Tom Burns

British sociologist (1913-2001)
For the American/Swedish sociologist, see Tom R. Burns

Tom Burns FBA (16 January 1913 - 20 June 2001) was a prominent British sociologist, author and founder of the Sociology department at Edinburgh University. He is known for his pioneering work on contingency theory.



The Management of Innovation, 1961


Tom Burns and G.M. Stalker, The Management of Innovation, 1961

  • In mechanistic systems the problems and tasks facing the concern as a whole are broken down into specialisms. Each individual pursues his task as something distinct from the real tasks of the concern as a whole, as if it were the subject of a subcontract. "Somebody at the top" is responsible for seeing to its relevance. The technical methods, duties, and powers attached to each functional role are precisely defined. Interaction within management tends to be vertical, i.e., between superior and subordinate... Management, often visualized as the complex hierarchy which is familiar in organization charts, operates a simple control system, with information flowing up through a succession of filters, and decisions and instructions flowing downwards through a succession of amplifiers.
    • p. 5; as cited in: David Dugdale, Stephen Lyne. Budgeting Practice and Organisational Structure. Elsevier, 18 jan. 2010. p. 68-69
  • Organic systems are adapted to unstable conditions, when problems and requirements for action arise which cannot be broken down and distributed among specialist roles within a clearly defined hierarchy. Individuals have to perform their special tasks in the light of their knowledge of the tasks of the firm as a whole. Jobs lose much of their formal definition in terms of methods, duties, and powers, which have to be re¬defined continually by interaction with others participating in a task. Interaction runs laterally as much as vertically. Communication between people of different ranks tends to resemble lateral consultation rather than vertical command. Omniscience can no longer be imputed to the head of the concern.
    • p. 5-6
  • All novelty involves some degree of risk. The vast majority of biological mutations are said to be harmful. When, as in human affairs, enormous numbers of random possibilities are eliminated by rational choice, the chances of harm rather than good resulting are reduced, not eliminated.
    • p. 21
  • The risks attendant upon change may have to be weighed against other risks arising from maintaining the same state of affairs.
    • p. 21
  • What is essential is that nothing should inhibit individuals from applying to others for information and advice, or for additional effort. This in turn depends on the ability to suppress differences of status and of technical prestige on occasions of working interaction, and on the absence of barriers to communication founded on functional preserves, privilege, or personal reserve.
  • The effective organization of industrial resources... alters in important respects in conformity with changes in extrinsic factors.
    • p. 96, as cited in: Richard Whittington (2014), Corporate Strategies in Recession and Recovery, p. 40
  • It follows that the more definition is given, the more omniscient the management must be, so that no functions are left whole or partly undischarged, no person is overburdened with undelegated responsibility, or left without the authority to do his job properly.
    • p. 123
  • We have endeavored to stress the appropriateness of each system to its own specific set of conditions. Equally, we desire to avoid the suggestion that either system is superior under all circumstances to the other. In particular, nothing in our experience justifies the assumption that mechanistic systems should be superseded by organic in conditions of stability. The beginning of administrative wisdom is the awareness that there is no one optimum type of management system.
    • p. 125

Quotes about Tom Burns

  • While numerous studies have dealt with the nature of organization-environment relations, the first major attempt to identify the types of organizational structure and managerial practice that are appropriate for different environmental conditions was conducted by Burns and Stalker, who studied twenty manufacturing firms in England and Scotland. Of these, fifteen were in the electronics industry, four were in research and development, and one was a major manufacturer. The particular environmental conditions examined were the rates of change in the scientific technology and the relevant product markets of the firms being studied.
  • Tom Burns taught and practised sociology with vigour and imagination. Organisations, which he saw as collaborative systems, fascinated him and he was a committed researcher, whose comments on the research process remain of great value. Even as a senior professor he remained a hands-on interviewer in a range of contexts: including industry, the BBC and the NHS.
His best-known works were The Management of Innovation (with G.M. Stalker, 1961)... [which] examined the management organisation of 20 firms in the electronics industry. Out of this came the distinction between mechanistic and organic systems of management. Firms working in a stable environment with fairly fixed technologies could operate appropriately with the mechanistic system; those with rapidly changing technologies and uncertain market conditions worked better with an organic system. Since the second situation was becoming more pronounced in the post-war world, the implications of this were far reaching and went far beyond traditional conceptions of what constituted good management practice.
  • The Management of Innovation (1961) [is]... the first major attempt to deal with the nature of organization-environment relations and identify the types of organizational structure and managerial practices that are appropriate for different environmental condition. Introduced the mechanistic-organic polarity (never a dichotomy) to the management lexicon.
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