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Bureaucratic knowledge

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Business value

Like any other part of the business, departmental bureaucracies do what they can to advance the corporate mission and goals. So, if the IT department is told to make sure failed tech doesn’t seriously disrupt employees’ work, then it might
keep a fleet of spare laptops on hand that employees can just grab when theirs are down. Or, if the department is told to keep costs low or to maintain security above all else, it may become much harder for an employee to get a replacement. Either way, the department will use its knowledge of technology, of company business processes, and of user needs to meet the stated goal.

That makes them experts, not “pencil-pushing bureaucrats.” In fact, they are often responsible for mediation among
various groups, so they know more than anyone else, not only about their users’ needs but also about how the business actually functions.

A seat at the table

That’s why bureaucracies need a seat at the table. “Ever since we instituted the new procedures, our users are angry at us all the time” is an important thing for the C-suite to know. But this is also important to hear: “The goal you state seems simple, but the process is far more complex than you think.”

To have something to say at that table, a bureaucracy needs to know not only the monthly stats about their customers’ satisfaction levels and so forth, but it also needs to give space to internal discussion and disagreement, including questioning its own key performance indicators and even its corporate goals. The knowledge of bureaucrats comes from living at the nexus of strategy and implementation, the nexus of best practices and human values, the nexus of multiple departments with their independent goals, and at the nexus of wishes and reality. That makes their voices worth listening to.


Author’s note: The special issue of The Journal for the History of Knowledge is open access and is available in its entirety at https://tinyurl.com/y9hzdr22.

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