Who was going to stop Roger Ailes?

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive O...

Rupert Murdoch, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, News Corporation, USA and Co-Chair, Annual Meeting 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In any organisation, the question is never “how did sexual harassment occur”, it is “who is going to stop it?” The organisation will not stop it unless someone stops him. The organisation as organisation will simply continue to function as necessary to deliver profits and serve its customers. The organisation, like any tool, will only do as it is told. As an organisation lacks agency, sexual harassment and bullying can become part of the culture since it is the organisation’s agents which act. The company will have policies, procedures, guidance, and training yet none of this will matter if individuals will not act on them. As we now know, Roger Ailes settled sexual harassment lawsuits without changing his behaviour. He was in a position where he could not be challenged on his behaviour for no junior employee could challenge him and no one senior to him cared to stop him. The company did not require him to change his behaviour, it did not discipline or dismiss him. The company saw the lawsuits as the cost of doing business and as we know, Roger Ailes was making the company a lot of money.

The organisation protects the powerful for it reflects their interests.

Senior executives, like celebrities, have an institutional armour as their status protects them. In most, but not all, sexual harassment cases, it is a senior employee harassing a junior employee. The sexual harassment reflects a disparity in organisational power. When a senior officer harasses a junior officer for sexual favours or treats them with disrespect, it is bullying by other means. The institutionally stronger employee, demands, and sometimes receives, favours from the organizationally weaker employee. The strong rule the weak in such a relationship. At Fox News, like most companies has policies, procedures, and training create a procedural equality. These documents create the appearance of a culture that complies with the law against sexual harassment. In this case, though, the organisation failed in its duty. Any equality was a sham, the company aided and abetted a senior officer’s abusive behaviour. Moreover, the company has only removed Ailes, it has not changed its culture.

Women, Fox News only cared who made more money.

The culture is set by the top and at the top we find Rupert Murdoch. He could have stopped Ailes sooner, but he didn’t. Those that he appointed to replace Ailes could have stopped him, but they didn’t. Why should they when Ailes was making so much money for them? Ailes was not liked because of who he was, his intrinsic worth, but because of what he delivered for the company. As long as he was useful to Fox News and Rupert Murdoch he would be tolerated and protected. Such a relationship tells us about the corporate culture, “it is how we do things around here”, since it shows the staff what is important and what will be tolerated. If you make the company money, or you are a senior officer, you can transgress the policies and procedures that others have to follow. For the women of Fox News, the message is that the culture disrespects them. Murdoch only acted against Ailes when it suited him, not when it when it mattered to the women.

In Murdoch’s organisations money and loyalty appear to be are all that matter. The policies and social responsibility statements provide the appearance of procedural equality. Yet, as long as Ailes was making money, Murdoch and the company had no interested in his behaviour. More to the point, who was going to complain to Murdoch about Ailes? Would Murdoch listen to such complaints if an employee had the temerity to approach him? Would he pass this off to HR who would then in turn do what they did previously – nothing. The brutal message to any female employee is clear. Money matters more than principles and as long as we make money you can and will be harassed and bullied.

The fish rots from the head down

We know that organisations go toxic when their leadership are toxic. An organisation will take its cues from its leadership. Staff are encouraged to conform to the organisational culture which creates an organisational silence in such matters. Ailes set the corporate culture and employees followed or looked the other way. Even now Murdoch and the other senior managers want to avoid their moral responsibility for what Ailes has done. They and the senior managers point to Ailes’ secrecy and independence to explain how he was able to get away with it. Others have pointed to a culture of fear where Ailes did not entertain questions and people did not ask them. Even if these claims are true it does not avoid their moral responsibility. If anything, it makes the situation worse. A leader can only create a culture of fear or secrecy if others, both above him and below him, enable that behaviour. The board and senior managers, those paid to push back and challenge, did not hold him to account. Murdoch was either complicit in the behaviour or, once again, asleep and in the dark. One wonders if he knows if anything is going wrong in his companies. The other senior officers carried out his orders, *even though* they know it created a culture of harassment which was ethically and morally wrong. At no point did senior managers push back or seek to restrain him. It is these same managers that Murdoch has promoted to replace Ailes. As long as Ailes delivered the results they wanted, they turned their face. They chose wilful ignorance. Fox News has an ethical structure where this behaviour was accepted and endorsed.

Murdoch companies suffer ethical lapse that reflect his ethical blindness.

Ailes behaviour is not out of the ordinary in Murdoch media companies. We know from other Murdoch organisations that such abuse and bullying was tolerated. At the now defunct News of the World (NOTW), the then editor Andy Coulson was described as a bully by an employment tribunal.[1] He was not disciplined or dismissed even though the paper had to pay out almost 1.5 million dollars for a tribunal claim. The tribunal’s finding of fact was that he engaged in bullying. The tribunal also found the management team contributed to and aided the bullying of an employee suffering mental health issues.[2] None of the managers defended the employee from his bullying. They failed in their ethical and moral duties. They surrender their ethical responsibility. Not a single manager showed the moral courage to push back and resist the bullying.

Murdoch companies and employees show a disturbing pattern.

The NOTW’s corporate culture was toxic. We know that bullying was rife within the organisation, which was ignored because the editor and the paper were making money. We know the editor and the corporate legal affairs manager put people under surveillance.[3] The legal manager admitted that he had ordered surveillance of opposing lawyers. The editors often attacked critics and those people who displeased either Murdoch or one of his friends. The UK’s Leveson Inquiry revealed that the tabloid culture was toxic. Tabloids, in particular the Murdoch press, would “monster” someone.[4] Monstering is where a paper publishes a series of articles attacking a person, their character, job, or family. They are targeted because the paper, the editor, or the proprietor want to harm them. They are chosen either to send a political message or because they are a critics or enemy. It is a method to control the public domain for it demonstrate the paper’s political power. The method also deters those who might think of crossing the paper and its chosen allies.

Ailes ran his company in nearly the same way The News of the World was run.

Roger Ailes is alleged to have run Fox News with a similar approach. Ailes had political operatives and private detectives to attack his critics.[5] He used the company to further his interests. His interests were the company’s interests. Ailes appears to have behaved at Fox News just as NOTW behaved. From what has been reported, Ailes and the News of the World, enjoyed being a bully and punishing those they did not like.[6] The institutional and organisational bullying is accepted behaviour. The employees accept and promote it by their tacit or open support for the organisation and its culture. The employees are the culture by their ability to enable through a failure to act. If anything, the Ailes case demonstrates the moral cowardice that exists within Fox News and its employees. A fish rots from the head down and the inside out.

Was Ailes pushed by internal politics than a desire to do the right thing?

In any organisation, there has to be a way to stop such behaviour. Some rely on whistle blowers. Other companies have a clear zero tolerance policy. Many have mandatory training and awareness programmes. These programmes are enforced with regular monitoring to protect staff from predatory behaviour. Fox News dealt with it by an internal investigation. The investigation was to deal with a potential lawsuit. Even though the company, in its reputation management mode, was quick to point out that it investigates all sexual harassment claims, they have not explained how Ailes was able to settle sexual harassment lawsuits without oversight. Moreover, they have not explained why he was not disciplined or dismissed. Instead Ailes was able to resign, with a large payment, without a public apology or admission. Despite the seriousness of the accusation, it is likely his departure has more to do with the internal politics, as Murdoch and sons found an opportunity to remove him, than from an organisational desire to do the right thing.[7] What is clear is the culture has not changed. The senior managers who were complicit in such behaviour remain at the organisation. So, what was the point of the change?

To stop Ailes and his culture requires moral courage.

Despite the special characteristics that make this a Fox News scandal, the fundamental issue is the same for all organisations. “Who will stop such behaviour when it comes from the top?” Is there anyone in Fox News or any organisation with the necessary moral courage to confront such behaviour and change it? From what we have seen for the past 30 years at Fox News, the answer is no. At other companies, the answer is different. At Fox News one has to ask, “How do the employees live with the knowledge they work in, enable, and represent such a culture?”

[1] Andy Coulson, was named in a tribunal case in which the News of the World had to pay out nearly £800000.  “[A] tribunal ordered the News of the World to pay Driscoll, 41, £792,736 in compensation for being the victim of “a consistent pattern of bullying behaviour” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/the-reporter-who-took-on-the-news-of-the-world-and-won-1830378.html   see also http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/mar/13/andy-coulson-bullying-boss-news-world-clive-goodman  If readers are interested, Mr. Coulson denies he is a bully. He claimed the Tribunal was unfair in its judgement. His witness statement can be read here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Witness-Statement-of-Andy-Coulson.pdf  The Tribunal judgement can be read here: http://www.levesoninquiry.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Exhibit-1-to-M-Driscoll.pdf   The salient paragraphs are paragraphs 106 and 116 and 130 and 141

[2] For an insight into the News of the World culture, the Tribunal provides reference to the way the company responded to the claimant’s mental illness.  On this issue see paragraphs 198.1-198.4. Suffice to say the Tribunal did not find they were either sympathetic or understanding. In particular, even after the claimant’s claims were proven true which was the basis for the second disciplinary warning, they refused to accept it. (198.2)

 

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/02/news-of-the-world-legal-chief-ordered-surveillance-on-rival-lawyers

[4] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/media/murdochs-scandal/what-its-like-to-get-monstered-by-a-murdoch-tabloid/

[5] http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/08/ailes-used-fox-budget-to-finance-campaigns-against-enemies.html

[6]  http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/media/2012/03/5557167/monstering-when-murdoch-tabloid-publishes-pictures-you-your-underwear-

[7] http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/how-roger-ailes-built-the-fox-news-fear-factory-20110525

Posted in bureaucracy, change managment, compliance, coruption, culture, leadership, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

If the future of work is automation, what is the future of management?

English: Jim Tracy, the manager of the Colorad...

English: Jim Tracy, the manager of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have been wrestling with this question for a few months. I have been interested in the way automation is changing work and what it means for the future of work. Some of my essays over the past years have looked at the manager and their role. What seems to return is the need for managers as someone to translate the vision from the top to work packages for the staff who deliver the work. The manager also resolves the issues from the from the staff so that the top of the organisation can understand whether its vision is working as intended and what changes if any need to be made.

On the surface, that seems a sound approach where managers will always be needed. They are the “jam in the sandwich”. Will automation make their fate a sticky one? Will the demand for automation redefine what a manager does and what it means to manage? In many ways, I foresee a time when the manager becomes more of a supervisor or coach instead of managing since the decisions they might have made are taken out of the work process by automation and algorithms. I would not suggest that automation and algorithms replace managers, although it will replace those workers who have been labelled managers when their work is really open for automation.

How does automation augment managers?

Instead, I want to look at how automation augments the manager and management. The questions arose after I read this blog post[1] based on this paper.[2] For paper, the author (a PhD student) was embedded in a large grocery distribution centre. In the centre, computers directed employees in their work.

The author wanted to study the following question.

As computers become better at “thinking,” or using algorithms to make decisions — a phenomena which, once networked with systems of memory, is not all that different from human cognition — more and more types of work have the potential to become “computer controlled.” What can that mean for the human beings controlled by computers?

The company used performance data to create incentives. The incentives, like a game, would mask the work’s repetitive, isolating, and physically taxing nature. The worker had to exceed the expected, not minimum, standard to get the reward. The rewards led to a performance league table where staff were ranked on their “running ability”. This was their ability to fulfil orders and exceed the performance targets. The incentives and league table gave the work meaning. In creating incentives and the performance table, management created a virtual social space. In the virtual space, work gained meaning aided by the incentives.[3]

The social meaning workers crave is also what managers need

The essay and paper have insights that can be applied to managers. The case study focused on a large warehouse where there are repetitive tasks, yet, the same logic can apply managers. The need to create incentives and meaning is found at all levels of an organisation. What is different, though, is the way that the work is directed by computers. Even though the digital effects are not new since we have had computer aided design and manufacturing for decades.[4] What is new, though, is how the digital revolution, as exemplified by the paper, will influence managers. Managers will have to adapt to algorithms that advise or direct their work. Moreover, their work will be increasingly modified so that it can be replaced or augmented to fit the digital framework.[5] Manager, in effect, will have to react to computer control in digital arenas that are created for them.

Is the future of management to design work to keep workers engaged?

The future is not a simulated work experience. Work will be more than a virtual computer directed exercise.[6] Instead, what was traditionally understood as management will be reshaped to fit digital control. The computer enhanced manager is what will deliver economies of scales and competitive advantage. However, this is not simply a knowledge worker. What we will see are managers who find their decisions supplemented by algorithms. At the same time, some work will be replaced such as those that are amenable to routine optimisation.[7] Even if we want to reclassify managers, and others, as knowledge that only begs the question. We need to consider two levels to this issue.

Can managers be reduced to an algorithm’s decision tree?

At the first level, the question is how far can work or management be reduced to an algorithmic function. To the extent that it can be reduced, managers may become more of supervisors as fewer problems need to be solved. What exists are problems like office conflict that cannot be solved by an algorithm. If supervisors solve issues like what is this week’s rota and managers solve problems, what is the work priority for highest effectiveness, then computer aided work requires less managers.[8] The term manager will be hollowed out as a descriptive title. As work becomes computer directed, then a manager will be the one who understands, creates, and manage the virtual social spaces that provide meaning for the employees. The follow up question, though, is “Who will provide meaning for the managers?”[9] The problem is not one of infinite regression. The challenge is to find the point at which management re-emerges. Where does the relative autonomy of a knowledge worker begin in a computer aided organisation?

Who will create engagement and meaning for managers?

A manager is not defined by the skills that computers can replace. The goal is to find an advantage from faster decision loops.[10] With the rise of sensors and the Internet of Things, a manager will face increased real time data and ubiquitous performance monitoring and reporting.[11] However, that is not the role of a manager simply for that can be done through a heuristic system. The question is whether a manager is needed. Other commentators have suggested that managers will retain a comparative advantage. The manager, so the argument goes, will provide a unique role in the following areas.

  • Asking questions,
  • Considering exceptions
  • Accepting ambiguity
  • Soft skills.

These areas show that managers provide a personalized service. They are face of the organisation or process, where nuance, emotional intelligence, and personality are prized. The manager translates the organisation’s vision into practice. In a sense, managers will become more human and less robotic as machines and algorithms take care of the pure decisions where algorithm or machine learning is superior. The manager will give the staff the social context, the virtual social space that gives the work meaning and incentives.[12] All of this is true and remains a constant. What is missing is who provides the engagement and social context for managers?

The computer enhanced manager will find they create their own meaning.

When we consider this question, we move to the second level at which the computer enhanced manager will emerge. We can understand that a computer cannot explain a vision. Even though a computer can guide workers to be more efficient, it cannot explain a vision. In this role, the computer enhanced manager will create their own meaning. They are not exempt from the need for someone to create their social context, instead it is that they will be in a position to shape their narrative or their work’s meaning. Even if one argues that managers will not face the repetitive tasks, automation will change what they have to do and how they do it. However, the change is less a difference of degree, manage with a digital accent, than of kind, what managers do will be different. The managers of the past will be more coaches so that fewer managers exist with more employees either supervisors or coaches who work with employees to develop their skills, techniques and productivity. The difference in degree is that the organisation is changing and that change is what will help us understand the future of the manager.[13] As Drucker explained, a manager is understood by being effective within an organisation is getting the right things done. The manager will be required to identify the right things to be done for the staff. Even though repetitive tasks are already identified as the right tasks, it will be the manager who identifies the task to be made repetitive and why. The difference is that the computer aided worker is more efficient. The question is whether the computer aided manager is more effective?

As I mentioned above, the organisation is changing. The change is how Knowledge Management (KM) and Organisational Learning (OL) interact with automaton. If KM and OL are what help the organisation to be more effective by making the manager more effective, then we need to know whether automation can improve KM and OL. Automated KM and OL could create the computer enhanced manager. The difference is that automation, understood as computer aided workers, is what makes a worker more efficient, can it make a manager more effective by automating KM and OL? As George Grant argued eloquently, the computer does not impose on its user the way it works, which leads us to ask whether the way the user applies the computer to work affects the work.

What will automation do for knowledge management and organisational learning?

The computer enhanced manager will rely on KM and OL systems to be effective. The computer will help them find information, explore alternatives, and test possible hypothesis about what is to be done and how best to act. In this role, the manager will find automation makes it easier to share and find knowledge across networks within and outside the organisation. In that way, automation will change the way the manager works. Imagine a manager who could extract information, data, and knowledge from the organisation as quickly and readily as they can through various search engines. We may find that we are moving in beyond the information-organisation. We appear on the cusp of a knowledge organisation where algorithmic learning systems will create the automated or knowledge organisation.

All business philosophies reflect a political philosophy, what does automation reflect?

The challenge is less about what will happen to the frontline worker, as those effects are already upon us, and only a little more about the manager’s future which is what is being revealed. Instead, what has to been addressed is the future of the organisation. It is this change, this disruption, that will define the future of work. At one extreme, the individual will become their own organisation, their own company, enhanced by the various OL and KM systems that make them productive. At the other extreme, the organisation is simply a platform that workers interact with as and when their skills or insights are needed by the individual and the organisation.

The question is how managers and management will navigate these extremes. Can a path be found between them?

[1] http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/businessreview/2016/04/27/how-workers-interact-with-computers-in-an-automated-workspace/?utm_content=buffer55dab&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] http://wes.sagepub.com/content/30/1/135.abstract

[3] What gives work meaning and what gives life meaning in the age of automation will be the defining question for its success. See in particular the conclusion to this article. http://news.mit.edu/2016/event-automation-steal-identity-0408

[4] Consider this article in 1962 that explored the issue. Automation and the Management Process by Thomas L. Whisler and George P. Shultz The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 340, Automation (Mar., 1962), pp. 81-89

Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. in association with the American Academy of Political and Social Science

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1033702 http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1033702.pdf?_=1469888731004

[5] https://hbr.org/2015/04/heres-how-managers-can-be-replaced-by-software In this article the authors describe a software programme called iCEO that automates complex work by subdividing into smaller tasks. Even though the article conflates management with project management, the insights are useful. The question then becomes what work cannot be reduced to this level? If some cannot, what is it that makes them immune? The deeper question is whether technology has forced us to think technologically by looking at the world through a lens where everything is broken down into tasks that can be managed by a computer.

[6] Some commentators have suggested that the future of work will be about avoiding boredom. If the work is rendered into repetitive tasks working along pre-set pathways without variation or creativity, then yes it will be boring. See Sloan http://mitsloan.mit.edu/newsroom/articles/in-uncharted-automated-future-will-we-have-jobs-and-will-they-be-boring/  http://news.mit.edu/2016/event-automation-steal-identity-0408 and

[7] http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/automation-jobs-and-the-future-of-work misses the point and does not consider how managers will be affected.

[8] http://smallbusiness.chron.com/difference-between-managerial-supervisory-experience-36823.html

[9] http://searchcio.techtarget.com/video/One-danger-of-automated-systems-Employees-get-bored Although this article focuses on the frontline worker, it also applies to managers. Unless we assume that a manager’s tasks are non-routine and ones with intrinsic meaning.

[10] http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/leadership/manager-and-machine

[11] http://www.information-age.com/technology/information-management/123459665/3-trends-will-impact-information-management-systems See also the issue of big data swamping management with increased amounts of performance data. http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/if-you-think-big-datas-challenges-are-tough-now/?utm_content=bufferdc5c0&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[12] http://www.forbes.com/sites/work-in-progress/2012/05/01/know-when-to-manage-and-when-to-coach/#4f1bb7387d04

[13] http://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/technology-and-the-end-of-management/ Lynda Gratton indicates the way management is changing because managers have to work differently. They have to adapt to the new ways of working. Even though her focus is the manager, the unstated issue is that the organisation has changed in response.

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Answering Drucker’s Questions for an information Organisation

When organisations want to buy an Electronic Document and Records Management System (EDRMS), they often believe it will solve their records management problems. They find they have lots of paper. They have lots of electronic documents. They have shared drives that are full and disorganised. The EDRMS is often touted as the magic bullet, it will solve these problems. However, if we read Peter Drucker, they are solving the wrong problems because they have not asked the right questions.

Peter Drucker suggested some questions in his seminal article The Coming of the New Organisation. (https://hbr.org/1988/01/the-coming-of-the-new-organization) The new organisation would be based on information. He wrote this in 1988 before the web, digital platforms, or social media, yet had an insight into how organisations worked. More to the point, he understood how computers would influence those organisations.

First, it would allow what people did manually to do it faster.

Second, the data processing would change the structure of an organisation. This was a major insight since it signalled the radical changes in organisations that we are now experiencing.

Third, work will be done differently with sequencing of work being replaced by synchrony of work.

The second point is what I want to consider as it relates to the EDRMS decision. Usually an EDRMS comes with a desire to have “New Ways of Working” (™ © ® etc. etc. ad nauseam (no one ever introduces old ways of working.🙂 ). The NeWoW reveals, or threatens to reveal, that, as Drucker noted; many layers of management only exist to relay information across the organisation. They serve as signal boosters to pass faint signals from the top to the bottom or farthest reaches and from the farthest reaches to the top of the organisation. However, to make the NeWoW, a success, at least in terms of the EDRMS, the organisation has to know how it works. Here is where most change programmes fail since people rarely ask the questions posed. Or at least, it does not appear these questions are asked. Usually, consultants will come and discuss Business Process Re-engineering. This is useful, except it only address the first point. It helps the organisation do what it does manually, faster with the new digital system.

What I am not aware of, but perhaps a reader is, of an organisation that has asked itself Drucker’s questions.

  1. What information do senior managers need to do their jobs? (We assume we know that, but we have never asked it or analysed the results)
  2. Where does this information come from? (Here we start to see the myriad of flows, relays, and dead ends that emerge.)
  3. What form is it in? (Is it an email, verbal (formal or informal meetings), written report? Is it anecdotes, polished analysis, a written report?)
  4. How did it flow? (What flows upwards? What flows horizontally? At what level? What flows downward? How do managers get information and from whom? Is it a formal flow or an informal one?)
  5. How much of that data is for control and how much is for information? (I would say 80/20 very little information is circulated for information that staff can use, it is mainly delivered for control)

As Drucker says, information is data endowed with relevance and purpose. However, to convert data into information requires knowledge. Yet, knowledge is specialized. Here the command and control system emerges in its fullest culture especially if the belief that information is power and so must not be shared.

When I first started working in UK local government 15 years ago, I was told an important secret.

“You only tell your direct reports 50% of what they need to know to do their jobs. Otherwise, they will take your job!”

The questions are likely to reveal that the people who convert data to information are senior managers and a few middle managers. The rest are passing information around as relays or collecting the data.

I would be interested to know if anyone has asked Drucker’s 5 questions to see whether you work for a command and control organisation or an information organisation. The answers may reveal the gap between the appearance and the reality.

I would be interested in your views on the questions and the answers.

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized, path dependency, change managment, records management, bureaucracy | 1 Comment

Two Continents, Two Information Governance Conferences, One Conclusion

An excellent overview of transformation in records management and information management. If you are not thinking on these lines you are missing what is coming.

PHIGs IMC Inc.

IRMS2016 Innovation Keynote 08Over the last few weeks I attended the AIIM Conference (the theme was Digital Transformation in Action) in New Orleans, Louisiana, USA and the IRMS Conference (the theme was Information Superheroes) in Brighton, UK. It was my third time at AIIM, at which I did one of the roundtables, and it was my first time at IRMS, at which I did the opening keynote (a genuine honour to have been selected). Both the AIIM roundtable and the IRMS keynote (slides available here) were innovation themed. This post is not going to be so much a recap of the conferences as much as it will be my take on how innovation, disruption, and transformation fit into the whole Information Governance / Management (IG/M) space, and how AIIM and IRMS and their members (individuals, sponsors, vendors) may be affected.

Since my session at both conferences was about innovation, that’s the filter…

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Threat to openness: managing access to public archives

Portrait of Henri Bergson by J.E. Blanche 1891...

Portrait of Henri Bergson by J.E. Blanche 1891 to illustrate Henri Bergson article. Uploaded from http://www.marcelproust.it/gallery/bergson.htm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In November 2015, I attended the Threats to Openness conference held at Northumbria University. The conference had a specific aim “discuss the growing threats to citizens’ rights to access public archives across the digital world.” Although we did not discuss what was meant by openness, it was understood mainly to be defined by the right of access or the right to access public archives. However, this provides only a limited sense of how openness was used during the conference. Participants and speakers regularly referred to difference between access and openness noting that they were often confused. One does not always imply the other. As openness can be understood differently, the threats to it will vary with responses that can potentially conflict with efforts to help with access. What was missing was a detailed discussion of the relationship between access to archives, openness and the nature of the society. A society may be relatively closed yet allow access to its archives and one might have an open archive with few records. The implicit theme was that informational openness presupposes an open society. Yet, without understanding how archives relate to an open society, we could not fully understand threats to openness as a threat to access or how threats to access to archives are a threat to openness. To do this, we need to explore what is meant by openness. To do this, I sketch some ideas about the open society.

The following remarks are based on what I heard at the conference. We need to understand the open society to understand openness and from there to understand the threats to it.

Part 1 What is openness? Some thoughts.

First, openness is usually associated with the idea of an open society– “a society characterized by a flexible structure, freedom of belief, and wide dissemination of information.”[1] The open society presupposes a regime based on openness. What constraints this view, though, is that openness and transparency are not the same. A government may want the public to believe that its transparency indicates openness. That a government will publish a large and varied amount of data and information is a sign transparency. The access to that information and its willingness to provide information as requested indicates openness. Transparency does not mean that there is greater access to information or greater openness by the government.

We can look beyond this view of openness to explore how it connects to the political system. Karl Popper popularized the idea of the open society. He argued that an open society was one in which the government is responsive and tolerant with political mechanisms that are transparent and flexible. For Popper, the open society exists in contradistinction to the “closed” society. The closed society is based on traditional or tribal systems that are intolerant of challenges to its authority. One way to limit challenges to authority is to limit the information that is available. However, Popper’s views are a crude version of what Henri Bergson proposed in his work The Two Sources of Morality and Religion where he developed the idea of an open society. Bergson proposed that the Open Society was an idea that was temporal, as it has yet to be realized, and global in that it would include everyone so that we are all living in a potential open society. In other words, it is an ideal that is present in a nascent form still to be realized. By contrast, the closed society was one that the excluded some individuals even as included others so they were closed to part of humanity. The truly open society would be one that is global in scope.

When we consider openness at this global level we start to see how various threats to openness might emerge. We can see, especially through Bergson’s work that the UK society[2] is closed in many respect. As a monarchy, the archives as litmus test for that openness as they raise the question of arcana imperii, the secret information a regime uses to rule. Like all societies, the UK will have legitimate reasons to limit access to keep information secret or private. They indicate the border within which threats to openness emerge for it is the point at which society, or the rulers, have agreed that openness cannot pass. Even as there are attempts to encourage open information in a general sense, all societies will limit access to information and specifically the archives. Thus, we may have to accept that openness, in terms of information, only means; a specific domain, specific information, or a general idea. Even if it is an extensive domain such as the “public domain”, it may not cover all of society. In other words, the limits on information may indicate the extent to which it is a closed society.

A further question is whether those closed off areas are a threat to openness simply by being closed and thus inaccessible. Such a question, though, presupposes that we know who cannot access the information. If a government minister can access the information, is it closed? If junior civil servants have access, is it closed? Do we have to accept as our standard that if the public cannot get access, then it is considered closed? However, that assumes that the public are the standard by which we measure access and openness. If the public do not rule, as they do not in the UK or in other countries, why do we assume that access is to be measured by what the public can access? Moreover, is a public record what the government decides as people may donate or bequeath papers, documents, and records to record office. Does closed mean that they are inaccessible to the public gaze, neither we nor our representatives can see it (such as state secrets) or that they are not readily accessible, that is they are exempt from disclosure even though they are covered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)? Or are they do not even constitute a public record, such as Royal Archives or private archives so are completely outside the “public” gaze?

In an extreme case, as mentioned earlier the archives can be an extension of, or even coterminous with, the arcana imperii[3]. As the rulers rely on this information to rule, openness threatens their rule or their legitimacy. However, the arcana imperii is not limited to imperial governments or government simply. It is applicable to any intellectual discipline where information provides power or status.[4] Where discoveries can provide competitive advantages for the organisation that has sponsored the research, openness can be a threat as the material is what provides the knowledge which creates an advantage.[5]

By their nature archives are closed off in that they are bounded space for a specific purpose to protect or preserve records even as they make them available for future generations. In this regard, some records are closed by statute and others by request. Within that process, a further threat to openness can be found in the system for cataloguing the records. The catalogue can become a barrier to access as the public have to know the “language” to access the material as well as understand the process to access. However, these are structural barriers, which while problematic do not threaten openness generally even though they may be a particular challenge. The structural barriers can be overcome by the archivists or the user. By contrast, a statute or a legal barrier, imposed externally, cannot be overcome by the user or the archivist without penalty. In this, the structural constraints are not designed to reduce openness or access; they are designed to control it. But what are the other threats? We need to consider these at three levels.

Archival

The archival level is where threats to funding become a threat to limit access to archives or a powerful patron seeks to limit access. At this level, there are threats to an organisation hosting the archives where it may close the archives. Other threats might be the technical limits where records, stored as data, become inaccessible and therefore closed. Further, the technical limits can also limit access so that even if the archives are digitized, their access can be controlled more easily and more extensively even to the point of excluding the archivist. By contrast, physical documents, which while closed to the public still exist in a tangible place accessible to the archivist. To put it directly, you cannot encrypt paper.

Societal

At a societal level, threats can occur when people no longer value or understand archives. The archive’s role in society may be misunderstood or overlooked. As a result, the lack of interest or understanding can generate threats to funding or access as society allows the archives to be closed. Moreover, the government may wish to close the archives as a way to ensure their arcana imperii remains protected to maintain their dominance within the political system.

Global

The global level the threats can develop from an international or global resistance to openness. We can see this develop because of cultural reasons or for security reasons. In particular, in the West the fear how information will be used means that it is closed to those who might “abuse it”.[6] We note that scientists close their research to tobacco firms and scientists will sometimes close their research to rivals. Alternatively, the government or research sponsor may classify information to limit access. In some cases, the fear may lead to archives being closed to foreigners or to the public. Yet, these only relate to the archives themselves. We need to consider the other part of the issue the citizen’s right of access.

Part 2

threats to citizens’ rights to access public records

We can read the sentence narrowly to consider possible threats to a citizen’s rights. The focus is mainly, but not exclusively, on political threats where governments want to limit, or community, want to limit rights of access or society no longer supports or is informed enough to challenge the government’s proposal on access. Further, the threat may come from the society being unaware of or unconcerned with the government’s failure to ensure citizens’ rights of access. However, these were not the main concern as the focus was on the political and technical threats to access.

Are there political reasons why access is to be limited?

There may be political reasons for closing or limiting access as a regime is not required to have archives or to allow access even if it has archives. The question here is whether there is a right to access in itself or is access part of the nature of being a citizen especially in an open society? In the former, it is that if you have archives there is a right of access. Thus, if no archives exist you cannot have a right of access and even if there is an archive a right of access is not to be inferred. In the latter, it is that as a citizen, especially in an open society, you are expected to have right of access even if archives don’t exist. In that sense, an open society infers that archives will exist and are accessible. The premise is that free access to information is the basis for an open society, which extends to archives. Yet this brings us to the challenge mentioned earlier that the government may wish to make information open or accessible on its terms and not in response to what the public request. In other words, the government wants to be transparent but not open in the sense that it can be forced to given an account by providing access. The issue of “push” (government transparency) versus “pull” (citizen’s right of access) for the citizen rests on the understanding of whether accessible information is the same as open information. Further, information that is accessible may not be open as only a few people may have access it. The approval process can limit access beyond who can physically attend the location to access the information. When we discuss this issue, we are working from the assumption that the information is in an accessible format when someone exercises their right to access it.

 

As mentioned earlier under the archival threat to openness, a powerful patron or a politically powerful person may seek to limit what the archives contain. They may wish to hollow out the archives to avoid being accountable to history or anyone else. They will ensure documents are well vetted before they get to the archives, if they get to the archives. Once at the archives, they may put the archivists under pressure to accept limits on access. Alternatively, the powerful patron or political figure may encourage individual departments or agencies to limit their access to information or cleanse their records before it arrives at the archives. Although the conference did not explore this idea, the right of access can be threatened by political activity in which records “disappear” and people find that the historical record is sanitized so as to avoid embarrassment at a minimum or hide outright criminality at a maximum.

The deeper threat is that archivists become co-opted by the political process. The archives have to survive in a political system so they will accept such behaviour to protect the archives. The implicit fear is that if they insist too strongly on robust archival retention, their political masters will limit what they receive or limit their funding to operate. As it is their political masters, the government, an archivist has no higher authority to which they can appeal assuming they can make the higher authority see a concern with the issue. Would a national archivist in the UK really be able to face down a Minister who chose to limit what they would provide the National Archives? They may never face an obvious crisis like the Nordlinger Affair which is crude attempt to exert direct political control.[7] Instead, they will have the indirect request to allow greater oversight of the disclosure process or the request to improve the vetting process. All of this will appear to the archivist as a positive step even as it is attempt to encourage even greater political control over the archives by limiting what may be accessible in the future that might hold the government or the politically powerful person to account.

Does technology create a limit to a citizen’s right of access?

We have to consider whether the digital domain changes the nature of the right to access. There is a danger we can believe a right has been expanded through the appearance of openness created through greater access promised by the digital domain. According to this logic, a document can be accessed from anywhere in the world through the web, which makes access global. Yet, that same access can be limited more easily either through controlling the digital access or by keeping the records out of the digital domain. As the closure is less noticeable in that suspending digital access is not as prominent as physically closing a building, it becomes problematic to assume that digital intrinsically creates more openness. Moreover, one can target the closure to people from specific addresses or from certain domains where various login pages can limit access and access can be further limited to what can be searched electronically. By comparison coming into the archives one can have physical access to different documents and is only limited by what the available index allows. Further one has to explain the refusal in person when the digital domain does not require such a personal transaction, which can be open to negotiation or influence. A related problem is that the digital access may not work. In this case, the material that is held digitally is in a format that cannot be accessed. Here the problem is future compatibility. An electronic record from 1990 on a legacy system may not be accessible on a 2015 system. Thus, the technology may constrain the right of access. The technological obsolescence may limit or remove the right of access. Even though someone physically accesses the record, they cannot access the information that it contains.

What if openness is a threat? Can that explain why there are threats to access?

Another way to look at the threat to citizens’ rights of access is to consider how openness is considered a threat. By reversing the question, we can explore why individuals, organisations, societies, and governments would want to limit that openness.

The first point to note is that governments, societies, and individuals have legitimate reasons for keeping things inaccessible to the public or to citizens. Usually, these are state secrets or private information so they will not want to encourage access to these types of records. However, we have to be careful not to confuse the desire to preserve state secrets or personal information with a resistance to openness. The United States and the United Kingdom are open with a large amount of their data, information, and records. Even as they seek to preserve secrets, they also work to ensure openness, which is often manipulated so that critics will say that resistance to disclosing state secrets is considered a threat to openness. The problem is that one is a passive resistance, no access to state secrets, the other is active resistance your right to access is limited. In the UK, for example, the right of access to national security documents still exists as the FOIA can be used, yet it is limited by an absolute exemption.

The second point to note is that openness can be considered a threat to the extent that it would undermine legitimacy of the state, society, or the individual.[8] The openness here is considered corrosive of what provides legitimacy. If someone’s birth records show them to be illegitimate and thus not entitled to what they have claimed, they will want to resist openness. A government may do this when it fears that disclosure will undermine its ability to operate effectively. We can see this most clearly in the FOIA exemption under s.36 (harm to the effective public policy) the right of access is not in question, yet, but what is in used is that disclosure would hinder the government’s ability to operate. It would be tainted by publicity so the information takes on the veneer of arcana imperii

Finally, we have to consider that openness is a threat to those who rely on hidden information, the arcana imperii, that allow them to have an advantage. Here the issue is not so much that knowledge is power it is that limiting access to knowledge is what creates power. One can see this indirectly in the way that websites can limit access, which give them an advantage, which also limits rivals to their position. At a larger level we can see this in the way that certain regimes rely more on arcana imperii as they are not founded on principles that would benefit from openness. The idea here is that openness implies an equality, an equality of access in that it is a right, and therefore challenges the intrinsic inequality of the arcana imperii. Although all these points are made tentatively, since they were not addressed at the conference, they do suggest a possible area to investigate especially if we connect openness and threats to openness to the idea of the public domain whereby we assume that the public domain is open.

[1] http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/open-society

[2] All societies are closed to some extent which means that Bergson’s ideal is aspirational or theoretical except in the potential of a world state of enlightened citizens.

[3] ARCANUS IN TACITUS Author(s): Herbert W. Benario Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, Neue Folge, 106. Bd., 4. H. (1963), pp. 356-362 J.D. Sauerländers Verlag Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41244204 Accessed: 06-04-2015 23:51 UTC

In its other sense, arcanus indicates that which, regardless of chance, must be kept from knowledge, things tacenda or celanda. Whatever the reason, promulgation of these secrets would be disastrous, whether the important area be political or religious.

P360 “Here we have one of the keys to power, the ability – and the need – to conceal what is necessary from the general eye. And the verb vulgärentur is instructive; we have met it twice before. The value of arcana is exclusively political here; what is referred to must be tacenda.

Tacenda means Tacenda are things not to be mentioned or made public—things better left unsaid; tacit means “unspoken, silent” or “implied, inferred.” http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tacenda (accessed 7 April 2015)

[4] The arcana imperii can also describe secrets of nature. If man can unlock those secrets, it is believed he can control nature in the way that man controls man when he knows their secrets or possess secret information that they cannot know.

[5] “Thus the study of arcana imperii stressed not only the empirical collection of knowledge as the basis of politics, but the clever management of that knowledge.” Mining Tacitus: secrets of empire, nature and art in the reason of state Vera KellerThe British Journal for the History of Science / Volume 45 / Special Issue 02 / June 2012, pp 189 – 212 DOI: 10.1017/S0007087412000076, Published online: 20 March 2012

Link to this article: http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0007087412000076 p191

[6] The Congressional Record Service (CRS) used to publish its reports on the internet. However, Congress after 11 September attacks, ordered that they are no longer published on the internet. Even though other organisations such as Federation of Atomic Scientists (FAS) publish them on their own initiative, Congress’s decision has reduced access.

[7] http://www.mybestdocs.com/hurley-c-lucas-keynote0703.htm

[8] The example of Athens vs Socrates is such an example as the city could not tolerate openness beyond a point where its identity or legitimacy was in question.

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Words of Wisdom on turning 30

On New Year’s Day, Silvia Spiva asked me to offer some words of wisdom to two friends who were turning 30 this year. I was surprised, yet honoured to be asked. I don’t consider myself to be particularly wise or knowledgeable. However, it is a rare person who can see themselves as they are seen.

I promised her that I’d write some words once I had time to reflect on what I would say. When such advice is requested it is easy to offer an immediate answer like “Eat healthy” or “Always wear shades”, which discharges the duty but does not answer the question. I wanted to answer the question without offering a list of duties or tasks the person must accomplish or avoid.

To the extent that I have wisdom or insight, I offer the following comments. I do not know either of the men personally so the comments are focused on the public life which precludes personal or spiritual life. To provide advice on a personal life or a spiritual life, one has to have a better understanding of the person, their background, and their current context. As I have neither, I can only provide some words on their public status and what I know about the public domain. I hope my comments can be useful.

Integrity. As both of you are turning thirty, you will have already achieved a measure of success. You will have already been asked and answered, whether you know it or not, the integrity question. Integrity is fundamental to a rewarding public life. If you have it, people will trust you and rely on you. If you lose it, you will spend a life time trying to recover it or living with its loss. Without integrity, you are not as trustworthy or reliable. You may be asked to sacrifice some of your integrity for short term success. Is the success worth it? For some people, the answer is yes. They gladly become the willing executioner. If you have not already experienced it you will find that many organisations, and some people, will demand or at least politely suggest that you need to be flexible with your integrity. They will ask you to bend to their or the organisation’s will. In other words, you need to sacrifice your integrity for their ends.

Faith. Faith is more than a spiritual characteristic for here it means being part of something larger than you. Our professional or public lives have meaning and are rewarding to the extent that we are part of something larger than ourselves. For some people, that can mean public service. For others, it can be working within an organisation. They want to serve either the public or the organisation’s ends. For others, it is to join a cause or movement. Whatever you decide, turning thirty is when you have to consider what is the larger project, idea, or movement that you want to be part of. Seek these out and see where that adventure takes you. If you take a small slice of a larger problem, you can find a way to make a difference. You may not solve world hunger, but you might find a way to identify potential drought spots before they become severe.

Live your life. As you turn thirty, you are now officially in your middle age. As your life span is about 80 years, when you pass 27 you have arrived in your middle age whether you realize it or not. You have to decide what life you want to live. You may find that you have been living with someone else’s expectations or demands, such as finishing graduate school, or completing an apprenticeship, or founding a company. Over the next decade, you will be shaping your career. If you seek out larger projects ensure that you are pursuing it for your own reasons. If you seek money or fame, they come at a cost. Make sure the price is worth the cost.

Acceptance is not resignation. As you pass into middle age, you will have to accept certain things. This does not mean you are resigned to them. For example, you will not be playing professional sports. If you have not achieved this by the time you are 30 or on track to achieve it by then, it is unlikely to happen. The same is for a number of other pursuits. If you want to run for president, you need to have already laid the groundwork for it. You can only reap what you have sown. If you have not sown the seeds for success in March you cannot harvest them in November when they are expected to bloom

Less glamour does not mean less fulfilling. In an age of mass culture, the prevailing ethos will suggest that success or meaning is measured by public criteria. The criteria may include something glamorous or publicly acclaimed, such as fame, status, power, or money. The prevailing ethos, with a focus on celebrity and status will suggest that if you are not pursuing these or obtaining these your career or life is less fulfilling. The lack of glamour does not mean that what you do or what you want to be is less fulfilling. You are at the point where you have to decide what matters to you and to pursue it. As your choices close off other opportunities, realize that life’s contingencies are not your fate. Instead, a life lived as you want is harder to achieve and is more rewarding than a life lived to others expectations or to their standard.

Lastly, there is the question of how you get anything done in this world. You may believe the common idea that all that matters is the individual to get things done. You may have also been encouraged to believe that networks matter most to achieve your success. Both of these have their role, but neither explains what really works.

Organisations matter. If you want to get anything done, you need an organisation. A network is not an organisation until it actually delivers results and responds to what you require. Organisations may be fluid, they may even be structured like networks, they may even be “virtual” (whatever that means) but they never disappear. Only with or through an organisation will you be able to achieve what you want. Organisations provide the context within which you can flourish and leverage your individual talent. Over the rest of your career and public life, the more you understand organisations and develop your ability to organise, either across or outside your networks, the more success you will have as well as your ability to manage or at least adapt to life’s contingent events.

I hope these words of “wisdom” help without being too obvious or being grandiose. Revel in your youth and marvel at your opportunity.

 

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January Break

Dear Subscribers,

Thank you for following this blog in 2015. I hope you had a good year for 2015 and I wish you an even more successful 2016. I will take a break from this blog until February.

I will take January off to reconsider the blog, review my writing, and develop some new ideas for posts over the year.

Thanks for reading the blog and I hope you continue to follow it in 2016.

All the best,

Lawrence

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