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Hyperbureaucracy takes charge

11.06.2007
Do you feel that documentation, planning and reporting take up an unreasonably large proportion of your working hours? Well, you are not alone.

It’s Monday morning, and the long list of emails winds down the screen, offering no comfort at all. You know that you have to fill in your list of tasks for the week to come, and the agreement that you made during the weekend will have to be entered into your web calendar. You suddenly remember that you have forgotten to write a report of the meeting on Friday! Resolutely, you start at one end of the list, and open the email at the top of the screen. It contains the following message: “Come to the orientation meeting about the new corporate governance system. A preliminary introduction will be given on Wednesday”:

That is when the thought occurs to you: “When will I get time for what I am really supposed to do in my job?”.

Reporting just about everything

SINTEF’s researchers call this phenomenon “The Advance of Hyperbureaucracy”, by which they mean that more and more of what employees do today must be planned, documented, measured and evaluated. And this is just as true of kindergarten staff as of property agents, doctors or teachers.

“Everyone in work has been employed to perform a particular task – what we call their “core work”, says SINTEF’s Hans Torvatn. “A doctor is supposed to treat patients, a salesman should sell his products, and so on. The other bit of the job is to report what we are doing; “meta-work”, as it is known, and it is this bit that we see is rapidly increasing.”

The researchers believe that while bureaucracy used to be a type of organisation, it has now become a type of work. We have become completely dependent on electronic information and communication systems, and we exchange and are open to information in every aspect of our work.

“For example, ICT systems contribute largely to the flood of reports, since someone has to “feed the animal” and fill in the data if such systems are to be of interest,” says Torvatn.

Large organisations have both formal systems (public databases) and tools for order control and customer service. We also have the email system, which is informal in the sense that it can ask you about absolutely anything, and its ability to send information and questions everywhere and anywhere is huge.

Codification

Knowledge that used to be found only in the heads of one or a just few people in an organisation is now written down and registered in huge information systems. Furthermore, such knowledge is often assigned a value (in figures) in the information system, so that other people can carry out analyses based on the figures.’’

“Coding is an essential activity if we are to be able to hyperbureaucratise, develop and refine information in order to meet our customers’ requirements,” says Torvatn, “for hyperbureaucratisation is often introduced primarily on behalf of others, rather than because one’s own organisation sees any need for it”.

The doctor who fills in an electronic record for his patient could just as well have written it on a note-pad if it had just been a matter for the two of them. The doctor-patient relationship is not improved by recording information on a PC. But with a hospital or other source of treatment in mind, electronic information will be easier to send on and take over.

One aspect that complicates the flow of information for many people is that number of different systems. If a seaman is injured on board a vessel an injury report must be filled in and information sent to the insurance company, the shipping company, the authorities in the country where the vessel is flagged and the country in whose waters the accident happened – all of them with their own systems and databases. “In Norway alone, we have found 12 – 14 databases with information about injured seamen,” says Torvatn, “many of which will demand a report.”

Offshore paperwork

Torvatn’s colleague Gunnar M. Lamvik is studying the paper-work of managers in the offshore sector. A study of the working day of 180 or so offshore managers in a Norwegian oil company reveals that all of them regard “office pressure” as very high. They explain that they have to spend many hours at the office because of meetings, report-writing and documenting various parameters.

A few years ago, researchers compared working practices in the offshore industry in the North Sea and in South-east Asia. This revealed that safety levels in offshore operations in Malaysia, for example, were higher than in the North Sea. One important difference between the two regions was that much of the working day of Norwegian managers was tied up with meetings and office-work, while their South-east Asian colleagues had much more time for “hands-on” management tasks.

According to Gunnar Lamvik, all the managers who took part in the recent survey said that they wanted to spend more time out of the office.

“Almost sixty percent of these managers regarded email as an important hindrance to getting out into the field,” says Lamvik. “Many of them also pointed out that email was becoming more and more a formal reporting channel. Dealing with concrete matters via this channel was regarded as a poor way of doing things. The oil company wants its managers to spend more time out where things are happening at operational level, and has a goal of four hours a day being spent in such a way, but it looks as though paper-work is preventing this from happening.

Both positive and negative

Torvatn believes that hyperbureaucracy is here to stay. We are overloaded with information, but it is difficult to imagine that we will ever get back to where we were before. Plans and surveys help to improve the work environment, and most people believe that the public sector ought to be able to offer open information.

“While we can curse hyperbureaucracy because it steals the time we have for the activities that make up the core of our work, we are still supporters of bureaucracy when it comes to other people’s organisation and systems,” says Torvatn.

Conscious

Given the huge amounts of data with which we surround ourselves, searches and search technologies will become extremely important in the future. Torvatn also believes that far too many people ask about a lot of things that they never use, and that we need to make a clearer distinction between “nice to know” and “need to know”. We also need to stop introducing systems uncritically, without asking: “What will this be used for? When? For whom?”

According to Torvatn, data that are never used are wasted. “Such data also have a negative function because we have put time and effort into gathering them. We need to become much more conscious of the importance of analysis and feedback when we ask for a report,” he concludes.

Aase Dragland | alfa
Further information:
http://www.sintef.no

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