Monday, March 24, 2014

Bureaucracy, adhocracy and the computing and communications revolution

In a comment on Saturday Morning Musings – problems with system dependency, Evan referred in a comment to Alvin Toffler and 'adhocracy'. I didn’t remember the concept in a Toffler context,  so looked it up. Wikipedia describes it in this way;

Adhocracy is a flexible, adaptable and informal form of organization that is defined by a lack of formal structure. It operates in an opposite fashion to a bureaucracy. The term was first popularized in 1970 by Alvin Toffler, and has since become often used in the theory of management of organizations (particularly online organizations). The concept has been further developed by academics such as Henry Mintzberg.

Adhocracy is characterized by an adaptive, creative and flexible integrative behavior based on non-permanence and spontaneity. It is believed that these characteristics allow adhocracy to respond faster than traditional bureaucratic organizations while being more open to new ideas.

Apparently the term was used in Toffler’s 1970 Future Shock, and then further extended in The Third Wave (1980). While adhocracy offered real advantages, there were also perceived risks including "half-baked actions", personnel problems stemming from organization's temporary nature, extremism in suggested or undertaken actions, and threats to democracy and legality rising from adhocracy's often low-key profile. To overcome these, a melded bureaucracy-adhocracy model was proposed.

These concepts were not unique to Toffler. Other popular writers including John Naisbitt in Megatrends (1982) popularised them as well. We were moving into a new world based on new computing and communications technologies of flexible working, virtual organisations in which work would be project based, constantly reforming and refreshing.

It is now over forty years since Toffler coined the term, over thirty years since Megatrends became a global best seller. How have we gone? What has actually happened?

On the surface, the very power of the new computing and communications technologies that were meant to free us, to take us in new directions, has created the command and control management that we see today. Management systems have actually gone in the opposite direction to that envisaged; flexibility has been replaced by rules, by new forms of measurement and reporting. The technology has allowed, even mandated, a requirement for the big to get bigger. More and more of our resources are devoted to just making all sorts of systems work.

Is this simply a passing phase, or are we condemned to suffocate in the controls and costs that increasingly enshroud us in our working lives?  Can we define another path?


Anonymous said...

Whatsoever technology can be invented by the mind of man, will be used by the government of man to apply the maximum cruelty available, when they can get away with it, which they usually can. Consider the LRAD, a horrific mass torture device used against lawful protestors. What more horrors are in the pipeline?

Jim Belshaw said...

I had to look LRAD up! Now I know something new.

Evan said...

This at least shows that technological determinism is not true.

Though it can have unintended consequences.

Those fascinated with technology tend to not pay much attention to social context - where the technology is actually used, and where those with power deploy it (usually for their own benefit (as they see it)).

Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
I'm back!
"On the surface, the very power of the new computing and communications technologies that were meant to free us, to take us in new directions, has created the command and control management that we see today"

I dunno! Evan makes a good point about technological determinism not happening, but I am not sure that we do have more "command and control" management these days. For example, I remember when we had to sign a book when we arrived at work and a clerk was assigned to rule a red line at 8.30 am. It was probably more difficult to measure how much work people in the absence of the performance management systems we have today, so managers paid a lot of attention to compliance with hours of work. That was command and control.
By contrast, my impression is that modern management is mainly about checking whether people do what they promise to do. (But as a person who is now retired, most of the time, I can't claim to know much about modern management practices!)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Evan and Winton. Winton, its good to have you back!

I do remember the time books. They were an old example of control, one that came (I think) from the manufacturing arena, and not very effective in performance terms.

Command and control, the two words go together, is far more prevalent now because (in part) computer systems demand decision rules while they also allow things to be more easily measured,

Winton Bates said...

I think the story might be more complex. A lot of repetitive jobs that were subject to command and control got sent offshore or computerised. The new technology has enabled command and control to extend to a greater extent into the service sector (I think of call centres) but a lot more work involves creativity - and major firms seem to recognise that command and control does not promote productivity in that situation.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I am still niggled by a sentence from your last Saturday's post: "The office is part of a large, centralised, cloud based system".

I wonder if this is just your layman's version of that department's computer systems, or if accurate - do you know to what extent the NSW government has introduced cloud computing?

I am not a dramatist, but I honestly believe the use of this technology in any government function is fraught; it won't be very long before (for "efficiency" and "cost savings") such potentially sensitive data will be physically stored (or mirrored)overseas, and I think that is just plain wrong.


Jim Belshaw said...

Winton, kvd, sorry for the delay in responding. I have been in Wagga.

Winton, interesting comment because it forced me to think about effects across work types, including its extension into new types of work. Measurement has always been applied in one way or another to processing activities involving standardized tasks. This has grown.

But command and control has extended way beyond that so that now it affects most aspects of work.

In the nineteenth century, an English naval captain depended on a highly structured web of global processing arrangements. However, his activities could not be directly controlled. He had his specific commands, he was expected to comply with the administrative systems, but beyond that he had very real autonomy in doing his job, to exercise judgement and discretion. Today, that area of autonomy has shrunk to tiny proportion of its original field.

Leaving aside the common human belief that uniform is good, a core problem lies in the way that when something goes wrong the tendency is to say that if you could have controlled it it you should have. Modern computing systems have centralised C&C functions.

As a branch head in DITAC during the 1980s, I had far more real power than the head of the agency in which I am presently doing some contract work. His title is Chief Executive, mine was Assistant Secretary.

I remember when quarterly activity targets and performance measurement based on those targets was introduced. You were going to achieve this output, my FAS said. Why haven't you done it?! But, I would reply, I have a broad set of objectives and I am responsible as a manager for marshaling resources to get the best results. That defined output was not the best result. Things changed. We did this because it gave a better result. given my broad objectives.

I used to say are you saying that I should have done x simply because it was specified even though it actually gave a worse result? Yes, was the answer. You must achieve those things that you specified in advance.

These things are highly measured today because our systems allow it. This also allows decision control.

In the early days of command and control systems, the term skunk works became popular as a way of indicating processes or activities that achieved great results outside the system. Today, or so it seems to me, just doing your real job involves this.

kvd, will come to you in a new comment.

Jim Belshaw said...

I wrote quickly, so the English in my last comment had a few issues.

kvd, cloud computing refers just to where data is held, processing done. I have no idea as to the geographic location of the servers on which data is held in the case i am referring too. I could be anywhere.

Anonymous said...

See the NSW Government policy framework:

- in particular section 6, and also 8.2 - 'key provisions'.

It is a worry that any relatively senior potential accessor of my personal data should be unaware of or indeed "have no idea as to the geographic location of the servers on which data is held in the case i am referring too. I could be anywhere."

Is all I am saying.


Jim Belshaw said...

Point noted, kvd, and thanks for the link. My focus was on the usability of the system from a user perspective.

As a general comment, there are quite strict protocols and controls in place regarding access to personal data. I would agree that location of data on external servers does carry a risk.

Rummuser said...

We are indeed condemned to suffocate in the controls and costs that increasingly enshroud us in our working lives.

I do not visualise any escape from that conclusion.

I am glad that I am no longer in the midst of all that.