One of the important developments in engineering and management thinking since World War II is the value of approaching large problems as systems rather than simply as a sum of separable components. Designing a ballpoint pen is very different from designing an aircraft or a fire control system; in the latter cases there are multiple functionalities and components that need to be incorporated, each associated with specific engineering and material disciplines. It was recognized during World War II that it is much more effective to treat the product and the design and manufacturing efforts as systems so that it is possible to conform components to synergistic and mutually supportive inter-relationships.
Here is how Hughes and Hughes describe the systems approach in their introduction to the volume:
Practitioners and proponents embrace a holistic vision. They focus on the interconnections among subsystems and components, taking special note of the interfaces among the various parts. What is significant is that system builders include heterogeneous components, such as mechanical, electrical, and organizational parts, in a single system. Organizational parts might be managerial structures, such as a military command, or political entities, such as a government bureau. Organizational components not only interact with technical ones but often reflect their characteristics. For instance, a management organization for presiding over the development of an intercontinental missile system might be divided into divisions that mirror the parts of the missile being designed. (2)
The first CAP program guide, for example, suggested that local organizations provide “meaningful opportunities for residents, either as individuals or in groups, to protest or to propose additions to or changes in the ways in which a Community Action Program is being planned or undertaken.” In fact, protest and confrontation were viewed by many CAP organizers as at least therapeutic means for the poor to vent their frustrations. (339)
But Johnson’s administration was not interested in providing a venue for community advocacy and protest, and quickly sought to find ways of managing social welfare programs to reduce the level of activism they stimulated. The solution was the extension of the PPB (Planning-Programming-Budgeting) model from defense systems administration to the Great Society. But, as Jardini observes, this hierarchical system of control is poorly adapted to the problem of designing and administering programs that affect vast groups of people who can see its effects and can have very different ideas about the appropriateness of the policies being conveyed. “In this sense, the DOD is a poor model for the democratic ideal many Americans hold for their government institutions” (341).
This example illustrates an important tension that runs through many of the essays in the volume concerning the political significance of systems engineering and management. The volume gives support to the idea that systems management is an expert-driven and non-democratic way of organizing complicated human activities. What Robert McNamara brought to Ford Motor Company and the Department of Defense was a hierarchical, analytical, expert-driven system of management that sought to replace decentralized decision-makers with an orderly process driven from the top. For some purposes this may be a reasonably effective way of organizing a large effort involving thousands of agents. But for purposes like social reform it has a fatal flaw; it makes it almost impossible to create the level of buy-in at the local level that will be crucial for the success of a large project.
(I remember asking Tom Hughes in 1999 or so what he thought about the massive “Big Dig” project in Boston, then approaching completion and affecting many neighborhoods and thousands of residents. He commented that he felt that we should not judge the success of the project on the basis of whether it came in under budget; in fact, he suggested that this would show that the project designers and managers had not done enough to modify and adapt the project to gain support from the communities that the project affected.)