessarily incomplete. This is consistent with Goëdel’s “incompleteness theorem” (ref 5) which asserts that within the limits of any formal system some propositions cannot be resolved; they are undecidable. A bureaucracy is a formal system of organisation, it is incomplete and its design must therefore accommodate the ability to learn and adapt if it is going to survive and thrive.

Our typical attempts to adopt new technologies into our organisations have played strongly to the rules based, non-adaptive, fixed, machine-like mentality in which it is easier to ‘blame the system’ than to look at the underlying causes. The failure to competently address digital transformation leaves us vulnerable to dilettantism based on the availability of cheap processing power and data storage, an approach which will lead to chaos and disorder.  A good example of this is the proliferation of spreadsheets in organisations, each conforming to a particular representation of “truth”, each driving a particular decision (or set of decisions), each manipulating data in the way intended by its designer but neither sustainable, consistent or coherent or, in many cases, faithfully representing the underlying data.

If we redesigned our bureaucracies to take full advantage of the emerging digital technologies we would:

Reconceive our processes for a digital world so that they deliver desired outcomes for customers while capturing in a structured, consistent and coherent manner the data we need to work with;

Invest in the knowledge and skills of all people in the organisation to enable them to exploit the capabilities being generated;

Compile, in real-time or near to it, digitally displayed performance information, aggregated to appropriate levels to reflect the hierarchy of decision in the organisation;

Encourage people to use the available information to improve overall performance in the areas for which they are responsible and make that a key element of their roles;

Embed in each cycle of a process a reflective activity designed to improve it – whether that means doing the same thing better or doing different things – so that the whole continually improves its ability to meet customer expectations.

So, for example, a requisite bureaucracy would have embedded in it a cycle of reflection that measured the outcomes achieved for customers with those intended and then modify or amend its processes so that the gap between the actual and the desired is reduced with each iteration; a requisite bureaucracy would self-improve.

That would of course mean we need to:

Recreate the architecture and structure of our organisations to massively decentralise decision making;

Encourage, enable and support that person in making decisions that blend meeting the customers needs with adherence to desired organisational outcomes;

Provide mechanisms by which the necessary variance from the norm can be captured and embedded in the organisation so that next time the same question is asked we do have an answer for it.

Ultimately requisite bureaucracy requires:

Acting purposefully adhering to a systemic understanding of the organisation with a clear focus on the outcomes (results) we seek;

A systematic approach that helps us to generate order and consistency in dealing with the infinitely varying demands of our customers while coping with the changing variety in their demands through the application of digital technologies;

Dissolving the tension between them by trusting and developing the people that work in the organisation so that they can employ their wisdom, insight, experience and judgement – and celebrating that they do.

Accommodating a little fuzziness at the margins of decidability.

The outcome will be increases in real productivity, reductions in non-productive costs (what Ohno calls ‘muda’ or waste), increases in both customer and employee satisfaction, falls in complaints AND an increase in capacity for handling more customers who will be more content.


  1. Weber, Max., 1924, ‘Legitimate Authority and Bureaucracy’ in Organisation Theory, Selected Readings, D.S. Pugh (ed.), 3rd Edition, 1990, Penguin, London
  2. Drucker, Peter, 1969, The Age of Discontinuity, London, Heinemann
  3. Beer, Stafford., 1972, The Brain of the Firm, Wiley, Chichester, UK
  4. Beckford, John, 2023, Quality Management: Reconsidered for the Digital Economy, 5th Ed, Routledge, Oxford, UK
  5. Goëdel, Kurt, 1931, On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems, Monatshefte für MathematikI