Skip to main content

An Organisational Enigma

It is now over thirty years since the World War Two codebreaking work at Bletchley Park (BP) became public knowledge. In this time, much has been written about Bletchley Park – the genius of some of its individuals and its huge contributions to the Allied war effort and to computing. But its organisational significance has been largely ignored. This is the focus of a recent research report, The Organisation of Bletchley Park, 1939-1945 by Chris Grey (University of Cambridge, joining Warwick on 1st April) and Andy Sturdy (Warwick Business School).

winslet.jpgIn many ways, Bletchley Park was ahead of its time organisationally, being similar to what are now called knowledge intensive organisations (KIOs), but it was also distinctive, not least in the way in which few working there had any idea of what was going on and certainly not that enemy codes were being routinely broken. Indeed, in many ways it was not a single organisation at all, but a joint venture or a node in a complex network of different, compartmentalised activities, with staff employed in diverse activities by the Foreign Office and the different Services branches as well as other organisations.


The ambiguity of BP’s formal structure is illustrated in an incident recalled by a US Navy liaison officer, tasked to obtain an organisational chart of BP. He recalls being told: ‘“I don’t believe we have one”. I didn’t pursue this with him, but I was never quite sure whether he meant we don’t have a chart or we don’t have an organisation.’

In fact, some organisational charts did exist but, in a sense, either interpretation could have been correct, for despite a great deal of attention to formal procedures much of the organisation was ‘informal’, relying upon unofficial arrangements made between departmental or section heads and other individuals and groups. It was neither a question simply of individual talent nor formal organisational procedures, though both of these were present. For instance, in the codebreaking activity, staff often worked in ad hoc and innovative ways, ‘like a pack of hounds trying to pick up the scent’, a ‘rugger scrum, or alternatively an assembly of chess masters conducting a post-mortem after an important game’.


While some have seen such ‘anarchy’ as hindering the organisational purpose of BP, one of our key findings is that BP was successful in part because of its informal organisation and not simply within the glamorous intelligence sections. This was partly intended. Many of those responsible for the organisation of BP and its constituent parts sought to allow considerable freedom to their staff, albeit combined with many standardised procedures. Indeed, like many organisations, the history and growth of BP can be seen in terms of a struggle to balance autonomy and control depending on the context – a loose/tight arrangement. So that despite what contemporaries called a ‘freakish’ organisation: ‘BP has been successful – so successful that it has supplied information on every conceivable subject from the movement of a single mine sweeper to the strategy of a campaign and the Christian name of a wireless operator to the introduction of a secret weapon.’


This is not to say that all those working there were given freedom in their work. Indeed, the majority performed often highly routine tasks under conditions of strict monitoring, measurement and control. More generally too, as BP grew from a staff of a few hundred to around 10,000, there was little room for an organisational ‘soft touch’. This is illustrated in the scale of vital, but ‘non-core’ logistical activities where, in July 1944, for example, there were about 4,000 billets in force, with another 4,000 accommodated through the services. There were over 30,000 meals served each week, on a near 24 hour basis. And there were almost 34,000 miles of passenger journeys organised using 115 drivers. The workers’ lives at BP consist(ed) almost entirely of work, meals, transport and billets, in invariable succession’.


Our study documents this shift in the scale and organisation of BP although it challenges a common view that it simply moved from an amateur, craft-based approach to a professional and machine-like organisation. We used a range of different sources, especially official archive material, and conducted a number of interviews with surviving employees of BP. These reveal extreme variety and complexity in the organisation and experience of BP, both in terms of the formal and informal aspects of work. At the same time, an underlying and unfolding evolution of structures through three periods is identified, towards the huge organisation which existed in late 1944 and which was captured in part in the recent motion picture, Enigma.

Likewise, though morale varied throughout BP and its history, evidence is provided that relations at the level of work groups especially were frequently harmonious and satisfying.

Apart from historical insights into an otherwise neglected part of BP and its achievements, our research has important implications for today’s organisations. Although one cannot trace a simple story of evolution nor compare then with now, lessons can be learned. In particular, while bureaucracy is often stigmatised today (in favour of KIOs), the case reveals the importance, and even the ‘knowledge intensive’ nature, of bureaucratic work. Finally, by focusing not just on the elite or core workers, the study contrasts both with other accounts of BP and contemporary studies of KIOs. As a result, it points to how creating labels such as ‘knowledge intensive work’ is also an act of constructing the boundaries of societies’ elites in given periods of time.

Copies of The Organisation of Bletchley Park, 1939-1945 are available by email only from