The obsessive compulsive neurotic manager

Many managers are suffering from the madness of our age: ‘obsessive compulsive neurosis.’ These ‘methodolics’ believe that the world can be made into a tidy place when approached with tidy methods, implemented by tidy minds, using the icon of tidiness, the computer. So says Professor Ian Angell, who for the past twenty years has become increasingly concerned with the way computers are perceived in business, and in society in general. He has come to agree with Pablo Picasso, “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers;” and answers are simply not enough.

Professor Angell considers how the business world is full of these methodolics who have joined the ‘Cult of Numbers,’ where they measure everything that moves, and then model it on computer. They delude themselves into believing that they can control the future of their business simply by pointing numbers at the complexity and uncertainty all around. However, complexity and uncertainty are far more than just incomplete information. Yet the methodolics convince themselves that they are management scientists, but they are merely rain-dancing with pseudo-science. Most of the trendy methods coming out of the business schools are no more scientific than astrology or the personality tests found in women’s magazines. As Angell says: “there is little sense in submitting the decisions that affect commercial success to simplistic rules and measurement, all implemented on a ‘glorified adding machine’!”

Angell sees a major but quite different role for computers in coping with this neurosis caused by profound commercial uncertainty. Everyone who has used a complex computer system will have numerous examples of where the use of measurement and computerized models within the complexity of a commercial environment has actually made the situation far worse. Uncertainty is not just a matter of incomplete information – it is something far more profound.

Angell has developed an ‘opportunistic’ approach to the development of Information Systems Strategies, which he calls ‘dispositioning,’ and which involves a radical view of how computers should be used within organizations, but more importantly how they should not. He sees an important but revised role for computers in organizations: to maximize opportunities and minimize risks. But ultimately he would emphasize a philosophy that rejects the idea of answers and methodologies, and he insists that ‘thinking managers’ give up their role as machine-minders, and take full responsibility for their actions. ‘Living with uncertainty, and loving it.’

This talk is light-hearted, but has a serious message. Full of anecdotes about ‘computer cock-ups,’ it is suitable for everyone who has experienced the perverse reality of computer systems in a business context, and is willing to laugh at themselves – and each other.