Bureaucracy, administrative bloat, and organizational productivity

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, management experts Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini ask:

How pervasive is bureaucracy in your organization? How much time and energy does it suck up? To what extent does it undermine resilience and innovation? Which processes are more trouble than they’re worth?

To help tease out answers to these questions, Hamel and Zanini break down the costs of excessive organizational bureaucracy into these seven categories:

1. Bloat: too many managers, administrators, and management layers

2. Friction: too much busywork that slows down decision making

3. Insularity: too much time spent on internal issues

4. Disempowerment: too many constraints on autonomy

5. Risk Aversion: too many barriers to risk taking

6. Inertia: too many impediments to proactive change

7. Politics: too much energy devoted to gaining power and influence

But they don’t stop there! In their piece they also offer an assessment instrument, dubbed the “bureaucracy mass index,” that can help organizations compare respective levels of bureaucratic overkill. The instrument is specially for large private sector organizations, but smaller businesses, public agencies, and non-profit employers may find it useful as well.

Academic workplaces

Oh my, does this resonate for me as a denizen of higher education, where administrative bloat and top-down bureaucracy have sucked so much of the vitality out of colleges and universities, not to mention fueled skyrocketing tuition. A (London) Times Higher Education review of Benjamin Ginsburg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University (2011) captures a good chunk of this dynamic:

Administrators breed unless checked. . . . Administrative prestige is measured by the number of “reports” an administrator has, which is to say, how many people report to them. Deans need associate deans, assistant deans, deanlets and a bevy of secretarial staff, less to achieve anything truly useful than to enhance their prestige – and their salaries, because one’s pay goes up in proportion to the number of staff one directs.

It would be bad enough if the administrators were simply unproductive. . . . But The Fall of the Faculty regards many presidents, provosts, deans and their underlings as positively dangerous to the academic enterprise of teaching and research.

Ginsburg drew excerpts from his book to write a shorter piece on this topic — “Administrators Ate My Tuition” — for the Washington Monthly. (For two more good commentaries, check out these articles from The EvoLLLution and Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Administrators breed unless checked. What a brilliant line! How can those of us in bureaucratic work settings help to stop this needless bloat, unwise use of money, and harmful concentration of power?

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