Friday, 16 January 2015

Dissipative Social Systems and Managerialism

In Ulanowicz's early book "Growth and Development", he discusses the application of his statistical ecology to economics. Possibly the most important element in this analysis is his use of the word 'dissipation', which in biology is used to refer to respiration as that energy which is lost to the environment in a form which can't be recaptured, and which in economics he identifies in 'consumer demand'. He's not sure though, he says "a strict analogy with dissipation is not implied by this notational convenience [ground symbols]. Because the data are so condensed, the matrix of exchanges is highly connected." (p33)

Is consumer demand like respiration? The question revolves around what the source for flexibility and growth might be: dissipations appear to be the driving force behind systemic growth and adaptation. In some ways it might be right to consider consumer demand as dissipative: if I am a business which produces products for which there is a healthy consumer demand, then it is likely that I will seek to expand, branch out into new markets, and so on. In such a situation, resources will be made available for R&D (which is probably more dissipation). We never see the company which produces enough goods to satisfy the market which remains in a stable state (maybe communism attempted this - but it didn't work!). Interestingly, to ask what 'consumer demand' might be beyond the spending of money on goods and services, the possibility that it is fundamentally an existential property - maybe even the symptom of a crisis - appears attractive. This will become useful when looking at the University and its dissipative systems.

There is a question about efficiency and its relation to dissipation. An efficient situation would demand no dissipation, but tightly coordinated information flows. A business without consumer demand? Tightly-knitted bureaucracies may be worth studying for this feature: the dynamics that drive their processes are dominated by the information needs of one part of the organisation on the other, often without any external concrete demand. Such tight and apparently 'efficient' organisation is hardly stable: it has no capacity for adaptation to any external shocks. Curiously, if any of the components is damaged in any way, then what happens is a kind of oscillation that ripples through the rest of the system. Suddenly, when everything was so tightly knitted together and there was no dissipation, there are huge amounts of dissipated energy - not through 'consumer demand', but through the existential needs of the individual workers as everyone wonders what on earth is going on!

Universities are interesting in this regard. They behave as a kind of inefficient bureaucracy. On the one hand, they operate with interconnected processes for finance, resources, assessment, management, etc, and these units are meant to be wired together in an efficient way (although it rarely is), whilst on the other hand there is the existential situation in the classroom, the concerns of students (not so much consumer demand as existential crisis) and staff caught between their own existential concerns and the need to keep feeding the bureaucratic machine. I wonder if most dissipation in the University is of an existential nature on the part of staff and students...

The managerialist trend has been to attempt to wire up the bureaucratic part of the university machine ever more tightly, and to bureaucratise those aspects of its activities which were not before bureaucratic - particularly with regard to teaching and learning. Learning outcomes, course validations, quality regimes, register systems and workload analysis are all instruments for the creation of a self-contained efficient bureaucracy. The problem is that it doesn't work. Indeed, its not-workingness feeds the instability of the system by increasing the 'existential' dissipations - particularly among staff. However, in natural circumstances, dissipation is a prelude to growth (it is essential for it): dissipations reach out into new territory, new opportunities are explored. Under managerialism most of this growth in response to the dissipation is precluded. Prevented from growing, the dissipative energy eats away the staff. This process may (tragically) even be welcomed by management, who see opportunities to take control of the institution, replace inefficient staff, etc. So we might then ask about the dissipation of energy at senior level.

In objectifying the ecology of the institution and distancing themselves from it, Vice Chancellors will see their job as to ensure 'the survival of management in an unfavourable or threatened institutional context'. It is a huge existential problem. Unlike staff, who are prohibited from growth, Vice Chancellors are not, and will look outside for all kinds of 'growth opportunities', which are frequently pursuits of 'fetish objects': rich businessmen and women bearing cheques (and wanting favours); sexy cars; prestige and honour. However, because they objectified the rest of the institution, denied opportunities for growth among the rest of the staff (which consequently results in a dying institution), their 'outreach' spells even worse trouble for everyone else. The very coherence which they seek to establish to increase efficiency is threatened  by an anarchy of oscillation, dissipation of energy, depression and anger.

Managerialism doesn't work because it conflates efficiency with effectiveness, it assumes human agents to be rational 'information processing machines', and fundamentally it is blind to the deep needs of human beings - particularly in a university - for meaning, justice, love and togetherness. It fails to understand the nature of intellectual growth, and the role of existential needs in feeding that growth, and fails to see the disastrous consequences of preventing growth by over-burdening people with activities which merely feed the bureaucratic machine. These are of course not just problems for teachers, but for students too. I think managerialism's weaknesses can be exposed: but to do this, we need:

  • a better way of understanding our institutions as ecologies;
  • a focus on the dynamics of dissipation and growth

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