Sunday, October 02, 2011

Wondering about the management of complexity

How do large organizations manage complexity?

The development of the assembly line was based on the division of work into simple tasks to be done by different workers in a set sequence. The labor of the assembly line worker was simpler than that of his predecessors, deskilled, as he only carried out one or a few simple tasks repetitively. On the other hand, the engineer who designed a product and manufacturing system that would produce good products with deskilled workers was carrying out a very complex task, and was presumably highly skilled, as was the designer of the assembly line.

Assembly lines and similar manufacturing plants have a relatively simple task of taking a known input and producing a known output.

The physician on the other hand has a stream of patients each of whom is different. While there are some diagnoses that are relatively easy because the conditions are prevalent and their signs and symptoms clear, there are many other conditions that are rarer or with less clear signs and symptoms. Thus, at the "workface" the physician deals with considerable complexity and needs to be highly trained to deal with it well. On the other hand, the consulting office administrator is less highly skilled.

In both cases, formal organizations have evolved to deal with the complexity of their tasks. Let me hypothesize: The more complex the task at the workface, the more skill and independence is needed there; the less complex the task at the workface, the more emphasis is placed on the development of standardized procedures, the more labor at the workface can be deskilled, and the more effort is put into standardization of tasks.

So what kind of task is that faced by a donor agency? Is is one in which project management is like the diagnosis and treatment of health problems, or is it one that can be reduced to standardized treatment of a  known input to obtain a desired output. I suspect that the answer depends on the type of development effort that is intended. Finding a way to reduce dependency and promote clean and efficient government seems very complex and situation dependent indeed; building a lot of temporary houses to provide shelter to people who lost their dwelling in an earthquake seems rather simple.

Unfortunately, I suspect that donor agencies too often treat problems requiring lots of workface expertise and independence as if they were simple and suitable for standardization.

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