Is Digital Bureaucracy Making Us Less Productive?

Bureaucracy is the death of all sound work.

Albert Einstein.

Some context for this post: I’ve been doing some thinking recently about why people keep saying they are ‘too busy’.

Is busyness an indicator of having too much work to do, or a sign of a lack of empowerment?

Or is it a sign of working within an overly bureaucratic system?

Back in 2015 Aoife McLoughlin from James Cook University‘s Singapore campus published an interesting hypothesis. What if our very use of technology makes time appear to go faster? She found that those who were almost always online overestimated the amount of time that had passed compared to those who rarely used technology. A person sitting playing with their phone in a waiting room would estimate that an hour passed in just 50 minutes. And it wasn’t just those who used technology often – McLoughlin found that even people who read an advertisement for the latest iPad perceived time as passing more quickly than those who had read an excerpt from a novel. 

“It’s almost as though we’re trying to emulate the technology and be speedier and more efficient,” McLoughlin told ScienceAlert. “It seems like there’s something about technology itself that primes us to increase that pacemaker inside of us that measures the passing of time.”

Whilst feeling busy and the pace of life picking up is nothing new, we have more technology available to us than ever before – and whether you are home based or a field worker, your work life is a constant series of reminders and prompts – a smorgasbord of digital nagging to keep telling you some work is outstanding. Hurry up.

It’s my contention that we have created a new digital bureaucracy – where everyone can invade our most precious commodity: time.

Parkinson’s Law 1 – “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.

Parkinson’s Law, named after historian C. Northcote Parkinson, states that work creates more work, gradually expanding to the point of filling the time available for its completion. Parkinson believed that bureaucracies always grow. Managers wish to appear busy, so they increase their workload by creating rules or things to be filled in. Then they hire more subordinates, who in turn require more managerial time for supervision.

The theory has been developed in recent years by the likes of Gary Hamel and Michele Zahini who posit some useful indicators of bureaucracy:

  • In a bureaucracy, your power and compensation are the product of head count and budget.
  • No one ever downsizes their empire voluntarily.
  • Every new challenge begets a new CxO or head office unit. These soon become permanent fixtures.
  • As the organization grows, more layers get added, and the ratio of managers to frontline team members creeps upward.
  • With every crisis, authority moves to the centre, and stays there.

And as bureaucracy grows stronger, those who might resist it grow weaker

The new digital bureaucracy

It’s now easier that ever to delegate a piece of work or a task for someone to do. The growth of RPA, and the introduction of robotic managers could make our work lives heaven or hell – with freshly designed e-learning for us all to complete each morning.

Writing in Diginomica, Chris Middleton points out that in the name of efficiency the UK Government has created 21,000 jobs across 46 departments in support of its digital, data, and AI ambitions – and run up large consultancy fees in the process.

As he says ‘is all this frenetic activity and internal job creation better for citizens? The signs aren’t necessarily good. After creating a colossal bureaucracy, the government has also sought to shift the onus back onto citizens and businesses in some cases.’

And there you have it. Far from digital being our saviour it could unleash a whole new series of tasks for us to do.

As Gerry McGovern has said – this is the problem with digital. We make it easy. We make is cheap or free. Production and consumption explode.

There is a solution here but ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on their own. Ending digital bureaucracy means designing out the interruptions and the prompts, it means taking more personal responsibility instead of endlessly delegating it to others.

It means remembering that digital is an enabler rather than our manager.


Image licensed from Alfredo Martirena

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