If This Then That … Or Perhaps Not
There are two kinds of people in the world: those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.
—George Bernard Shaw
For the purposes of this modest undertaking I shall align myself with the over-simplifiers and say that there are two kinds of work in the world: “if-this-then-that” work and “if-this-then-maybe-that” work. The distinction, when applied to enterprises of any size and complexity, has significant implications for governance.
Let me begin with a set-up story in which the world of “if-this-then-that” meets the world of “if-this-then-maybe-that.”
A friend – a corporate world “suit” − was appointed chair of the governing board of a university and to mark the changing of the fiduciary guard, the university held a cocktail party to which senior administrators and faculty members were invited. At a point in the evening, the newly minted board chair was introduced to the president of the faculty association, a left-leaning, ex-pat Glaswegian who had a fractious (to say the least) relationship with the university’s administration. The exchange (it couldn’t really be called a conversation) was wary – imagine two male Doberman’s circling and sniffing. One or the other was bound to bite. Both, in fact, did. Here’s how it happened.
Corporate guy: So … who do you report to?
Academic guy: My students.
The relationship went from there directly into the crapper.
Work changes things; something is transformed into something else. “If-this-then-that” work is the tidiest example of this “input-process-output” formulation. Examples abound. Steel companies transform iron ore into nails; fast food emporia transform animal parts and vegetables into burgers and fries; banks transform deposits into loans. These are highly engineered systems employing standardized work processes to produce standardized products and services. Organizational theorists refer to them as machine bureaucracies. In these environments, inputs are indifferent to what becomes of them. (Slaughterhouses may be the exception, but by the time cows get to burgers joints, they’re long past caring.)
NPOs and NGOs have, broadly speaking, enhancing the well-being of people as their raison d’etre. They are, briefly put, in the business of changing lives. Transforming social environments, therefore, means that people become both the input and the output of the work equation. This makes them somewhat untidy businesses because people are not indifferent to what becomes of them. They have minds of their own (which they are apt to change with disconcerting regularity) and have opinions about the means and the ends of their transformation. It is for this reason that agencies whose input is people have to be thought of as being engaged in “if-this-then-maybe-that” work.
Getting this kind of work right, therefore, requires organizations in the business of social transformation to be actively and continuously engaged with their “input.” In the education field this is known as “dip-sticking” where teachers have to regularly check to see if what they’re doing is actually working. Try something and if it doesn’t work, try something else. Whereas tests of efficiency using relatively straightforward metrics are used to assess the performance of “if-this-then-that” work, tests of effectiveness have to be employed when assessing “if-this-then-maybe-that” work.
(It should be added that the maybeness of these enterprises is heightened because of the way in which they formulate their goals. Given that they exist to enhance the commonweal, their purposes are necessarily formulated in value-laden and ideological terms that may or may not be in sync with prevailing political ideologies. Hence their vulnerability to the shifting winds of funding policies.)
The problem is that arguments in favour of effectiveness tests can sound like equivocation to the ears of board members coming out of corporate business environments where “can do” attitudes and efficiency tests prevail. It is in reaction to this apparent equivocation that one is likely to hear the “we have to make this organization more businesslike” case being made. In the eyes of those taking this position, human and cultural services organizations appear to be undisciplined versions of machine bureaucracies; flawed attempts at emulating corporate business paradigms. But Peter Drucker got it right when he said, in talking about hospitals, that we shouldn’t be trying to get them to be more businesslike; we should be trying to get them to be more hospital-like. What does more hospital-like mean? Or, for that matter, what does it mean to say more university-like; more social service agency-like; more museum-like?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. But the people doing the business of these businesses should. What I do know, however, is that these answers will have to be articulated in terms of effectiveness (intrinsic criteria) because if they aren’t they run the risk of being judged by totally inappropriate systems of metrics (extrinsic criteria). The administrators and professional staff of these organizations must resist the temptation to go off into a corner and do this by themselves. Failure to involve corporate suits in these conversations will have consequences. The newly appointed university board chair and the academic whose story opened this essay had an opportunity to bridge a gap; instead they transformed it into a chasm. They could have had a conversation about the nature of the academic enterprise and what it looks like when it’s working well. They could have had a conversation about the tripartite academic task of research, teaching and service. What a nice start to their relationship that would have been! They didn’t and everyone was poorer for it.