Tag Archives: paperwork

The Bureaucratic Mind Revisited

 Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators.

In a debate on the explosion of American lawsuits a few years ago the famed law professor and trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz described one litigation strategy used by large corporate defendants as “papering the other side to death.” He meant, of course, that a lawyered-up organization can intimidate a plaintiff  by requiring so much data and information that the cost of a “win” becomes too time-consuming.

The phrase has always stuck with me as a perfect representation of a common bureaucratic impulse. Paper has perhaps been replaced by online documents and files.  Even so, there seems to be a natural tendency to bureaucratize even the simplest processes, ostensibly to be “uniform.”  In fact rules have always functioned in part to mystify others into compliance. No one, for example, reads the “conditions of use” fine-print attached to nearly every downloaded application.  But the sheer volume of their legalese lends authority to the source. Or try having your car or yourself serviced at a facility that is supposed to assure us to keep things in good working order. The front desk clerk taking down your information is now likely to go through a prolonged data-entry mode that leaves little time for a description of the problem that brought you in.

Rule-makers are  ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure.

Our organizational life seems to thrive on hiring and promoting rule-makers: policy specialists, compliance officers, lawyers, professional writers, contract law specialists, employees charged with reviewing procedures, and especially organizational members–some with OCD tendencies that make them ready to see any free choice as a vacuum that needs a procedure. After all, someone must police the miscreants who would initiate a novel approach to a routine task.

“Procedures” nailed down in multiple pages of “steps” have the perverse effect of replacing individual initiative with a gloss of uniformity.  Organizational culture naturally wants conformity, which is not always a bad thing. The problem is that the folks who write the rules seem to self-select, forming groups who are all too willing to bury the rest of us in paper.

Alas, this compulsion toward overwrought rule-making has not produced a comparable group of  specialists motivated to reverse the process. So organizational culture typically embraces a snowballing accumulation of stifling regulations.  What was once left to individual initiative often ends up as formal procedure.

In the field I know the urge to lay down mandatory “guidelines” cannot help but sap the energy of even the most creative teachers. The pedant in all of us loves to make guidelines, rubrics, checklists, worksheets, performance reviews, reviews of performance reviews, minimum standards, mission statements, instructions, directives, monthly reports, yearly updates, checklists, and criteria. People who might better spend their time on creative new scholarship often drift into generating handbooks of rules for even the most simple of professional tasks, such as observing a younger colleague’s teaching. The arc of a college teacher’s professional career is now tracked, classified, quantified, compared against a rubric, assessed by insiders, assessed by outsiders, tested in online questionnaires, burdened with filings to outside agencies, and itemized in reports to higher-ups.  As a visiting professor at a small British college years ago I couldn’t teach what they did not already offer because, well, they didn’t offer it.  It was not in the approved curriculum set up by a committee at another university.  That can be true everywhere, especially if a university program has bought into a “certification” process that lays out uniform standards.

The rhetorician Kenneth Burke called this tendency to create regulatory flotsam “the bureaucratization of the imaginative.” It’s a perfect phrase. Reining in creativity by “regularizing” work simplifies organizational life, but has a deadening effect on innovators. In effect, the rhetoric of rules places a heavy burden on the most creative among us. Too often this impulse leads to the measurement of success in terms of compliance rather than initiative.  And compliance is often a very low bar.

The Invitation of the Blank White Page

paper commons wikimedia.org
Source: Wikipedia.org

It’s a medium with many virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data.

Although the precise origins of paper are hard to identify, some authorities place it in China about 105 AD. Plant fibers gathered and poured into a water bath were spread and carefully removed by a screen underneath, leaving a thin layer of material that could be dried so it would accept paint or ink. Papermaking eventually migrated to Egypt and Iraq, and then to Europe. “Paper” made in what is now Egypt was usually produced from papyrus or parchment (an animal skin), the only tools for capturing language recognized in the Koran.

While Egyptian papyrus (from which the word “paper” evolved) was initially the preferred material, it required more resources and woodworking skill than was practicable elsewhere. Eventually, near the end of 780s dried fibers of fabric became the dominant ingredient, partly because it was less susceptible to forgeries than all the other alternatives, and because it could more easily be sized with oils made from animal by-products. Sizing produced a smooth surface able to hold ink.

This and much more is told in Lothar Müller’s new book, White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity Press, 2014)He notes that even before the invention of the printing press in 1450 there was a steady stream of written material made by copyists, as well as “printers” using ink transfers from individual wood blocks. Hand copied books were numerous, along with items such as block-printed playing cards with monarchs painted on their surfaces.  In the 14th Century it appears that nearly everybody played cards.

Arguably the most potent effect of the ability to make paper was not necessarily the book, but the ledger and the formal contract. Spain as the center of Phillip II’s empire is given credit (or maybe it should be blame) for creating one of the first paper-based bureaucracies.  Decrees, written petitions, contracts and files were committed to the page. Still made from rag fibers until higher demand would require the substitution of wood pulp, paper made possible major advances that are frequently still used: the keeping of governmental and business ledgers, the practice of double bookkeeping, and the increasing use of correspondence by mail. In the latter case, a chain of effects followed wider access to postal systems, triggering the development of better roads and predictable timetables.

All of these advances are based on a medium with virtues we tend to overlook: low cost, portability, and compact storage of text, images and data. These conditions were the essential prelude to the printed book, which was made possible especially in the West because of the ease of creating standardized type based on the small Latin alphabet.

Not surprisingly, print formalized the idea of authorship, turning writers into long-form storytellers, and readers into linear thinkers.  The availability of paper from mills sprouting up everywhere contributed to the flowering the enlightenment and, later, distribution of scientific research based on the premise of world-wide peer-review.

Müller’s study of paper and the book notes that the story of these media is not over.  Paper gives history a durable record not yet equaled by digital files. He also reminds us that books are things. They can be owned, passed on, or resold. Many of us still draw satisfaction from their visible and tactile presence. By contrast, the electronic version is more accurately described as a licensed product. As such, it’s not quite the object for independent use that is a defining feature of its enduring paper counterpart.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu