Sunday, February 07, 2010

Sunday Essay - why it's hard to break out of the box

I seem to be in a narrowing thought phase, just at present, and its annoying me. By narrowing thought I mean simply that my interests seem to have narrowed.

Like most regular bloggers, I read a lot of other people's writing for ideas and inspiration. I still do, but I am not getting the same type of sparkle that I used too. I am not suggesting here that the problem lies in a change in the writing of those I read; the problem lies in my own responses.

Thinking about it, boredom is one factor. I just get tired of topics and so, I suspect, do my readers

Take the My School web site as an example: after five posts on this blog, one on another blog, I really don't want to say a lot more. I have worked through the issues to my own satisfaction. Perhaps the most surprising conclusion I reached came right at the end when I concluded:

I am slowly forming the view that one outcome may be a highly unexpected one from Minister Gillard's viewpoint, the partial discrediting of the NAPLAN tests themselves.

I don't mean by this that the NAPLAN tests will go away. Rather, looking in detail at the pattern of responses I think that parents and the various school communities, unlike Governments, actually have the capacity to treat the tests as just one and not necessarily the most important indicator of school performance. I don't need to say anymore for the moment.

One major sub-text in the My School debate is the old question of performance measurement and the linked question of key performance indicators.

I have been banging away at this one for a number of years in both my public policy and management writing. Indicators are not bad in themselves, but they can become quite pernicious when they become the central objective, crowding out other things.

We can see this in the policy discussions about Australia's Indigenous people, another long running theme.

I don't expect the current Rudd Government policy in this area to achieve very much in real terms. It starts from a false measure, national statistics that are in fact averages that conceal the great diversity in Indigenous condition and history across the country. Based on this false measure, it then attempts to apply universal approaches that again fail to recognise the diversity in Aboriginal condition, are Northern Territory dominated, use an inappropriate geographical measure in ARIA and fail to properly analyse and address the root causes of disadvantage. In doing so, it actually stigmatises all Aboriginal peoples by measurement.

Similar problems arise in other areas of public policy from alcopops to NSW driving licenses to higher education targets to the Federal Government's latest child welfare initiatives, all of which I have written about. Again, in writing I now find myself unenthusiastic, if not bored.

I am not saying that I have given up on all these things, I guess that I will keep banging away, but my heart isn't in it.

Throughout my professional career, I have had greatest impact where I have been able to stand outside the conventional box, looking in. This is not easy, for the the box is very powerful in cultural terms, more so when embedded in performance indicators and all the supporting systems. The starting point always lies in research, analysis that questions existing performance, that asks not just why, but also what-if? From this, comes new ideas that then need to be tested.

Of itself, the capacity to stand outside the box is not sufficient. You then have to be able to do, to actually shift the box. Again, this is not easy, for the very forces that made it difficult to think outside the box will also act to defend the box.

I am not a technician, although I have necessarily worked as one from time to time. A technician works on particular tasks as assigned. To the degree that a technician is concerned with change or improvement, it is within the box.

While I can work as a technician, I have usually worked as, and classified myself as, a change agent, someone who consciously attempts to go outside the box. This can create difficulties: the most common criticism levelled at me throughout my professional career is simply that I don't do as I am told, that I attempt to do things outside the role or task narrowly defined. I can't help myself. I am fairly results focused. If I see a problem that can be fixed or a better way of doing things, I am likely to try to bring it about.

This is generally not an issue when working as a consultant, for there I am working to agreed bounds. While I have a professional responsibility that includes advising if I think that something might not work, pointing out alternatives, at the end of it all the client is responsible.

Different issues arise when working within an organisation, for then my identification is with the organisation, its reputation and the things that it is meant to achieve. I find it far harder to limit myself to, and only to, the immediate role as narrowly defined. As a consultant, I can and should walk away from an assignment that I know will fail. As a staff member, I am meant to get on and do it.

My own experience has been that significant meaningful change is quite difficult to achieve because it requires the right people at the right time, a time when the box is weakened for some reason. There have been, I suppose, only two occasions in my working life where I have been responsible for such change.

There have been far more cases where I have achieved small shifts. I have a list of these and take great pleasure in them, for sometimes very little changes can have longer term effects.

To take a small recent example, demonstrating that the distribution of, and change within, Aboriginal population varies from that of the broader population is quite useful when social housing planning has been based on trends within the broader population. An area classified as low priority from a general social housing perspective may in fact be a high priority area when considering Aboriginal housing needs. 

My statement that significant meaningful change is quite difficult to achieve because it requires the right people at the right time, a time when the box is weakened for some reason, may seem odd since we have seen wave after wave of change over recent decades.

Let me disentangle this a little, unpack they would say in current management jargon.

When thinking outside the box at an organisational or individual policy level, the broader changes set a context. They are things that you have to take into account. Further, all those broader change patterns have certain common features.

The first is the influence of fad and fashion, always powerful in management. This leads to the second feature, the herd instinct, the mass adoption of particular approaches once a certain critical point is reached. The third feature follows from the second, the entrenchment of particular practices so that they in turn become an impediment to change.

To illustrate this, consider the focus on measurement. This began in the world of engineering and industry. To improve production, you have to be able to measure things. The quality movement then followed.

The idea of standards began in the early days of industrialisation and of globalisation driven by the simple need to make different bits together better. It was sensible to have, say, common screw sizes. The quality movement came later and focused, as the names says, on ways of improving and standardising quality. The two movements fused with the wide spread of quality and standardisation ideas into public policy and business management.

The requirement to measure things was central to these trends. However, the trends spread into new areas where measurement was far less certain. Today, measurement is the standard orthodoxy, the thing that actually has to be broken if real change is to be brought about.

If I was asked what was the biggest single impediment to change today I would say the computer.

The adoption of computers and IT more broadly has been one of the greatest causes of economic growth because it allowed existing things to be done more efficiently, new things to be done that could not be done before. Yet, as any IT professional knows, there is a considerable difference between simply computerising existing systems (this will certainly make them more efficient) and the design of completely new systems likely to yield the greatest benefit from the new technology.

I first came across the problem of computer lock-in a number of years ago when facilitating the development of a strategic plan for the Australian subsidiary of a global IT company.

Everybody at the workshop agreed that the company's IT and knowledge management systems no long properly reflected either company needs or the marketplace. Everybody also agreed that the sheer cost of changing the system meant that senior management would not agree. They just had to work around it.

You see, once entrenched, the computer protects what is at the expense of what might be.        


Neil said...

May I refer to your views in my South Sydney Herald story? Can do it by name and blog, or indirectly.

Jim Belshaw said...

Of course, Neil. Direct is fine. The blog is public record.

Winton Bates said...

Computers cause lock-in? This is a new and interesting conscept to me.
What you must be talking about is the transactions cost in changing the computer programmes. I still don't get it. That just involves getting a programmer to make some changes. Why is that more difficult than changing the rules to be followed by some clerical staff?
Perhaps the problem is that whereas the clerical staff worked directly to the manager, the computer programmers work in a different section. The main transactions costs involved in getting the computer programme changed may be costs of negotiations between different parts of an organization. Managers may consider the potential benefits to be not worth the effort even thought the resource costs may be quite low. Does that make sense?

Winton Bates said...

By the way, I haven't forgotten how to spell concept!

And while I am here I could do some blog promotion by mentioning that I have very recently broken out of the box myself. The most recent post on my blog is about history - the history of the future!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton. Happy to do some shameless Bates promotion! Seriously, I haven't mentioned your writing for a while.

Computer lock-in can occur in different ways.

To begin with, lock-in occurs when the cost of making the changes to systems exceeds the costs associated with system dysfunctionality.

In the case I was referring to, we have a very large, integrated enterprise wide information system. As marketing, production and distribution needs changed over time, the system had been altered at the margin, patched.

At the point in time we are talking about, a growing gap had opened between business needs and system performance. This was recognised. However, the sheer costs involved (cash plus business disruption) in what would be an enterprise wide system replacement made action difficult.

The position was further complicated by the fact that the enterprise, then a household name in computing, had recently been acquired by another, much larger, organisation.

The two enterprise information systems were very different. Both organisations were wrestling as well with just how the two systems might be merged or, at least, interfaced.

This is actually an example of another lock-in effect, the way in which differing computer systems affect mergers and re-structuring.

This one is quite important because system differences have become a signficant reason for the failure of mergers to achieve the expected benefits.

Another example of lock-in arises where costs and benefits are not evenly distributed or perhaps even properly identified.

Consider, for example, a case where a particular unit has a need that is not being met by the existing information system. They have the need and will benefit from the change. However, the cost for any such change must come from another budget bucket, while the proposed change itself must meet standardised enterprise requirements, including the need for protection of the existing network.

I think that this is really to large a question for explanation by comment. Perhaps another post might be the best way to handle further amplification!