Monday, March 08, 2010

Comment on the Belmont Club:
"Informal networks"

Why do formal networks run down and lose their efficiency? Is that more prevelant in larger more technically sophisticated networks? Does the application of additional wealth and resources result perversely in a regression to a mean with declining returns per input?

The term that wretchard uses for the grease that keeps the wheels turning is "Reputation." To me that sounds like Max Weber's theory of "Charisma." Complex formal systems are supposed to have become repositories of the charisma that in earlier societies was embodied in the heroic leader and then in small tribal networks where everyone was known and their reputations were verified by direct observation. The ability to inspire people to perform tasks reliably and also the ability to inspire others to trust the organization and cooperate with it is a product of this charisma.

In the most primitive society the influence of the leader was personal and direct, in fact brutal. You wanted to cooperate and he had a reputation for efficiency. Later that reputation was transmitted to the person of a monarch and a team that was closely supervised. They acted out the rituals of the primitive hero and sought to compel or inspire the same level of cooperation as existed before.

In the modern bureaucracy that essential quality does not renew itself spontaneously but must be cultivated by managers and supporting institutions. Their ability to transmit the values and expectations needed to keep the bureaucracy sufficiently charismatic to function and preserve its reputation is a task similar that performed by religious institutions in transmitting the charismatic authority of the primitive leader into the simple but still formal and enduring structures of tribal and monarchical societies. It is an educational process.

What the Gramscian March through our institutions has done is rob many who should function as managers of the ability to articulate and transmit to an organization those charismatic values that are needed to keep it running efficiently. Instead of being managers they become reduced to administrators and they can not keep the complex clock properly wound. It loses power and reputation and runs down. This problem can even afflict the military when politicians press to fulfill PC quotas and reward administrative jockeying over principled leadership. That same degradation of the educational institutions also causes problems on the receiving end of the values communication. If the audience can not recognize the signals then they will not see the charisma in the institution, which then suffers a lose of reputation, and those it seeks to serve or work with will not cooperate with it. That will also decrease efficiency.

What Soldiers Angels does, and what Michael Yon's journalism can do, is remind everyone both within the bureaucracy and in the watching audience, how important charismatic reputation is and what it can accomplish. Yon constantly gets emotional at what he sees as abusive bureaucracy that substitutes procedure for a sense of purpose. He demands a high level of honorable moral conduct that is rarely present in the leaders of these organizations. He has had public arguments with TSA and CBP in which his personal frustration is so clear as to be surprising considering that he has worked with these government systems for years. There are no angels to get him around the roadblocks in Homeland Security and managers there are unlikely to respond to a personal appeal that at its core is an appeal to trust his reputation in the way that warriors ideally can trust each other and then solve a problem. Recently Yon got very upset when a bridge outside of Kandahar was destroyed. He was immediately very vocal in his criticisms, posting on Facebook demands that the General he felt was responsible should be fired. To an outsider it could have looked like pique at having the mission that Yon was going to accompany delayed. To Yon I am confident it was an opportunity to demand a return to displays of personal responsibility that are the key to reinforcing the charisma and reputation that the whole organization needs. Yon described how some time afterwords he walked into a General's office, not the one he felt was responsible for the failure to defend the bridge, and the General's first words were a claim of responsibility that turned Yon's entire attitude around in 30 seconds.

Every organization becomes hidebound over time and more devoted to administrative expertise than values driven problem solving. Even charities suffer from that problem. Remember though that the need to move from informal, tribal or revolutionary structures to structured organizations exists for a reason. When properly managed the formal organzation with its accumulated technical expertise can accomplish amazing things.

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