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.

Metrics as Monkey’s Paw

It’s been noted that quality programming is hard to measure, and it’s no surprise that companies measuring programmers based on the volume of code turned out have larger products but not necessarily better ones. I’m far from the first person to note that you get what you measure, but despite that people continue to use lousy metrics.

Perhaps the notion that form without content is void should be considered a special case of you get what you measure: if you demand well-structured, well-argued essays without measuring their content, you’ll end up with essays lionizing Nazis as intellectual heroes; if you demand a certain number of abstracts per week according to formula, you’ll get that number of abstracts but they will have no value for their intended audience.

In both cases, one must ask whether the goal can be measured appropriately, and if you’ll be satisfied when you get exactly what you ask for.