Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition
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Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition

Herbert A. Simon

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eBook - ePub

Administrative Behavior, 4th Edition

Herbert A. Simon

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About This Book

In this fourth edition of his ground-breaking work, Herbert A. Simon applies his pioneering theory of human choice and administrative decision-making to concrete organizational problems. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the book's original publication, Professor Simon enhances his timeless observations on the human decision-making process with commentaries examining new facets of organizational behavior. Investigating the impact of changing social values and modem technology on the operation of organizations, the new ideas featured in this revised edition update a book that has become a worldwide classic.Named by Public Administration Review as "Book of the Half Century, " Administrative Behavior is considered one of the most influential books on social science thinking, and was referred to by the Nobel Committee as "epoch-making."Written for managers and other professionals who wish to understand the decision-making processes at the heart of organization and management, it is also essential reading for students in business and management, economics, sociology, psychology computer science, government, and law.

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Free Press



Decision-Making and Administrative Organization

ADMINISTRATION IS ORDINARILY DISCUSSED as the art of “getting things done.” Emphasis is placed upon processes and methods for insuring incisive action. Principles are set forth for securing concerted action from groups of men. In all this discussion, however, not very much attention is paid to the choice which prefaces all action—to the determining of what is to be done rather than to the actual doing. It is with this problem—the process of choice which leads to action—that the present study is concerned. In this introductory chapter the problem will be posed and a survey made of the topics to be taken up in the remaining chapters.
Although any practical activity involves both “deciding” and “doing,” it has not commonly been recognized that a theory of administration should be concerned with the processes of decision as well as with the processes of action.1 This neglect perhaps stems from the notion that decision-making is confined to the formulation of over-all policy. On the contrary, the process of decision does not come to an end when the general purpose of an organization has been determined. The task of “deciding” pervades the entire administrative organization quite as much as does the task of “doing”—indeed, it is integrally tied up with the latter. A general theory of administration must include principles of organization that will insure correct decision-making, just as it must include principles that will insure effective action.


It is clear that the actual physical task of carrying out an organization’s objectives falls to the persons at the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy. The automobile, as a physical object, is built not by the engineer or the executive, but by the mechanic on the assembly line. The fire is extinguished, not by the fire chief or the captain, but by the team of firemen who play a hose on the blaze.
It is equally clear that the persons above this lowest or operative level in the administrative hierarchy are not mere surplus baggage, and that they too must have an essential role to play in the accomplishment of the agency’s objectives. Even though, as far as physical cause and effect are concerned, it is the machine gunner and not the major who fights battles, the major is likely to have a greater influence upon the outcome of a battle than any single machine gunner.
How, then, do the administrative and supervisory staff of an organization affect that organization’s work? The nonoperative staff of an administrative organization participate in the accomplishment of the objectives of that organization to the extent that they influence the decisions of the operatives—the persons at the lowest level of the administrative hierarchy. The major can influence the battle to the extent that his head is able to direct the machine gunner’s hand. By deploying his forces in the battle area and assigning specific tasks to subordinate units he determines for the machine gunner where he will take his stand and what his objective will be. In very small organizations the influence of all supervisory employees upon the operative employees may be direct, but in units of any size there are interposed between the top supervisors and the operative employees several levels of intermediate supervisors who are themselves subject to influences from above, and who transmit, elaborate, and modify these influences before they reach the operatives.
If this is a correct description of the administrative process, then the construction of an efficient administrative organization is a problem in social psychology. It is a task of setting up an operative staff and superimposing on that staff a supervisory staff capable of influencing the operative group toward a pattern of coordinated and effective behavior. The term “influencing” rather than “directing” is used here, for direction—that is, the use of administrative authority—is only one of several ways in which the administrative staff may affect the decisions of the operative staff; and, consequently, the construction of an administrative organization involves more than a mere assignment of functions and allocation of authority.
In the study of organization, the operative employee must be at the focus of attention, for the success of the structure will be judged by his performance within it. Insight into the structure and function of an organization can best be gained by analyzing the manner in which the decisions and behavior of such employees are influenced within and by the organization.


All behavior involves conscious or unconscious selection of particular actions out of all those which are physically possible to the actor and to those persons over whom he exercises influence and authority. The term “selection” is used here without any implication of a conscious or deliberate process. It refers simply to the fact that, if the individual follows one particular course of action, there are other courses of action that he thereby forgoes. In many cases the selection process consists simply in an established reflex action—a typist hits a particular key with a finger because a reflex has been established between a letter on a printed page and this particular key. Here the action is, in some sense at least, rational (i.e. goal-oriented), yet no element of consciousness or deliberation is involved.
In other cases the selection is itself the product of a complex chain of activities called “planning” or “design” activities. An engineer, for example, may decide upon the basis of extensive analysis that a particular bridge should be of cantilever design. His design, further implemented by detailed plans for the structure, will lead to a whole chain of behaviors by the individuals constructing the bridge.
In this volume many examples will be given of all varieties of selection process. All these examples have in common the following characteristics: At any moment there are a multitude of alternative (physically) possible actions, any one of which a given individual may undertake; by some process these numerous alternatives are narrowed down to that one which is in fact acted out. The words “choice” and “decision” will be used interchangeably in this study to refer to this process. Since these terms as ordinarily used carry connotations of self-conscious, deliberate, rational selection, it should be emphasized that as used here they include any process of selection, regardless of whether the above elements are present to any degree.


A great deal of behavior, and particularly the behavior of individuals within administrative organizations, is purposive—oriented toward goals or objectives. This purposiveness brings about an integration in the pattern of behavior, in the absence of which administration would be meaningless; for, if administration consists in “getting things done” by groups of people, purpose provides a principal criterion in determining what things are to be done.
The minute decisions that govern specific actions are inevitably instances of the application of broader decisions relative to purpose and to method. The walker contracts his leg muscles in order to take a step; he takes a step in order to proceed toward his destination; he is going to the destination, a mail box, in order to mail a letter; he is sending a letter in order to transmit certain information to another person, and so forth. Each decision involves the selection of a goal, and a behavior relevant to it; this goal may in turn be mediate to a somewhat more distant goal; and so on, until a relatively final aim is reached.2 In so far as decisions lead toward the selection of final goals, they will be called “value judgments”; so far as they involve the implementation of such goals they will be called “factual judgments.”3
Unfortunately, problems do not come to the administrator carefully wrapped in bundles with the value elements and the factual elements neatly sorted. For one thing, goals or final objectives of governmental organization and activity are usually formulated in very general and ambiguous terms—“justice,” “the general welfare,” or “liberty.” Then, too, the objectives as defined may be merely intermediate to the attainment of more final aims. For example, in certain spheres of action, the behavior of men is generally oriented around the “economic motive.” Yet, for most men, economic gain is not usually an end in itself, but a means for attaining more final ends: security, comfort, and prestige.
Finally, the value and factual elements may be combined, in some cases, in a single objective. The apprehension of criminals is commonly set up as an objective of a municipal police department. To a certain extent this objective is conceived as an end in itself, that is, as aimed toward the apprehension and punishment of offenders against the law; but from another point of view apprehension is considered a means for protecting citizens, for rehabilitating offenders, and for discouraging potential offenders.
The Hierarchy of Decisions. The concept of purposiveness involves a notion of a hierarchy of decisions—each step downward in the hierarchy consisting in an implementation of the goals set forth in the step immediately above. Behavior is purposive in so far as it is guided by general goals or objectives; it is rational in so far as it selects alternatives which are conducive to the achievement of the previously selected goals.4
It should not be inferred that this hierarchy or pyramid of goals is perfectly organized or integrated in any actual behavior. A governmental agency, for instance, may be directed simultaneously toward several distinct objectives: a recreation department may seek to improve the health of children, to provide them with good uses for their leisure time, and to prevent juvenile delinquency, as well as to achieve similar goals for the adults in the community.
Even when no conscious or deliberate integration of these goals takes place in decision, it should be noted that an integration generally takes place in fact. Although in making decisions for his agency, the recreation administrator may fail to weigh the diverse and sometimes conflicting objectives against one another in terms of their relative importance, yet his actual decisions, and the direction which he gives to the policy of his agency will amount in practice to a particular set of weights for these objectives. If the program emphasizes athletics for adolescent boys, then this objective is given an actual weight in practice which it may, or may not, have had in the consciousness of the administrator planning the program. Hence, although the administrator may refuse the task, or be unable to perform it, of consciously and deliberately integrating his system of objectives, he cannot avoid the implications of his actual decisions, which achieve such a synthesis in fact.
The Relative Element in Decision. In an important sense, all decision is a matter of compromise. The alternative that is finally selected never permits a complete or perfect achievement of objectives, but is merely the best solution that is available under the circumstances. The environmental situation inevitably limits the alternatives that are available, and hence sets a maximum to the level of attainment of purpose that is possible.
This relative element in achievement—this element of compromise—makes even more inescapable the necessity of finding a common denominator when behavior is aimed simultaneously at several objectives. For instance, if experience showed that an organization like the Work Projects Administration could at one and the same time dispense relief and construct public works without handicapping either objective, then the agency might attempt to attain at the same time both of these objectives. If, on the other hand, experience showed that the accomplishment of either of these objectives through the organization seriously impeded the accomplishment of the other, one would have to be selected as the objective of the agency, and the other sacrificed. In balancing the one aim against the other, and in attempting to find a common denominator, it would be necessary to cease thinking of the two aims as ends in themselves, and instead to conceive them as means to some more general end.5
An Illustration of the Process of Decision. In order to understand more clearly the intimate relationships that exist in any practical administrative problem between judgments of value and fact, it will be helpful to study an example from the field of municipal government.
What questions of value and fact arise in the opening and improvement of a new street? It is necessary to determine: (1) the design of the street, (2) the proper relationship of the street to the master plan, (3) means of financing the project, (4) whether the project should be let on contract or done by force account, (5) the relation of this project to construction that may be required subsequent to the improvement (e.g., utility cuts in this particular street), and (6) numerous other questions of like nature. These are questions for which answers must be found—each one combining value and factual elements. A partial separation of the two elements can be achieved by distinguishing the purposes of the project from its procedures.
On the one hand, decisions regarding these questions must be based upon the purposes for which the street is intended, and the social values affected by its construction—among them, (1) speed and convenience in transportation, (2) traffic safety, (3) effect of street layout on property values, (4) construction costs, and (5) distribution of cost among taxpayers.
On the other hand, the decisions must be made in the light of scientific and practical knowledge as to the effect particular measures will have in realizing these values. Included here are (1) the relative smoothness, permanence, and cost of each type of pavement, (2) relative advantages of alternate routes from the standpoint of cost and convenience to traffic, and (3) the total cost and distribution of cost for alternative methods of financing.
The final decision, then, will depend both on the relative weight that is given to the different objectives and on judgment as to the extent to which any given plan will attain each objective.
This brief account will serve to indicate some of the basic features of the process of decision—features that will be further elaborated in this study.


Administrative activity is group activity. Simple situations are familiar where a man plans and executes his own work; but as soon as a task grows to the point where the efforts of several persons are required to accomplish it this is no longer possible, and it becomes necessary to develop processes for the application of organized effort to the group task. The techniques which facilitate this application are the administrative processes.
It should be noted that the administrative processes are decisional processes: they consist in segregating certain elements in the decisions of members of the organization, and establishing regular organizational procedures to select and determine these elements and to communicate them to the members concerned. If the task of the group is to build a ship, a design for the ship is drawn and adopted by the organization, and this design limits and guides the activities of the persons who actually construct the ship.
The organization, then, takes from the individual some of his decisional autonomy, and substitutes for it an organization decision-making process. The decisions which the organization makes for the individual ordinarily (1) specify his function, that is, the general scope and nature of his duties; (2) allocate authority, that is, determine who in the organization is to have power to make further decisions for the individual; and (3) set such other limits to his choice as are needed to coordinate the activities of several individuals in the organization.
The administrative organization is characterized by specialization—particular tasks are delegated to particular parts of the organization. It has already been noted above that this specialization may take the form of “vertical” division of labor. A pyramid or hierarchy of authority may be established, with greater or less formality, and decision-making functions may be specialized among the members of this hierarchy.
Most analyses of organization have emphasized “horizontal” specialization—the division of work—as the basic characteristic of organized activity. Luther Gulick, for example, in his “Notes on the Theory of Organization,” says: “Work division is the foundation of organization; indeed, the reason for organization.”6 In this study we shall be primarily concerned with “vertical” specialization—the division of decision-making duties between operative and supervisory personnel. One inquiry will be into the reasons why the operative employees are deprived of a portion of their autonomy in the making of decisions and subjected to the authority and influence of supervisors.
There would seem to be at least three reasons for vertical specialization in organization. First, if there is any horizontal specialization, vertical specialization is absolutely essential to achieve coordination among the operative employees. Second, just as horizontal specialization permits greater skill and expertise to be developed by the operative group in the performance of their tasks, so vertical specialization permits greater expertise in the making of decisions. Third, vertical specialization permits the operative personnel to be held accountable for their decisions: to the board of directors in the case of a business organization; to the legislative body in the case of a publi...

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