Simulation may simply be the answer to a public-sector difficulty. By David Clark-Murphy
Public sector managers are generally selected for positions on the basis of their knowledge and skills related to a job description. Unfortunately, job descriptions rarely include consideration of the levels of complexity of working environments. In a single department, similarly graded positions with similar job descriptions may be used in selecting managers for work in quite different environments. These environments may differ in their levels of complexity related to organisational structure, rate of change, internal “politicality”, and the range and depth of dealings with the outside world. As a result, individuals may be assigned to work environments to which they are poorly suited.
Because workplaces vary in complexity, an indication of a manager’s capacity to perform in complex working environments may be useful.
Thus, for managers to be effective they must be compatible with the environmental complexity as well as the technical demands of the position.
Part of a solution to the difficulties of selection is an organisational simulation. Simulations can provide complexity levels more closely matching real-world environments. They allow manipulation of organisational complexity and precise assessment of the effect on people’s decision-making performance.
The public sector has a history of being inhabited by managers who are disinclined to be innovative. However, reform requires managers who can generate ideas; the public sector needs to attract recruits with more innovative abilities than were sought in the past. As there is much support in the literature for a relationship between cognitive style and innovative ability, a measure of cognitive style can be used to test the predictability of decision-making performance by individuals in complex environments.
A close correlation between decision-making performance in a simulation and assessments of cognitive styles allows more economically administered tests of cognitive style to be used as a screening device to predict decision-making performance.
There is a curvilinear relationship between cognitive styles and decision-making performance. More cognitively innovative subjects outperform others in environments of higher complexity. Unpredictably, extremely high and low innovators perform well below standard in low-complexity environments. Moderate innovators significantly outperform them both.
Boredom or lack of challenge may explain the low performance by high innovators in low-complexity environments. Similarly, the superior performance recorded by moderate innovators in low-complexity environments suggests that the environmental complexity represented an optimal challenge for moderate innovators.
That high innovators outperformed low innovators in high-complexity environments represents a significant issue related to the increasing complexity of public-sector environments, especially those that deal with the media, the public, political agencies and the private sector. Thus, more highly innovative managers should be employed in such environments.
Although low innovators outperform high innovators in low-complexity environments, moderate innovators outperform them in turn. This implies that managers of a moderate innovative capacity are needed for low-complexity environments.
One conclusion is that there is little place for managers with low innovative capability in the reformed public sector. High and moderate innovators outperformed them in all environments. It may be that the part of the public sector undergoing reform has reached a level of environmental complexity that overwhelms managers with cognitive styles that provide them with low innovative capability.
This situation may in part explain a reported upward trend in stress-related disabilities, reduced performance, and breakdowns in interpersonal and domestic relationships among public-sector managers. The challenge is to modify selection techniques to match better the cognitive style of public-sector managers to the growing complexity of their work places.
How not to
How not to talk to the boss
The chief executive of a now-discredited non-profit organisation was notorious for making false accusations to staff. On one occasion a senior manager was ushered into the chief’s office and told: “I hear you have been calling me baldy.” The manager thought it was a joke. But then he saw one of his colleagues standing behind the boss furiously shaking his head; this was serious.
At this point the manager displayed some virtuosity. It went something like this:
“I have never called you baldy, you old ##$@%)(*. I have called you #$&*&%#, and I have called you #@!!^*&. I have even called you ##@%@. But I have never called you baldy, and I absolutely resent the accusation.”
This was scarcely designed to endear him to the boss. Although he had cleared his name on the claim pertaining to the follicly challenged, the cure was, regrettably, worse than the disease. A week later the manager found himself demoted and poorer to the tune of one company vehicle. He did keep his job but thought it might be a good idea to be more tactful in future.
How not to use robotics
A supermarket chain showed particular brilliance when it decided to bypass the human factor and build a robotised warehouse. The designs were nothing if not innovative. The shelves went all the way to the ceiling, and stock was packed neatly into compartments. The robots were programmed with extraordinary precision, and everything was in readiness for the flawless transportation of goods from warehouse to store.
Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and humanoids went awry as soon as the robots were put in the warehouse. For one thing, they were too tall for the building and had to be reshaped. Sadly, this meant that the arms were then either too long or too short, so the machines developed the habit of dropping the merchandise or picking up the wrong goods.
And, like all machines, they had a propensity to malfunction. All this was sagely anticipated by the engineers, who put in place a button to alert maintenance people to any problems. However, the button was so high that a robot was needed to get to it, and at the crucial time the robots were absent without leave. Even when the repairers did come in, it was impossible to replace stock in the right compartments because there were no ladders or other means of access. The system was designed to bypass the human factor, which it did admirably.
There were other glitches, such as a truck delivery bay that was slightly imperfect in that it was about half a metre short. Many of the goods smashed on the concrete below. Eventually, the robots were sent to training camp for relocation, and the engineers to the Gulag for reprogramming. The management closed the warehouse, blaming the human factor.
How not to manage political compromise
The people skills of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice can safely be described as bipartisan: he has alienated both sides of politics. Ignoring the Third Way of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, Fordice has gone for the opposite of consensus.
Fordice’s tour de force was his final state-of-the-state address. After berating the legislators for being left-wing profligates, he was greeted with a rousing round of hostility as the politicians, completely losing patience with his bombast, registered their feelings with total silence.
The Economist magazine says virtually all of Fordice’s right-wing agenda was defeated by those he offended. Eschewing such fads as worker empowerment and team-play, he showed as much contempt for his fellow Republicans as he did for Democrats. But he reserved his best for sensitive issues such as race. In a dispute over state funding for black colleges, he threatened to call out the National Guard (23% of the Mississippi population is black).
Fordice’s number one fan is a black labrador called Lance, which accompanies him to work. So enchanted was one legislator with Fordice’s persuasive style, he introduced a resolution to ban dogs in the state capitol. Lance refuses to comment.
How not to analyse humans
One of the central tenets of economic theory is “perfect rationality”, the idea that people make choices that are rationally designed to maximise returns (or utility). A visit to the football should be enough to convince anyone that rational human behavior is something of a fiction; but financial observers tend to be a little slow on the uptake. They need empirical evidence. Slowly, this is forthcoming. A study that compared inflation rates and unemployment had a distinctly different result, depending on how the questions were couched. If the emphasis was on 5% or 10% unemployment, this was considered cause to worry; if it was a matter of 90% or 95% employed, it was less of a reason for concern. The same behavior is evidenced with gambling: it is not how much you win, but how much you have in your pocket. Author Peter Bernstein, in Against The Gods, says: “It is not how rich you are that motivates your decision, but whether that decision will make you richer or poorer.” The economics community remains unconvinced. Further research into human rationality is expected.