Tag Archives: organizational behavior

The Software Shuffle

There’s an art to setting up online forms that are responsive and adaptable.

Anyone that works or does business with an organization—pretty much all of us—face an almost daily task that would have been unknown a generation ago. Not only do we use computers, and often depend on them for the payment of bills and the submission of forms and applications. We also no get the flip-side effects of messages we no longer control.  The requirement to use a group’s proprietary software in order to complete even the simplest transaction is so common we hardly notice. But sometimes the smaller the business, the more the software has you wandering into the weeds.

There’s an art to setting up online forms that are responsive and adaptable. Bad software is typically written to meet the needs of the makers rather than those on the receiving end.  Good software works on the principle of convenience.  Ever notice how easy it is to buy something on Amazon?

Software is the last to know when it’s stupid.

I am now regularly invited to meetings via an official looking Google form that lets me state my intention with a “Yes,” “No”, or “Maybe.” You probably get them as well.  My frustration is that there’s no space to communicate anything more meaningful.  Just this morning I was sent such a form announcing the cancellation of a meeting, but still inviting me to respond “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe.”  I pushed the green “Yes” button, but didn’t know what I was actually “saying.” Was it: “Yes! do cancel the damn meeting for sure; I’m glad to have the time back?” Or: “Yes, thank God someone came to their senses.” But what would a “No” mean?  Perhaps “I’m going anyway, just to soak up the silence in the otherwise empty room?”  Or, “No, and that was a career-busting mistake to call it off?”  Then there’s the middle option: “‘Maybe’ I’ll think about not going to the cancelled meeting.”  These responses pose quandaries inside of quandaries worthy of a diagram that looks like a ballpark pretzel.

Software “for interfacing with consumers” is designed with closed-ended options. Most of it converts the human experience into a set of comparative numbers, making all of us less aware and savvy. This is the result of a general overreach for quantification. Results of a questionnaire or an application for services seem to require simple responses so that the organizational chain never has to deal with the natural variability of human understanding.  Put simply, open ended questions don’t “code well.”  They require a listener/reader on the other end: a bigger stretch than some organizations want to make.

The Red Carpet to Uncertainty

Awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in celebrants who may not be celebrated.

The Oscars always loom large in February.  As the cliché goes, it is an American version of a coronation ceremony.  We may not have royalty to fawn over, but Hollywood celebrities can be suitable substitutes.

The event is interesting for another reason. Rhetoricians relish finding underlying verbal routines in recurring forms of discourse: certain generic forms of content and presentations that endure. And the annual awards given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will not disappoint.  It seems that this peculiar spectacle has influenced how we stage many other humbler efforts at group recognition.  If you are associated with any organization, you know that there will be annual rituals to honor donors, participants and achievers.  And in many cases the format may have the same “deep structure” as the annual event held in the Dolby Theater in Hollywood.  In a university setting these kinds of celebrations include graduation, departmental awards given to students, awards to faculty and staff, and recognition of athletic prowess.  The form also survives at end-of-the-year dinners put together by all kinds of organizations, academic and business units, non-profit groups ready to woo more contributors, and even gatherings of pint-sized grade schoolers. We all have our Oscar moments.

It’s best if you can give award recipients a shiny object.  If the organization’s finances are leaner, a computer-generated certificate may have to do.

Any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form.

True, few of us show up at these events wearing a tuxedo. Indeed, universities have cleverly covered up the shabby clothes of their professors with academic robes.  But any dress-up event includes most of the benchmarks of the form: general praise for the work of the organization from the events’ host, anticipation focused on the honorifics that will be issued from the stage at the front of the room, awards introduced with just a hint of suspense, and the promise of witnessing the surprise of individuals as they chosen for special recognition.  The form is completed when the recipient stumbles to find dutiful praise for as many as possible.

Becoming an Also-Ran

These faux Oscars are usually defended as morale-boosting exercises.  And, to be sure, the award recipients must love them. But there is a downside as well.  As Kenneth Burke reminds us, ‘in unification there is also division.’ The problem is that, for every award winner, there is usually a much larger number of possible candidates who will become de-facto also-rans. If a university department singles out a few students at graduation for special honors, I am always reminded that there are many more who can’t help but feel they were unfairly bypassed. Similarly, make one person “employee of the year,” and there are bound to be others in the room who wonder why their contributions were overlooked.  The ratio of “winners” to slightly annoyed attenders can easily be 1 to 400: a real rhetorical effect that is often overlooked.

The point is a simple one: awards ceremonies have the unintended effect of creating disappointment in the celebrants who might have been, but were not, celebrated. I know, because I still remember those spring “field days” in grade school where the blue ribbons went to the fastest kids. The rest of us settled for the grey “participation” ribbons given to anyone who showed up.