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The Tyranny Of Systems
The Tyranny of Systems
Apparently Churchill said: ‘First we shape our systems and then they shape us’. What wisdom!
With the advent of computers, and especially computer networks, so many things became possible that could not be done previously. These expanded man’s communication abilities vastly and it is common knowledge that global communication, and tremendous volumes thereof, takes place continuously, and is growing rapidly. One of the results is that large organisations can be managed more efficiently and incomprehendable large businesses, using billions bits of information, can function orderly and securely.
The use of computers in control systems of all kinds is vital. To be able to control a system, measurements of some sort must be made and data obtained, these must be interpreted and analysed, any deviation from the planned performance must be calculated and then corrective measures can be taken. One vital ingredient in this process is data. Computers are very ably be used to display larges volumes of data to organisational management in a way that enables them to compile good reports, make good decisions and even forecasts.
Often the implementation of such a system can mostly be shown to be vitally necessary, can bring a lot of advantages and starts off very innocently, for instance an order management system or a materials mangement system. The progress of an order can for example be followed through the quotation phase, the order generation phase with all its approvals, the payment milestones, the cashflow as well as the order conclusion. The same for a project management system where work packages must be developed, issued to different project participants, progress tracked, milestones achieved registered and reports created accordingly. Brilliant!
These systems however need data to function and if it does not receive quality data, the end results will be worthless or even misleading. Unless data measurement is automated (like measurements in a chemical process plant) these data must be supplied by people. Unless you are a data-typist, whose work it is to type in data, normally the official that has to supply the data also has to do some work prior to entering the data, eg. the processing of an order or an invoice or the completion of a project milestone. When a system becomes large it also becomes data-hungry and unforgiving, and the officials must continuously feed the system to keep the data current, lest it becomes outdated and useless. If the data becomes outdated then management actually becomes ‘blind’ to the true situation, and apart from the fact that it is detrimental to the health of the company, it also becomes dangerous for the health of workers - management will very soon start exerting pressure to have the system updated as a priority.
It then happens, more often than not, that the feeding of the system starts to interfere with , and hamper the real work that must be done. The more the system demands data from the workers, the less time they have to spend on real work. When people become overloaded the start to prioritise. Fortunately in large organisations the management communication via the organisational chain (a few layers deep) is normally slow, and the system is so large that ‘a few’ data-elements not updated is rarely noticed and rarely attract management attention. Automatically the workers’ attention shift towards those data elements that are currently “inflamed” in management’s view. There is enough room to ‘hide’ inside the system for the clever worker. Gradually this large colossus of a system becomes sluggish and the very effective system that it should have been, becomes only a mediocre tool because of the failing human element at the data-entry level.
One fundamental reason for this is that during the design of such systems the primary focus is mostly on the needs of Top Management, the important people, the owners of the system, and the lower ranks are merely viewed as ‘slaves’. Mostly the system does not address the needs on grass-roots level in providing the workers reporting, quality control, forcasting, analysis on their level. If they could only utilize the system for their own job effectiveness and comfort, and not merely to supply top management with business intelligence, they would automatically ensure that it is updated, for their own benefit. Such a simple principle – not adhered to in many systems!
We know that Churchill lived before the era of computers and was probably never subject to the menacing control of an emotionless beast of a system – but his slogan is today more true than ever!