Christine A. Hemingway FRSA argues that e-bureaucracy and over-management is the result of our misuse of information technology. This prevents us from thinking for ourselves and is stifling the personal and collective conscience.
American and British scholars from various disciplines have been arguing that the overriding societal norm has become the pursuit of money and that we have a pervading economic morality at the expense of any other kind of morality. I agree with them. Allied to this mentality is a misguided obsession with accountability, in the interests of saving cost and making more profit. The requirement for accountability has created ever more systems and procedures, but we continue to see organisational misdemeanour and lapses in personal integrity at work.
Those of us old enough to remember the deep organisational charts of the pre-1990s, with their successively higher levels of supervisory and managerial chains of command, will also remember the onset of ‘rationalisation’ and ‘process engineered’ wider spans of control, outsourcing and successive rounds of employee redundancies, which paralleled advances in automation and information technology. The idea was to encourage innovation and responsiveness to customer needs through flexibility, worker empowerment and team working: all in the interests of greater efficiencies and competitive advantage. So has the de-layering turned our organisations into creative power houses? And have customer service levels really improved?
There are some exemplars. But most of us experience the daily teeth-grinding frustrations of having our time wasted, whilst we wait in a telephone queue to speak to a human being. Who turns out not to have any authority to make a decision, but who will fill out a form on their computer screen to pass our query on to an anonymous ‘other’ higher up the chain of command. Or our crafted emails bounce back with an automatic response telling us to check the pages of FAQs online which, after inspection, are not applicable. Someone recently complained that they have to wait three minutes to check their mail on their work computer while it boots up all the unnecessary software loaded onto it by his IT colleagues. Doing something else whilst the system loads up is not the point.
However the tick-box mentality is certainly not the preserve of either the private or the public sector. I have witnessed university departments who call meetings in order to produce minutes as ‘proof’ that a meeting has taken place, rather than to shape the activities of a team of people working to progress a project. Accountability has trumped both efficiency and effectiveness. We are over-burdened with a cacophony of e-noise and e-bureaucracy. Even the traditional game of cricket has been taken over by debate prompted by the decision review system detracting from the game, according to a sports correspondent of a national newspaper who recently lamented that we have become enslaved to the technology.
But my argument is not to be anti-technology. It is rather that we have misunderstood what it means to manage and that this is compounded by the misuse of technology, which should be harnessed to enable us and not constrain us. Of course the converse of this argument is that we need the control of bureaucracy (electronic or otherwise) as it maximises efficiency by preventing individuals from pursuing their self-interest. But scholars of management have been debunking the myth of rational management for decades. Back in 1932, Berle and Means discussed the managers who ‘maintain labour standards above those required by competitive conditions’. Moreover, many would concur with Parkinson’s Law, whereby work expands to fill the time available for its completion and with Alain de Botton’s synonymous maxim regarding the inverse relationship between productivity and paperwork. Sending or replying to an email can be a form of presenteeism and we should question the relevance of this kind of activity in the interests of organisational effectiveness.
The growth of IT serving the business model has revolutionised the speed of communication but it has also created a pervading sense of obligation to react and a fixation with responding quickly to messages. Moreover ‘noise in the system’ adds to the stresses of contemporary daily life, interfering with our capacity to make decisions. So it is our misuse of technology that is preventing us from thinking for ourselves and we prioritise the quick response at the expense of thinking things through. This is problematic on at least two levels.
First, relaxation is necessary for idea generation. Indeed the artist Grayson Perry has argued for a slowing down of the mind as a necessity for the creative process. Secondly, we are likely to behave more ethically if we can reflect on the consequences of our intentions. This is not a new idea. In fact developmental psychologists such as Albert Bandura and Abraham Maslow have argued that our humanity is our default position. And philosophers have discussed how reflexivity can enable our sense of better judgement, such as Michel Foucault who discussed our powers of self-governance with reference to ancient Greek philosophy. He argued that it is our capacity for reflection that generates the conscience.
As for the long term, I do not believe that the primary motivation for the ownership of mobile telephones amongst children and teenagers is their safety. The mobile telephone is yet another example of the commodity fetishism endemic in late modernity and children in particular are more likely to conform to pressures of social influence. But what effect does time spent in this way shape the problem-solving skills and abilities of our next generation of future employees to think for themselves?
I am not aware of any study into the long-term effects of mobile telephone use on a child’s verbal and written skills. Furthermore everyone knows that face-to-face (or a telephone call) makes for more effective communication. But not everyone has the social skills or personality to make it their preferred method. I believe that the old blue-chip corporate method of MBWA, management by walking about, has a lot to offer all types of organisations. As for attacking presenteeism, then organisational leaders can set the example, whilst unlocking the pathology of compliance is a training issue.
Of course systems are necessary, but the tick-box mentality of recent years and the over-management of individuals distances people from their personal responsibility to other people. In this regard I agree with Mark Thriscutt’s Comment. Employees at all levels within organisations need to be encouraged to use their discretion in order to help other people and not just their immediate friends, family or work mates. Here I passionately disagree with Stephen Asma’s argument in his RSA Journal article, 'The Biological Limits of Empathy' that responsibility for ‘me and mine’ is the natural limit of our empathy. This ignores a wealth of psychological research findings on empathetic concern, prosocial behaviour and altruism.
In the ways that I am suggesting, we can help to legitimise integrity at work in order for those with a social agenda to get political leverage, thereby restyling the pervading morality of economics and acquisition to a morality which functions more healthily in the interests of society.