Bureaucracy and Thermodynamics

In his otherwise spot-on post, The Collapse of Complex Business Models, Clay Shirky makes the confusing statement:

Bureaucracies temporarily reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

Now, I’m no physicist, but it seems pretty clear to me that bureaucracies absolutely obey the second law of thermodynamics.

“Process” isn’t anti-entropic at all, any more than gasoline-powered engines are anti-entropic. The process itself, the bureaucratic imperatives, are entropy and waste heat. Which isn’t to say that you can perform useful work without a certain amount of process, or that certain applications don’t require an enormous quantity of process. A good startup is an efficient engine, generating lots of results with a minimum of process. A good large organization is less efficient, but trades that efficiency for reliability and consistency—it’s a big rig, with a big diesel engine, or possibly an industrial motor of some sort.

2 thoughts on “Bureaucracy and Thermodynamics

  1. Very interesting article, but I consider that statement incorrect for two different reasons than the one that you’ve pointed out.

    1. Thermodynamics does not apply to human behavior.
    2. Even if thermodynamics did apply to human behavior, the Second Law of Thermodynamics only applies to closed systems.

    I would say that bureaucracies neither obey nor defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The Law is just irrelevant to bureaucracies, unless you’re talking about the chemical/physical processes taking place in the bodies of the people that make up the bureaucracy.


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