I’ve always been a company man. It always made perfect sense to me. Starting with the fact that I was, and would in all likelihood remain, a mid-level functionary in a large business establishment, it seemed that it would be best for me, in terms of survival and stress reduction and gratitude to those to whom I owed my employment, to avoid questioning anything. I have followed that essential blueprint successfully for 26 years. Unfortunately, now, my long-term plan may have finally backfired, and, on top of it all, only four years before I would have qualified for retirement. I can’t be sure, of course. But it may be that my quiet avoidance of conflict, and possibly my longevity in an organization in which long stable careers are rare, has now been mistaken for blind loyalty, for an indicator or source of inside knowledge, or, laughably, I think, for wisdom. In any case, when it became clear that an organizational realignment was imminent and unavoidable, when management began making noises about poking around inside the firm, and someone “up there” decided that someone else was needed to investigate “the problem,” I was chosen. It is better, I suppose, to be the investigator than the scapegoat; although it has occurred to me that I may have been selected to serve in both capacities.
The upper administration sent memos around announcing my new role and encouraging everyone to cooperate with my investigation in any way they could. I’m still not certain if that advance notice actually helped or hurt my efforts. I’ve considered that the current reputation of the top management levels may mean that their imprimatur could prove to be more of a liability than an asset. It’s also quite possible that the advance notice of this investigation might have had the effect of giving everyone the time they needed to develop new rationalizations and to get rid of any unwanted evidence or to create new supportive documents. It’s also quite possible that such an effect was intentional.
I’ve been at it for about three months now. In that time I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to gather information. This doesn’t surprise me, of course, given the concerns listed above as well as the prevailing business practices of the past two decades. At the heart of it all, I think, is deniability. Upper management had long made it clear that they didn’t want to know any details from lower management, much less from those who actually do most of the work, just in case. That was it—just in case. They never went any further with any of their statements about information flow, neither to clarify their intent nor to answer the obvious question—just in case of what?—nor to provide any other elucidation of their own. And when they decided to provide instructions or, more accurately, when they offered us a general outline of our future goals or targets or objectives or mission statements or whatever else they might call them, they would do so by meeting with our team, and only our entire team, in person. They did not encourage any questions or feedback, and prohibited recordings. Written communications were even more abstract than the verbal, often amounting to little more than cheerleading, or, I should say, motivational messaging. The suggested strategies for achieving the general objectives or targets were only vaguely referenced, using terms such as “asset optimization” and “efficient resource utilization” and “development and pursuit of intrinsically positive growth.” The only thing that remained clear was that we were on our own in determining how we planned to “maximize throughput and operational returns.” That much I had observed long before I became the lead investigator in the current effort; I doubt that any such conclusions would be welcome in my ultimate report.
Gradually, using mostly unapproved channels of communication, I have documented that similar practices were standard in all of the other divisions of our company that I was tasked to investigate. Most of my information, of course, did not come from any of the current departmental managers or team leaders. Management at all levels apparently has internalized and/or mimicked the virtues of non-specificity and ambiguity. And it’s obvious that the example set by upper management has effectively trickled downward. This seems to be a reasonable and understandable defensive measure. Everyone knows that it would, after all, be much more difficult for the corporate bean-counters and upper administrators—not to mention appointed investigators—to distribute blame and impose accountability penalties if nobody really knew what outcomes to measure, if nobody had a clear idea of the quarterly starting point or ending point or the intervening expectations, justifications, and procedures. Every department had duly produced a mission statement and standardized quarterly reports, and these were printed in the standardized format in soft-cover binders, and duly filed with copies to the appropriate corporate libraries. The ones that I have read were universally positive, glowing even, employing acceptable circumlocutions to demonstrate above-average departmental efficiency while containing absolutely no wording that indicated what, exactly, was being completed so efficiently. I’ve spoken to more than half of the departmental team leaders, only to find that all of them have mastered one vital competency; the ability to spend at least an hour discussing their team’s successful accomplishments without once providing any clue as to what precisely they had accomplished or had intended to accomplish.
I have asked to see some of the spreadsheets and other computer models that are referenced in various reports and summaries of departmental activities. In most cases this access has been granted, grudgingly and generally only after I have repeatedly stressed the serious difficulties that may be facing the company as a whole, and only after I have been repeatedly cautioned by the creators and users of such files that the files themselves are so large and complex that I would be unlikely to adequately comprehend them. In fact, I’ve found that warning to be true; all are similar to the large, one might even say bloated, computer files that I myself have created and embellished over the past decade. The operational and diagnostic models referenced by the documents in the other departments are so extensive and labyrinthine, and the underlying formulas and algorithms so convoluted and poorly documented, that even those who refer to them and update them on a daily basis often do not seem to be able to provide a coherent explanation of their inner workings. Or perhaps, in line with the general corporate milieu, they choose not to try.
After all, those individuals, like myself, who can produce meaningful explanations of some corporate documents generally have long found that their immediate superiors, the people who make the decisions based on such reports, either cannot comprehend, or will not listen to, or will never bother to ask for, any background clarification. This is to be expected. The underlying computer models are, or were, state of the art and constantly evolving. The analysts who created them are, or were, college-trained specialists in such arcane arts as continuous probability and combinatorics and differential entropy. And generally, with the high employee turnover—I did note that I am a rare example of longevity, didn’t I?—the models generally have outlived their creators by years, if not decades, which means that the current analysts are usually working with a computational core built by a predecessor, or often someone before their immediate predecessor, and are sometimes models based on legacy functions which were obsolete when our current analysts entered college. This is what is described as the industry standard, the system necessary to maintain a competitive edge at the highest level.
Of course, what is listed above are the general impressions I’ve gleaned from hundreds of hours of discussions and explorations of files, interactions which were almost exclusively conducted under promises of individual anonymity. The pinpointing of individual experiences and details may not be important in any case; what is important are the widespread trends or tendencies that don’t appear to be isolated within any one department. We have achieved a level of corporate uniformity of purpose and methodology that is well beyond anything we expected to achieve when I first joined the firm. It may not be the result that we had hoped for, but it certainly seems to be the logical extension of the strategies we have applied. Are they dysfunctional? Time will tell, but my final report will not.