The arrogance of arrogation

May 17, 2008

A recent and delightful Dilbert cartoon that reminds me so much of the reality of business planning. You do an MBA and you get all this surface objectivity but underneath it you learn how to manipulate figures. Then you get into industry and the reality of business planning comes into effect. You have a great idea, you believe in it, you can make it happen. Then you write the plan, a quick internet trawl will often give you market size data and its a matter of choosing the one that works best. If you can’t get find something that matches the vision then you commission market research to get what you need. You can get an awful lot if you buy a report from one of the lead analysts, they know who is paying for them and they are never held to their figures anyway.

There is a great PhD for someone to go through the market forecasts of the main technology players and their adoption predictions. Then see what came true in practice, I doubt the likelihood of any correlation between forecast and reality and that is before you start on double counting; Business Intelligence and Knowledge Management being a case in point. Of course the point is not to be accurate, but to arrogate to oneself the pseudo-objectivity of numbers that are more qualitative than they are quantitative.

Another tragic example is the annual salary review. A series of factors are predetermined by Personnel and distributed in spreadsheets to managers who sit down and fill out the columns for all their staff. Meetings are then held to norm data between departments and the skill required to succeed is not the ability to management and motivate staff, but rather the ability to manipulate language and engage in political trade offs and favours with colleagues. Worst still is when Personnel decide that all departments should have a profile of high and low performers. If you manage a small high performing team of say four people then you have to take on a few low performers in advance of the salary review to make sure that your good people can get paid what they deserve. You then play with the spreadsheet until it pops out the numbers you think are appropriate.

A third example is the short term targeting system under which most managers in industry are measured. The system rewards pervert behaviour and generates the asset pillager, the manager whose only desire is to succeed regardless of the consequences for people or the long term health of the business. I saw a few of these in IBM. They moved jobs every year or two and focused on achieving the numbers regardless of consequences, then they move on to succeed again moving from promotion to promotion leaving a mess for others to clear up. One example from my own experience will illustrate this. I had moved into a corporate role leaving a software business I had built over several years. A new director needed to achieve some short term order numbers so he offered all clients a once off renew your support contracts with 20 days of consultancy support for five years at current prices. The result a salesman of the year award and a business committed to four more years of expense at a time of high inflation with no way to increase prices. By that time promotion moved the pervert on. I ended up persuading the board to let me sell a ruined business for a token sum to one of its distributors to preserve the jobs of the team I had built.

The amount of time and money that goes on this sort of thing is a scandal, but worse is the alienation of humanity that arises and the type of behaviour that is engendered in people as a result. Figures are important, but all numbers have context and not all numbers are objective.

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