I think this is an interesting idea, but either overstated or in need of more exploration:
"Information is, by its very nature, subversive. Information tells you the right thing to do."
I think one could just as easily assert that "information is, by its very nature, oppressive. Information tells you the wrong thing to do."
I read this in the car, parked outside Top Pot Doughnuts in Seattle and laughed. It’s an awesome observation.
Cuts Like a Knife
I would argue that information in this context is an object. A social object. Subversive, Oppressive, Liberating, Enlightening.
And like a knife, it can slice a tomato or your throat.
When organizations lose shared purpose and principles – their sense of community – they are already in process of decay and dissolution, even though they may linger with outward appearance of success for some time. -- Dee Hock, Founder of Visa in Birth of the Chaordic Age
The game of a new organization is to be noticed. To be noticed, you want to be the best. Quality is job 1. This is an expansive mode.
The game of an old organization is to continue to exist. This is a protective or entropic mode – the focus is now inward.
What Mr. Hock is noting in this quote is that when an organization switches from an expansive mode, it enters an entropic mode. Maybe this is inevitable – that’s for further debate.
When you combine these two observations, the questions become: How do organizations in an entropic state abuse information? And, perhaps, is information abuse itself a signal that an organization has entered an entropic state? Can we use it as a diagnostic tool?
The entropic organization is readily recognizable by the dysfunction in how it exchanges information. So, the last question, I’d give a yes. The middle question I would give a probably – it’s certainly an indicator that you need to do an entropy check.
The first question would take volumes. Rules, policies, even outright fabrication in some cases. Worldcom, Morgan Stanley, and the Bush White House can all provide ample examples of half-truths and lies being released in the form of information and information that has bowed to the whims of control.
But It Feels so Right
Why do organizations do this? What is it about entropy that causes this type of bending of information? Why do people feel that obfuscation and withholding information is useful?
We return to Dee’s Quote. “When organizations lose shared purpose and principles – their sense of community – they are already in process of decay…”.
Decay is pervasive.
Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
Its not always going to be this grey
All things must pass
All things must pass away
-- George Harrison, All Things Must Pass
Change requires acceptance. People leading large companies are already scared of tomorrow. Every day they fear someone will build something better, do something smarter, create something less expensive.
Keeping information hidden until the last possible minute is a natural reaction by people in power. Power corrupts – but corrupt people are not evil. They have been corrupted, often unbeknownst to themselves. Retrospection is our teacher in this regard.
Feeling that they are protecting the company, they will hoard information. There has been no handbook to tell them otherwise.
The more information is withheld, the more purpose and principles are lost. The gulf between the organization and the community widens. And entropy escalates.
I coulda sworn we had it all worked out
Entropy is natural and inescapable. We’ve spent our entire history as human beings denying it.
Does this mean things are hopeless?
No, it means that systems need rejuvenation and management. Entropy should be anticipated and accounted for.
IBM has done an excellent job of reinventing itself. Many governments have sunset dates for their ministries. And (thank you FDR) we have term limits on the US presidency. With every new presidency, with every new reinvention of self, introspection and forward vision both happen. Rebirth ensues.
Agile Methods and Lean Principles both dictate frequent reviews and check-ins. Information is designed to flow as freely as possible and create systems to quickly note when it is not.
Human nature works for us and against us in this regard. We naturally protect ourselves when under pressure – but we also naturally cooperate when goals are clear and shared.
Leadership becomes critical in open structures. It’s not anarchy and it’s not communism. Open structures require strong leadership. Someone needs to be on-point to make sure all the members of an organization are comfortable.
This requires true leadership, not autocratic positional power.
Way beyond the shadow of a doubt
Society abhors an information vacuum.
The future requires an introspective organization. One that won’t stand for misinformation or information being withheld.
Will it still happen? As sure as the day is long it will.
But it will happen a lot less and be noticed more quickly.
Murphy’s Law stands. Things going wrong isn’t the problem – it’s things festering.
(And for the record, I really can’t stand that Bryan Adams song and it’ll be stuck in my head for days now….)
UPDATE: An Bui has posted a thoughtful extension of this conversation.
Blogged at Top Pot Doughnuts on Queen Anne in Seattle, WA – I’m free of the snow!