A Matter of Convenience: Systems of Control

“All my teachers have been women. Though several men have taken me aside for an hour to tell me things they know.” — Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows

I’ve worked in a few different places and with many different people.

I was always interested in what was going on around me and I had good awareness and understanding of things like business, management, sales and technical matters.

There’s always something to learn if you’re observant.

There can be a point when you’ve been working for an organisation for a while that the boss or manager takes you to the side for a little chat. It’s to speak about your future, which really means about how ‘you’ fit into ‘their’ plans.

Some of these chats are really about the person.

They want to tell you about who they are. About all the things they know. About how things work around here and about how it can work for you too.

Hence the aphorism.

It was a conversation like this where I learnt about a few aspects of modern management.

“Wes, there comes a point where you have to change how you manage people.”

“If you spend all of your time managing people. Then at some point you’ll have no time to manage all of them and everything else besides.”

“What you need is a system.”

“It doesn’t matter what it is.”

“It can be lines of code. It can be timesheets. It can be getting things wrong or turning up late.”

“But what you need is a system to manage.”

“Because with a system you can manage as many people as you need to.”

“You don’t need to keep checking in with people or checking their work anymore. You just let the system do the checking for you.”

“It makes it all much easier than dealing with people all of the time. You can just sit people down when you need to and simply look at the system.”

“If the system says the job isn’t being done right or that the person doesn’t fit in then who can argue with what it’s telling you?”

“That’s what it’s there for.”

“It gives you all the reasons you need, to do whatever it is you want.”

A certain type of management system came to be common place in the 20th century and with it a certain style of manager and management.

The boss of old and the worker of old. An oppositional relationship. Became replaced with a ‘friendlier’ non-oppositional practice.

Instead of direct confrontation, the demands and instruction became embedded within systems.

Without a need to command and demand managers could adopt a type of management where they could be your friend. They were just another person who had to obey the system.

All of us. Helpless things at the mercy of an invisible logic

This was, and is, extremely convenient for bosses and businesses.

There is psychology at work here too.

And it isn’t friendly.

Systems are extremely dangerous when we become embedded within them.

We don’t see them and we don’t understand them. So, we also don’t question their legitimacy, their purpose or their effects.

The example I gave above is something that I think is quite understandable and at the scale where we may have actually experienced them without necessarily being quite aware of; why they are there, why they are that way, and why we should be paying proper attention.

But these things are everywhere.

  • Traffic lights which give priority to cars over people.
  • Policies which give preference to developers over citizens.
  • Law-making which benefits the rich not the poor.
  • Tracking built into your phone.
  • Search results which exclude inconvenient facts.
  • Algorithms which can instantly close your bank account.
  • AI’s which are responsible for hiring, managing and firing people.
  • Worldwide banking systems which benefit the elite.

We have come to be dominated by systems in the 21st century and the pace and scale is accelerating.

So too are their negative effects.

If people do not have good awareness, understanding and visibility of the systems that they have become embedded within. Systems which have a strong yet invisible influence on much of their lives. Then how are we supposed to protect ourselves?

How do we know who and what is pulling at our strings?

Systems are convenient for those in power for many reasons.

  1. They offer a way to point to something which is just outside of their control. Like the manager, obedient yet helpless at the demands of the management system. Businesses, sectors or financial and political interests can also point to systems once they are in place and repeat the same mantra.

    The rules are the rules.
    It’s just the way things are.
    It would be so complicated to change.
    So many organisations are using it. It’s simply become impossible to change it without everyone agreeing.
  2. They force people to adapt to them as opposed to being adaptable by people.
  3. They offer both implied and covert forms of control. Their influence and effects are largely invisible and almost totally unanswerable.

As forms of control and/or punishment they should probably be properly regulated and/or restricted to open forms of democratic stewardship or investigation.

There is some kind of ‘systems literacy’ we’re missing here.

Or perhaps we should just cut to the chase and give people a higher level of protection through human rights and let the systems recoil and bend back to where they belong.