the unfortunate split brain upside down organization of professionals

My previous post was about an individual interaction phenomenon creating structural dysfunctionality. This one is about dysfunctional organizational designs messing with their employees’ ability to do a good job. This one should be a more optimistic story. Designs can be changed isn’t it? And what I’m am going to describe is not rocket science, it is visible to even the most casual observer. And we all are in that position regularly, as either workers in or clients of such organizations. I qualify my ramblings with the adjective “professional”. That needs some introductory explanation.


In my book professional organizations are all those of which the core product assumes particular technical and/or knowledge skills that require substantial training. For the sake of this discussion let’s only look at:

  1. larger organizations
  2. wherein the professionals are all in the same field
  3. of which a sizeable number is in direct contact with the client, the one buying the product, let’s call them service organizations
  4. and who are crucially dependent upon their organizational environment to enable their work

(1) implies we’re not looking at private practitioner practices, (2) that we’re excluding service organizations like hotels, (3) that we’re not looking at high tech production facilities, and (4) that we’re not looking at partnership firms. What we are looking at are organizations like hospitals, educational institutions, government service providers, etc.

OK, hope I haven’t lost you yet, but here we go to the substance.

Let’s start with the upside down design issue (with thanks to Vincent who alerted me to this many many years ago).

Many service provision organizations are hierarchically organized with their counter personnel being the lowest rung of the ladder. This means that unless the client wants something totally routine, requiring no discretionary authority at all, the counter person has to refer to some higher up, with another layer or two above that for more “difficult” problems. Because this requires translating the client issue across one or more layers, this requires time (please come back tomorrow, next week, etc.) and more time (the issue is lost in translation, only part of it is solved, and requires another move to the back office upstairs, etc.). This problem has only worsened with computer assisted service provision because hardware systems by definition don’t cover all possible personal circumstances, and before such an “exception” has reached the bureaucrat with the authority to bypass the system or the ability to reprogram it, the client is bound to be in serious hypertension terrain. And why do you think counter personnel need training in client anger management? Training that will only very partially deal with the issue because no training is really able to turn justified anger into satisfaction. And it’s satisfied clients that make for good jobs. In the longer run, only being able to keep clients from going berserk is a ticket to unhappiness. Unless you really don’t give a shit, but then you shouldn’t be behind that counter in the first place!

Now what about turning this around: have the real decision maker interact with the client? Or better: empower the counter employee to make most decisions now being passed up the line. I’m sure there are good ways to deal with the risks involved (petty corruption, little napoleon behind the counter, etc.). It would make the counter jobs much more fulfilling, better paid (pass on the savings of “rationalizing” the hierarchy), and recognized for what they are (professional jobs: handling people efficiently, effectively and with dignity is a seriously underestimated skill). I’ld say at least worth a try somewhere isn’t it? Unfortunately the ones making decisions on organizational designs are the (mostly) guys in the upstairs rooms and they are very bad at rationalizing themselves into  oblivion and admitting that the girl downstairs is actually what makes the organization tick.

Oeph, this turns out to be a longer post than expected, let’s go for a energizing break (I’ve worked in management and development so am a workshop professional):

Now, on to the split brain design mistake: you’ld think integrated management would be a common sense concept but, looking at how many professional organizations are designed, it isn’t. Often the service professionals and the support system are separately managed. At best this is done with a serious effort at the top to ensure integration, to ensure that the organizational mission remains delivering its core service in the best possible way, optimally supported by all parts of the organization (admin & finance, infrastructure, procurement, etc.). But often the organizational pillars happily go their own way, with all the consequent communication and priority-setting issues, and that’s still a good case scenario. You’ll get into really troubled waters if they start competing for status and resources.

The ascendancy of financial capitalism with is reverberations in the rest of society  hasn’t done a lot of good in this respect. With the increased prioritization of finance, hospitals, schools and universities and all kinds of other organizations have been subjected to redesign with the business managers in charge of the support departments increasingly calling the organizational shots. That this has been accompanied by a wave of client/student/patient centered rhetoric, comes as no surprise.

Again, there may be legitimate efficiency and cost-control issues with organizations run by the professionals who are in charge of the service provided. But creating a separate business hierarchy, let alone one that takes over agenda and priority setting control, is a bad solution. There’s other ways to deal with the risks of letting the professionals run their show unsupervised.

It’s weird that organizations that require the  contribution of professionals from very different backgrounds often/largely manage to avoid this design pitfall. I’ve been in the hotel business for a while and at its upper end you’ll normally find genuinely client-centered, integrally managed organizations. It’s so obvious that a guest is only going to be really happy, if the hotel’s infrastructure is working properly (well-maintained, clean, etc), the food’s good, the admin runs smoothly and when anything requires attention it doesn’t matter whom you turn to (why should you know how things are organized behind the scenes…), your question, request, complaint, whatever it is, will be dealt with asap. Just one or two out of this (incomplete) list is not enough, thus no department can and should claim priority over any other. Beats me how a fair number of professional organizations wherein the service professionals are all of a similar field (like health or education) managed to loose sight of that.

Obviously organizations hampered by both of these design quirks are terrible to work for and even worse to be serviced by.

If you’ve managed to get to the end of this long post you have apparently lots of time on your hand. So you might as well enjoy a very short Nina Paley video (more of her in another post):

About roger henke

Still figuring out the story line that would satisfy myself here. Listening to what my family and friends evoke, what the words I absorb, the images that move me, the movements that still me, point to.
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1 Response to the unfortunate split brain upside down organization of professionals

  1. Pingback: customer service orientation is a misleading label | roger henke's fancies

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