Friday, June 18, 2010

Culture: Fixation on Experts

KENNEWICK, WASHINGTON - As I have so often cited in this blog, New York Times columnist David Brooks had an insight today in his appearance on NPR's All Things Considered that I think runs beyond politics to general North American culture. When critiquing President Obama's response to the oil spill, Brooks faulted the general trend of the Obama administration to bring in a panel of experts, often from academia, to figure out what to do in a situation instead of empowering the people at the scene or on the front lines of a crisis situation.

Indeed, a number of commentators have joked that in response to the President's"angry" statement last week, he would open a commission on posterior kicking to not only to select "whose ass to kick" but also determine who was the most qualified person to actually take that action (could it be anyone except Kenneth Feinberg?) and then evaluate the effectiveness of the punishment. That's a far cry from an on-site boss reprimanding or even firing employees on the spot when something has gone wrong.

I think this runs far deeper than the Obama administration. I think it is cultural in North America. Ever hear of an apprenticeship lately? The idea of people learning how to do jobs from people that have done them for years seems to have become anathema to management. Now the way to do things is to eliminate the expensive, experienced people who know how to do things and re-define jobs so that they can be done by cheap workers with no experience. To make sure that experienced workers and their trade skills aren't advantaged, new rules are implemented to slow down the experienced workers and ban the way they have been doing things efficiently since those techniques might pose a "safety risk" to the new, unexperienced employees that might not understand them. The new people can be trained in new practices that make the "old heads" shake their heads.

A classic example is in a realm that I have been hearing stories about recently, railroading. Trainmen today still need to learn a rulebook, but it isn't the same rulebook that I found in the museum I visited yesterday. The new rulebook has some changes based on technology (obsolete dispatching practices no longer appear and rules about contemporary ones do appear), but mostly it is longer to include bans on practices that railroaders had used since the earliest times.

While it could be argued that longer, heavier trains make a new emphasis on safety necessary and certain old "efficient" techniques might be unsafe in the modern environment, it seems that the emphasis on trade skills is alarming to the "old heads." I remember encountering a local train about fifteen years ago with a very experienced conductor and brakemen and an engineer that was completely new to the line, having ridden it on a dinner train only once. The conductor didn't consider this engineer qualified, and the train did not go outside of yard limits on that line that day as a result. I remember him telling me, "Twenty years ago, this would have never happened--they would never send out an unqualified engineer, even on a branch line."

It would be nice if the oil spill reminded the culture that the people who work on things on a day to day basis on this continent know something about what they do. However, it seems far more likely that it will be used as justification for a whole new round of theory-based changes in an industry that already knew how to conduct its operations safely but chose not to for financial reasons. Considering that this kind of thinking seems to be coming from the very top, I don't see anyone being able to challenge it.

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