Large Organizations

Insight into the impacts of too much communication

When I read this article this morning I was amazed because the effects described pretty much every large organization I have worked for. This would seem to be especially true for governments but I have no direct experience with those organizations save as a user of their services.

Any organization is tied together by communication — top down for direction, bottom up and peer to peer for information. The model asks what happens to the coordination of the system when communications lag or become imperfect. The results suggest that the overall behavior of the organization degrades rapidly.

Some years back I was consulting with a large financial organization that was going through a process supposedly to make them more effective. This was called ‘Management by Objectives’ — and in theory the folks on top communicate their goals downward through the organization and the layers were supposed to determine what they needed to do to support the higher level goals. But what happens when the folks on top say ‘no, we are not telling you’ — ‘you formulate responses based on what you think we want, but we wont tell you if you got it right or not’. Implementing this program was an audit issue of course. So endless agonizing meetings as folks under the gun struggled to guess what their bosses wanted — the results were hugely destructive.

While this was an extreme example, this kind of pathology plays out every day. Staff in hospitals wonder why their hours and support services are being cut and conditions of work degrade while personal risk increases — but a lavish building program proceeds. And no one has the decency to explain to staff why they are being sacrificed (if that is the real issue). A major communications vendor wonders aloud why they are losing customers and yet their customer service staff regularly lie to customers. And politicians campaign on doing certain things but as soon as elected do the opposite. Well, the last one is more an aspect of politics as usual — like salesmen, the acid test for telling when a politician is lying is ‘he is still breathing’. Just gets harder to tell who will steal the least.

I guess at the root of it all is the loss of feeling for the enabling parts of the organization. The folks on top have a glorious vision of their own importance and just cannot waste their time to communicate downwards in a timely and effective manner to the people who actually do the work. I suspect it is an inverse relationship between how highly these people think of themselves and what is really being accomplished. Northcote Parkinson suggested that bureaucracies tend to grow simply because they exist — not in relation to the work they do. This is certainly apparent in the Ontario utility sector since they embraced the Enron theory of energy management.

It seems reasonable to assume that as internal coordination degrades the organization becomes increasingly dysfunctional. Companies can go out of business regardless of how good a product they produced. But governments just seem to go on and on — wasting even more of the precious resources they take from their citizens.

In the end it would seem that the accidental or deliberate breakdown of communications could lie at the root of the dysfunctionality that seems endemic. That certainly has been my experience.

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