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Feb 5, 2018

The procedural menace

Managers impose rules on staff, and then forget about both. The rules and staff live their own entangled lives, invent routines, understandings, habits and tricks to deal with them. Because rules tend to add, but never diminish, the procedures become excessively complex with time. Why this is happening? Well, there are theories, I prefer Wilson’s. But the “why” does not matter that much. The important part is what do you do about it.

We tried to take stock of all the procedures in use at our College. It is to 33 pages of dense text, and we could easily double that. There is a lot more that exists in organizational memory, in people’s heads, in files in various hard drives, sheets in various drawers. I am awed by this richness of organizational knowledge, and by staff’s ability to navigate it. However, there is a theoretical limit. You cannot add for years without removing anything. Procedures make an additive, not decremental process.

The natural reaction to complexity is specialization – different people will learn different part of the system. It creates an enormous pressure when people leave, and others are unable to pick up the pieces. It has not happen to us yet, but it will, eventually. When people are upset or have to work overtime, it is one thing; when consequences will over into the world of real students, faculty, and their lives, that’s a different story; a story I would like to avoid.

What we really need to do is figure out a way of systematic rule pruning. In the normal course of work, nothing like that exists; there is neither time nor method for doing so. I am so looking forward to when AI will be able to help, but it is not available just yet. What is the next best thing? Does anyone know?

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