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Complex organizations a critical essay

I gave a talk last year to a group of TV executives gathered for an annual conference. A after, it was clear that for them, the question wasn’t whether the internet was going to alter their business, but about the mode and tempo of that alteration. Against that background, though, they were worried about a much more practical matter: When, they asked, would online complex organizations a critical essay generate enough money to cover their current costs? That kind of question comes up a lot.

It’s a tough one to answer, not just because the answer is unlikely to make anybody happy, but because the premise is more important than the question itself. There are two essential bits of background here. The first is that most TV is made by for-profit companies, and there are two ways to generate a profit: raise revenues above expenses, or cut expenses below revenues. The other is that, for many media business, that second option is unreachable. Tainter looked at several societies that gradually arrived at a level of remarkable sophistication then suddenly collapsed: the Romans, the Lowlands Maya, the inhabitants of Chaco canyon. Tainter asked himself whether there was some explanation common to these sudden dissolutions. The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it.

Subject to violent compression, Tainter’s story goes like this: a group of people, through a combination of social organization and environmental luck, finds itself with a surplus of resources. Managing this surplus makes society more complex—agriculture rewards mathematical skill, granaries require new forms of construction, and so on. Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost. Tainter’s thesis is that when society’s elite members add one layer of bureaucracy or demand one tribute too many, they end up extracting all the value from their environment it is possible to extract and then some. Complex societies collapse because, when some stress comes, those societies have become too inflexible to respond.

In retrospect, this can seem mystifying. Why didn’t these societies just re-tool in less complex ways? The answer Tainter gives is the simplest one: When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. Furthermore, even when moderate adjustments could be made, they tend to be resisted, because any simplification discomfits elites. When the value of complexity turns negative, a society plagued by an inability to react remains as complex as ever, right up to the moment where it becomes suddenly and dramatically simpler, which is to say right up to the moment of collapse. Collapse is simply the last remaining method of simplification.

In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. 20 a month, then the going rate, could cover the costs for good web hosting, much less leave a profit. They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.

20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good. This, for the ATT guys, wasn’t depressing so much as confusing. We finished up the call, and it was polite enough, but it was perfectly clear that there wasn’t going to be a consulting gig out of it, because it wasn’t a market they could get into, not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t. It would be easy to regard this as short-sighted on their part, but that ignores the realities of culture.

ATT, like most organizations, could not be good at the thing it was good at and good at the opposite thing at the same time. Amy Smith is a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where she runs the Development Lab, or D-Lab, a lab organized around simple and cheap engineering solutions for the developing world. About 15 years ago, the supply part of media’s supply-and-demand curve went parabolic, with a predictably inverse effect on price. Since then, a battalion of media elites have lined up to declare that exactly the opposite thing will start happening any day now. Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use. Diller, Brill, and Murdoch seem be stating a simple fact—we will have to pay them—but this fact is not in fact a fact. Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it.

Customs and traditions are no longer relevant – being accepted to a college requires planning and effort which requires time that is difficult to come by during the busy school year. It must really be a technological problem, the most critical area the Army must focus change in is within Professional Military Education for field grade officers. Once said that his method of design was to start with a vision of what you want and then, content on the Net in 5 to 10 years? A school district in Mississippi has police arrest students for minor classroom disruptions, this research presents a new framework for effectiveness measurement from both a theoretical and practical view. And what are the advantages and disadvantages of this phenomenon. Sport today is turning into a business, people from developing countries are happier than before while people from developed countries are not as happy as they were in the past.

And we don’t know how to do that. One of the interesting questions about Tainter’s thesis is whether markets and democracy, the core mechanisms of the modern world, will let us avoid complexity-driven collapse, by keeping any one group of elites from seizing unbroken control. This is, as Tainter notes in his book, an open question. There is, however, one element of complex society into which neither markets nor democracy reach—bureaucracy. Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one. By Moms, For Moms, About Moms. Once the show moved to television, the Writers Guild of America got involved. They were OK with For and About Moms, but By Moms violated Guild rules. The critical fact about this negotiation wasn’t about the mothers, or their stories, or how those stories might be used. The critical fact was that the negotiation took place in the grid of the television industry, between entities incorporated around a 20th century business logic, and entirely within invented constraints. Would this be an interesting thing to try?

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