Saturday, June 28, 2008

Saturday Morning Musings - Bureaucracy and the modern management quick step

In first Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed? and then Modern Australia's problems with delegation and control I discussed some of the current problems as I saw them in Australian public administration. In doing so, I also made the point that the problems were not limited to public administration, but were also to be found in the private sector.

These issues have been much on my mind this week. For that reason, I want to extend my argument a little in this post, using a comment by Lexcen as an entry point. Lexcen wrote:

When bureaucracy was first implemented it was a system that worked to reign in chaos and it was very successful. These days with lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions, bureaucracy has outlived its usefulness. It's time for a new management model.

I agree that it's time for a new management model, one that restores a measure of decentralisation to management and control. However, I have real difficulties with the words "lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions." To my mind, these words capture one of the core problems in current organisational systems.

Have you ever noticed that there is something of an inverse relationship between dominant themes in management discussion and on-ground realities?

In the 1980s, the talk was all of new and flexible organisational forms facilitated by the emergence of new computing and communications technology. Yet on the ground, the modern variant of the centralised command and control organisation was establishing itself.

In the 1990s, the importance of people and the need for new approaches to people management came to prominence. On the ground, this was a period of down sizing, retrenchment and restructuring.

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the emergence of the brand and of brand management. This coincided with the greatest period of brand destruction in world history.

I am sure that you can think of other examples. However, for the moment, my point is that the emphasis we have seen on "lightning fast communication and the need for quick decisions", a recurrent theme in management discussions for the last twenty years, actually falls in the same class.

Modern communications and computing technology allows us to store, process, access and transmit more data and to do so faster. This has had profound behavioural effects.

On Thursday eldest daughter left for London with a friend on her first independent overseas trip. I could not help contrasting this with my first trip.

When I went, my friend and I had passes for Britrail, the London tube and historical houses plus a place to stay when we arrived in London. Yes, we had some ideas as to what we wanted to do, but everything was flexible. Once we got onto the plane, we were free to enter a new world untrammelled by Australia. There was no expectation that we would stay in touch beyond letters or postcards.

Helen's trip is much more tightly planned. Hours were spent on the internet by Helen and especially her mother checking locations, comparing hotels and backpacker accommodation and making bookings. Helen SMSd on arrival in London to say that she had arrived.

Even at this early stage, there was need for quick action and decision.

At Sydney airport, they discovered that the travel agent had made a date mistake affecting a theatre booking. While the girls were in the air, Helen's mum tried via internet and phone to move the booking, or alternatively, find a new one. SMS messages passed through the ether, between Sydney, Hong Kong and London. Unfortunately the mistake could not be fixed, so the girls will have to find their own alternative.

In many ways, Helen's trip is not a bad analogy for the modern organisation.

Computing and communications technology allows things to be more tightly planned, scheduled and controlled. However, this creates a need in itself for more and faster reactive decisions to fix things.

Helen's trip also illustrates another important lesson, we respond to things that we become aware of. Now here modern technology is very much a mixed blessing because it makes us aware of more things, more quickly.

The pre-IT organisation necessarily had to allow a measure of autonomy to its constituent parts. This held even in rigid heirarchical structures. The centre had access to neither the information nor the control systems required to do otherwise. A bank manager was a Bank Manager.

This type of autonomy is now a thing of the past. Modern organisations have become rigid structures. The technology that many of us expected would lead to greater efficiency combined with greater flexibility and freedom has had the opposite effect.

There is a particular difficulty at a public policy level.

"See problem, fix problem" is a natural human trait, one especially pronounced today because of the modern tendency to believe that all problems are solveable.

Modern communications and information systems including the media constantly deluge us with information about problems. We expect Governments to respond and indeed they try too. We live in a world of action plans, strategies, protocols, outcomes, controls and shuttle diplomacy. Yet when I look at Australian public policy over the last thirty years, I see a pattern of fundamental failure.

The claimed successes during the period all seem to be associated with micro-economic reform, action to reduce Government intervention, or with greater expenditure allowed for by greater wealth. Economic growth is an example of the first, expansion in schooling an example of the second. Beyond this, there has been a systemic pattern of policy failure.

If this seems harsh, consider this.

The position of our indigenous peoples is no better, in fact arguably worse, than it was thirty years ago. The proportion of the Australian people living in real poverty has increased, so that we now have growing ghettos of deprivation.

The availability of health services to all Australians has declined. Our education system has become increasingly strained, especially in the public sector. Child welfare appears to be a mess. Our public infrastructure is ageing and inadequate. Our prison population has grown much faster than the general population.

I could go on, but this is enough to paint the picture.

As I see it, a key problem in the public sector is that we are making too many apparent decisions and making them too quickly. We then change them before they can take full effect.

Whatever the advantages of modern computing and communications technology, they do not affect the real timing of decision processes.

Time is required to properly identify a problem, to analyse it, to work out solutions and then put them in place. Time must then be allowed for the solution to work or not work. During this period progress needs to be assessed, modifications made. Just as it may take decades for a problem to emerge, so it may take decades to fix, assuming that it can be. Flexibility is required throughout.

Our modern system and expectations do not allow for this.

In most cases, the best decisions are taken slowly and then implemented quickly. Australia seems condemned to a pattern of quick decisions, followed by an extended period of re-working.

This leads me to the heading of this post.

The modern management quick step can be defined as quick, quick, quick, quicker, quicker, quicker, quickest, quickest, quickest. The problem is that there is no where to go after quickest.

Putting this another way, the NSW project manager's stomp goes this way:

Three steps forward, stomp, stomp, stomp

Three steps backwards, stomp, stomp, stomp

Two steps sideways, stomp, stomp

Return to the starting position, stomp, stomp.

In all, much activity for little result.

1 comment:

Lexcen said...

Food for thought.