I came across two recent stories from organisational life which reminded me of how attempts to rationalise it can often bring about irrational consequences, and how schemes to systematise and order can disrupt even as they try to make things cohere.
One educational institution I know has decided to streamline and control its purchasing with the noble intention of cutting costs. This means that any member of staff wanting to buy something has to fill in a form justifying the purchase and explaining why they are using the particular provider they have chosen. The form designed by purchasing colleagues clearly has in mind those members of staff ordering stationery or perhaps chairs, since there are questions to be answered about which catalogue and which page the item is on, which colour you are ordering, and where you want the item delivered. Be that as it may, all members of staff have to fill in the same form.
In anticipation of next year’s centenary commemoration of the start of WWI staff in the History department encouraged students to undertake a creative project and make a short film about the war. They found a historian locally who had turned his garden into a mock-up of a WWI trench. In return for the use of his facility and in order to maintain it, the man asked for a fee of £500. In order to get the man paid, staff in the History department had to convince purchasing colleagues by filling in the form explaining why they had not used the institution’s ‘preferred suppliers’ of WWI trenches and why they had not sought competitive bids.
In another organisation a recent restructuring was used as a way of both centralising and decentralising control. In terms of centralisation, all financial responsibility was pulled upwards to the rank of directors of departments, so members of staff who previously had had financial responsibility for, say, signing off their teams’ expenses no longer could. And as for decentralisation, colleagues at the newly configured ‘centre’ of the organisation were told that they couldn’t speak to colleagues in the region, because now the organisation was devolved requests for help should come from the periphery to the centre, rather than the other way round. Otherwise it would seem as though the centre was dictating terms to the regions, rather than strategy emerging responsively and ‘bottom up’. Continue reading