Last edit: 05-03-17 Graham Wideman
Intelligence and Change in Enterprises
|The Legacy Management "vs" Analysis Problem
Article created: 99-05-01
Amongst the growing class of professional "knowledge workers", there is widespread skepticism about the degree to which the management they experience diverges from what makes sense. Often management is regarded as "good" if it simply stays out of the way and lets people get on with what they perceive to be the objective of jobs. This phenomenon is attested to by the great popularity of Scott Adams' Dilbert cartoon series, for example.
The alienation felt by the very class of workers which is busily creating the information-based world we will be living in is a significant problem in it's own right. However, the fact that they might well be right about their management is even more significant.
As [the tsunami of data] washes up on our beaches, we see people in suits and ties skipping along the shoreline, men and women in fine shirts and blouses dressed for business. [...] Their trousers and slacks soaked, they walk stupidly into the water, smiling--a false smile of confidence and control. [...] All day [...] making believe they understand a reference to a name, a reference to a fact, the references to knowledge that supposedly makes the world coherent. -- Richard Saul Wurman in Information Architects.
Management's role has been to understand the relationship of the enterprise to the world, devise profitable roles for the enterprise, create plans of action, then make extensive use of primarily social skills to get those plans executed by the enterprise staff. Areas of thought that entail "technical complexity" are delegated to professionals who specialize in the particular area of intellectual endeavor.
Implicit in this model is the premise that business management involves addressing profound complexities only indirectly.
As the mass production age gives way to the age of information (and hopefully knowledge), demand for finely tailored products and services delivered immediately becomes more prevalent. Demand, and hence business structures and processes, are in constant flux. Correspondingly, business scenarios demand more direct analytical attention and understanding if they are to be navigated successfully.
Meanwhile, the professional disciplines which are called upon to produce systems to support business processes, or to analyze data for decision support, are increasingly better equipped with intellectual and software tools -- tools which allow them to distill, understand, think about and communicate both vast quantities of minute detail, and also to model, at least descriptively, relatively qualitative and human aspects of enterprise scenarios. To do this these tools are based on increasingly comprehensive models of the enterprise.
So while authority still resides at the top of an enterprise, we are now seeing increasingly that the relevant big-picture understanding resides with the professionals who both feed, and are enlightened by, the growing body of formally and informally captured enterprise knowledge and analysis.
Particularly noteworthy is the situation of the systems profession specifically. Historically, building systems required a considerable software development effort using relatively primitive methods and tools to automate small portions of a business process. Systems development was clearly at the service of business managers who designed the business processes, and determined where automation was called for.
But gradually, increasingly sophisticated systems methodologies have brought discipline not just to the programming, but to the modeling and/or design of entire business processes, product lines, customer groups and virtually every topic of interest in the enterprise. Experienced senior systems people now see systems as inseparable from the business that they are imbedded in -- they are an integral part of the brains and nerves of the enterprise. So the systems profession is now at least as much about designing the enterprise as it is about designing computerized functions.
The result is that systems professionals are potentially working from a body of business knowledge that is more sophisticated than their management. And this surely brings them into conflict the traditional expectation that it is "managment" who does the thinking and makes the plans regarding what is to be done, how it is to be done and by whom... and passes these plans down for implementation to the "staff".
Many enterprises continue to depend on management teams who may have extensive backgrounds in typical finance, legal, marketing/sales or negotiation scenarios, but are under-equipped to create their own novel models and analyses of the rapidly unfolding novel situations of our information-intensive environment.
This is not to say that the management should be replaced by systems professionals -- the other functions continue to need to be carried out. However, the traditional structure of the organization in which top management is connected to the world, for input and output, via a multilayer human tree of upper and middle managers to the "front line" staff needs to be serious rethought. If top management is to act with intelligence (ie: to continue to provide some value in the process) it must devise mechanisms to directly comprehend the world, and to communicate directly with the workers. And this means including in top management the expertise to analyze and to develop shared models.
But old ways die hard, and upper managements and boards of directors are loath to try radical changes. I think we can expect a period in which there is a lot of turbulence as seemingly solid companies collapsing as analysis-light managements try bold but under-informed moves to address the pressures of change. Only after some time will the need for a systematic rethink of corporate structure become obligatory.
Will management be obliged to get "smarter" -- ie: better equipped with intellectual and software tools for analytical thinking and model building? Or will the traditional management structure simply become less relevant? Perhaps groups of professionals will replace the organizational and communication functions of management with "management in a box" software and the web, and use their own savvier judgement to participate in their own management. Will "the suits" still be needed to provide a veneer of stability and confidence for customers and investors, or will whole-business information/knowledge-systems provide a reality-based "transparency" that customers and investors will come to prefer?