01 August 2008

When Bureaucracies Fail

Recently, I suggested that bureaucracies and collaboration are mutually exclusive because of the basic premise upon which bureaucracy is built:
Bureaucracy, theoretically, is built on the assumption that it represents the ideal flow of information through a structure that is specifically engineered for competence, rationality, objectivity, and legitimacy – the right information being provided by the right people to the right place at the right time. Any given person, simply by virtue of occupying their office (by which I mean their legitimized role, function, station, or location) in a bureaucracy is socialized to believe that if they have sufficient information such that no gaps are apparent, then they necessarily have complete information upon which to act.
And when they don't have complete information, but think they do, what we have is the clich├ęd failure to communicate. A case in point has just occurred right here in the City of Toronto, where it is no surprise, I suppose, that today's Star reports:
It's a classic case of the city's right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Toronto hotelier George Friedmann is locked in a legal dispute with Toronto's real estate department over rent arrears on the city-owned St. Patrick Market on Queen St. W., near John St. At the same time, the city's Exhibition Place has given Friedmann and another caterer a multi-million-dollar contract to provide services at the Allstream conference centre that's to open next year in the former Automotive Building.

It begs the question [Side rant: No, it doesn't beg the question. I wish people, and especially reporters and editors, would get this right!] : Shouldn't somebody check if a company has other dealings with the city, particularly if there's a dispute? Apparently not. And lack of interdepartmental communication is nothing new.
Accurate and timely information flow works perfectly in a bureaucracy if and only if all instances of required information are anticipated beforehand, together with their respective requirements for information confluence in time and place. This, of course, is all but impossible, especially in a complex and complicated organization like a big city. Let's face it: when information bureaucracies were all the rage - say, about two hundred years ago, process and procedure things were a little more straight-forward. But even when bureaucratic management was effectively codified into the 20th century management lexicon by Max Weber, it remained problematic, especially in large organizations.

As regular readers might guess, I'm moved to wonder how a Valence Theory conception might possibly address this short-coming, even in an organization that chooses to remain solidly rooted in BAH-ness. After all, I am suggesting that Valence Theory of Organization can account for both BAH and UCaPP organizations, providing a wider range of guidance and options for decision-making in all types of organizations.

In this case of Right Hand v. Left Hand in the Matter of City Real Estate, the approach of the purposeful organization is to accomplish the objective of ensuring that, "we should know when somebody is not up to date with the city. These types of things should be co-ordinated," according the Councillor Mike Del Grande. In a Valence Theory conception of organization, the important information would have to do with the nature and strengths of the various relationship connections that exist - Economic, Socio-Psychological (which I'm considering changing to affective), Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological - among the organization's members. By focusing on the natures of the relationships among particular members of the valence organization, rather than on attempting to anticipate all possible procedural missteps in accordance with the principle of minimizing human judgement, there may be a better opportunity to catch such operational faux pas.

I am not an information architect, so it's not my place to propose a data structure that could appropriately accommodate the richness of mapping valence relationships in complex organizations. Perhaps David Weinberger's assertion that Everything is Miscellaneous, or Derrick de Kerckhove's contention that we are in the Era of the Tag, can provide guidance to those who would put some of these ideas into operation. Nonetheless, it is incidents such as this one in Toronto that demonstrate that we are at the limits of bureaucracy's effectiveness, even as its underlying assumptions are repeatedly challenged.

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