Computer Says Yes

Friday, August 19th 2011

I have been dealing with some large organisations who shall remain nameless.

Sorry, this sounds like a rant. And it is (partially). But it may raise some interesting points.

Phone Queue Hell

With a big organisation, you speak to someone on the phone. That person has a process to adhere to. Deviation from the process is not allowed, impossible, or at the very least, is hard.

The person you're speaking to probably can't apply her brain to the tricky subtleties of the problem, because the process forbids it.

And processes never handle tricky subtleties. Finding the process makes it impossible to apply her wider intelligence to the tricky subtleties, she stops trying. She becomes a process follower.

Computer says no.

And it's unlikely you'll be able to contact this person again, anyway. Which means you will end up telling someone else about the problem all over again. And that person will ask all the same questions. Get you to confirm all the same bits of information. The new person on the 'phone will relentlessly follow protocol too.

And the reason for this? The process needs to make sure people are replaceable. Otherwise the process is flawed. It is dependent on people. And is therefore not a process, but a social situation. And a process must be portable, robust, independent of any given individuals.

And because people know they are dispensable they take no interest and take no responsibility. This is simply to preserve their sanity. If you can't change anything, it's best not to try.

The consequence of this is that no personal relationships are established with clients on the phone, or in the office. Which means no subtle information gathering. No emotional intelligence. No shared interests. No application of intelligence. And no-one takes any responsibility for anything except the stats that appear in process reports.

Have you filed your TPV report, yet?

Everybody is a Stranger, Everybody is Slightly Paranoid

And, without the personal relationships, trust disappears. You keep having to agree to legal terms. The subtle social balms have been abandoned in favour of process. This is the control freak mild sociopath model of organisation ...

Where I go off at a tangent is that I don't blame the organisations for this. Or the people running them. Or the process followers. Or the people ringing up hoping to get problems solved.

This is a systemic problem. The problem of scale and social relationships.

The control freak mild sociopath model of organisation nearly always emerges as social structures get bigger. This is simply a byproduct of the limits of cognition.

Scale or social relationships. When it comes to organisations, you can have one or the other. But not both.

The benefits of scale are enormous. It is a marvel of organisation that goods can be transported across the world. That devices can be pieced together from the work of people all over the place who have probably never met. That sea lanes work. That giant factories produce goods. That big corporations manage to work at all.

The downside of scale are also enormous. Think about the command-and-control hierarchies that abound. Think about the giant organisations that regularly blunder to their doom. Despite the fact many people in in organisation can see the doom coming.

The overall organisational structure is not capable of the subtle actions required to respond to changing circumstances. They can't function without power structures, because of information processing hierarchies and the need for coherent collective action.

The process forbids it!

The amount of information going missing is astronomical.

... you can never generate enough rules to encompass all the decisions that must be made by [...] employess. The world is complex, and it evolves. Yet rules forbid anyone to adapt to the world except leaders who write the rules. (Made to Stick, Dan and Chip Heath p. 260)

The big organisation only sees what it has decided to gather information on. Which is akin to only ever having conversations with yourself -- and expecting to get new ideas. The organisation is blind to all the subtleties of the world.

So the people making the rules don't test them against reality, and the people testing them against reality don't make the rules. And are stripped of the motivation to bother. So the processes and rules don't change in the face of reality. And so organisations become unyielding monoliths. Monolights that are powerful. As long as nothing changes! Then they blunder ... to ... their ... doom. No wonder huge organisations fear change.

You could say it is inverted version of the tragedy of the commons. Each person in a given monlith knows what needs to be done, but no-one has sufficient skill or influence to alter to overall process. The rule makers don't know enough about the impact of their rules, the process followers don't feel trusted or free enough to suggest change.

  • This is partly because if one person goes their own way, then others will, and the organisation will cease the operate in the traditional sense. The centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world :-). The chains of information processing break down.

  • And it is partly because of the limits of individual cognition and specialisation. That is: each person knows roughly what needs to change in their own corner of the organisation. But most don't know what else needs to change to make change in their own corner of the organisation possible. And the same is true in every corner of the the organisation.

The large organisation is conglomeration of very specific understanding and general ignorance captured in apparently stupid processes. And that seems to perpetuate the apparent stupidity of the organisation as a whole. (It also explains why different groups bitch about each other and establish political camps, but that's another story.)

But the End is Nigh

A lovely term came my way during a conversation a few days ago. A conversation with Emlyn O Regan.

The term?

"Adhocracy". Apparently coined by Alvin Toffler.

Which brings me to the final point. A new form of social organisation is being established. But it looks disorganised.

  • It is one that uses technology to abandon process, not to follow it.

I know that sounds strange. But the organisations that shed process as they grow are the ones that will be successful in the end. And the only way large organisations can shed process is to remain small.

What!? You speak in riddles.

Sorry! :-) To remain small, big organisational structures need to constantly subdivide and establish automated connections between the subdivisions. Trust, volition and social subtlety are maintained, but the benefits of mass production, specialisation, and information processing hierarchies remain. They are automated in the background.

This system is in a constant state of flux. So it is not recognisably an organisation, in the sense Google is an organisation or the United States or Australia is. But that is the very source of the strength of the organisational structure. It is strong because it is always in flux. An is therefore capable of change.

A good example of an adhocracy is open source software development. Technology allows for collaboration, information sharing and massive specialisation on a huge scale. Whilst retaining many of the subtleties of more personal interaction.

It's no coincidence nerds are the first the do this. They are the ones who are the first to be able to adapt the new technology for this purpose. The computer is starting to say "yes".

But as the technology is improved and adopted more widely, the new model will spread into every social sphere; until people look back at call centres, current financial systems, existing political institutions, etc, and think:

Wow, how quaint.

It will all look as odd and anachronistic as a cavalry charge.