Principles for Robustness

“Snow Crystal” — Wilson Alwyn Bentley

In an article in Harvard Business Review, “The Biology of Corporate Survival*” the authors lay out some principles for managing complex adaptive systems. While framed for a business audience, these principles could be applicable to the complex adaptive system (or, perhaps more aptly, the “complexicated” system) of a school.

The authors delineate a set of principles for robustness into structural features, and managerial levers:

Structural Features

  • Heterogeneity (Diversity)
  • Modularity
  • Redundancy

Managerial Levers

  • Expect surprise, but reduce uncertainty
  • Create feedback loops and adaptive mechanisms
  • Foster trust and reciprocity

How might these principles apply in a school?

I’ll leave that to you to contemplate, but for the record, I’ll note that most public school managers typically do quite poorly in reducing uncertainty and in fostering trust.

 

* “The Biology of Corporate Survival – Harvard Business Review.” 2015. 15 Apr. 2016 <https://hbr.org/2016/01/the-biology-of-corporate-survival>

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What Can Schools Learn from Trader Joe’s?

What can schools learn from Trader Joe’s? Check out my post over on The VIVA Project:

“Isn’t this exactly how we would want a child to feel when they walk into a school anywhere in our nation? To feel a warm, caring community that “wraps its arms around you,” where the staff are working in collaborative, “interlocking” positions that they “genuinely enjoy”?”

On Slavery and School Management

Mark and I began blogging about schools and ecosystems because we were frustrated with the business model of school reform. As we wrote in our original schools and ecosystems manifesto, “applying an industrial-growth model” to school design doesn’t work– at least not for students and teachers. We proposed that viewing schools as ecosystems might help us design more humane and effective educational reforms than those currently on offer.

Sadly, it doesn’t seem like that’s the direction education reform will take in New York State anytime soon. In case you hadn’t heard, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to subject public school teachers to be a new evaluation scale wherein student standardized test scores will be the core measure of a teacher’s quality. Cuomo also wants a merit pay system wherein teacher pay would be linked to student test scores.

Merit pay and value-added assessment: these are common proposals from advocates of the business model. Their merits have been roundly debated elsewhere, so our readers likely already have a position on each of these management tools. What you might not know, however, is that both of these common management techniques have their roots in American chattel slavery.

Caitlin C. Rosenthal, a fellow at that hotbed of radicalism known as Harvard Business School, has been researching the connections between modern management and the techniques that slaveowners used to track and improve their slaves’ productivity. Rosenthal has found that having a captive workforce allowed slaveowners to experiment with a wide variety of management techniques. Among these, merit pay:

“This led owners to experiment with ways of increasing the pace of labor, Rosenthal explains, such as holding contests with small cash prizes for those who picked the most cotton, and then requiring the winners to pick that much cotton from there on out. Slave narratives describe how others used the data to calculate punishment, meting out whippings according to how many pounds each picker fell short.

Similar incentive plans reappeared in early twentieth-century factories, with managers dangling the promise of cash rewards if their workers reached certain production levels.”

Slaveowners also pioneered the art of measuring employee value as a function of productivity:

“Starting in the late 1840s, [slave-managing innovator] Thomas Affleck’s account books instructed planters to record depreciation or appreciation of slaves on their annual balance sheet. In 1861, for example, another Mississippi planter priced his 48-year-old foreman, Hercules, at $500; recorded the worth of Middleton, a 26-year-old top-producing field hand, at $1,500; and gave 9-month-old George Washington a value of $150. At the end of the year, he repeated this process, adjusting for changes in health and market prices, and the difference in price was recorded on the final balance sheet.

These account books played a role in reducing slaves to ‘human capital,’ Rosenthal says, allowing owners who were removed from day-to-day operations to see their slaves as assets, as interchangeable units of production in a ledger, instead of as people.”

Much of this is hardly surprising. After all:

“The evolution of modern management is usually associated with good old-fashioned intelligence and ingenuity—’a glorious parade of inventions that goes from textile looms to the computer,’ Rosenthal says. But in reality, it’s much messier than that. Capitalism is not just about the free market; it was also built on the backs of slaves who were literally the opposite of free.

Perhaps I’m being generous, but I’d like to assume that when Cuomo and other business-minded reformers propose using merit pay and value-added assessment of employees, they’re unaware that they’re proposing slaveowner management techniques. Now that this troubling history is out there, let’s hope they’ll reconsider before advocating tools used to build and maintain one of America’s most brutal and repugnant institutions.