RESPONSES TO last week's piece on surveillance and outsourcing management to computers yielded much food for thought - mostly depressing. Most correspondents thought the dangers under rather than overstated.
One wanted to start a movement against the whole paraphernalia of command-and-control management, including computers and targets. Another ended his message: 'Of course I'm using a Hotmail account from my home computer because I wouldn't want my work account to log this message. For a civil servant, communicating with journalists is not usually encouraged.'
However, the most graphic description of the dark places such trends lead to came from a trade union official representing NHS Direct staff. He recounted how - against a background of rising call numbers - to cut costs NHS Direct first downsized and restructured its call centres to bring in more non-nursing staff, then launched a drive to standardise shift patterns and other working practices. The vehicle was a central, computerised scheduling system that 'manages' everything from shift patterns and annual leave to tea breaks.
This leaves local managers with little discretion - but it does allow countrywide performance comparisons against health department targets. 'So we have the worst of all worlds - disengaged workforce, fed-up line managers, and management by targets driven by computer software!' If I'd set out to write a list of everything wrong with modern management, I couldn't have done better.
Of course, there are some areas where you want computers to help make decisions: flying a jet and running a nuclear power station, for instance. And in some specific domains, such as predictions and diagnostics, computers can do a better job than humans.
Yet while computers are wonderful at some things, they are hopeless at others. It is telling that although they can out-compute humans at chess, they lose at poker. In conditions of ambiguity and partial information, they are adrift. While computers are good at routine and bad at variety, people are the reverse. So what do we do? We get computers to compress variety into the standard formats they can handle (hence all those 'For option A press 1, for option B press 2...' interactive telephone answering systems) and get people to read out scripts: exactly the wrong (and most expensive) way to provide a service.
The ability to decide how and where to use computer aids - to 'manage by wire' - may be a defining quality for today's managers. But it is one that too many appear unaware of. A previous correspondent, a course leader, noted that 'even at department level, management is becoming a detached elite, unengaged with the day-to-issues, setting destructive and unattainable targets and demanding their fulfilment whatever the cost, both to workers and the organisation'. The gap is even greater at the top level, the message perfectly conveyed in ever-widening pay differentials they are literally worlds apart.
There's a Japanese expression, genchi genbutsu , which roughly translates as 'go and see for yourself', or 'go to the source'. Behind it is the idea that any report, say, about a problem on the shop floor is by its nature an abstraction, separated from its context. For that reason, a 'solution' dreamed up at head office, where the report is received, is doubly abstracted from the source - with results like those seen at NHS Direct.
Properly understood, genchi genbutsu isn't a licence for top management interference, but the reverse: a licence to understand the work and help those doing it to resolve the issue. It is the opposite of Gordon Brown mandating a 'deep clean' for all UK hospitals on the spur of the moment - did he go to the source to find out how MRSA is spread? - because it is based on understanding, not opinion. This is the logic, as in many Japanese companies, behind making new managers spend the first six months on the line and selling products before being allowed behind a desk and of thinking of the plant as a living, changing thing, rather than a cost-centre or a collection of boxes on a form.
A good role model was the late Sir John Harvey-Jones, the former ICI chairman, who represented most of what's best about modern British management. The opposite of the manager as geek or bureaucrat, Harvey-Jones was also much more than the bluff extrovert sometimes portrayed. He was both straightforward and subtle, a rare combination. Those who worked for him appreciated his willingness to shoulder hard decisions but always explain them face to face. He was equally capable of leading from the front and allowing others to take the credit. His Troubleshooter TV series was a kind of genchi genbutsu in action. In the days of management-by-wire, such qualities become more, not less, critical. Now, more than ever, he will be missed.
The Observer, 20 January 2008