A bad feedback loop

True story: thirty-something years ago, at institution X – a very large institution with tens of thousands of employees – there was a particular institution-wide department in charge of providing all computing services to all other departments, even though the computing needs and expertise of each department varied very, very widely.  Some departments could pretty much take care of their own computing needs – esoteric as some of them were – whereas other departments lacked the local skills to manage word processing software on desktop computers of the day.

Rather than look for ways to accommodate the wide variety of needs of its stakeholder groups, the computing department became absolutely tyrannical, dictating exactly what each department was allowed to use, what Internet bandwidth could be afforded them, what equipment they could have, and what software they could run.

The other departments were not impressed.  At first, they (foolishly) tried to work with the computing department, to no avail.  The computing department seemed to become even more entrenched and refused to acknowledge that they could not possibly understand all their users’ needs without working with them.

Eventually, a courageous Department Head gathered enough funding to buy his department their own server.  He then personally oversaw the installation of a T connection in the network backbone – which coincidentally ran through his department’s building – without asking anyone’s permission.  A few people got upset – especially in the computing department – but within two years most departments had their own server installations, and the centralized computing department had become a shadow of its former self.  They still did a lot of work, but the decision-making power now rested with the “user” departments.

Skip ahead 30-ish years.  I recently (i.e., this year) had reason to get an email account at that institution.  The procedures I had to go through was kafkaesque in nature.  I needed three separate ink signatures on sheets of paper; I had to stand in line three times at two different offices; I had to wait two days for my account to be activated; and I discovered I could not forward my email outside of the institution’s domain.  This latter issue was quickly resolved by a colleague at that institution who set up a mail alias on his department’s mail server, to which I could forward my email and which would then automatically forward that email off-campus.

Here’s the point: the central computing department had not evolved at all in 30 years.  They had driven their customer base away decades ago because of their draconian policies.  The other departments started taking care of themselves.  Without that much to do, the computing department had no reason to change, grow, progress.  The other departments, on the other hand, continued to grow their infrastructure as computing technology evolved.  This widened the gap between them and the computing department, which made the computing department even more irrelevant.  This reduced pressure on the computing department even further, which caused them to care even less about their “users.”  Seeing an ever more disinterested computing department, the other departments continued – and continue to this day – to depend less and less on the computing department.

It’s a feedback loop.  And not a good one.

I am gratified to know that I was right – because thirty years ago, when all this started to happen, I recognized this incipient loop and was convinced that if they didn’t recognize it themselves, they would be doomed to irrelevance.  They didn’t recognize it – probably because systems science and systems thinking about organizations had not yet managed to seep into management.  But it was still evident to anyone with the presence to notice it.

To paraphrase George Santayana: Those who do not recognize their feedback loops are doomed to repeat them – over and over again.

In case you’re wondering, the institution in question is not Ryerson, nor is it York University….


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