Thursday, November 11, 2010

Responsibility v. Mechanics

The soul-less behavior of large institutions seems (to me) due to a combination of fear, rigid rules, harsh sanctions, and employees who lack discretion or think that they do. This institutional behavior also owes a great deal to an almost silly modern faith in “training.” Now people will say that sheer size necessitates the use of policies and disciplines. And that the modern legal system gives people the right to sue deep pockets—and hence employees must be constrained so that the institutions can defend themselves in court. There is also present here an implied but never stated belief that society does not produce a large enough supply of genuinely intelligent and responsible people who can be trusted to exercise their own discretion when working for large, rich organizations. Decisions therefore must be channeled to those with the right qualifications.

I see this as the substitution of mechanics for meaning. In agriculture we have soul-less monoculture—overwhelming nature with machines and chemicals to produce a single crop sure to sell in vast quantities. In manufacturing there’s the assembly line—you might call it mono-movement: you will secure these three nuts with an electric drill…for the rest of your miserable life. In institutions we have bureaucracy where even the simplest questions, complaints, or adjustments must be referred “up the line”—for God’s sake do not make decisions on the front line where institution meets its client.

It’s riskier but much more effective, in the long run, to delegate the power to the level where it must be present. This has long been known and preached under the code-word of “empowerment.” But use of that very term reveals the problem. No. People already have the power to make sensible decisions at every level of a complex organization. The power is built in, comes with the employee. We speak of empowerment as if the employee didn’t have it. If the employee doesn’t have it, it is because it has been taken away—by the system. To be sure empowerment is there as a subject in countless “off-sites” and the seminars—but not for actual implementation.

We live surrounded by collectives rather than communities because our leadership, those who control wealth or power, hold on to it and insist on using people as soul-less gadgets rather than employing them as responsible individuals. We don’t walk the talk we talk in our endless training sessions. If we could genuinely humanize the large collectives, all sorts of new demands would arise in society. Our elites would then begin sincerely to insist that we have schools that really work, that all families are “empowered” to raise competent children, etc. Instead we apply the same policy mechanics at every level—and some few lonely voices out in the wilderness, like mine, cry out against and curse the “collectives.”

The way to humanize institutions (or agriculture, or manufacturing, etc.), is always to favor  the rational and human side of a situation—even when it is inefficient. Organic, diversified agriculture is—inefficient; but it is adaptive. Enabling employees is—inefficient; but ultimately it will make the organization responsive and more secure. Inefficiency means more costly. This translates into those who control the wealth letting go of some of it willingly to secure an adaptive, moral, and higher order.


  1. Yes, I agree. Learning to be more adaptive may become a more important skill set than mere efficiency at doing the same thing, ever faster, bigger, or even cheaper. We are currently realizing the danger in "too big to fail" institutions of finance. Perhaps "too big to work" could become a warning in a future with diminishing resources. One can see limits on size in nature; and I would therefore include similar optimums on man-made organizations and things.
    “Organic versus automated” could be the title here.

  2. Some of your recent thoughts on collectives seem to me to have parallels in Alasdair MacIntyre's view of the relation between practices and institutions. (He discusses both, and their relations to the cultivation of human virtue, in this paper on the nature of virtues (PDF)).

  3. I like this notion a lot, about being willing to do things in a way that may sacrifice some level of effency in order to gain by way of being more human, adaptive, virtuous and moral.

    A very nice post. I am enjoying this series on collectives quite a lot.

    And the to-big-to-work idea is wonderful, Brigitte.