Our love affair with bureaucracy doesn’t suit 21st century business.

What’s that you cry? Love affair with bureaucracy, don’t we all hate that red tape? Well, we all say we hate it and if that were truly so, surely there would be less of it? History would seem to deny this. Our systems built upon logical and military organisation of power at the top and orders being passed down seem to support a bureaucratic structure. Over time, each revolution that tears down a system, simply rebuilds it with a different name. In the UK, it matters not which political party comes to power, the civil service remains unchanged underneath. The French have a phrase for this, “Plus ca change” nothing much changes. The British, ever so good at mocking themselves had a fabulous TV series called, “Yes Minister” where the real power was shown to lie with civil servants, not government.

The anarchist and anthropologist David Graeber discusses both the stupidity and secret joys of bureaucracy with the FT’s Martin Sandbu and Lucy Kellaway in a very thought provoking podcast, dealing with exactly this conflict between 21st century business being effective, yet still clinging to bureaucracy.


He argues that secretly we like bureaucracy.

bureaucracy_friend_or-foeWhy 21st century business still clings to bureaucracy

Is bureaucracy easier than simple human communication? To survive and thrive as a 21st century business there is a huge emphasis on the need for communication, it is allegedly the communication century. Rapid technological advancement has shrunk the world. This blog post, for example, is accessible by 40% of the world’s peoples and internet access is growing faster than populations with the faster growth being in India and the African countries. United States, Germany, France, U.K., and Canada have the highest penetration: over 80% of population in these countries has an internet connection. You may wonder how 60% of the world manages without an internet connection. I mean how on earth do their companies grow without the facility of email? (Spoken in a heavily ironic tone). Maybe they simply communicate directly with each other.

At least these emerging countries are unfettered by Western bureaucracy and could be innovative. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Yes, individuals scratching for a living will be amazingly adaptable, finding opportunity to create wealth to support their families. However, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery; too many emerging nations model their structures on those of the west and this means systems, control, hierarchies, bureaucracy.

The trouble with red tape is that it has a certain reassuring quality which anarchy does not. We British, queue, a lot. We see it as a polite way to handle waiting for something and are disapproving of those who jump the queue. We moan about our systems, but cling to the security of knowing that everything has an order, a sequence, and a consequence. Innovation, which is what 21st century business needs in order to grow is unsettling and disturbing.

At the 6th Global Peter Drucker forum in 2014 entitled The Great Transformation – Managing Our Way to Prosperity, the conference saw the following challenge;

It appears we have arrived at a turning point where either the world will embark on a route towards long-term growth and prosperity, or we will manage our way to economic decline. Thus the very coherence of our societies is at stake. Incremental changes won’t suffice – it is about changing the very nature of our organization and the way they function in a new world.

One target for discussion was bureaucracy and its place in 21st century business. If innovative technology is confined to productivity improvements and not the creation of new industries, then the price we pay is high unemployment and pressure on our social systems that inevitably leads to yet further bureaucracy.bureaucracy

Gary Hamel, visiting professor at London Business School and co-founder of The Management Innovation Exchange warns that for 21st century business to flourish, bureaucracy must die.

…even the most competent organizations also suffer from a clutch of core incompetencies. Businesses are, on average, far less adaptable, innovative, and inspiring than they could be and, increasingly, must be.


How does 21st century business manage bureaucracy?

Rather than have systems manage you, corporations need to see that systems are “put in their place” as servants to the company not its masters. For innovation to flourish, risks need to be taken and while anarchy is not a preferred state an anarchistic approach may be needed to shake things up. Don’t let red tape strangle your business take a long hard look at your company attitude to systems. Do you rely over-heavily on them? Is innovation hiding in the backroom desperate to be heard but muffled by paperwork and rigid management control?

To manage bureaucracy, you may need to dismantle it. History has taught us that revolution has limited impact if confined to overthrowing leaders…and not tackling the structures that support bureaucracy. Next week’s blog post will look at how even small changes can muzzle the bureaucratic monster and release the innovative spirit.

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