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The Danger of Creating an Expertocracy

Posted on July 09, 2015

It became apparent to Business Professor Steven New that something was wrong with his local bank when he went to open a bank account.

To do so, he brought along a range of documents - photo ID, utility bills, details of his employer, etc - but at no point did they call upon any of them to verify his identity. The only thing required was the check for the initial deposit, which cleared and the account was created.

When asked about this, the teller responded the credit check had been run by the computer in real-time. Unfortunately, the check was run on whomever Stephen New claimed to be which, given the lack of documentation required, could have been anyone.

It became obvious to New this was a glaring hole in the standard bank account process, one that could be exploited by criminals and identity thieves. He did the right thing and wrote to the CEO about the design flaw.

But no one knew what to do with his message. It eventually found its way to the complaints department where they were at a complete loss on what to do with it. They explained staff in the branch were just following procedure and there was nothing to be done.

What Went Wrong

It all started with Frederick W. Taylor, the founder of scientific management. Taylor was fixated on standardization - on management finding the "one best way" to do something and replicating it across the organization. Famous for timing workers' performance, he increased output substantially at the steel plants he managed 100 years ago and his writings were a major influence in industrial management.

In doing so, Taylor wrested organizational control from the workers to specialists. His principles eventually spread out from manufacturing to other industries and now standardization governs many aspects of large organizations including managing efficiency and safety.

But there's a problem with this form of operations, made clear by New's experience at the bank. Standardization processes that work are great but if the experts who design them get it wrong, as he writes, "operations can get locked in systematic dysfunction."

Organizations whose processes are solely designed by "experts" in distant offices, totally removed from field conditions, have the potential to wind up like the Soviet Union. The best systems, in fact, are ones where the "technocrats" (disciples of Taylor and creators of processes) work together with the people who do the work.

In support of this, New cites the use of checklists in hospitals popularized by best-selling author and surgeon Atul Gawande. Checklists featuring a range of simple questions (for example, "Do we know each other's names?") have been found to dramatically lower medical error and improve patient safety and have become required in both U.S. and U.K. hospitals.

But New found something interesting when he investigated how checklists were actually used in practice. He found they were used but badly - questions were sometimes skipped and others marked as being done before they were. Hospital staff often felt the checklist was devised far removed from the actual activity and didn't quite "fit." It was more an imposition by authority up top rather than a genuine initiative to improve safety.

Compliance with the checklist improved however, under one condition. When staff had a hand in customizing the procedures listed, modifying it to work for them and match their work, compliance rose dramatically. The meeting of ideas in between the experts far removed and the workers on the ground produced a checklist that worked for everyone - managers, workers, and customers.

It's a mantra we preach here often at Vocoli. Our employee suggestion software is designed to improve communication between management and front-line workers and facilitate the creation of processes that work for everyone. If you're interested in what we can do for you, contact us to get started.


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