Rational Approach to Project Management in Organizations

The evolution of organization theories from mechanistic to people based ones has influenced the approaches taken by managers in organizations towards the firm as well as organizing people.

While the earlier decades of the 20th century witnessed the rise of the mechanistic of the rational approaches, since the 1970’s and particularly in the last decade of the 20th century, there has been a trend towards viewing organizations as interdependent, complex and chaotic. This has led to the adoption of the systems approach of organizations that embraces complexity and uncertainty.

However, many managers continue to take the rational approach which views people as building blocks and the organization as a machine leaving little scope for flexibility and adaptability to changes in the external environment (Baecker, 2006, 80).

This article considers the reasons for doing so and takes the position that managers would be better served to adopt the systems approach to deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

The rational approach to organizations is appealing to most managers because of the comfort factor in such an approach. It is common for managers to avoid complexity and ambiguity in their working environment and hence taking an approach that has been described as “being purposeful” which enables managers to work towards “specific goals” as the preferred alternative.

Further, the development of organizations in the 20th century has been such that many firms have tight structures with clearly defined hierarchies, command and control bureaucracies. This enables managers to take an approach that is “mechanistic” in nature and which thrives on formalization and standardization (Scott & Davis, 2007, 30).

Since this kind of organization structure was the norm across industries and sectors, many managers of the “old school” of management pioneered by Taylor, Weber and others preferred a rational approach which eschews uncertainty and embraces predictability (Beardwell, 2010, 76).

To consider examples of organizations that follow these rational approach in the real world and from a time span of the latter decades of the 20th century to the present, we find that the main difference in the way organizations approach HRM depends on the sector in which they operate and the period in time when they started their operations.

To take specific examples, the cases of GM (General Motors) and the United States Government along with the NHS (National Health Service) in the United Kingdom are instances of organizations that practice rational approaches to HRM and this is mainly due to the fact that these organizations have a well defined structure and are tightly coupled with clear boundaries with the environment in which they operate.

Hence, these organizations can be said to be practicing a rational approach to HRM that ties in well with their organizational mission and vision (Van De Van, 2006, 75).

The rational approach is particularly preferred by managers where there is top down decision making and the “strategic apex” plans the strategies, directs the execution and monitors the implementation. In these organizational structures, strategy is not emergent but rather planned consciously and elaborated in a step wise manner.

The organizations that have fixed structures and are machine like in their approach to people and processes are places where managers prefer the rational approach to organizations and organizing. Though this approach is now fading away because of the new emergence of organizational forms and where the interaction of the organization and the external environment is characterized by fluidity and uncertainty, there are still many managers who prefer this approach due to the “hangover” of the old school of thought (Boxall & Purcell, 2003, 91).

It must be mentioned that this rational or mechanistic approach served the managers of yesteryears well and the emphasis on the “technical” aspects of management like measuring the deliverables in clearly defined terms i.e. output of the machine, plant utilization, efficiency and productivity measured in mechanistic terms all contributed to the success of this approach which continues to deliver even to this day though emerging sectors like the IT (Information Technology) sector and the financial services sector have pioneered the open systems approach (Stern and Barley, 2006, 153).

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Project Management