Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Greek crisis: Human freedom as the grit in the management machine?

I'm writing this in May 2012, which in the UK currently is much colder than one would expect of late spring. At the moment I am engaged on a data analysis contract, helping a national media corporation to roll out new product offerings to its customers. In the somewhat warmer corresponding period a year ago I was in wind-down mode after terminating my contract at a large banking organisation. The immediate future looked wonderful. I had a long vacation in the South of France planned for July and August during which time I would be writing a book about IT service. In preparation for that I was geared up to spend June ensconsed in Western Bank library (Sheffield University), reading and note-taking. It turned out to be quite idyllic. I would cycle the 5 miles down from South-west Sheffield (and it is down, my house is 500ft vertically above Sheffield city centre) to the library where I'd read, write, doze, and take the occasional stroll around the city.

I was exposed to a great deal of excellent material during that period. In formulating the arguments from an "organisations as complex adaptive system" perspective I encountered critiques of the management paradigm that some commentators consider to be widespread in, and detrimental to many aspects of life in the twenty-first centrury. These include thinkers such as John Seddon, whose deconstructions of the "targets culture" in schools, hospitals and other organisations are worth reading (or follow @systhinkreview for easily digestible summaries). An  article in a similar vein is by Harvie & Milburn (2010) which described the McKinsey mantra that "everything can be measured and what gets measured gets managed" (p. 634)

Masurement at the heart of all activity is essentially the practical application of the system thinking / scientific management paradigm and it has been very useful in my career to date. I am a data analyst.  I have statistical and computer programming skills which means that I can extract information from systems and transform and format it in useful ways, and present it in summary to managers. My statistical knowledge means that I can even apply predictive or inferential methods to the data to intimate what may happen in the future.

Managers love this stuff. That's why I've been successful in my contracting career recently. Executives can set targets, and hire people like me to measure outcomes, so that if outcomes fall short of targets then action plans can be formulated to ensure that this is corrected. At one organisation that I worked for the action plan was often to somewhat mendaciously change the way that the outcomes were measured to ensure that all was well. Lol.

In my view, the recent economic and political situation in Greece has presented a great example of how this view of the world can fail when humans are involved. Essentially this measurement/systems thinking/scientific management model holds organisations and even societies to be mechanisms or at best organisms. Consider a central heating system. The thermostat measures the temperature and takes action if the ambient conditions are too cold (switches on heat) or too warm (switches off heat). This is a valid description of a cybernetic system, which is one of the models within systems thinking. Such models are all well and good when applied to machinery, but as thinkers as far back as Kant have intimated that they are flawed when applied to human behaviour. Kant described the human freedom which prevents our behaviour being understood as either mechanism or organism. Contemporary theorists including Professor Ralph Stacey and the documentary maker Alan Curtis have argued in a similar vein.

However the management classes haven't really been listening. There is an appearance of simple utility to the systems thinking and scientific management paradigms which when combined to the hegemonic nature of such ideas currently lead to a widespread and unquestioning acceptance. Worst of all, we the people seem to be prepared to go along with it. We've allowed ourselves to be measured and classified such that our actions can be analysed and predicted via quantitative algorithms. Targets for our hospitals, curricula for our children, tick boxes for our old people's homes, league tables for our schools. You're all a segment score in some retailer's database somewhere - will your actions correlate? In addition to being a data analyst I'm also a psychologist so I have an understanding of how these things are operationalised. 

Greece is the nation that provided the bedrock of the philosophy of Western society and they may have once again shown us the way. The technocrats and management classes addressed the economic problems in that republic in a way that ignored human freedom. They decided upon what they considered to be the "best" way in which to resolve the problem and agreed to implement it. They forgot that this was a solution that was going to affect the people - or the machine as they will have implicitly regarded it - on an emotional, personal and human level. This is where machine thinking ends. The Greeks, far from going along with what was expected, predicted or desired, expressed their human freedom clearly and unequivocally.

I had the choice of a number of witty (? - you be the judge) ways in which this piece may have been concluded: 'Beware of Greek technocrats bearing gifts', or 'The best laid plans of systems thinkers and scientific managers often go astray...'. However perhaps most apt is a slightly tweaked version of Patrick McGoohan's cry in the opening sequence of cult 1960s TV series the prisoner. That is, you too should remember that you're not a number, you are in fact, a free (wo)man...

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