The Productivity of Downsizing

David Wiles, Eaps 760


    It is important that we understand downsizing in the mid 1990's as more than callous "load shedding" of excess personnel in large, complex organization. Not that such thinking is unwarranted, given the arbitrary and capricious way certain corporations have merged and grown since the early 1908s. Nothing rips the heart out of a seasoned professional like a notification of layoff due to a "unit inefficiency" rating based upon general obsolescence or low mission priority. This is especially true for one doing all the right things to achieve a promising career track. The profesional in the unit does not determine the corporate shifts in overall mission and may have a little chance to exhibit personal merit if a merger is blending different versions of an "efficient and effective" organizational operation.

    Given all that, it is possible that a student trying to appreciate downsizing as a function of organizational "devolution" will only see the particular trees and miss the larger forest. In the past decade and a half, there has been a transformation of complex organizations in American business and public service sector operations. Few who listened to the early exhorations of first term Reaganites would have believed the "bully pulpit" arguments would carry any merit. It is one thing to use "devolution" as an argument justifying the replacement of categorical grants with block grants (e.g., Education Consolidation and Improvement Act, 1981) or the idea that government is carried on best by "street level bureaucrats."

    It is quite another thing to achieve actual credibility from a bully pulpit when the idea of devolution is a trapping for calling educators "enemies of the people" or, at best, stupid dupes who "hijacked the reform of public education" due to their own inferior training. Perfectly legimitate concepts like governmental autonomy and local control of curriculum and instruction become polemical codewords rather than actual descriptions of new ways to operate. Telling people that "nation at risk" educational reform has been "hijacked" by professional educators becomes a documentation of the speakers while the actual concept of devolution fades into the background.

    Although Reagan and Bush Presidential term yielded strong Commissioners of Education (e.g., Terrel Bell, Lamar Alexander) I remember the mid to late 1980's bully pulpit in terms of three key persons; Chester Finn, Diane Ravitch, and William Bennett. While each is a major personality in educational policy discussions, their importance for this discussion of organizational transformation (and, more indirectly, a meaning of productivity in downsizing) is what they have become by the mid 1990's. The Electronic EduExcellence Network and the Empower American organizational structures embody Finn, Ravitch, and Bennett in a way that transcends conventional descriptions of strong personalities within interest group structures. In other words, the 1990's transformation of the "devolution" spokepersons is exhibited in their world wide web organizational personalities.

    The last paragraph presents a controversial conclusion, and I am sure that many people will contend that Drs. Ravitch, Bennett, and Finn are simply a product of the normal evolution of scholars and policy wonks over a fifteen year period. Certainly, in the 1980's William Bennett who had a ghost writer do the Virtues book while in the Department of Education is a different person from the accomplished and acknowledged writer of "new promises" in the mid 1990's. The same stands with the academic and public recongnition of Drs. Ravitch and Finn. The Educational Excellence Network and the Empower American organizations grow stronger even though the jury is still out on the Chris Whittle venture.

    Anyone interested in the transformation of an individual state's public education system because of ties to the Electronic Educational Excellenece Network (Hereafter EEEN) and Empower America should look to Florida. EEEN is one of the three organizations listed on the Department of Education web page as "educationally related." (Along with Foundation for Florida's future and the James Madison Institute). Florida's Department of Education and Florida Distance Learning Network are prototypes for technological presentation and citizen access that New York State should envy and strive for. Regardless of political affiliation and ideological undertones, thinking of organizing as the access to the Internet (beyond lynx and text only access) by the graphic access of Netscape and Microsoft and Mosaic and through the National Center for Supercomputing is a new meaning of "devolved" organization. Because of rate of transformation is so rapid even the debate between "open and closed" access that pits the Web against Lotus Notes is confused.

    Which brings us back to the idea of organizational downsizing and professional productivity in the mid 1990's. Running concurrently with all the ugliness and mess of the traditional downsize-as-load-shedd in traditional bureaucracies is a parallel meaning of downsize as shifts due to electronic transformation. This is somewhat different than Drucker argument that all "middle managers" will be gone in the next century but not completely unrelated. A good example of the transformation that recreates the policy meaning of Drs. Ravitch, Bennett, and Finn from their 1980's policy action is the evolution of the access to the Internet since the 1990's begun.

    Prior to that time the 1970's story centered on the ARPA-Net of the American defense industry and Switzerland located CERN development of TCP/IP protocols and html language. Since the 1990's we have witnessed the compression of organizational evolution into iterations of National Center for SuperComputing and Mosaic as graphic access, the entry of Netscape and what 2 to 20 focused individual can mean as organization and, finally, the reentry of Microsoft Corporation with Internet Explorer and Netmeetinf programs. It took three iterations or "generations" of development (with a critical intermediate stage of wild invention and discovery) before complex organizations regained the productivity edge.

    A few years from now when the "start-up bugs" are eliminated and there are general expectations of faultless technology performance across the board we may well forget the valuable organizational lessons the early 1990's taught. Herbert Kaufman was right about the countervailing dynamics of political interests organized on centralization-decentralization tendencies. The same tug and pull seems evident in the "devolved" technology evolution of today. The day of the single monolith of specialized elite who govern the evolution of technology development is gone. The web creates a "field" of opearting to replace the conventional organizational confines. Large scale mobilization and investments create spin-off and "maverick" operations. The web is the baliwick of the inventor and discoverer.

    Finally, those who fear devolution must end in anarchy and the lowest common denominator of individualism as some perverted libertarianism should be heartened by the Microsoft Corporation message for complex organozations over time. The Netscape upstart did gain temporary edge with a breakthrough but the larger corporate arrangement slowly catches up and takes the lead. When the twenty five million users get focused in the same direction using the same access channels the actual technology does not have to be the most superior.

    Although the jury is still out on whether this phenomena of slow accretion or "creep" of organizational advantage is inevitable in technology progress, this could be the fate of Macintosh vis-a-vis all DOS language derivaties into Windows 95 software. Netscape gave Macintosh users the easy access to the world wide web and, as such, was as vital to the development of that technology as the Windows 95 software rescue of the non icon, non "mouse" point-and-click International Business Machine personal computer. Obviously, there is a concurrent considerations of windoes of opportunity and crossroads in paths of progress. Regardless of answers to that final question, we can agree that rough edges of "bully pulpit" exhorters into the slick and sophisticated electronic organizations like EEEN is an organizational reality that is neither build on conventional bureaucracy "clout" or personal demonstrations of enhanced professionalism and expertise.

"Devolve" Readings

The Florida Illustration

  • Floria Department of Education;
  • Florida Distance Learning Network;
  • Florida Free Nets;
  • Foundation for Florida's Future;
  • James Madison Institute.