Theory of Mechanistic and Organic Systems
(Burns, Stalker)

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Adjusting organization forms to appropriate conditions. Explanation of Theory of Mechanistic and Organic Systems of Burns and Stalker. ('61)


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Through their Theory of Mechanistic and Organic Systems, Tom Burns and G.M. Stalker have provided a way to understand which organization forms fit to specific circumstances of change or stability. In their highly influential work "The Management of Innovation", they provide the following characteristics of Mechanistic vs. Organic Systems:


Mechanistic Organization Form and Management System

Organic Organization Form and Management System

Appropriate Conditions



Distribution of tasks

Specialized differentiation of functional tasks into which the problems and tasks facing a concern as a whole are broken down

Contributive nature of special knowledge and experience to the common task of the concern.

Nature of Individual task

The abstract nature of each individual task, which is pursued with techniques and purposes more or less distinct from those of the concern as a whole: i.e., the functionaries tend to pursue the technical improvements of means, rather than the accomplishment of the ends of the concern.

The "realistic" nature of the individual task, which is seen as set by the total situation of the concern.

Who defines tasks or refines tasks

The reconciliation, for each level in the hierarchy, of these distinct performances by the immediate superiors, who are also, in turn, responsible for seeing that each is relevant in his own special part of the main task.

The adjustment and continual redefinition of individual tasks through interaction with others.

Task scope

The precise definition of rights and obligations and technical methods attached to each functional role.

The shedding of "responsibility" as a limited field of rights, obligations and methods (problems may not be posted upwards, downwards or sideways as being someone else's responsibility).

How is task conformance ensured

The translation of rights and obligations and methods into the responsibilities of a functional position.

The spread of commitment to the concern beyond any technical definition.

Structure of control, authority and communication

Hierarchic, Contractual.

Network, Presumed Community of Interest.

Locating of knowledge

Reinforcement of the hierarchic structure by the location of knowledge of actualities exclusively at the top of the hierarchy, where the final reconciliation of distinct tasks and assessment of relevance is made.

Omniscience no longer imputed to the head of the concern; knowledge about the technical or commercial nature of the here and now may be located anywhere in the network.

Communication between members of concern

Vertical communication; i.e., between superior and subordinate.

Lateral communication; i.e., between people of different rank, resembling consultation rather than command.

Governance for operations and working behavior

Instructions and decisions issued by superiors.

Information and advice rather than instructions and decisions.


Insistence on loyalty to the concern and obedience to superiors as a condition of membership. Commitment to the concern's task and to the "technological ethos" of material progress and expansion is more highly valued than loyalty and obedience.


Greater importance and prestige attaching to internal (local) rather than to general (cosmopolitan) knowledge, experience, and skill.

Importance and prestige attach to affiliations and expertise valid in the industrial and technical and commercial milieux external to the firm.

Book: Tom Burns, G.M. Stalker - The Management of Innovation -

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Compare with Mechanistic and Organic Systems:   Change Phases  |  Organization Chart  |  Contingency Theory  |  Five Disciplines  |  Six Change Approaches  |  Core Group Theory  |  Business Process Reengineering  |  Kaizen  |  Change Management  |  Dimensions of Change  |  Organizational Learning  |  Gestalt Theory  |  System Dynamics  |  Intellectual Capital Rating  |  OODA Loop  | Levels of Culture  |  Organizational Memory

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