The Division of Labor in Organizations

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Division of labor is a principle of commerce mostly used in corporate labor. It is usually aimed at increasing the total output of work in an organization. It began in ancient times of early trading even before the 20th century and is still being practiced up to date (Littek, 1995). Division of labor has its benefits, challenges in the application, as well as shortfalls. This paper seeks literature about division of labor in organizations. It is drawn from a wide range of scholarly materials. The paper seeks literature on how the principle of division of labor developed, different problems hindering its applicability, how the principle has been absorbed into human resource management and how business and not-for-profit organizations are applying division of labor to enhance performance.

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Development and essence of the principle of division of labor

According to Glick and Huber (1995), the 20th century saw a rise in division of labor in large organizations. Most organizations, especially during industrialization in Europe and the United States, were manufacturing organization. These organizations were mainly aimed at increasing the volume of productivity by placing employees within departments. Employees were not sensitized on the need of autonomy, because organizations were highly structured with high respect for authority (Kirst-Ashman & Hull, 2012).

As it is with organizations operating under the guidance of modern rules of management, the employees are highly sensitized of the need and the importance of autonomy in work. Differentiation, which is one of the brainchildren of the principle of division of labor, leads to efficiency (Peaucelle, 2000; Chemuturi, 2011). In differentiation, workers are assigned tasks, with their roles being clearly defined by the management. The management remains to be the key overseer of the workers; though, they work independently.

This is common with many organizations that deal in processing of products. In differentiation; a given group of specialists is given or trusted with organizations resources, which they use. The group used these resources, and it would give feedback to management on how they have utilized the resources. The proper use of these resources is reflected in the work output, in the section or department. The employees are, thus forced to become responsible, which end up impacting positively on the performance of these organizations. Consequently, increased productivity leads to higher profits. Division of labor leads to specialization which by extension results to organizational efficiency (Picot, Reichwald & Wigand 2008; Oliveira, 2011).

Many researches have pointed that division of labor means spreading jobs to different employees in the organization. A given job is broken down into various smaller tasks. Each task is then assigned to different workers. Therefore, individuals end up dealing with the task assigned. Research has revealed that fast food companies apply the concept of division of labor in standardizing processes of taking orders from customers. There are skills which require highly developed skills, while there are other jobs, which do not require high skills. Organizations put a clear line of separation between these skills. Thus, division of labor helps in dealing with diverse skills and dealing with the diversity in skills. Modern managers have viewed labor division as a means of increasing organizational performance (Westcott, 2005; Division of labor, 2011).

Research has revealed that different governments have different ways or structures of governance; for instance, socialism/communism or capitalism. Capitalism is common in administration, in Europe and the Northern America, while socialism and communism is common in Asian countries. These types of government affect the use of the division of labor model. Organizations from the capitalistic nations are more synonymous with the use of division of labor in achieving labor efficiency and effectiveness for increased performance (Midlarsky, 1997; Iqbal and You, 2001).

Gender and technical parities in division of labor

Many studies are proving that the extensive usage of self-managing teams in organizations is bringing about a new ‘division of labor’. In this new order, team members in organizations are expected to learn and adopt tasks that go beyond the main tasks (Windebank, 2008). This leads to cross-functionality. This was evident in a research which was done to ascertain whether self-managing teams in organizations can perform cross-functionally. The research also aimed to establish the impact of gender disparities on division of labor.

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Interviews, which were conducted on members belonging to four different service-oriented mixed teams, revealed that teams discuss the essence of learning to perform the task of other employees in organizations. However, constraints to cross-functionality in organizations emerged. As a result, this brings occupations together, which had more rations of a given gender. While teams are assigned to perform roles in the organization, firms are expected to embrace cross-training and cross-functionality. This is seen as one way of increasing efficiency in work.

The research revealed that men, especially those performing technical task, were the main impediments to the relocation of roles. They rejected to work with women, who were seen as having little skills. Therefore, gender remains to be a significant impediment in the diversification of ‘division of labor’ in organizations. The organizations must ensure that they have fully addressed issues of gender, as well as stratification to achieve cross-functionality in self-managing teams. These issues are more visible in scenarios where we have feminine and masculine teams, which have a varied level of skills (Ollilainen and Rothschild, 2001).

Division of labor as a point of focus for improving delivery by international organizations

UNAIDS has realized the need for raising work efficiency using division of labor. In the year 2005, the organization initiated a process meant to help clarify and develop division of labor, to aid in offering technical support to different states. The organization came up with an agreement on a modality of division of labor, which differentiated between the roles of its secretariat and the cosponsors. These roles were divided and clearly outlined and aligned to tasks; which are service provision, management and technical tasks (Lule, Seifman, David & World Bank, 2008).

In the year 2009, an independent evaluation was done. The conclusion of the evaluation called for the UNAIDS program to become more strategic, focused, efficient, accountable, flexible and responsive in its work. The evaluation noted that real limitations of division of labor for the program manifested itself in the inadequacy in coordination between the Agencies of the United Nations. The problems of coordination in the agencies were brought about because of fragmentation of programs, as well as the structures and support for different states.

The other problem was inadequate accountability mechanisms, monitoring, reporting as well as evaluation. It was recommended that these problems should be addressed. The UNAIDS coordinating board called for a review of division of labor, which would help in strengthening of the work of the organization. The review was to majorly focus on operating crosscutting issues of human rights and gender, which were the main hindrances to program implementation. The review was also supposed to be composed of a framework on which different roles could be clearly defined and responsibilities assigned. Division of labor was to consolidate how the program works to address key issues in their agenda and strategies laid down. It is supposed to guide the organization up to 2015 (World Bank. 2008).

The European Union has been working on a model of improving work delivery in countries where it provides aid using the attributes of division of labor. The EU programs aim to reduce poverty levels in the developing world. Therefore, the EU has been seeking to use financial and human resources optimally to enhance the effectiveness in aid delivery. The EU is using a model known as complementarity. This model always aims to attain an optimal division of labor between the various actors. Complementarity is comprehensive.

It implies that each donor is paying focus on areas that have the highest value because they complement the activities of other donor organizations. This model entails a comprehensive decision pertaining to division of labor by concentrating on a limited, minimal number of sectors in defining donor roles. Division of labor is substantial in raising the value and the magnitude of aid, and how it is absorbed in by the recipients.

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In-country complementarity is meant to take care of situations where the fragmentation of aid in a destination brings about administrative challenges for both the recipients and the donor workforces. As a way of ensuring that aid added value to the targeted destines, the EU drafted a piece of legislation known as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in the year 2005. This was further translated into another legislation known as the EU Code of Conduct on Complementarity and Division of Labor in the year 2007. The later piece of legislation has a set of rules and regulations, which define the role of all stakeholders in aid disbursement (Go and Page, 2008).

Hino (2006) and Grant (2009) observe that specialization and division of labor has been the core principles behind the triumph of Japanese business organizations in the global market. From the mid-1990s, Japan has been holding to specialization in the technical skills. With this, high quality skills and innovation has been attained. The transfer of these skills to industry has resulted in innovation of new products and services; for instance, Toyota Motors Corporation.

Specialization is linked to division of labor. A group of people who possess similar skills is placed in a distinct supportive environment where people work on a task to perfection (Wagner and Hollenbeck, 2010). Successful Japanese organizations have the ability to manage work relationships, even though the division of labor is so extensive, especially among the specialists. This is what is required in division of labor. Working relationships among the employees must continue prevail (Liker, 1995).

Division of labor in Human Resource management

Numerous studies show that human resource management is leading to improved managerial functions in many organizations. The major attention of HRM is managing the employees and their talents. While the principle of division of labor is quite old as it originated in the ancient times of agrarian revolution, it is still one of the subjects of human resource management. However, the manner in which division of labor is applied in HRM as it is today is quite different. In the ancient times, divisions of labor centered on the fact that people were to focus on only a given task in the organization.

Recent research in working organizations has shown that, while employees have tasks to perform, they are being encouraged to possess dynamic skills (Lobel, 2004). This is further explained in what is referred to as workplace diversity. While the division of labor has benefits to the organizations, work place diversity has led to an overhaul of its application in organizations. Most organizations are seeking people who can easily switch tasks to keep pacing with the ever-changing environment in organizations. These changes often result from external stimuli (Sullivan, Sage Publications, inc., and Sage eReference (Online service), 2009; Wagner and Hollenbeck, 2010).

Social science research deduces that organizations are social units, which are constructed deliberately to achieve goals. Organizations encompass a wide range of institutions; which include business firms, schools, hospitals and churches among any other institutions. Division of labor and communication is one of the characteristics of organizations. These institutions have objectives, which can only be realized through the assignment of tasks to certain groups. When the tasks are fully accomplished, a firm meets goals. Organization attains value by the level at which they realize their set goals and objectives. Division of labor is a key tool here. It aligns goals to certain individuals depending on their level of qualification as is related to the task.

The assignment of workers to tasks is helping organizations to reach high levels of responsibility amongst the employees. Division of labor has found strong acceptance and adoption in scientific management, which is what most organizations are using to improve management. Organizations are employing people with different specialties and handing them within departments. This is what is called specialized labor. The specialized laborers perform distinct duties in the organization. Specialization is a lee way to the optimization of division of labor and responsibility in organizations. Organizations that work on this basis have more often than not been performing quite well. For ease in applying the principle of division of labor, organizations must be seen as social units composed of different people who have varied needs and talents.

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Decentralization as a pathway to division of labor and efficiency

Barnett and Finnemore (2004) conducted a study on different forms of management. They noted that bureaucratic form of management encourages vertical structure of management, where most functions are left to the chief authorities in organizations. Organizations have been opting to mechanisms of decentralizing authority hence division of labor.

The level of accuracy is raised when organizations choose to use a non-centralized system of working, where every person is given time and independence to deal with and accomplish the specified duties assigned. For this reason, many institutions are opting to use teams in accomplishing certain tasks in the organization. The seniors in the organizations or institutions are only left with the supervisory or monitory role. These teams only seek specialized counsel from their bosses on areas proving to be difficult or challenging to them needing external intervention (Jangla, n.d).

Doheny-Farina (1992) found out that a number of organizations in different sectors tend to have high levels of specialization divisions. The medical sector requires investment in different fields of medical specialties. These fields require comprehensive research to result into product development. Thus, different people in the field, who have skills that are required, are used in product development. Such teams are comprised of medical doctors with qualifications in the areas being investigated. Thus, they embark on the task, which becomes easier as they will read between the same lane of the profession and professionalism. An example is the current teams of doctors, who are conducting research on the HIV, with the aim of developing an HIV vaccine.

This is one field in which division of labor is highly valued. High levels of knowledge and coordination are required as accurate results are the expected outcomes. However, there are some cases where these teams of medical specialists have to work in collaboration with other organizations so that they come up with other vital discoveries. In such cases, division of labor often faces a lot of impediments. Each of the team of specialists; for instance, specialists in chemistry, physics and even biology is automatic barriers to the whole process of product innovation and development.

This shows that individual teams will usually work exceptionally well under the principle of division of labor. However, the greatest setback comes when new members are introduced into the team or when different teams have to integrate in order to accomplish a given duty. Group dynamics comes in as a major hindrance to collective tasks. Different groups are used to different code of ethics, especially for the specialized groups. They have a codified way of communication and professionalism. When they are brought together to work with a different stream of specialists, each of these groups will be forced to adjust and readjust everything. This will adversely affect the work that is being done hence one of the major barriers to specialization and division of labor (Piore, Lester and Malek, 1997; Kelly, 2012).

Division of labor and talent management

There is diversity of skills in the society today as it is outlined in different human resource texts. The diversity in skills comes from the continued and comprehensive investment in education and skill development. Organizations, on the other hand, are seeking for these talents which can be extremely resourceful when tapped. Organizations are tapping the skills and placing them within the context of the organization.

The skilled personnel under the guidance of the principle of division of labor are equipped with organizational resources so that they can explore their skills for the benefit of the organizations. Individuals who are highly skilled will only be of much help to organizations when they are given a certain level of autonomy. It is only organizations that are least centralized that embrace the principle of division of labor, which ends up exploiting the full potential of their employees (Silzer and Dowell, 2010; Rothstein, 2010).


This literature has been drawn from a wide range of materials. From this literature, it is evident that the principle of division of labor has been and is still phenomenal in organizations. Division of labor is has developed over many years, and many organizations are still tailor-making this to induce efficiency of organizational work. The literature also shows that a lot of impediments stand in the way of implementing the principle of division of labor in different organizations. Nonetheless, the principle has resulted in better outcomes, especially for instances where it has been fully applied. More literature is still being developed on this subject.

Reference List

Primary sources

Chemuturi, M 2011, “Distributing work for a revolution”, Industrial Engineer: IE, vol. 43. no. 12, pp.46-51.

Hino, S 2006, Inside the mind of Toyota: Management principles for enduring growth, Productivity Press, New York, N.Y.

Jangla, BI n.d, Modern Organizations by Amitai Etzioni: Book Review, Web.

Lobel, O 2004, “Between Solidarity and Individualism: Collective Efforts for Social Reform in the Heterogeneous Workplace”, Research In Sociology Of Work, vol. 14, pp.131-164.

Lule, E, Seifman, RM, David, AC & World Bank 2008, The changing HIV/AIDS landscape: Selected papers for the World Bank’s agenda for action in Africa, 2007-2011, World Bank, Washington D.C.

Ollilainen, M & Rothschild, J 2001, “Can self-managing teams be truly cross-functional? gender barriers to a “new” division of labor”, in SP Vallas (eds), The transformation of work, JAI, New York, pp. 141-164.

Peaucelle, J 2000, “From Taylorism to post-Taylorism: Simultaneously pursuing several management objectives”, Journal of Organizational Change Management, vol. 13, no. 5, pp.452 – 467.

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