“Agents of calcification”

September 22, 2007

Hugh introduces a new phrase to the landscape of management science, and illustrates it with this sketch. He defines the said agents in an interesting post about Microsoft as follows: a rather snarky term I recently coined to describe the folks in a big company- any big company, not necessarily Microsoft- whose job isn’t to invent, make, or sell stuff, but to maintain the apparatus of bureaucracy and status quo. Now, like others I am watch Hugh’s engagement with Microsoft with interest, it was unexpected, and the journey is producing some interesting arguments that have not yet become casuistry. This walking on the edge makes his journey interesting. My own observation is that Microsoft, having achieved the sort of domination previously enjoyed by IBM has succumbed to the mind numbing bureaucracy that seems to accompany size, and to persist despite nurturing some very bright people, not to mention continued innovation.

Now one of the interesting side effects of calcification is that it spawns informal networks who make the system work despite itself. The more bureaucratic the controls, the more the informal network build to find ways to make the system work. One of the unintended consequences of this is that the system continues to work long after it has reached the point at which it would have otherwise achieved catastrophic failure. The informal work around function can even be formalised. I remember on IBM Vice President who employed two Directors (senior and expensive) whose job was to take his ideas and decisions and make them fit the formal processes. This often involved radical re-descriotion and often downright fraud, but it was known and acknowledged and even praised.

This of course not unique to IBM or Microsoft, although the former can make the US Government seem dynamic and non-bureacratic at times (to quote a former member of a previous administration). It also represents a huge opportunity for cost reduction and growth, far more than downsizing the workforce. The issue is how to make it visible. In an large organisation the size of the transactions requires an extensive network of process and people that serves to disintermediate the decision maker from customers and employees alike. This seems a necessaity evil and the cause of change might in consequence appear hopeless, but there are some signs that change might be possible. To take a couple of examples. If more senior executives blogged (Richard is an exemplar here) then their interactions with the coalface would necessarily increase. It was also in my mind with some of the SenseMaker™ design. The idea here being to allow a senior decision maker to go directly from an abstraction of a field, to the raw stories of customers and/or employees without interpretation or filtering.

I am starting to think about a possible audit method to make this sort of thing visible, and have an inkling of how we might make a start of that. More when I get a chance to write it up

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