Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Managing scarce resources - diktat versus doctrine

The Tragedy of the Commons is a well-established notion, described by Garrett Hardin in 1968:

Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers
of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy.

[Hardin, G, 1968: Science, 162(1968):1243-1248]

In other words, a limited resource will eventually be overtaken by growing demand.

The traditional management answer is to control scarce resources from on high. This directive approach means that decisions are taken more slowly and often more conservatively, risk avoidance being a key factor.

It runs entirely counter to more modern notions of subsidiarity, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as "the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level" Subsidiarity is a key enabler of the "responsive organisation" (see discussions at http://www.theresponsiveorg.com/)

In a well-argued blog post "How to balance autonomy and heteronomy: Doctrine"
http://pro.gigaom.com/blog/how-to-balance-autonomy-and-heteronomy-doctrine/ Stowe Boyd suggests that the military concept of "doctrine" - a shared understanding of how to best use key resources - could allow individuals and teams close to the "action" to take appropriate decisions, while higher levels of management remain responsible for defining organisational doctrine as a framework within which lower levels can take those decisions.

This set me thinking:
  • Of course doctrine not only has to be defined, it also has to be changed and refined in the light of changing circumstances. 
  • Are senior managers prepared for this challenge? 
  • Are they qualified to balance the strategic demands of the organisation with the tactical and operational requirements and restrictions?
  • Can senior managers realistically disseminate ("teach"?) their doctrinal vision in the commercial world, which is arguably more a socially complex environment than the military world?
  • Are lower level staff willing and able to commit to organisational doctrine?
  • How could an organisational culture of mutual trust be engendered? (Upper management trusting the lower levels to apply the doctrine, and lower levels being prepared to implement organisational doctrine produced by senior management, even though that doctrine may be sub-optimal or even negative from a rank and file standpoint)
In other words, can organisational doctrine really act as a bridge between between the Tragedy of the Commons and subsidiarity?
 I think the jury is still out on that one.

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