Should it Scale? Non-scalability as a reality, not a problem to be solved

November 18, 2010

I was reading a post by Bob Marshall, nodding in agreement with much of what he wrote.  I’m not in the software development business, but I often see the  same problems that he describes relating to good work:   [those who] “know how but can’t anyway because of where they work, who they work for and because of all the monkey-wrenches being lobbed into their daily routines…”   He was speaking of the software industry, but what he describes is not an uncommon issue, in any field.

I’ve run into similar scenarios, and one common factor among them is the general perception that every solution, every process, every approach, ought to “scale”.   Since, in most business circles, continuous growth is viewed as not just good, but essential, the desire for universal (and infinite) scalability of processes and procedures is understandable from the standpoint of efficiency.  Scaling may well streamline administrative functions (legal, HR, finance), but it is important to recognize that if certain aspects of a business are readily scalable, others (e.g. Operations, R&D), perhaps, are not.  This non-scalability may not indicate a problem to solve, but a natural attribute of how human beings and communities really work.
Companies see themselves as a single expansive entity (and therfore embrace the model that universal, one-size-fits-all procedures are beneficial to organizational effectiveness), when in fact they are often effectively a bunch of boutique organizations welded together in a common enterprise.  If you talk with people in different functional groups of an organization, you know this; each group sounds like it works for a completely different company than the others.  What are often called silos are really the front doorsteps of the different small communities.  And how one group learns or produces will not translate directly to how another group does.
Whether the boutique (or community) model is most “efficient” on an algorithmic scale, isn’t the point.  The point is that it is how human beings actually interact.   No matter how much you scale up an organization there will always be points of functional disconnect between groups in their specializations and one-size-fits all codification of the larger organization.  Humans will continue to interact in small connected groups and build their own, most effective approaches.  Universally scaled-up practices, while efficient, will not necessarily prove effective with respect to quality or productivity within the smaller, organically formed segments of an organization.
Maybe the key to bypassing the “monkey-wrenches” that stifle good work is to recognize that learning design or software design (or any other business activity) should not be presumed to be infinitely scalable.  It’s always going to be a balance between efficiency and effectiveness.  So keep the uniform approaches in the arenas where efficiency matters, but also determine where effectiveness is the greater goal than efficiency, and shape the policies to match how the work really happens.

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