Friday, April 30, 2004

Doing it differently

We too easily forget that organisations and larger business structures are complex systems that have a life of their own. We legislate and regulate for control but we do not study what we have achieved in terms of directing the underlying systems. I like to start from Donella Meadows nine levels of intervention in a system to orientate myself towards what is being attempted. Donella's structure shows human interventions around values as the most powerful and regulatory steps such as setting targets and measures as the least effective, with real changes in information flow and feedback loops in the middel ground.

Trevor is proposing something momentous. He is proposing that information systems support people and values instead of subverting their efforts in the name of management. That is, I know what I need to do in my job to deliver excellent service, and therefore I need certain kinds of information to allow me to do what I need to do. Instead of trying to design the organisation and its information flows against some theoretical model, Trevor wants simply to supply what that person needs to do their job.

The reason why this step is momentous is simple: it respects people's dignity. There can be no intervention at the level of values without this fundamental respect. The failure of organisational designs and their information systems is blamed on the poor sods who have to try and make them work. They literally pay the price when their jobs are forfeit to show the required efficiencies these interventions have promised. Information systems are used for measurement and control and these functions offer no value to the person trying to deliver service. In extending the reach of arbitrary management, most information systems are disastrous as interventions.

Trevor points to stress: stress to me is a symptom of the gap between what people need to do and what they are able to do. It is the opposite of freedom: the ability to act appropriately in the circumstances we find ourselves in. Trevor is suggesting that freedom to do a good job should be the sign of basic respect in the workplace. If people were able to organise their work environment to allow themselves to do a good job we could not possibly see the stress epidemic.

I also believe that such an approach to values-led information would make the regulation problem more accessible. Regulation is not a technical task, it is a matter of what people are really trying to achieve and whether those underlying goals are socially acceptable or not. Everything else is obfuscation. Understanding the real demand for certain sorts of information is the way to study a compex system for its underlying purposes. What can it mean to have an approach to regulation and governance that is not values-led? And what can it mean to have governance that is not capabel of intervening at the level of values becasue the trust does not exist for it to do so? We know the outcomes.

I am anxious to be Trevor's most radical customer.