Wednesday, 15 October 2014

White collar robots

My working life was almost entirely spent in environmental science. Over almost forty years I saw it change from a piecemeal, locally-based effort to a full-blown global bureaucracy with the UN at the top. It became process-driven.

Apart from an ambitious few who knowingly go with the flow, most capable scientists don’t cope well with bureaucracy. Their working ethic tends to be based on two assumptions.

The truth will out.
People are essentially ethical.

Unfortunately the truth isn’t that powerful and process-driven people are not known for an unequivocal reliance on ethical standards. As a result most scientists do not compete well with the implacable nature of process-driven bureaucracies. By the time I left, the good scientists had mostly departed and process worship was setting every agenda.

Even so I had an interesting time and probably learned more about human nature and the nature of institutions than I then realised. I now look back on it as a time of profound social change which eventually became obvious, but had been rather less obvious only a few decades earlier.

One reason why the left/right political dichotomy no longer works is that both sides of the political divide are process-driven. They also seem increasingly willing to merge their processes. The traditional left always loved process with its tendency to centralise every decision and its endless mistrust of the uncontrolled.

Today even our local electrician is enmeshed in process - trained, certified tested and certified again. The butcher the baker and even the candlestick maker too no doubt. Maybe the latter will make a comeback after a few more years of process-driven energy policies.

So political right dances hand in hand with political left because government and global business are nothing if not process-driven. We are entering a process-driven world where most young people probably have no prospect whatever of avoiding process-driven employment.

Everything they do will fall into one of two categories.

It will be part of a documented process – or
It will be forbidden.

The vast majority will have no outlet for their modest talents because there will be no tick box for modest talent. Process rules. White collar robots are the future.


Demetrius said...

Much, if not nearly all the process is driven by the notions etc. bedded in modern management theory. This pretends to "science" but isn't. Also, it is largely in the hands of people who have done other things rather than science or even engineering. It is my theory that old empires often collapse from within because of too many rules and too many rulers detached from either reality or formal disciplines such as science.

Sam Vega said...

Excellent post, and also Demetrius' contribution.

I'm wondering where the process-mania comes from. I'm reminded of Max Weber's ideas on the inevitability of bureaucracy and rationality, because these make things more efficient. But I have half an idea that this is also about narrative, and our love of telling stories. Processes are like big stories which we help to write and sustain, and which define who we are. The trouble is, they are now so large and all-pervasive that we are losing the ability to look around their edges, so to speak, and to think without them.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - it's also the notion that professional managers should be able to manage anything. The attitude had become common by the time I left but it wasn't working well at all.

Sam - I must read Max Weber, but there is so much out there.

Processes could easily be stories and possibly always were. They are also like manuals which are supposed to cover all eventualities. They never do this but they seem to create a sense of security.

James Higham said...

process-driven people are not known for an unequivocal reliance on ethical standards

Nicely put.

A K Haart said...

James - thanks, I met one or two.