Disembedded rationality

Brad C. Anderson

Disembedded rationality refers to objective knowledge. ‘Objective’ knowledge refers to truths that remain true regardless of human activity. For example, the force of gravity pulls two pieces of matter together according to a set of laws. Those laws exist separate from human activity. They operate whether we know about them or not, and they remain unchanged regardless of our actions.

Disembedded rationality takes three forms: economic, technocratic, and bureaucratic.

Economic Rationality

Economic rationality is a means through which individuals make utility-maximizing decisions (that is, getting the most value for the fewest resources).

Current management thinking views organizations as utility-maximizing entities. In other words, people create organizations for a purpose (the utility they provide), and the objective of the organization is to fulfill that purpose for the least amount of resources. Economic rationality, thus, is a dominant approach in modern business thinking.


Think back on the previous chapter on values, especially the framework on public sector values. What value does the goal of utility maximization express?

Technocratic Rationality

Technocratic rationality assumes the world (including humans) operates according to objective, natural laws. Through the application of the scientific method, practitioners understand these objective natural laws, which in turn allows them to optimize systems of human activity.

Those who rely on this form of rationality see organizations as means-end structures (that is, organizations exist to use certain methods to achieve a defined objective). Through scientific study, we can optimize the means through which organizations achieve their ends.

Bureaucratic Rationality

Bureaucratic rationality controls how individuals in organizations perform activities by defining and controlling knowledge through the following methods.

  1. Documentation: Bureaucracies use documents to classify and define objects, activities, and people (e.g. job descriptions, employment contracts)
  2. Boundaries: Bureaucracies define boundaries that classify who is responsible for which activity (e.g., finance department approves spending, teachers administer classroom lectures)
  3. Rules: Bureaucracies use rules to guide behaviour and reduce the unpredictability of human discretion (e.g., sales associates must reply to customer e-mails within twenty-four hours)
  4. Processes: Bureaucracies use processes to standardize how individuals perform activities (e.g., the process of taking an order at a coffee shop)
  5. Procedures & roles: Bureaucracies use procedures and roles to eliminate unpredictability by defining discrete roles within the organization responsible for different procedures (e.g., the Vice President of Marketing is responsible for overseeing all the company’s marketing activities).

Through bureaucratic rationality, individuals understand how an organization operates and how to get things done in that organization.

Thinking of bureaucracies as a type of rationality is counter-intuitive for many. Let’s look at an example to see how this works in practice.



Let’s look at how Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) approves a new course to demonstrate how bureaucratic rationality controls and defines organizational action.

As you will see, this is a complicated process. Rather than memorizing this process, just read it to get a sense of how the different bureaucratic rationality elements fit together to control the organization’s activities. The aspects of bureaucratic rationality relevant to each step are highlighted in brackets.

  • At KPU, if an instructor wishes to create a new course, they must complete a document called the Course Outline that summarizes the course (documentation).
  • The individual creating the course is known as the Course Developer (procedures and roles).
  • Approving a Course Outline is a multi-step process (process) that the following bullets describe.
  • The Course Developer (role) creates the Course Outline (documentation) following a set of guidelines (rules) developed by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Curriculum, which has authority over curriculum development (boundaries).
  • Within KPU are many teaching departments, and every course is owned by one of those departments (boundaries).
  • When creating a new course, the Course Developer’s department must accept responsibility for the course (boundaries) and approve the Course Outline at a department meeting (procedures/roles)
  • Each department belongs to a faculty. For example, the Marketing department belongs to the Business faculty, the department of Anthropology belongs to the Faculty of Arts, and so on (boundaries).
  • Each faculty has a Curriculum Committee, which is responsible for overseeing curriculum development at the faculty level (boundaries, roles). Thus, the faculty’s Curriculum Committee reviews and approves the new Course Outline (processes).
  • The Course Outline then goes to the Faculty Council, which is responsible for overseeing all academic matters in the faculty (boundaries, roles). It reviews and approves the Course Outline (processes).
  • The Course Outline then goes to the Senate Standing Committee on Curriculum, which is responsible for overseeing curriculum across the entire university (boundaries, roles). It reviews and approves the Course Outline (processes).
  • The Course Outline then goes to the Senate, which is responsible for overseeing all academic matters university-wide (boundaries, roles). It reviews and approves the Course Outline (process).
  • Once approved, the Course Outline is sent to the Registrar’s office for inclusion in next year’s Academic Calendar (documentation, process, roles). KPU may now offer the course to students.

Phew! So, what was the point of telling you all that?

Bureaucratic rationality defines reality within the organization. It describes who does what, when they do it, and how.

Bureaucratic rationality governs how KPU creates a new course. An individual in KPU who wishes to create a new class must possess sufficient knowledge of this bureaucratic rationality.

Without bureaucratic knowledge, an individual is unable to create new courses.

LESSON: If you want to make something happen in an organization, you must know how it operates. That is, you must educate yourself in the bureaucratic rationality that governs the organization.

Key Takeaways

  • Disembedded rationality refers to objective knowledge. It takes three forms:
    • Economic rationality
    • Technocratic rationality
    • Bureaucratic rationality


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Disembedded rationality Copyright © 2020 by Brad C. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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