15 October 2008

On Ops

Filed under: Culture, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 10:50 am

Lately I’ve found myself toying with the possibility of making myself more useful to society. Fortunately I caught myself before doing anything drastic — this time. But the risk remains real.

There was a time when I evaluated empirical data and expert performance in order to specify so-called “best practices” in fields ranging from financial underwriting to medical care. This sort of work is vulnerable to critique on any number of grounds, but then so is all work. Skepticism is mostly what motivated me: to understand what passes for expertise, to subject its claims to careful scrutiny. By separating the real expertise from the hype it would be possible to make the former more widely accessible in society while relegating the latter to the shitpile. If certain aspects of expertise could be codified, then it could be taught to paraprofessionals or encoded in computer programs. The real experts, no longer having to spend so much of their time performing routine tasks, could devote more energy to thinking, imagining, experimenting, inventing, collaborating — pushing back the boundaries of their expertise.

But the experts always find themselves squeezed by the money guys. The codification of expertise becomes a means of saving operating costs through hiring cheaper labor or automation. Push the boundaries? Let somebody else invest in R&D; we’ll steal their demonstrated successes later. And then there are the marketing people who want to loosen the standards in order to crank up sales. When finance and marketing gang up — as was the case in the mortgage lending fiasco — the operations people don’t stand much of a chance. Businesses exist in order to generate profit for the investors. When push comes to shove the products and services are just “content” — useful for generating a revenue stream, but essentially interchangeable with other sorts of content. The experts are just content providers: ultimately their job is to lure money into the conduit. When every ops job is reducible to finance and marketing, it’s no wonder that operational expertise gets compromised.

So in light of the financial meltdown I’ve started thinking about getting back into the ops world. What would it take to sustain the practitioners of operational expertise when confronted by the persistent onslaught of finance and marketing? Wouldn’t some sort of intensive and collaborative effort among ops workers help shift the balance of power from capital to labor, at least a little bit? Even if most of these ops jobs aren’t particularly glamorous or personally fulfilling, they’d still need to be done even if the businesses they work for suddenly became owned not by investors but by the workers or the citizenry. As Dominic observes:

productive participation in the economy, even as part of a profit-making enterprise, nevertheless adds something to the common good – even if the profits made are subtracted, qua profit, from the commons.

I think I could make a case that supporting operational expertise would be a worthwhile contribution I could make to the common weal. I’d supplement my background in outcomes and best practices with my more recent work on passion and calling and agency. The main obstacle? I’m just not that into it any more.


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