Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Brexit and Campus Shared Services

By Malcolm Potts

We were evolved to live out lives in small groups, often of only a few thousand people, This is how Native Americans lived in California before the Europeans arrived.  Until the 1930s, a million people lived a Stone Age way of life In the Highlands of New Guinea, cut off from the rest of the world. They were divided into small, homogeneous, interrelated, intensely loyal groups, often hostile to their neighbors, and in many cases they even had a unique language. As a result a disproportionate number of  all the world's languages are to be found in the Highlands of New. Guinea.

Large organizations whether an army, the Catholic Church, Microsoft, or the University of California, are intrinsically difficult to manage. Toyota discovered the way built an efficient production line was to divide the workers into small groups like our Stone Age ancestors.  After all, even Jesus Christ failed to select and manage 12 disciples without recruiting one Judas Iscariot.

I ran an organization, which when I took it over had under one hundred people.  In a real sense we could be a sort of extended, family.  When we grew to over one hundred people we had to become more bureaucratic. I hate bureaucracies, but rules and protocols are inevitable.

In a real sense, a nation of millions is "unnatural." The fact that we can work together in large groups work is remarkable and a testimony to human ingenuity and flexibility. But it can take centuries to evolve government systems and financial frameworks people can tolerate and trust.

When my family, friends, and millions of British citizens, voted in last week's leave or stay in the EU referendum, there were those who felt that too many jobs were going overseas and too many immigrants were hiding in trucks on trains in the Channel Tunnel. But what really annoyed and disillusioned those who were perhaps otherwise undecided, were the endless petty rules and perceived invasion of their daily lives by  faceless, overpaid EU 'experts' and bureaucrats in Luxembourg, Brussels and distant places. People rebelled against some EU bureaucrats telling them how much a cheese should weigh, or how many wheels a truck should have. Some of those making these petty and unnecessary rules were intelligent and well intentioned. Some leaders, like Angela Merkel, thought prime minister Cameron was bluffing when he sought to humanize and soften tiresome, overreaching rules.

But they forgot that for 99% of the time we have been a distinct species we lived and thrived in small social groups. Our inner predispositions are still be those of a Stone Age family, rather than those of members of the EU - or even part of a great university like UC Berkeley.

For good reasons, blogs such as this are not intended to discuss university policies, but everybody, from Chancellor Dirks downwards, acknowledges that Campus Shared Services is a costly mistake. ‘Experts’ in Bain Capital (a $75 billion company) charged the University $9 million in consulting fees for their contribution to the oxymoronic Operation Excellence. Like bureaucrats in the EU, Bain Capital saw people as robots and administrative tasks as a string of numbers. It was assumed that a group of people, no doubt hardworking and well intentioned, could sit in an isolated room and buy pencils or reimburse foreign travel, for other people they didn't know, but who needed pencils or had flown back from field work in places like Utah Pradesh.

CSS annoyed everyone because people who didn't belong to their social group, who they did not pass in the corridor, and who didn't know why anyone went to Utah Pradesh, were making decisions about that affected their daily lives. And anyhow, why couldn't we buy our own pencils.  Bane Capital and EU 'experts' forgot that we are nice warm blooded people, loyal to our neighbors and colleagues, and with some evolved behavioral predispositions going back to time when we lived in small tight-knit groups of hunter gatherers.

When the organization I ran grew too big to behave like a true family, I learnt some simple routines and invented some rituals. I would walk around and go into someone's office and talk to that person as a friend - even if I didn't know their name.  (I confess that I am one of those people with a below average ability at face recognition.) The ritual I put in place was a  Friday meeting at the end of each month when we celebrated birthdays, reported on success or challenges facing the organization, and drank some wine and ate  brownies - I was working in North Carolina!.

Stealing, the acronym from an Australian friend, I called our monthly ritual POETS' Day: Piss Off Early Tomorrows Saturday.  Actually many people stayed after the end of office hours.  The evidence is that our Stone Age ancestors found enough food to eat and killed enough animals to make their clothes working fewer than 40 hours a week. Perhaps they had the equivalent of POETS day every day.

As intensely social creatures we can survive on POETS day once a month. But if, like the EU or Baine Capital, you take away every microgram of human relations then we rebel even if, as in the UK, it means making a mistake.