Unintended Consequences of Efficiency

Stan. Sewitch

Marshall McLuhan offered a truly innovative way of understanding the impact of any given message on the receiver, stating that it is determined by the method of delivering that message. Some of you as old as I might remember the famous line, "The medium is the message". He meant that the content of the message is secondary to the form which it takes, in terms of how the receiver "digests" or understands that message. And, of course, how the receiver might behave as a result of receiving the message is therefore largely determined not by the content, but by the form.

There is no right or wrong to this hypothesis, now largely accepted as fact after decades of research have provided so much support. It is simply the way humans work.

I have had to apply this principle over and over again in my job as a business psychologist, in order to help companies improve how they function. In one company, the interpersonal relationships had deteriorated to a point where the company was literally on the brink of collapse: bankruptcy or dissolution. In searching for a cause, I noted that the organization was comprised mostly of very talented scientists and engineers, that the company's product was outstanding and new, that the company had strong financial backers who believed in the technology and that if the company could pull it together, it would be able to hit a huge milestone with targeted dates, and thus ensure that the public stock offering anticipated would be tremendous.

So what was wrong? It took exactly thirty minutes to determine the cause of dysfunction, and I didn't have to talk to anyone. I walked through the company's well-appointed halls, roving from office to office, cubicle bay to bay, and everywhere I went I saw the same thing: lots of people working quite close to each other, using the phone and e-mail to communicate with people that they could see, no more than twenty feet away.

People had come to rely on e-mail, primarily, and then the telephone to talk to each other. It was a matter of gradually developing a habit that allowed a minimum of physical movement. While it appears logical and efficient, it was nearly disastrous. Because here's where McLuhan comes in. Since they were using media of communication that minimized the sensory input during transmission, the receiver applied additional information that could not be obtained from the sender. This additional information was sound, body language, environmental cues, physical proximity, etc. And while the phone is better than e-mail, (it has a couple of modalities that the written word doesn't), the phone is far less effective than personal delivery in conveying what the sender intends.

I've found over the years that if a written document can be interpreted negatively, it is most likely that it will. And if a clearly negative message is included, it will most likely be received ten times more negative than intended. The first response to such an event is usually to compose a written response, rather than go talk to the person. A perceived attack evokes fight or flight responses. Most people counter with the safest approach, i.e., counter-attack impersonally, in document form. So the cycle escalates and people get more entrenched in their distances.

Once I explained to my client how "efficiency" was literally splitting his company apart, he shut off e-mail for two months, for six hours out of every work day. It was turned on for one hour at 8:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. After two months, people understood the dynamics involved, mended their conflicts and went on with business. Their stock performed pretty well for the next few years.



Stan Sewitch
HRG, Inc.

Stan SewitchStan is the founder and CEO of HRG, Inc. Formed in 1989, HRG initially provided organizational, operational, human resources and strategic consulting to hundreds of high-tech and middle-market companies. HRG's service assets were acquired by RSM McGladrey in 1999, and Stan continued with RSM until October of 2004. During his tenure with RSM, Stan was a Senior Partner, leading the southern California strategy and organizational consulting practice, comprised of four offices and serving clients throughout the western U.S. as well as other states. Stan left RSM to continue with HRG, developing it as a center for high-level expertise and investment financing for innovation-based ventures. HRG provides expertise and funding to qualified organizations, and consulting to clients of all types in strategy, organizational effectiveness and executive leadership development.

Stan also formed two other companies. In 1990, he launched Emlyn Systems, a software company publishing a human resources information system. In 1991 he co-founded Chromagen, a biotechnology company endeavoring to commercialize proprietary assays for drug research.

Prior to his entrepreneurial adventures, Stan held senior management positions in operations and human resources. He was manufacturing director for TRW's LSI products division in San Diego. LSI was the first company to produce one-micron analog-to-digital converters and high-speed digital signal processors in CMOS. Stan was also operations director for Elm Corporation, a salmon fishery in Bethel, Alaska. Stan's human resources management positions included Martin Marietta Aluminum, Smith International, TRW and Mycogen Corporation.

Stan holds an M.S. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from California State University, Long Beach, and a B.A. in Psychology from San Diego State University.

Stan authored a weekly column on various issues in business for the San Diego Daily Transcript, entitled "Notes from the Corporate Underground" and is working on a book of the same title. He is a frequent speaker at professional and trade organizations. He was a faculty instructor for UCSD's Extension School of Engineering for five years, teaching a course in technical group leadership.

Personal interests include teaching the martial art of Kenpo and playing bass in the local rock band, "Big Blue Cat".