Of Smith, Marx and Heinlein

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee January 15, 2018
System thinking via Marx, Adam Smith and Heinlein, courtesy of Salesforce's Peter Coffee.

Peter Coffee

People in systems do not do what the system says they are doing.

This is one of the many paradoxical observations in John Gall’s The Systems Bible: he gives it an alliterative name, “Functionary’s Falsity,” and it seems to me that the functionary hazard—confusing the activity with the purpose—must be top of mind for every organization in this time when everyone seems to be taking on a transformation initiative.

I say this because helping people do the activity that they do now, only better/faster/cheaper, could easily become an expensive way to fail in the face of disruptive change: a modernization, but not a transformation. Consciously rising from process to purpose is much more difficult, but increasingly essential.

Gall’s statement about people and systems might seem contradictory: how could people in a system not be doing, by definition, whatever it is that the system does? Consider, though, his simple counterexample. He writes:

There is a man in our neighborhood,who is building a boat in his backyard. He knows very little of boatbuilding and still less of sailing or navigation. He works from plans drawn up by himself. Nevertheless, he is demonstrably building a boat and can be called, in some real sense, a boatbuilder.

Gall then observes that if you visit a large, established shipyard, you will look in vain for a shipbuilder:

You will find—in abundance—welders, carpenters, foremen, engineers and many other specialists, but no shipbuilders… In cold fact, a SYSTEM building ships, and the SYSTEM is the shipbuilder. [Capitals in the original.]

It’s a centuries-old observation that systems create value by turning almost unrecognizably specialized skills and tasks into higher-level results. What’s interesting is that different observers have described this same thing in almost opposite terms: as both the foundation of factory-model industry, and the acme of artisanal empowerment.

Adam Smith, for example, in 1776, famously described the pin factory where “the important business of making a pin is…divided into about eighteen distinct operations.” The result, he observed, is enormous productivity advantage: ten people working in this manner, he reported:

could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day… But if they had all wrought separately and independently…they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day.

In Smith’s observation, no one person could be said to be “making pins,” and yet the system produced them by the thousands.

One hundred years later, though, Karl Marx looked at specialization of labor and saw something quite different. Where Smith saw specialization as leading to a factory full of people who functioned like the parts of a machine, Marx looked at the valley in Switzerland where the legend of Swiss watchmaking arguably arose – and saw the satisfaction of pursuing a craft in a cooperative community. Marx’s description of the individual crafts that go into a watch is (unsurprisingly) longer than Smith’s list of tasks that go into making a simple pin, and in fact is the single longest sentence in the famously verbose Das Kapital – but “each of those tasks,” observes Jack Forster on the watch aficionado site Hodinkee, was “an entirely separate job, done by individuals doing that job but no other, and generally at home.”

Of course, the system took the credit: in 1747, almost twenty years before Adam Smith wrote about pins, an observer of watchmaking in London noted that “The Watch-Maker puts his Name upon the Plate, and is esteemed the Maker, though has not made in his Shop the smallest Wheel belonging to it.”

Who's right?

If Smith saw specialization as subjugating people to capital, and Marx saw specialization as multiplying individual accomplishment through disciplined collaboration, which one was right? Today, perhaps neither. Neither Smith nor Marx anticipated the rise of coordinated systems of algorithms and robots, whose various non-human components will perform almost any single specialized task more quickly and consistently than a human; nor could they foresee the creation of global supply chains, making it increasingly difficult for any physically localized community (Swiss or otherwise) to maintain an edge over those who play on a bigger field.

The most persuasive “you’re both wrong” voice is perhaps that of iconic science fiction author (I hardly ever call anyone “iconic”) Robert Heinlein, whose canonical list of the things that a person should be able to do—change a diaper, plan an invasion, program a computer, etc.—is often summarized by his concluding comment, “specialization is for insects.” (Do please note that he put “program a computer” on a list of things that any human being should be able to do in 1973, which I would call looking rather far ahead – and yet, he was absolutely right. “Programmer” is no more a high-wage, high-skill job of the future than is “village scribe” today.)

Note that another iconic science (including fiction) author, Arthur C. Clarke, described in 1968 a “refusal to specialize” as one of the distinctive character traits that made the captain of the spaceship Discovery (in 2001: A Space Odyssey) “uniquely qualified” for his job. The contribution of the high-value human of the future is not any kind of specialization, regardless of whether you see that speciality as a path to Smithian depersonalization or Marxian craftsmanship. What will be valuable is triangulation: the ability to see facts and situations from several different perspectives, and thereby create new value rather than merely refining what’s already there.

Most of what we see in today’s institutions of education before employment, or programs of training and development on the job, is not aimed at creating or developing or promoting the triangulators. Proponents of Smith and Marx will argue for decades to come, most likely – but Heinlein tells us that they’re looking for an answer to a question that’s getting more irrelevant every day. It’s going to take triangulators to lift organizations above the smoke and noise of process improvement, and illuminate their purposeful transformation.

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