POSDCORB is an acronym widely used in the field of Management and Public Administration that reflects the classic view of administrative management. Largely drawn from the work of French industrialist Henri Fayol, it first appeared in a 1937 staff paper by Luther Gulick and Lyndall Urwick written for the Brownlow Committee. The acronym stands for steps in the administrative process: Planning, Organizing, Staffing, Directing, Co-Ordinating, Reporting and Budgeting.
Coining of the Acronym
In his piece "Notes on the Theory of Organization", a memo prepared while he was a member of the Brownlow Committee, Luther Gulick asks rhetorically "What is the work of the chief executive? What does he do?" POSDCORB is the answer, "designed to call attention to the various functional elements of the work of a chief executive because 'administration' and 'management' have lost all specific content."
In Gulick's own words, the elements of POSDCORB are as follows:
Gulick's "Notes on the Theory of Organization" further defines the principles of POSDCORB by explaining that if an executive's workload becomes too overwhelming, some of the elements of POSDCORB can be organized as subdivisions of the executive, depending on the size and complexity of the enterprise.
Under Organizing, Gulick emphasized the division and specialization of labor in a manner that will increase efficiency. Gulick notes that there are three limitations to division of labor. The first occurs when labor is divided to the point where any one task in the division of labor would require less than the full-time of a worker, in which case a worker may need to be employed in other tasks to fill up their time. The second limitation to division of labor arises from technology and custom, where certain tasks may only be handled by certain workers either because of a lack of technological means or customs at the time. Gulick gives the example of a single worksite in which only plumbers do the plumbing work and electricians do the electrical work, though this may not take up their full work time. Work in these areas could be re-combined in a manner to increase efficiency, however union considerations could prevent this. The third limitation to division of labor is that it must not pass beyond physical division into organic division, or intricately related activities must not be separated from each other. Gulick gives the example that while it may seem more efficient to have the front end of a cow grazing in pasture at all times and the back half being milked at all times, this would not work due to the intricate connection between the halves that is needed for the whole to function.
Gulick notes that organization of specialized workers can be done in four ways which are:
- By the purpose the workers are serving, such as furnishing water, providing education, or controlling crime. Gulick lists these in his organizational tables as vertical organizations.
- By the process the workers are using, such as engineering, doctoring, lawyering, or statistics. Gulick lists these in his organizational tables as horizontal organizations.
- By the clientelle or material or the persons or things being dealt with, such as immigrants, veterans, forests, mines, or parks in government; or such as a department store's furniture department, clothing department, hardware department, or shoe department in the private sector.
- By the place where the workers do their work.
Gulick is careful to recognize that these modes of organization can often cross, forming a complex and interrelated organizational structure where organizations like schools will include workers and professionals not in the field of education such as doctors or nurses, janitors, secretaries, police departments might include non-police professionals, a shoe department including buyers as well as salespeople, etc.
Under Coordination, Gulick notes that two methods can be used to achieve coordination of divided labor. The first is by organization, or placing workers under managers who coordinate their efforts. The second is by dominance of an idea, where a clear idea of what needs to be done is developed in each worker, and each worker fits their work to the needs of the whole. Gulick notes that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive, and that most enterprises function best when both are utilized.
Gulick notes that any manager will have a finite amount of time and energy, and discusses span of control under coordination. Drawing heavily from military organizational theory and the work of V. A. Graicunas, Sir Ian Hamilton, and Henri Fayol, Gulick notes that the number of subordinates that can be handled under any single manager will depend on factors such as organizational stability, the specialization of the subordinates and whether their manager comes from the same field or specialty, and space. Gulick stops short of giving a definite number of subordinates that any one manager can control, but authors such as Sir Ian Hamilton and Lyndall Urwick have settled on numbers between three and six. Span of control was later expanded upon and defended in depth by Lyndall Urwick in his 1956 piece The Manager's Span of Control.
Also under coordination, as well as organization, Gulick emphasizes the theory of unity of command, that each worker should only have one direct superior so as to avoid confusion and inefficiency.
Still another theory borrowed from military organizational theory, particularly Sir Ian Hamilton and Lyndall Urwick and brought to prominence in non-military management and public administration by Gulick and Urwick is the distinction between operational components of an organization, the do-ers, and coordinating, the coordinating components of an organization who do the knowing, thinking, and planning. In the military, this is divided between "line" and "staff" functions. Gulick gives the private-sector example of a holding company performing limited coordinating, planning, and finance functions, with subsidiary companies carrying out their work with extensive autonomy as it saw fit according to the parent company's overall direction.
Influence from French Administration Theory
Gulick states that his statement of the work of a chief executive is adapted from the functional analysis elaborated by Henri Fayol in his "Industrial and General Administration". Indeed, Fayol's work includes fourteen principles and five elements of management that lay the foundations of Gulick's POSDCORB tasks of an executive.
Fayol's fourteen principles of management are as follows:
- Division of Work
- Authority and Responsibility
- Unity of Command
- Unity of Direction
- Subordination of Individual Interest to General Interest
- Remuneration of Personnel
- Scalar Chain (line of authority with peer level communication)
- Stability of Tenure of Personnel
- Esprit de Corps
Fayol's influence upon Gulick is readily apparent in the five elements of management discussed in his book, which are:
- Planning - examining the future and drawing up plans of actions
- Organizing - building up the structure (labor and material) of the undertaking
- Command - maintaining activity among the personnel
- Co-ordination - unifying and harmonizing activities and efforts
- Control - seeing that everything occurs in conformity with policies and practices
In his 1987 piece "Deja Vu: French Antecedents of American Public Administration," Daniel Martin notes that virtually all of the principles in American Public Administration up to 1937 and the coining of the POSDCORB acronym, including the POSDCORB principles, were present in the French literature on the subject by 1859, but that this literature had largely been forgotten by the theorists of that era, thus the "re-invention" of these principles in the later French and American literature.
Place in Management and Public Administration History
POSDCORB generally fits into the Classical Management movement, being classified as an element of scientific management, which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gulick's POSDCORB principles were instrumental in highlighting the theory of span of control, or limits on the number of people one manager could supervise, as well as unity of command to the fields of management and public administration.
According to notable Public Administration scholars such as Nicholas Henry, POSDCORB, the principles it represents, and subsequent expansions upon the POSDCORB concept form the height of Public Administration in an era when it was seen as just another aspect of the field of management as a whole.
Gulick's work has been heavily cited and expanded upon by scholars and practitioners in the fields of management and public administration since the publication of Papers on the Science of Administration in 1937.
As early as 1938, literature began appearing in the field of Public Administration challenging the validity of POSDCORB and the concept that there could even be a rigid set of principles in administration. In 1946 and 1947, prominent Public Administration scholars such as Robert Dahl, Dwight Waldo, and Herbert A. Simon released articles and books criticising POSDCORB and the principles notion. Simon's article Proverbs of Administration challenges the POSDCORB principles by stating "For almost every principle one can find an equally plausible and acceptable contradictory principle." Among other criticisms, Simon states that the POSDCORB principles are an oversimplification of administration. Simon's criticisms largely center around span of control and unity of command, stating that sometimes it is necessary for a subordinate to receive guidance or directives from more than one source, as well as Gulick's division of labor concepts.---------
- Fayol, H. (1949). General and Industrial Management. (C. Storrs, Trans.). London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons, LTD. (Original work published 1918)
- Gulick, L. H. (1936). Notes on the Theory of Organization. L. Gulick & L. Urwick (Eds.), Papers on the Science of Administration (pp. 3–35). New York: Institute of Public Administration.
- Henry, N. (1975). Paradigms of Public Administration. Public Administration Review, 35 (4), pp. 376–386.
- Martin, D. W. (1987). Deja Vu: French Antecedents of American Public Administration. Public Administration Review, 47(4), pp. 297–303.
- Pindur, W.; Rogers, S. E.; and Kim, P. S. (1995). The history of management: a global perspective. 'Journal of Management History, 1 (1), pp. 59–77.
- Simon, H. A. (1946). Proverbs of Administration. Public Administration Review, 6 (1), pp. 53–67.
- Urwick, L. (1933). Organization as a Technical Problem. L. Gulick & L. Urwick (Eds.), Papers on the Science of Administration (pp. 49–88). New York: Institute of Public Administration.
- Urwick, L. (1956). The Manager's Span of Control. The Harvard Business Review. May–June, 1956, pp. 39–47.