Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Office politics in knowledge economy

We are studying an elective course called "New Business Models in Knowledge Economy", looking at the new opportunities and barriers for business in the information age. That is just one perspective. My experience in academia as a student, as an employee in a software company, and finally as an intern in another software/services company, gives the experience to offer a insights into power equations and office politics in knowledge economy. I think, but can't prove off-hand, that academia is probably more vicious than corporate life.

The problem in a knowledge organization (including b-schools) is simple: the intelligence is usually present at the bottom of the chain. People are usually much much brighter than their bosses. It is indeed, difficult to call them subordinates, since they are not and to call bosses as a superior, since they are not. The old military style heirarchy was no longer valid. So, something had to be done to impose control. So, they invented "need to know" (let me call that NTK). Or maybe adapted a similar concept from military.

Office politics would be nothing if people didn't feel insecure. One of the main reasons that people want to impose control is because they are afraid they'd be criticized, and all the skeletons in the closet would tumble out. Not that it matters, people usually know who the bozos are.

Information is the oxygen in a knowledge organization. So, some wise guy decided that the best way to impose control is to restrict information access down the chain. Starved of their oxygen and choking on the carbon dioxide of unwanted and garbage data, the chain would dance to the tunes from the top. And it does. I know the kick that this NTK addiction gives - it feels really good when I have information that others don't have "need to know". The charm is quite seductive :)

There have been lots of times that I have been at the receiving end. I used to feel frustrated because someone at the top of the chain figured out that some document was "sensitive data". Sensitive, indeed, when I had unfettered access to all of the source code !

So, whenever I spoke to someone regarding an information that I had a NTK and I didn't have it yet, I used to be "out of the loop" (let us call that OOTL). It is regarded as a big blow to the prestige and ego, if you are sufficiently advanced in an organization but yet OOTL for some irrelevant thing.

Another tactic in this information warfare is "miscommunication". I've seen so many times when sheer incompetence was meant to be hidden, and any problem that arose was explained away with "miscommunication". It is a smart tactic, because now, the responsibility of failure is spread over 3 factors - the initiator, the receiver and the medium. One would say "I just assumed that you knew this", "I didn't want to spam you with something you aren't interested in", etc. Note to the HR of such companies: no amount of communication courses help with deliberate miscommunication ... you may as well save on your budget.

Incidentally, I figured out how to work this system to my advantage: claim that I have a NTK for some data and start bugging people. Come up with any excuse I want and pester them. They'll give me access just to get me off their back. And, claim that I can't attend a meeting or decide on something, because I was left OOTL, and therefore, since I'm responsible, and doing my bounden-duty, but lack the required background, it is not possible to do anything about it. A lazy person would create another level of bureaucracy just by this tactic.

Some people can't hit back. They are either incompetent or have been brainwashed in their upbringing that elders must be obeyed. They do everything they are asked to do and never ask questions. They don't even question why they are supposed to code in a particular way or how a particular feature is going to help the product. As they gain experience and move up the ladder, they become the new enforcers of the knowledge embargo.

As they say, a sucker is born every minute.


At Saturday 26 August 2006 at 6:42:00 PM IST, Blogger Anomalizer said...

It is all about CYA (Cover yor ass). As you go up the chain, you see more and more of CYA.

At Sunday 27 August 2006 at 8:44:00 PM IST, Blogger Sridhar Narasimhan said...

yup, it is. I know of gr8 ppl at very high level who don't indulge in it and can take criticism on the chin. I also know of ppl, scarcely higher than my level, who do it all the time.

ultimately, it just matters what sort of a human being he/she is.


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