Monday, July 25, 2011

Efficiency, resilience, and ethics.

John Michael Greer has an important post about systems in general, focusing on efficiency and how efficiency is achieved at the cost of resilience. Please read it; JMG and the commenters have many important things to say.

Myself, I diverge from the conclusion that JMG makes. I find that efficiency is the quality of a system that measures how much output is produced from a given amount of input, based on the primary inputs and outputs of a system. Resilience, to me, is how much change there is in the expected output from inputs that are not the designed input.

Take a rain gauge, and a one inch rain fall. A very efficient rain gauge will report that 1.000 inches of rain fell. A resilient rain gauge will report the same thing, regardless of the presence of dust, bugs, sunlight or clouds, or street work three blocks away.

Efficiency, then, and resilience can both be engineered into a system, with only modest compromises. A well engineered system, either through adjustments and corrections over extended use or by good design, might well have both good efficiency and good resilience.

What JMG, and others, look at, is skewed engineering. That is, emphasizing efficiency while ignoring, or actively degrading, resilience. Few people want a car that gets great fuel efficiency if it means the thing falls over when you turn a corner (one of the examples JMG uses). That is a focus on efficiency without attending resilience. Making a car that won't pollute California, on the other hand, resulted in too many vehicles that were massively inefficient in use of fuel, but very efficient at passing California screening standards (that should not have been a primary output of the design).

So, today I read about Seth Godin's comments on happy and unhappy versions of business ethics.

The happy theory of business ethics is this: do the right thing and you will also maximize your long-term profit.

After all, the thinking goes, doing the right thing builds your brand, burnishes your reputation, helps you attract better staff and gives back to the community, the very community that will in turn buy from you. Do all of that and of course you'll make more money. Problem solved.

The unhappy theory of business ethics is this: you have a fiduciary responsibility to maximize profit. Period. To do anything other than that is to cheat your investors. And in a competitive world, you don't have much wiggle room here.

If you would like to believe in business ethics, the unhappy theory is a huge problem.

I see a direct example of efficiency and resilience. In the "happy" theory, the focus is on resilience, on making changes and unexpected inputs to the system (the company) simple noise, and not impacting the ability to do business. In the "unhappy" theory, resilience is deliberately avoided as the sole engineering paradigm is focused on the "efficiency" of making a profit, and avoiding loss.

And I think that Seth and JMG both overlook the obvious.

That is, a resilient design, with good efficiency, is necessary. Spend to much effort on resilience, on effects on the system that don't pay off in supporting the designed output, and you waste resources and opportunities. Any system that fails to produce enough output will fail or be abandoned, so efficiency at some level is needed for survival of the system.

I look at a system differently. The health of the system might describe the ability to survive and perform in the presence of unexpected occurrences, and be described as resilience. Production would be the output of the system, and be described by the limits to how much can be produced, and by the efficiency of using inputs to produce a given output. Basal needs would describe inputs needed for the health and operation of the system that don't directly result in primary output production.

And I think that the definitions of efficiency and resilience are two different axes on a graph, and not opposite ends of a continuous spectrum. The better the design or engineering, the more each is maximized.

For Seth, the happy theory is useless to an organization that doesn't know how to do business. The unhappy theory makes an unwarranted assumption that ruthless operation is necessarily a successful business tactic; it can and often is a more rapid path to dissolution.

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