Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The University as a Machine Bureaucracy

Last week I was teaching Mintzberg's model of organizational structure and Taylor's principles of scientific management and I got to thinking about how the organization of universities is changing. The essential function of organizational structure, says Mintzberg, is to coordinate work processes, so the aptness of the organizational form will depend on the work that the organization does, i.e., the processes that must be coordinated. And these processes will differ greatly depending on the amount of authority we grant to those who carry them out. Do we assume that the "workers" know how best to do their jobs or not?

This is one of the main differences between what Mintzberg calls a "machine bureaucracy" and what he calls a "professional bureaucracy". In a machine bureaucracy like a car factory, for example, workers are not expected to know very much about how to build cars. So the work is organized for them, by people who know better. But in a university, a professional bureaucracy, he argues, the knowledge held by the faculty members gives them a great deal of autonomy (as a group) about how to carry out the tasks related to research and teaching (which is the "work" that is carried out in the "operative core" of a university). That means that coordination depends on the thorough indoctrination of the "workers", so that they all think more or less in the same way when they think for themselves. In a factory, by contrast, coordination depends on detailed instructions, which can be carried out without deeper indoctrination.

That's the essential contrast: are the workers presumed to know how best to do their jobs? (It is because this knowledge belongs to the professionals in the operative core that a professional bureaucracy has a relatively small technostructure.) And this was what got me thinking when reading Taylor. After all, Taylor's "revolution" was precisely to question the assumption that the worker who shoveled pig iron really understood how best to carry out even that simple task. Taylor undertook to determine, by "scientific" means, exactly how much pig iron there should be on each shovelful, and exactly how long the break between shovelings should be. That is, by applying "science" to the work processes, he actively shifted authority away from the worker and onto the manager (or management consultant). That is, he made the worker relatively less knowledgeable about the work.

It's important to keep in mind that scientific management arises (also in inchoate forms before Taylor made the "theory" explicit) at the beginning of the "managerial revolution" and the rise of the machine bureaucracy as the preferred organizational form for industrial production. (Even the divisionalized form is to be thought of as a loose affiliation of machine bureaucracies.) That is, a certain organizational form becomes more and more apt precisely because more and more knowledge is produced ("scientifically") about how the work processes themselves are best carried out. "Craftsmanship" is thereby increasingly replaced with "coordination".

This is where I had a moment of lucidity. Since the second world war, with the rise of Big Science, a great deal of "science" has been done to determine how scientists themselves do what they do. Naturally, this has informed both science policy and research management. At the same time, another "scientific" discipline, namely, pedagogy, has turned its attention to the work that scholars do as teachers, determining the best way to educate students.

Notice what this does to the authority of the scholar. Scholars were once presumed to know best how to teach students in their particular field (pedagogy was simply part of the background indoctrination of the field); now, teaching in all fields is being "evaluated" on principles that are defined by an overarching theory. The same goes for research methods, which are increasingly defined by generalized "handbooks" on the subject, not passed on through craft traditions in particular sciences. Moreover, the social organization of science (and its relation to other social institutions) is guided by research done in specialized disciplines, i.e., "science studies", which is essentially anthropology and sociology applied to the "problem of knowledge".

Obviously, Socrates is ultimately to blame. He has become the iconic "philosopher" who convinced professional knowers that they didn't really know what knowledge was. The irony, unfortunately, was lost both on the scientists themselves and subsequent generations of philosophers. (This is something, I think, that Steve Fuller taught me.)

The result is that, while technology (especially IT) has replaced a great deal of the "support staff" (secretaries, for example), the "technostructure" of the organization (i.e., the planners of how the work is carried out) has increased a great deal. That is, in so far as the faculty members themselves no longer know very much about either teaching or research, they are increasingly dependent on the scientifically informed ("technostructured", if you will) "management" of the middle line. In an oft-invoked "sign of the times", corporation executives are now being hired to "run" universities.

Like Socrates, unfortunately, I seem to be part of the problem. After all, what is a "writing consultant" but someone who claims to know more about an aspect of the work of scholarship, namely, writing, than the scholars themselves? On Thursday I'll try to think my way out of this tight spot by distinguishing between the "professional" and the "professorial" organization. More then.

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