Posts Tagged ‘Bureaucracy’

The stupidity theory of organizations

June 13, 2015

This was originally posted on April 30, 2013.

dilbert1

Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug. It’s a feature. So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.

They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies. This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.

Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking. They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.

In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots. When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?” That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.

Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders. Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly. Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.

You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand public policy. They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics. They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.

The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you. Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.

Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.

Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.

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Public servants and hidden agendas

April 23, 2015

Public choice theory is the application of economic theory to political science.  It is about how government bureaucracies, which are created to serve a public purpose, change over time so that they serve the interests of the bureaucrats rather than the public.

This is something that in fact does happen, and it is a big problem.  But it is not unique to government.  It applies to armies, college faculties, priesthoods, labor unions, corporate management and any other kind of big organization, public or private.

It is possible to pass laws and regulations against corruption, but these laws and regulations will be ineffective unless most people have a moral compass that is backed up by public opinion.

A market economy is a good mechanism but it does not provide a moral foundation for society.  Future executives are taught in Economics 101 that they have no responsibility to society at large but only to their stockholders and that the impersonal workings of the free market will make everything come out all right.

But if the free market makes everything come out all right, why should they even bother about the stockholders?  Why should they not do what’s in their own self-interest regardless of the stockholders?

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

April 22, 2014

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.

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Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.

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