The idea that is so powerful that it can never be put onto a computer.

I’m endlessly fascinated with what gets stored in Admiral Document Storage. Of course I don’t have access to what people choose to store with my company, but sometimes they choose to talk with me, tell me what they are storing, and occasionally I get to have a look at what’s in the box.

One firm that we deal with produces staff training manuals and, despite the fact that such manuals could be supplied as Word documents, they still only provide them as printed copies. I asked why.

It seems that there are two reasons. The first is that documents that are provided as digital files are about 100 times less likely to be read than documents that are provided as manuals. And indeed, that “100 times” figure goes up further and further the bigger the document gets.

Second, anything digital can be copied very easily, and if it can be copied it will be copied. “If we released our manuals as digital files then we’d immediately have them circulating all over the internet. Of course we could demand they be taken down, but by then the damage would be done.”

“But printed copies can be photocopied,” I protested.

“However these days they aren’t, or not very much. If it isn’t digital, no one wants to know about copying,” said my customer.

So for him digital is out, and printing is back in. But what makes a training document so important that it needs to be protected in this way, I wondered.

The answer was clear.

“Successful organisations manage their staff very carefully and cleverly. This has got nothing to do with telling them what they can and can’t do, but it has everything to do with the management of who has the power.”

I obviously looked bemused at this point, because over a coffee I was given a more detailed explanation.

“Consider a large ship at sea,” said my customer. I duly did. “Who runs the ship?”

“The captain,” I answered.

“Fair enough,” my client said, “but what does the captain do if the ship’s engines are not running very well, and the ship is going more slowly than the captain would like?”

“He asks the engineer to fix things, I guess,” I said.

“And if the engineer says, ‘Sorry Captain, can’t be done, we need a new WX97 on the second engine’. What then?”

I thought about it. “I guess the Captain has to take the engineer’s advice.”

“So who is running the ship?”

We talked about it. Given that the captain probably doesn’t know a fraction of what the engineer knows about the ship’s engines in this regard, it seemed to be the engineer. The engineer says he needs a new component, and unless he can get a second opinion, the captain has to concur.

“Now think of a large company that is getting more orders in every week. More orders are processed through the company’s offices, but eventually the head of the order processing section says, ‘We are now overstretched, we need more staff. We also need three new computers to replace those that we bought three years ago’.”

“The MD of the company protests, arguing that the extra staff and new computers will eat up the profits that the extra work has generated, to which the head of processing says, “Fair enough, but we’ll have to cut something else because we are overloaded and the computers are too slow. Here’s our new priority schedule. Items at the end are likely not to be done some weeks because we have too much to do.””

I pondered.

“It is the same problem both ways,” said my client. “In most organisations today the MD thinks he has power, but in effect, because he cannot know about all of the operations of the business, he relies on others to tell him what’s what.

“Many senior managers will deal with this by refusing to give in, saying to anyone asking for more equipment or more staff, ‘just do your best’. Which puts the problem back to the head of processing or the ship’s engineer. Some will rant and rave and say, ‘If you can’t do the job I’ll get someone else in who can’, and will hope for the best, knowing that this might lead to a resignation or an industrial tribunal, and either way, quite probably a failing system.

“But there is worse, for in the most difficult cases the employee will be clever, and will say “here’s what we won’t do each week, because you are overloading us.” In short he gives the problem back to the boss.

“What our manuals do is show bosses how to cope with clever staff, how to retain power and how to get people to do what they want them to do. That is why we are so keen to keep it all under our hats. If the workers ever got hold of what we teach senior management, there would be hell to pay.”

I have to say that at this point that I did ask whether I could write this little exchange up on my blog, and did get agreement. “Knowing the principle doesn’t help people too much. It is knowing how to apply it that is the key,” my customer said. “By all means tell the world. But you can’t have a copy of the manual that tells them how to resolve the battle.”

So there we are. Another insight into what we store at Admiral Document Storage. Fortunately I don’t employ enough staff to lose control of my own business, but it is still frightening to think it could happen.

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