Centralized vs. Decentralized Structures: 7 Key Differences

Updated March 10, 2023

A group of people sit at a conference table and listen to a speaker, who is out of the image's frame.

Every business has a management system that helps streamline its daily processes and procedures. Companies often implement a centralized or decentralized organizational structure to establish management protocols and facilitate clear communication. Understanding the differences between these two structures can help a company choose the right one depending on factors like the size of its staff, the variety of its product line and its global market share.

In this article, we define centralized and decentralized organizational structures and compare them in terms of benefits and limitations.

What is a centralized organizational structure?

A centralized organizational structure relies heavily on top-down decision-making. One person or an executive team is responsible for approving all relevant decisions, which they communicate through various levels of management. The less senior managers complete directives and relay their employees' concerns to their supervisors.

Centralized management is most effective in companies that prioritize their manufacturing strategies and strive to reduce their operating costs. Centralization also encourages collaboration between departments, streamlining best practices and coordinating with external parties and outside vendors. This is typically a more traditional organizational structure, which you can find in older companies and small businesses.

Read more: Traditional Organization Structure: Definition and Differences

What is a decentralized organizational structure?

Decentralized organization involves dispersing decision-making authority among multiple employees or departmental teams. Individuals at a lower level approve decisions and then report them to personnel in upper management. Emerging industries often employ a decentralized organizational structure because it's easier to move employees to different roles and change their responsibilities.

This structure is best for companies that want to respond quickly when confronting regionally differentiated customer needs or changing products based on individual markets. A decentralized organizational structure is also great for empowering employees to present new ideas and increasing career growth opportunities because it implements a more relaxed chain of command model. A decentralized structure is usually present in an alternative system that you may observe in newer companies and enterprise-level businesses.

Related: Comparing Horizontal vs. Vertical Organizational Structures

Differences at a glance
Decision-makingOne body of management decides procedures and develops strategies.Management at every level makes decisions for their department and teams.
CommunicationInformation comes from the top down. Employees follow executive orders.Departments communicate with each other more freely.
ResponsibilityOverall responsibility belongs to a small group of executives. They execute the company's vision with little inputManagers and employees share responsibility. This allows for feedback and opinions from employees.
Size of organizationMay be best for small organizations with fewer employees.Often works well for large organizations with many levels.

7 differences between centralized and decentralized structures

To determine which type of organizational structure suits a company better, it's a good idea to compare their key factors. Below, you can discover the benefits and limitations of centralized and decentralized management by exploring these seven key factors:

1. Decision-making speed

Small and emerging businesses can benefit from consolidation of power, as it helps expedite decision-making. A centralized organizational structure can sometimes obstruct input from others, such as an upper management team when deciding on a matter. This kind of structure may actually be more effective for private companies with a dedicated profit model, such as a local grocery store chain.

Decentralization is ideal for bigger companies that have a national or multinational presence. It may also be better for a business that produces a range of products that need expertise from different industries to create, sell and market properly. Companies that are leaders in their field tend to adopt more decentralized models because of their scope of production output.

Read more: Decision-Making Methods for the Workplace

2. Creation of standard internal metrics

When devising internal performance metrics for a company, creating a standardized format in a centralized system is easier. A top-down management structure allows a company to consolidate communication and reporting standards with minimal opportunity for deviations. If the metrics for success are fairly straightforward, it might be more beneficial to centralize an organizational structure.

A decentralized system lets individual departments or teams decide on their reporting methods, which can work well at companies with disparate product lines. Implementing active communication between managers and executives can help answer questions that might arise in the reporting to minimize confusion regarding performance results. Newer industries can also benefit from decentralization, as it may be helpful to have more adaptable performance metrics.

Read more: Org Structure: Definition, Types and Tips

3. Relationship with customers

If a business wants to develop a direct relationship with its customers, it may experience greater success with a decentralized structure since there are fewer restrictions regarding communication and outreach. The ability to optimize social media channels to their full capacity is a prominent feature of decentralization since it allows companies to interact with multiple geographic markets with minimal difficulty. Online customer service via email or social media is easier to perform with flexible conduct guidelines.

Centralized organizational structures often have specific policies about interaction with the public, allowing them more control over their brand image. Companies in industries such as children's media or baby products typically communicate with the public via a robust public relations team. For complaints, they may also have an in-house customer service team with detailed knowledge and experience instead of an automated online system.

Related: What Is a Geographical Organizational Structure?

4. Talent deployment

When deploying talent to cover tasks, companies with centralized management usually have an organized system to allocate work duties. Older organizations sometimes have specialized software to train employees to ensure there's almost always someone working who can perform the associated tasks. Expanding companies speeding up their hiring rates can also benefit from centralization, as it establishes a functional onboarding process.

A decentralized company likely assigns and re-assigns work on a more as-necessary or sporadic basis, which might be helpful for newer industries with fluctuating priorities. Roles and responsibilities may need to change regularly, so it's usually easier for them to allocate work on an as-needed basis. Allowing employees to transfer between duties may also help reduce burnout and turnover rates.

Related: Preventing Burnout: How To Identify and Avoid It

5. Professional opportunities

A company with a centralized organizational structure can offset its lack of variety in career opportunities with increased job security. Sometimes an employee's salary and benefits coincide with the employment time frame, which means it's normal to expect compensation relative to how long they've worked for the company. Centralized organizations might also hire internally and promote employees based on seniority.

There are many more professional development opportunities in a decentralized organization since a company can create a staffing structure adaptable to its audience's constantly changing needs. With a fluctuating hierarchy, employees may have more chances for promotions and career growth. Decentralized organizations often allow employees to explore career options by subsidizing training in new skills.

6. Definitive chain of command

The definitive chain of command that comes with a centralized organizational structure can be helpful for employees who might look for more affirmative guidance in their responsibilities and expectations. A centralized structure works fairly well to provide people with clear directions. Businesses that employ or contract those with specialized backgrounds usually benefit from having a top-down management structure.

The ambiguous nature of a decentralized system may confuse expected workflows, but the increased autonomy is desirable to employees who prefer a flexible schedule. Companies that have a lot of employees working remotely may use a combination of reduced oversight and self-reporting tools to streamline managerial responsibilities. Decentralization also helps optimize a company's global franchise by allowing different national branches to manage their staff and operations.

7. Flow of information

A decentralized organization promotes a faster and smoother flow of information between different departments and from upper management downward. Industries that depend on a constantly shifting and inconsistent market benefit from being able to update everyone at will. When a business witnesses several changes occurring over a short period, it might consider decentralization efforts.

With a centralized structure, a team may receive newer knowledge indirectly through executive initiatives and managerial directives. This potentially leaves some employees without updates, but a tightly controlled flow of information can increase clarity and reduce the possibility of conflicting interpretations. Companies that rely on trade secrets and non-disclosure agreements can often benefit from implementing a centralized organizational structure.

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