Monday 20 October 2014

IT + big organisations = stupider people = stupider IT

I'm having trouble with my car (a Citroen C3).  The engine keeps cutting out at the most awkward moments, even going along the motorway.  I've searched the internet and find that this is actually surprisingly common, and nobody knows what causes it (yes, I've changed the crankshaft sensor, in case anyone asks).

It is pretty extraordinary that this kind of thing should stymie a otherwise perfectly effective car.  It is, of course, to do with the sheer complexity of the electrical and IT system that now inhabit every bonnet, and especially perhaps Citroen bonnets.

Once the garage has run a scan on the engine, and found nothing wrong, there seems little more they can do.

But there also seems to be a lesson here for the administration of public services.  Even perhaps a clue to the conundrum I was talking about so bitterly earlier in the month - the bizarre failure of every utility to manage the simple business of me and my family moving addresses.

I know the problem of complexity is hugely interesting and debated when it comes to biology and maths, and natural systems.  But it is remarkably little discussed in relation to the business of government - and the other knotty question of why it is so difficult to make anything happen in government without an endless stream of unpredicted, unpredictable unintended consequences.  Complexity again.

The classic story was the, probably mythical, one about the man in Alaska whose windows wound down automatically in a blizzard and who died of exposure.  The previous model would have allowed him to wind them down manually.

In fact, I have a feeling there is some new law that lies behind all this, and I'll come to Boyle's Next Law in a moment.

I am a huge admirer of Bryan Appleyard and his thesis, in his book The Brain is Wider Than the Sky.  He argues that we have deliberately shrunk our idea of what human beings can achieve just to fit into our narrow ambitions about what machines can do.

There is something similar going on here.  The sheer complexity of cars, and the sheer complexity of administrative systems, disempower their keepers and make them stupid.

Because it isn't actually complex when you're operating the system.  It is ridiculously, stupidly, naively simple.  Try talking to a call centre about anything slightly out of the ordinary and you find that they can't deal with it, because their software system hasn't got anywhere to click for it.

They can't get into the main system and tweak anything, any more than the mechanics can mend my car.

For the last two decades, after the so-called 'Corporate Re-engineering' revolution, our businesses have been rendering themselves more stupid with CRM and ERM software which turns flexible human systems into concrete, inflexible, stupid systems, minded by disempowered humans.  See more in my book The Human Element.

That's the first part of Boyle's Next Law: IT in big organisations tends to make people stupid.

But it gets worse, because these nearly constrained, newly blinkered employees, who do everything by numbers, are then involved in writing more software.  Of course it makes things worse.  Here's the formula:

IT + big organisations = Stupider Humans = Stupider IT.

Simple, isn't it.  Not actually very complex at all.   But don't please assume that I am some kind of neanderthal who doesn't like computers.  It is the combination of big organisation thinking and IT, and the complexity involved - the the boneheaded complexity of my car - that makes me cross.  Because that is seriously neanderthal.

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