The Northern Spy
Decision making in the Fourth Civilization
The Spy beats again on a very old drum this time
as he pushes the admittedly light technology news forward a month for a philosophical digression.
Our readers first heard of the Fourth Civilization
from the Spy's keyboard back in the early days of this column, and even before, circa 1980, when he wrote under the monicker of "Anodidacticus" in the old CompuTek magazine. What he said then, being less prophecy than obvious extrapolation, has now largely come true.
The post-industrial fourth civilization has abstracted its factories and their workers into the same all-but-invisible infrastructure as the previous agricultural component, and is now driven by information-based commodities. Most workers use neither tractor and plough nor lathe and drillpress, but instead sit at a desk. They receive information, add value to it and pass it along to someone else.
Also, as Nellie and I said back then, universal availability of information, the hallmark of the fourth civilization, implies a friction-free marketplace, wherein it becomes far harder to profit from knowledge before everyone else has it. No longer can those with a faster telegraph system enter buy orders on the London stock market before the masses learn of Wellington's victory at Waterloo via official channels. Neither will the world's Enrons be able to hide their doings for long when essentially everything is or can quickly become public knowledge. Nor can a government hide bribery, kickbacks to the party, entitlement behaviour, and trading in influence. It all comes out in the wash eventually.
Information availability also implies that personal details can no longer be kept private, so that executives in industry, the church, academia, and government cannot hide the details of an embarrassing past or the data behind their bad decisions. Every stakeholder, every reporter, every enforcement official, every member of the general public, has access to the same information.
Forget having to secure yourself from the ten-year-old down the street with a modem (the eighties' issue). Instead, learn to live in a society that in most respects simply lacks informational privacy.
What does this mean for organizational structure in the fourth civilization? Some think it implies the elimination of middle management and the greater empowering of executive decision making at the top level--more rigid hierarchicalism. After all, political, corporate, and other decision makers have direct access to information without needing managers to assemble and massage it for them. So, the reasoning goes, they gain even more power to do as they please.
"Simplistic rubbish," declared a voice over my shoulder.
I'd hung my coat over the window in my door to claim a few precious moments of privacy, but Nellie Hacker hadn't taken the hint, and was now reading over my shoulder. I hadn't heard her enter, but no doubt she'd silently picked my lock again. Nellie liked to keep in practice.
"Hi Nellie. Well of course it's wrong. You've heard of a straw man, haven't you?
"Good thing there aren't any straw women," she commented laconically.
But I was on a roll, and kept typing, saying little more. She would argue later.
This analysis misreads the situation badly. Rather, the more successful information age entities have done the opposite, employing two critical strategies to leverage knowledge products into market success without reinforcing obsolete hierarchicalism.
The first is a networked model of authority
where the people who have the knowledge and skills are given the ability to make decisions. Who acts as "boss" in a given context, sits as chair at a meeting, is the signator on a contract, all depend on who's the expert on the matter at hand, not on the size of his desk or the number of acronyms in her title.
Yes, an organization still needs a titular leader, and this person may well be an adequate manager of people, and at least ought to be a decent judge of character. However, what most information age entities need is a charismatic visionary who understands the marketplace, can formulate and sell a vision, and who inspires internal loyalty, not to herself, but to the organization--to the cause, if you will. Expecting such a person to be a good day-to-day management decision maker is asking for a near impossibility. One might as well put "walks on water" in her job description.
Oh, there are a few rare people who are capable of being people people, working effectively with a wide variety of stakeholders, customers, and peers to plan and manage information flow, who can formulate and sell a project vision brilliantly, and who simultaneously have a sufficient streak of autism to be able to focus exclusively on problem solutions for extraordinarily long periods of time. They're called software engineers.
Practically speaking, in an organization that works on a networked model of authority, such broad requirements of a CEO are as unnecessary as they would be counterproductive. Indeed, the visionary leader capable of making a modern organization "go" publicly is likely to drive it off the road if she puts her hands on the wheel of internal operations. One hires that skill separately, then ensures it is wielded as consensus building, not a dictatorship.
The second is professional empowerment.
Fast-moving information age organizations cannot afford deadwood. They exist solely on the human capital of highly educated, well motivated, self-supervising, versatile professionals who are capable of remaining on the cutting edge and thus adding value to the informational stock-in-trade.
To function at all, such professionals have to be kept in the know, in the loop, in control of their workplace. That is, if the old-style middle layer is not exactly vanishing, it is instead being replaced by a flatter structure where everyone is equal, there is neither "top" nor "bottom", and decision making, like the entire organization, is a shared venture, a professional metaperson.
Desision making in such an environment is by consensus. This does not mean, as ill-informed critics from an outdated age mistakenly claim, that they must be unanimous, so requiring consensus is paralysing. Rather, consensus building means negotiating a decision that, while not always unanimous, can at least be lived with and supported by the small minority who still have reservations. The idea is that if an information age organization is going to have useable policy and a direction that its people will follow, the professionals who are that organization must participate in making each major decision, then own it so as to build success on a unified infrastructure.
Of men and dinasaurs
That is, decision makers can no longer act in the manner of the now-extinct industrial age by practising an arbitrary craft in secret. Their former serfs now know too much--in almost all cases far more than they do. After all, the old hierarchicalists often inherited their positions or acquired them by cunning, electoral popularity, or stealth, then retained them by surrounding themselves with sycophants. To survive in today's environment, they must instead earn status via well-honed knowledge-based techniques. The day of the organizational control freak has passed, whether they all realise it yet or not.
There was a time when a corporate or other institutional Board could be ceremonial absentee landlords, making a thrice yearly pilgrimage to their cushy seats around an expensive table, where they rubber-stamped everything the CEO and Chair placed in front of them before hitting the local vacations spots--all on the expense tab. As Enron, WorldCom and other high-profile failures clearly show, boards can no longer casually abdicate their fiduciary responsibilities and hope to walk away untouched, at least not unless they carry a boatload of directors' malpractice insurance, and are willing to turn State's evidence in the criminal proceedings. To avoid being part of a problem, they have to be part of the community, part of the solution.
Moreover, the new workplace reality is that professionals are not interested in choosing between relocating to new employment or picking up the wreckage after others' bad decisions. They won't come to work in the first place unless they can shape organizational decision making themselves. And, why should they? They are the organization. If they all walk, there's nothing left.
Universities present excellent models
for information age entities. In these, academics act as a kind of guild, controlling entrance to their craft through an representative and empowered Senate that shares governance with the Board. To ensure communication and accountability, both bodies include elected students, alum, faculty, and cross-representation. Senior management reports to both Senate and Board, ensuring they remain accountable and responsible to those on whose professional productivity their own administrative paychecks utterly depend. So well-entrenched is such a model that an institution lacking it could scarcely stake a serious claim to be a university.
Try this thought experiment. Imagine a university that suddenly lost its Board, president, other administrative officers, student life department, and non-academic staff. It could still function while all the above were replaced at leisure. Imagine the same university losing its faculty, students, or both. What's left wouldn't even be a summer camp. It would have no reason to exist.
It's therefore no accident that many modern high-tech organizations refer to their physical complexes as "the campus". Apple is a well-known example. Cupertino's One Infinite Loop supplies the well-guarded doorway into what looks, feels, and functions far more like a modified university than it does a traditional industrial age factory. Indeed, no modern high-tech entity of any size could long operate without a significant degree of high-class professionalism, including control of the workplace, shared decision making, networked lines of authority, fast-track mentoring, a flat administrative structure, and insanely great institutional loyality.
Yes, as explained above, a charismatic, outward-focused leader ("executive" is too old) can inspire what is otherwise only an excellent collection of talented people to jell into a great team organization, one that leads its industry sector. Steve Jobs plays exactly this role, and part of his success in his current CEO incarnation is that he appears to have learned the lesson that rigidly hierarchical over-control of day-to-day operations invariably becomes a deadly embrace. When that happens, unless someone gains the mandate to apply appropriate cascara berries to the constipation of information flow and decision making, hierarchical organizations inevitably die in their own waste. After all, modern information technology only enables well-informed decision making processes, it doesn't force anyone to use them.
Speaking of the other hand,
if a Board, an executive, even a departmental manager want to destroy the organization they're charged with leading, their course is both simple and well travelled. They don't even need to skim money into their bank accounts or molest the staff. All that's required is to conduct meetings in secret, overrule committee decisions, toss around arbitrary and non-consultative decisions, surround themselves with "yes" women, fire dissenters, and treat professional staff like a medieval lord ruling peasants. In short, graduates of the Attila the Hun school of management need only foster FUDDD (fear, uncertainty, doubt, distrust and division). Soon, there's nothing to rule.
Churches, by the way, are particularly vulnerable to this "bad executive" syndrome. Too used to thinking of themselves as right on doctrinal issues, strong pastors far too readily toss aside Biblical servant leadership models as they come to regard themselves as being right about everything. Eventually they either fall into the honey trap, the money trap, or meet Rehoboam's fate. Whatever such people build during their rise to absolute power melts away far more quickly when their inevitable corruption precipitates the sudden fall.
Oh, and don't forget the other lesson of Enron, WorldCom and their ilk. The mismanagement that once was a well-travelled route to comfortable oblivion now leaves behind an easily-audited information trail that can be recorded for later playback--at your civil and criminal trials.
"Humph," Nellie remarked, rather judgementally it seemed to me.
"You don't like my column?"
"Best stick to technology reviews. There's nothing new in this pap. It's all too obvious."
"Not to everyone, Nellie. Not to everyone."
--The Northern Spy
Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Trinity Western University. He's written two textbooks and several novels, one of which was named best in the science fiction genre for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.
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The Fourth Civilization--Technology Society and Ethics
Fourth (2002-2003) Edition Richard J. Sutcliffe: http://www.arjay.bc.ca/EthTech/Text/index.html