Sport Systems – fragments of thought #6

Mark Upton
Jun 22, 2017

previous fragments — #1, #2, #3, #4, #5

Yesterday’s fragment looked at some of the hallmarks of bureaucracy and rationalisation & their increasing presence in sports organisations.

“Calculability” was one of these hallmarks and that is pervasive…leading to an obsession with metrics…

A story of a senior management figure in a sport system demonstrated this fetish by demanding that one of their subordinates “just make up a number” so that the progress of a certain initiative could be quantified, thus restoring order and control to the (their?) world.

Along with reporting, the collection and collation of these metrics can easily consume people’s time, which has the, possibly unintended, consequence of realising another trait of bureaucracy – impersonalisation. It does this by restricting the time, energy and focus people have to directly interact and build relationships with each other…horizontally and vertically within and between organisations that need to work together. Ironically, the quality of “information” that comes from these disintermediated encounters is often far richer than the data and colours displayed on a spreadsheet attached to an email.

‘Management by Spreadsheet’ has grown wildly popular since the eighties and nineties:

“Taylorism or Scientific Management is a managerial regression, if you ask me, but unfortunately it’s exactly the Tayloristic approach that prevails in many organizations. Scientific Management aims to monitor and measure everything and if management doesn’t achieve the desired results, they establish even more measurement procedures and invent even further directives. The outcome of this approach is that employees are deprived of their freedom to think and act independently.” – Lars Ulslev Johannesen (source)

The other element that emerges or dissipates with human v spreadsheet interaction is trust. Perhaps more on trust in another fragment.

Encouragingly, two of my colleagues on this blog have recently shared invaluable narratives in this area that could guide us down a more fruitful path…

Sporticus, in his post ‘conversations at the noticeboard’, reflected…

By not paying attention to what was being discussed at the notice board and focusing on the data I thought I was being more objective, more efficient and more scientific. However if we lose contact with the human perspective we limit our ability to genuinely understand ‘our world’ be that physical education, school sport or any other world that involves people. Listening to children talk at the notice board provided me with a wealth of data, through the stories they shared. About all sorts of experiences of PE and school sport, from the obscure to the profound. It provided me with an deeper understanding of the culture of PE and school sport that my department provided.

And last week Jono Byrne, in his post ‘Innovation: The Wrong Trousers’, explained…

It was pretty obvious what was causing the problem. There were too many layers between the people who knew exactly what the AGTs needed to do and the people actually making the things in a factory at the other end of the country.

Thankfully, sense prevailed and a small low-cost experiment was agreed. To cut straight through the intermediary layers, the specialist sub-contractor’s chief designer would be sent to the centrifuge for a fortnight, working alongside Andy, me, and the rest of the test team. Meanwhile, the RAF made 3 experienced fighter pilots available to assist the work.

With the designer now ‘on-site’, Andy and other team members were able to explain the flaws in the existing design. Face-to-face discussions, offering a multitude of simultaneous (but relevant) perspectives on the AGTs proved more effective than communicating via data and ‘test reports’.

If increasing bureaucracy in sport systems threatens to impersonalise & engineer our existence in sport, perhaps more than ever we need to RE-personalise life in sport…