The Org

It’s easy to stand around the copier and complain about meetings, travel expense reimbursement forms, employee evaluation schemes that don’t match up with job responsibilities, clueless administrators, and so on. But have you ever considered the alternatives to these systems?

Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan perform this thought experiment in their 2013 book The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. They conclude that despite observable flaws, big organizations (like universities) are pretty nifty human inventions that let us jointly accomplish amazing things. They point out that the flaws result from predictable trade-offs needed to balance competing requirements of innovation and oversight. Through anecdotes and analyses of a wide variety of organizations (mostly not universities, but the parallels are obvious), they challenge us to empathize with the administration.

This knowledge doesn’t make a boring meeting any less pointless. But a greater appreciation for the structure of the whole and the trade-offs involved is valuable, I think, for anyone navigating a university bureaucracy or the tenure process. And it’s easy to see the following quote being written by co-authors (one a professor, the other once based at a university press) with deep roots in the academic world:

A Theory of Necessary Employee Disillusionment:
You hire the best people you can, the ones who are most eager to do the job….But you’re not always going to get employees who work for the sheer enjoyment of it. And so you set up incentives and rewards, you monitor, and you measure.

Ironically, those same incentives and measurement systems run the risk of driving your best workers…to become the most frustrated by the lack of clear connection between management measures and job performance….

This logic, taken to an extreme, could suggest that you know the org is working when your best employees are disgruntled and disillusioned.”~Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan (2013) The Org, p. 65-66.

Sometimes, understanding the underlying logic makes pain easier to tolerate. This entertaining book might be the right medicine for when you feel sick of the system!