Thursday, December 13, 2007

Service Pathology

Steve Tobak introduced his post this morning on CNET's News Blog under the headline, "Would you pay more for better service?" As one might suspect, this question has prompted a generous number of answers in the form of comments. For my part, however, I would prefer one of the standard rabbinical answers, "It depends;" but I would like to be more specific in doing so. I would like to suggest that "it depends" on three things:

  1. The nature of the pathology that makes the service so poor.
  2. The question of whether that pathology can be remedied by throwing money at it.
  3. If that question can be answered affirmatively, the follow-up question of how much money will be necessary to make a noticeable improvement in the pathological condition(s).

I have been interested in workplace pathology for some time; but I realize that, until now, I have not been particularly rigorous in distinguishing between internal pathologies (involving the operations of the enterprise) and external pathologies, which impact the "customer-facing" side of the business. Tobak's question is basically about a problem of external pathologies and what those of us on the customer side should do about it.

My use of the plural is intended to suggest that there is actually an ontology of customer-facing pathologies, if not that we might better understand the aetiology of those pathologies if we knew their ontological categories. In this post I would like to restrict myself to the ontological question and propose three such categories based on the three "dimensions" and Anthony Giddens' structuration theory:

  1. The pathology of ignorance is a malady of what Giddens calls "signification." It is a lack or failure of knowledge concerned with what things mean, how they work, and how one make take remedial action(s). My recent rant against the San Francisco Public Library, after my (highly frustrating) efforts to pay the fine on a book my wife had not returned on time, amounted to a description of an instance of this particular pathology. The Library had installed new technology and imposed new work practice; but few (if any) really knew how the new technology worked, let alone what to do when it got ornery. (This morning I discovered that ranting doesn't do anything about the pathology!) The "knowledge management" movement was supposed to address this pathology; and the fact that it remains in my ontology can be taken as evidence of how successful that movement was!
  2. The pathology of negligence is based on Giddens' dimension of "legitimation." It is a pathology in the social world of the normative patterns of interaction between a service provider and a client. It may be a consequence of a service provider suffering depression, which, in turn, may have come about as a reaction to some internal pathology. It is an instance of what Max Weber called the "loss of meaning," where the service provider has become so alienated from the work that (s)he no longer sees any reason to honor the necessary behavioral norms.
  3. The pathology of contempt arises from problems along Giddens' dimension of "domination." It is basically a more extreme form of negligence, based on a Nietzschean "will to power," which regards behavioral norms as impediments to be overcome. The primary symptom is the premise that any customer who needs help must have done something wrong.

Instances of each of these categories may arise from a variety of causes. While some of those causes may be external, it is probably the case that internal causes are likely to have more impact. This would be consistent with a report for CNET published today by Natasha Lomas. Here is the story's lead:

Overly authoritarian and bureaucratic IT managers are bad for morale and productivity and are making their staff sick.

According to the Quality of Working Life survey conducted by U.K.-based management-services firm Chartered Management Institute, the most widely experienced management styles in the U.K.'s IT sector are reactive (45 percent), bureaucratic (38 percent), and authoritarian (24 percent)--management styles that can all have a negative impact on workers' morale, productivity, and even health.

These three management styles have also become more common in the IT sector--with reactive and bureaucratic styles increasing by six percent since 2004, and authoritarian leadership rising by 5 percent. A CMI spokeswoman said rates of reactive management in IT are "slightly higher" than in some other industries.

There is nothing particularly new in this story other than some fresh data reinforcing a study that is now over twenty years old. The earlier work can be found in an Academy of Management Review article published in 1986 by Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller under the title "Personality, Culture, and Organization." This was a fascinating study of the parallels between organizational pathology and neurotic management behavior (the higher the management level the stronger the parallels). I suspect that the only significant difference between then and now is that management behavior has been steadily drifting from the neurotic to the psychotic, with the unpleasant consequence that what we used to classify as pathological may be similarly drifting into the normative!

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