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Tom Burns (1913-2001)


British professor of sociology at Edinburgh University.

His book, The Management of Innovation, written with the psychologist GM Stalker (see below) emphasized the importance to innovation of freedom, informality, teamwork and empowerment years before people like Rosabeth Moss Kanter (pictured right below) did.Tom Burns


Key books


The Management of Innovation (1961), written with GM Stalker


In their research study of Scottish and English electronics companies, they identified two types of organization:


1. Organic (best for change and innovation)

  • task focused - communication in multi-functional teams that take responsibility for results.

  • continual re-definition of jobs.

  • motivation from a shared commitment to the organization's values and beliefs.

  • informal interaction in teams - communication consists of “information and advice rather than instructions and decisions”

Tom Burns


2. Mechanistic (best for stable conditions)

  • similar to Max Weber’s (pictured right) rational-legal bureaucracy
  • hierarchical and autocratic (superiors telling subordinates what to do).
  • clear definition of jobs carried out in a particular department.
  • power from position - the chief executive is  “all-powerful and all-knowledgeable” and passes down orders throughout the organization via his (or her) subordinates.


Burns and Stalker's research showed that companies didn't move from a mechanistic to an organic structure when change (e.g. competition and technological innovation) demanded that they should.

People with hierarchical power felt threatened by organic laboratory teams, resulting in constant conflict between them. So these teams were:

  • disbanded, or
  • isolated from the rest of the organization, or
  • turned into a bureaucratic department as part of the mechanistic organization.

To maximize profits from innovation and overcome resistance to change, the chief executive and other managers must instead support organic teams, despite these being more stressful and demanding on people's personal lives.


Key quotes on innovation and management

A mechanistic management system is appropriate to stable conditions. The organic form is appropriate to changing conditions which give rise constantly to fresh problems and unforeseen requirements for action.

The operation of an organic system of management hinges on effective communication.

Management is largely concerned with anticipating change and making alteration.

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