David Weinberger
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Bureaucratic Knowledge

08 March 2020

The term “bureaucracy” started as a joke when in 1764, the journalist Friedrich Melchior von Grimm sardonically reported on it as a strange disease spreading through the French government—or so say the editors of a special issue of The Journal for the History of Knowledge devoted to bureaucratic knowledge.

Now, bureaucracy has gone from a joke to the object of conspiracy theories about the “deep state” operating in the American political system. Yet without bureaucracy, there’s no functioning government. Yes, your department of motor vehicles has annoying forms to fill out and lines to wait on. And, because we usually encounter bureaucracies at their public interfaces—the underpaid person you’re talking with has probably dealt with 15 rude customers before you got there—bureaucracies have gotten a badname. But without the DMV, there are no operating rules to keep over-achieving 10-year-olds and smarty-pants chimps from getting behind the wheel.

Knowledge repositories

But bureaucracies are more than obstacle courses made out of forms. They are repositories of multiple types of knowledge.

A company’s internal technical support group is actually a good example of a bureaucracy. The IT support group contains a huge amount of knowledge not only about how tech works but also about how the business works. The group has information about the processes for determining the priority of fixing a particular malfunctioning laptop, when a loaner should be made available, and the paperwork required to track the laptop through the logistical, financial, and departmental processes. Bureaucracies are knowledge institutions.

Yes, we might complain when requests for phone support start with the prerecorded message, “Have you tried turning the computer off and then back on again?” as in the British comedy The IT Crowd, but that rote step is there because it’s often the right step. And that, of course, is just the beginning of what the IT group has learned from experience.

A long history

The articles in the special issue of The Journal for the History of Knowledge remind us that bureaucracies long have been thus. In a boundary-pushing scholarly article, author and lecturer John Sabapathy argues that even the Inquisition, which, beginning in the 12th century, was the source of hundreds of years of persecution, torture, and murder, was in its own way a knowledge-generating bureaucracy. It used questionnaires, records, archives, and a rigorous judicial review process to ascertain who was to be tortured and then killed in a horrible fashion—most often Jews and Muslims. The Inquisition’s processes tried to rigorously distinguish authoritative knowledge from mere popular belief, so those processes weren’t the problem. The problem was the values that set its goals.

This doesn’t mean bureaucracies are inherently evil or banally evil. It depends on the goals of the organization it serves and, to a large extent, the freedom the bureaucracy allows—and even rewards— for reflection, discussion, and dissent … if overall the enterprise is capable of hearing such things. Business value

Like any other part of the business, departmental bureaucracies do what they can to advance the corporate mission and goals. So, if the IT department is told to make sure failed tech doesn’t seriously disrupt employees’ work, then it might keep a fleet of spare laptops on hand that employees can just grab when theirs are down. Or, if the department is told to keep costs low or to maintain security above all else, it may become much harder for an employee to get a replacement. Either way, the department will use its knowledge of technology, of company business processes, and of user needs to meet the stated goal.

That makes them experts, not “pencil-pushing bureaucrats.” In fact, they are often responsible for mediation among various groups, so they know more than anyone else, not only about their users’ needs but also about how the business actually functions.

A seat at the table

That’s why bureaucracies need a seat at the table. “Ever since we instituted the new procedures, our users are angry at us all the time” is an important thing for the C-suite to know. But this is also important to hear: “The goal you state seems simple, but the process is far more complex than you think.”

To have something to say at that table, a bureaucracy needs to know not only the monthly stats about their customers’ satisfaction levels and so forth, but it also needs to give space to internal discussion and disagreement, including questioning its own key performance indicators and even its corporate goals. The knowledge of bureaucrats comes from living at the nexus of strategy and implementation, the nexus of best practices and human values, the nexus of multiple departments with their independent goals, and at the nexus of wishes and reality. That makes their voices worth listening to.