The most common problem is that all these new systems — metrics, algorithms, automated decisionmaking processes — result in humans gaming the system in rational but often unpredictable ways. Sociologist Donald T. Campbell noted this dynamic back in the ’70s, when he articulated what’s come to be known as Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” he wrote, “the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
On a managerial level, once the quants come into an industry and disrupt it, they often don’t know when to stop. They tend not to have decades of institutional knowledge about the field in which they have found themselves. And once they’re empowered, quants tend to create systems that favor something pretty close to cheating. As soon as managers pick a numerical metric as a way to measure whether they’re achieving their desired outcome, everybody starts maximizing that metric rather than doing the rest of their job — just as Campbell’s law predicts.
Felix Salmon, “Why Quants Don’t Know Everything”, Wired, 2014-01-14
February 21, 2015
February 11, 2015
…but Jerry Toner says that modern employers can learn from the management techniques of Romans. Roman slave-owners, that is:
Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.
Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.
The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.
February 4, 2015
Laura Spring linked to this interesting bit of news that CP Rail is “encouraging” non-unionized employees to take training on how to operate locomotives:
A Canadian railway company is training its managers and office workers to drive locomotives and load trains, a move one labour lawyer says could be an attempt to prepare for a possible work stoppage.
Documents show CP Rail has encouraged office employees to step away from their desks and cubicles and sign up for training both on the trains and in the rail yards.
The use of office workers driving trains could be a major safety concern, said Wayne Benedict, a former railroader who now works as a labour lawyer in Calgary.
“You’ve got them climbing onto a train that’s a mile and a half long, with a hundred and some cars, weighing 16,000 tonnes, with dangerous goods, going through our cities,” he said. “And they are not professional, running trades employees. They are running human resource professionals, or other managers and supervisors.”
CBC News has obtained an internal CP Rail document dated Feb. 19, 2014, encouraging non-union employees to sign up for training as a locomotive engineer or conductor. It calls the training “a requirement at Canadian Pacific. It is also the single best way for a management employee to learn what the business is truly about. It is a fundamental cornerstone to the development of our railway culture.”
The document also suggests, “no matter what your role is at CP, this experience will make you better at what you do.”
The program is targeted mainly towards mechanical and engineering workers, but open to any non-union employees.
November 26, 2014
No shit, this really exists:
Ethically, it’s been a rough couple of years for the military.
In July 2013, an Air Force major general went on an epic five-day bender while on a diplomatic mission in Russia. That November, Navy officials launched an investigation into misconduct involving top officers and a Malaysian contractor named Fat Leonard.
Individually, the cases are all bad news. The good news is that authorities often catch and punish government cheats, thieves and frauds. Penalties for ripping off the American taxpayer range from huge fines to hard time in prison.
And when the trial ends and punishment begins, many military ethics cases wind up in the Pentagon’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.
That’s right, the military maintains a database of the federal government’s worst ethics violators. Unlike many government documents, the encyclopedia is clear, easy to read … and actually quite funny. Many of the stories are as amusing as they are aggravating.
It might be the most light-hearted official report anyone’s ever written about criminals.
H/T to John Turner for the link.
October 15, 2014
There’s been a lot of moaning on about inequality recently — some are even predicting it will be the big issue in next year’s Canadian federal election — but the eye-popping figures being tossed around (CEOs being paid hundreds of times the average wage) are very much a case of statistical cherry-picking:
Before retiring to their districts for the fall, the House Democratic Caucus rallied behind the CEO/Employee Pay Fairness Act, which would prevent a public company from deducting executive compensation over $1 million unless it also gives rank-and-file employees raises that keep pace with the cost of living and labor productivity.
Meanwhile, the AFL-CIO and its aligned think tanks have made hay of the huge difference between the pay of CEOs and employees. One of the most widely cited measures of the “gap” comes from the AFL-CIO’s Executive Paywatch website.
- The nation’s largest federation of unions laments that “corporate CEOs have been taking a greater share of the economic pie” while wages have stagnated for the rest of us.
- As proof, it points to a 331-to-1 gap in compensation between America’s chief executives and the pay of the average worker.
That’s a sizable number. But don’t grab the pitchforks just yet, says Mark J. Perry, economic professor at the University of Michigan-Flint and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute.
The AFL-CIO calculated a pay gap based on a very small sample — 350 CEOs from the S&P 500. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 248,760 chief executives in the U.S. in 2013.
- The BLS reports that the average annual salary for these chief executives is $178,400, which we can compare to the $35,239-per-year salary the AFL-CIO uses for the average American worker.
- That shrinks the executive pay gap from 331-to-1 down to a far less newsworthy number of roughly five-to-one.
August 31, 2014
The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high concentration of incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is significant in itself and most people have a certain proportion of each. But when these two qualities reach a certain concentration — represented at present by the formula I3J5 — there is a chemical reaction. The two elements fuse, producing a new substance that we have termed “injelitance.” The presence of this substance can be safely inferred from the actions of any individual who, having failed to make anything of his own department, tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the central administration. The specialist who observes this particular mixture of failure and ambition will at once shake his head and murmur, “Primary or idiopathic injelitance”. The symptoms, as we shall see, are quite unmistakable.
The next or secondary stage in the progress of the disease is reached when the infected individual gains complete or partial control of the central organization. In many instances this stage is reached without any period of primary infection, the individual having actually entered the organization at that level. The injelitant individual is easily recognizable at this stage from the persistence with which he struggles to eject all those abler than himself, as also from his resistance to the appointment or promotion of anyone who might prove abler in course of time. He dare not say, “Mr. Asterisk is too able”, so he says, “Asterisk? Clever perhaps — but is he sound? I incline to prefer Mr. Cypher”. He dare not say, “Mr. Asterisk makes me feel small”, so he says, “Mr. Cypher appears to me to have the better judgment”. Judgment is an interesting word that signifies in this context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done last time. So Mr. Cypher is promoted and Mr. Asterisk goes elsewhere. The central administration gradually fills up with people stupider than the chairman, director, or manager. If the head of the organization is second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate; and they will, in turn, see to it that their subordinates are fourth-rate. There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to be even more brainless than they are.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Injelititis, Or Palsied Paralysis”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
July 12, 2014
I rather pride myself on my packing. Packing is one of those many things that I feel I know more about than any other person living. (It surprises me myself, sometimes, how many of these subjects there are.) I impressed the fact upon George and Harris, and told them that they had better leave the whole matter entirely to me. They fell into the suggestion with a readiness that had something uncanny about it. George put on a pipe and spread himself over the easy-chair, and Harris cocked his legs on the table and lit a cigar.
This was hardly what I intended. What I had meant, of course, was, that I should boss the job, and that Harris and George should potter about under my directions, I pushing them aside every now and then with, “Oh, you—!” “Here, let me do it.” “There you are, simple enough!” — really teaching them, as you might say. Their taking it in the way they did irritated me. There is nothing does irritate me more than seeing other people sitting about doing nothing when I’m working.
I lived with a man once who used to make me mad that way. He would loll on the sofa and watch me doing things by the hour together, following me round the room with his eyes, wherever I went. He said it did him real good to look on at me, messing about. He said it made him feel that life was not an idle dream to be gaped and yawned through, but a noble task, full of duty and stern work. He said he often wondered now how he could have gone on before he met me, never having anybody to look at while they worked.
Now, I’m not like that. I can’t sit still and see another man slaving and working. I want to get up and superintend, and walk round with my hands in my pockets, and tell him what to do. It is my energetic nature. I can’t help it.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
June 21, 2014
In 1939, Bruno Rizzi, a largely forgotten Communist intellectual, wrote a hugely controversial book, The Bureaucratization of the World. Rizzi argued that the Soviet Union wasn’t Communist. Rather, it represented a new kind of system, what Rizzi called “bureaucratic collectivism.” What the Soviets had done was get rid of the capitalist and aristocratic ruling classes and replace them with a new, equally self-interested ruling class: bureaucrats.
The book wasn’t widely read, but it did reach Bolshevik theoretician Leon Trotsky, who attacked it passionately. Trotsky’s response, in turn, inspired James Burnham, who used many of Rizzi’s ideas in his own 1941 book The Managerial Revolution, in which Burnham argued that something similar was happening in the West. A new class of bureaucrats, educators, technicians, regulators, social workers, and corporate directors who worked in tandem with government were reengineering society for their own benefit. The Managerial Revolution was a major influence on George Orwell’s 1984.
Now, I don’t believe we are becoming anything like 1930s Russia, never mind a real-life 1984. But this idea that bureaucrats — very broadly defined — can become their own class bent on protecting their interests at the expense of the public seems not only plausible but obviously true.
The evidence is everywhere. Every day it seems there’s another story about teachers’ unions using their stranglehold on public schools to reward themselves at the expense of children. School-choice programs and even public charter schools are under vicious attack, not because they are bad at educating children but because they’re good at it. Specifically, they are good at it because they don’t have to abide by rules aimed at protecting government workers at the expense of students.
Working for the federal government simply isn’t like working for the private sector. Government employees are essentially unfireable. In the private sector, people lose their jobs for incompetence, redundancy, or obsolescence all the time. In government, these concepts are virtually meaningless. From a 2011 USA Today article: “Death — rather than poor performance, misconduct or layoffs — is the primary threat to job security at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Small Business Administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Management and Budget and a dozen other federal operations.”
May 29, 2014
Every student of human institutions is familiar with the standard test by which the importance of the individual may be assessed. The number of doors to be passed, the number of his personal assistants, the number of his telephone receivers — these three figures, taken with the depth of his carpet in centimeters, have given us a simple formula that is reliable for most parts of the world.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
February 4, 2014
Megan McArdle says that the meme about fast-rising tuition costs at university being driven primarily by the increase in administration staff isn’t the whole story:
Tim Burke, a Swarthmore professor who is also a top-notch (if insufficiently prolific) blogger, has penned a long post that is a very useful corrective to this complaint. It isn’t that the professors are wrong, exactly — administration has grown fantastically over the last 50 years. And empire building is undoubtedly some of the reason for this, because all organizations accumulate unnecessary mid-managerial retinues unless the leadership makes a regular effort to scrape off the supernumerary barnacles.
However, most of those administrators have been hired for two much simpler reasons: The faculty wanted to outsource their administrative responsibilities to professionals so they could focus more on teaching and research; and the demands placed on a university are much greater than they used to be.
I am not going to excerpt Burke’s piece because it is too multifaceted, and too good; you’ll just have to read the whole thing. He elaborates the many new things that administrators now do, from monitoring diversity to tending the mental health of the students. He touches on the legal changes that have made much of this administrative bloat into an expensive necessity, a sort of institutional immune system that defends against lawsuits. He also mentions the new regulations, like Title IX, that imply a whole new staff of people certifying that you have complied with their requirements.
January 6, 2014
To the very young, to schoolteachers, as also to those who compile textbooks about constitutional history, politics, and current affairs, the world is a more or less rational place. They visualize the election of representatives, freely chosen from among those the people trust. They picture the process by which the wisest and best of these become ministers of state. They imagine how captains of industry, freely elected by shareholders, choose for managerial responsibility those who have proved their ability in a humbler role. Books exist in which assumptions such as these are boldly stated or tacitly implied. To those, on the other hand, with any experience of affairs, these assumptions are merely ludicrous. Solemn conclaves of the wise and good are mere figments of the teacher’s mind. It is salutary, therefore, if an occasional warning is uttered on this subject. Heaven forbid that students should cease to read books on the science of public or business administration — provided only that these works are classified as fiction. Placed between the novels of Rider Haggard and H.G. Wells, intermingled with volumes about ape men and space ships, these textbooks could harm no one. Placed elsewhere, among works of reference, they can do more damage than might at first sight seem possible.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Preface”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
December 31, 2013
November 26, 2013
I’ve expressed this as variations on “the deeper the specialization, the more those specialists feel they’re experts on much wider subjects”. Megan McArdle‘s formulation is rather neater than that:
Amid the chaos, I got a call from the secretary of a very senior executive at the firm. His new voice-recognition software wasn’t working, and he needed me to come up right away.
I had servers that weren’t working right and a bunch of workstations that couldn’t access the network. “He should call the help desk,” I told her.
Her tone was arctic.
“He doesn’t deal with help desk personnel,” she said. “Please come up here right away.”
So I went to the office of Mr. Senior Executive. He was not at his desk. I played with his new software, which seemed to be working fine — a bit slow, but in 1998, voice-recognition software took a while to become acclimated to your voice. I told the secretary it seemed to be working, and I left my pager number. It went off as I got to the elevator bank. I trekked wearily back to the office, where Mr. Senior Executive gestured at his computer. “It still doesn’t work right,” he said, and started to leave the office again.
“Hold on, please,” I said. “Can you show me exactly what’s not working?”
“It’s not doing what I want,” he said.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I want it to be,” he replied, “like the computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“Sir, that’s an actor,” I replied evenly, despite being on the sleepless verge of hysteria. With even more heroic self-restraint, I did not add “We can get you an actor to sit under your desk. But we’d have to pay SAG rates.”
Now, when I used to tell this story to tech people, the moral was that executives are idiots. No, make that “users are idiots.” Tech people tend to regard their end-users as a sort of intermediate form of life between chimps and information-technology staffers: They’ve stopped throwing around their feces, but they can’t really be said to know how to use tools.
And, of course, users can do some idiotic things. But this particular executive was not an idiot. He was, in fact, a very smart man who had led financial institutions on two continents. None of the IT staffers laughing at his elementary mistake would have lasted for a week in his job.
Call it “the illusion of omnicompetence.” When you know a lot about one thing, you spend a lot of time watching the less knowledgeable make elementary errors. You can easily infer from this that you are very smart, and they are very stupid. Presumably, our bank executive knew that the phasers and replicators on Star Trek are fake; why did he think that the talking computer would be any more real?
November 13, 2013
If they are timid in some respects, the Trade Unions are aggressive in negotiation and cannot be otherwise. To keep in business a union has to do something. Each year there must be a fresh demand, without which the union will lose membership. Members expect to see some return for their subscriptions and union officials are not paid to be inactive. Lacking a grievance, they will have to invent one. Realizing this, the directors must make a show of reluctance, postponing the inevitable concession until it looks like a victory for the employees. If the union is quiescent it will lose membership, most probably to another union. Its officials, honorary or paid, can always gain consequence on the other hand, from their decision to do battle. Any Trade Union has, therefore, a built-in aggressiveness, without which it can hardly survive. Nothing can be more damaging to the union official than the rumour that he is friendly with the management. This can only be the result of blackest treachery, it is assumed, and the official has to stage a conflict in order to secure his own re-election. Aggressive toward management, the unions are almost as aggressive toward each other, competing for membership and staging frontier disputes over the exact territory which belongs to each. Nor is this unrest the fault of individuals. It is a characteristic of union organization and one for which there is no obvious remedy.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “The Feet of Clay”, Left Luggage, 1967.
November 5, 2013
Coyote Blog on the problem with the latest anti-discrimination law:
In reality, this is how it works: Suddenly, as owner of the company, one finds a lawsuit or EEOC complain in his lap, generally with absolutely no warning. In the few cases we have seen in our company, the employee never told anyone in the company about the alleged harassment, never gave me or management a chance to fix it, despite very clear policies in our employee’s manuals that we don’t tolerate such behavior and outlining methods for getting help. There is nothing in EEO law that requires an employee to try to get the problem fixed via internal processes.
As a result, our company can be financially liable for allowing a discriminatory situation to exist that we could not have known about, because it happened in a one-on-one conversations and the alleged victim never reported it.
What I want is a reasonable chance to fix problems, get rid of bad supervisors, etc. A reasonable anti-discrimination law would say that companies have to have a grievance process with such and such specifications, and that no one may sue until they have exhausted the grievance process or when there is no conforming grievance process. If I don’t fix the problem and give the employee a safe work environment, then a suit is appropriate. The difference between this reasonable goal and the system we actually have is lawyers. Lawyers do not want the problem to be fixed. Lawyers want the problem to be as bad as possible and completely hidden from management so there is no chance it can be fixed before they can file a lucrative lawsuit.