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Organizations are defined by McShane and Von Glinow as “groups of people who work interdependently toward some purpose” (McShane, Von Glinow, 2012, p.5). In order for these groups of people to successfully achieve their shared goals and purposes, there must be some level of strategic coordination among them that will facilitate a degree of collaboration that is both efficient and effective. This necessary coordination reflects the organizational structure, which can be broadly categorized as either mechanistic or organic (McShane, Von Glinow, 2012).
Characteristics of mechanistic and organic structures
The mechanistic structure is characterized by a narrow span of control, indicating a tall and vertical structure with lots of hierarchical layers. Authority in mechanistic structures is centralized with power maintained at the top of the organization. They typically have a high degree of formalization, with lots of standardizations, rules and procedures. The flow of communication is like the structure, vertical as opposed to horizontal. The organic structure is the exact opposite. It has a wide span of control, making the structure horizontal and flatter.
Decision making is decentralized down into the organization. Instead of standardization, organic structures are much more informal and flexible, with greater horizontal communication flow (McShane, Von Glinow, 2012).
Choosing the best organizational structure
To some degree, both types of structures are necessary in every organization. It is the internal and external environmental dynamics of the organization that determine the degree of mechanistic or organic characteristics that are most suitable at any given stage of organizational life. Most organizations begin in a very simple form, and become more complex as they grow and expand. Having a smaller number of customers, employees, and product lines, creates a relatively stable environment during which the mechanistic structure works best.
Stability is the ideal season for standardizing procedures, and establishing rules and operating policies that create a basic framework for the organization to operate. With fewer employees, the span of control can be more narrow and taller, providing closer supervision while casting employees in more specialized roles during these crucial startup periods which could last for several years. This taller hierarchical structure also facilitates centralized decision making, which is appropriate during the time when organizations are developing culture and establishing their position within their respective industries.
As organizations grow, Daft and Marcic (2011) describe two major changes that occur, which create the need for a more organic-leaning structure. The first occurrence is the result of increased customer base, product lines, and/or the number of services offered, which means the organization must hire more employees. Increased customer demands also require more specialized customer service, which means more departments. New departments will necessitate the creation of new roles for those departments. New product lines will create the need for a greater knowledge of environment and legal regulations regarding those products. All of these new challenges may require changing standardized procedures to match the new demands, which increasingly disrupts the carefully-planned routinized procedures and policies of the mechanistic structure (Daft, Marcic, 2011).
Organizational growth is typically characterized by rapid change, creating the need for a greater level of coordination throughout the organization. This coordination refers to the quality of collaboration between employees and departments, which is better facilitated with the flatter organizational structure consistent with the organic structure. It means organizing with teams and networks of people, and increasing the capability of horizontal communication, which encourages information sharing which inevitably empowers employees in lower positions to make quality and swift decisions in those rapidly-shifting environments. It does not totally alleviate the need for the vertical dimension, but it creates the requirement for more of the horizontal dimension (Daft, Marcic, 2011).
How both structures work together
National American University (NAU) is an excellent example of why organizations need both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Their vertical dimension consists of their board of directors and those who oversee executive functions for the organization and report to shareholders. This dimension also encompasses operational departments that have responsibilities for environmental elements like federal regulations. Because the university has both physical facilities as well as virtual facilities, they must follow state and local regulations, in addition to adhering to security regulations for the Internet. These are all areas that are encompassed with the vertical sphere of its structure. Its horizontal dimension is more applicable to its ability to provide personalized services to its students and staff members. Managing the financial and academic needs of students and staff necessitates a high quality of collaboration between departments.
Although organizations may favor one structure more than the other, both mechanistic and organic structures are necessary for organizations to achieve their goals. As organizations grow and change to meet the rapidly-changing environmental factors, they must be capable of adapting their structure to their changing environment. Adaptation may require widening their span of control to increase the quality of collaboration; it may involve decreasing the level of formalization by aborting or amending established policies and procedures and other routinized functions that no longer work in the more complex environment; and it may include empowering employees among the rank and file, by the willingness to openly share information and power.
Daft, R.L., marcic D. (2011). Understanding management 7th edition. South-Western Cengage Learning. Mason, OH 45040.
McShane, S.L., Von Glinow, M.A. (2012). Organizational behavior. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. New York, NY. 10020