Being over the hump and into the 2nd half of my chemistry career, I find that more and more of my time is spent dealing with systems issues. Not fighting existing systems. Synthesizing new ones. One of the things I have come to appreciate is the value and necessity of at least some level of bureaucratic structure as an organization grows. Really, it has been an awakening.

My current project involves receiving and organizing a massive stream of diverse information. It is a taxonomic nightmare. How does one organize critical and confidential information in such a manner that it can be accessed for future reference? It is more than a matter of profligate use of file folders. I have drawers and drawers of file folders with commercial and scientific information in them, but I have lost track of what I already have. What has to shake out of my current task is a bureaucratic mechanism.

I have come to be viewed as a “resource”. This is a euphamism for “keeper of obscure information”, or more to the point, “he who knows where the bodies are buried”.

Getting back to the matter of systems generation, a problem organizations may develop is one in which valuable, painful, and expensive lessons get lost over a relatively short interval. People naturally like to get on with things. Problems in the past are just that- in the past. We overcame a challenge and now we are on to bigger things. But what folks underestimate is that past problems are often the result of habits of thought and poor adaptation to change.

It is easy to get bewildered in a conceptual space where there are no sharp edges or crisp boundaries. In the chemical business world, you find that the crowd naturally divides into science/technical people and business people. There are always a few cross-over people (freaks like myself) who defy tidy categorization.  But for the most part, when the tray stops shaking, the people settle into particular positions.

Business-types like to deal in the binary world of yes and no. Science-types accept that this is possible only from a great distance from the problem.  Business-types use the tool and toss it when done. Science-types can become enchanted with the tool and will try to make it better.

One of the tricks to system development in an organization is to define what constitutes a normal condition. Once this is defined, an off-normal condition can be recognized and SOP’s can be written to deal with it. As a psycholgical precaution, this is where you begin to get insights into the deep-seated insecurities of your colleages. Many long-time acquaintances can reveal control-freak behaviour or authority issues.  The generation and implementation of systems in an organization always involves greater control and loss of degrees of freedom for individuals. People will see this coming and things may get contentious.

As more people become involved in any endeavor, complexity inevitably arises as failure modes are uncovered and people learn to game the system. Good leadership can go a long way towards helping people keep perspective as things become more complex.