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Parasitism as an Abstraction for Organisational Dysfunctions
Air Power Australia - Australia's Independent Defence Think Tank
Air Power Australia Essay on Military Ethics and Culture
11th September, 2013
Dysfunctions in organizations, be they commercial or government organizations, are a problem observed, sadly, for millennia. Empires have fallen due to dysfunctions in the machinery of state, while no differently commercial empires have collapsed repeatedly as a result of dysfunctions. Understanding organisational dysfunctions is the first and necessary, but not sufficient condition, for eradicating them.
There are, needless to say, a great many known and observable dysfunctions, which can impair the performance of, or ultimately destroy an organization. Well known examples include Janis’ groupthink (Janis, 1982), runaway group narcissism (Fromm, 1992), and failures in internal feedback mechanisms, or pervasive systemic dishonesty, as observed in Enron and other examples (Fleming and Zyglidopoulos, 2008). Another problem frequently observed at this time is the “Dunning-Kruger effect” (Kruger and Dunning, 1999), (Ehrlinger et al., 2008), resulting from localized or pervasive de-skilling, the latter often self-induced by inappropriate outsourcing of core functions in organizations (Bushell, 2010), (Bushell and Kopp, 2008). Confusion or misunderstanding of the differences between strategic and non-strategic activities can also be a major cause of systemic problems (Goon, 1997). Many dysfunctions arise from a failure to understand the system level behaviors of the organization (Gall, 1986), (Argyris, 1976).
These dysfunctions can arise, on a small scale, in most organizations, but appropriate internal governance can usually produce suitable corrective actions, ensuring that the organization can survive, and ultimately prosper, by effectively performing its core function welli. Fundamentally every organization has some intended, and overtly stated purpose or function, and mostly, the performance of an organization is measured against this purpose or function. This is an implicit assumption, as is the assumption that personnel who form the organization align their interests and individual and collective effort with the stated purpose or function of the organization.
When internal governance fails, any or all of these dysfunctions can grow, and where this occurs on a pervasive scale, the organization may collapse, or settle into an equilibrium state where it cannot perform its core functions, and persists by subsidy alone. In effect, the dysfunctional organization is kept alive by external “life support”, either by shareholders, taxpayers, or both, as the organization’s core function is deemed to be indispensable, usually as a result of an effective “monopoly” imposed by law, geography or other constraints.
The question arises inevitably, whether there is a better model or abstraction, which captures the cause of pervasive dysfunction, observed in many collapsed, collapsing, or persistently near collapse organizations.
One abstraction or model, worthy of careful consideration in this context, are models labeled by biologists as “parasitic” or “parasitoid” interactions between parasitic organisms and their hosts (Godfray, 2004). Biological models, especially involving colony organisms, can be useful abstractions for modeling some social systems, and as will become apparent, this instance presents often a remarkably good fit to empirical observation of serious organisational dysfunctions.
A parasite is an organism that spends much of its lifecycle attached to a host organism, from which it draws at a minimum, nourishment, but may also exploit the host for protection, shelter or reproduction. A stable equilibrium is often established, where the parasite actively subverts the internal physiology or behavior of the host, to pursue its own biological aims, especially propagation through reproduction, and typically aims to keep its host alive in this state for as long as it can be exploited.
The host usually suffers loss of health, reproductive potential, or other deleterious effects, including shortened lifespan. Where the latter is prominent, the parasitic organism is described as a “parasitoid” as it eventually kills its host. Parasitoid interactions are essentially predatory, and one interpretation could be that a parasitoid organism predates upon its victim, using the tools and techniques of the parasite.
It is important to distinguish parasitic and parasitoid relationships with hosts, from “symbiotic” relationships with hosts. A “symbiote” coexists with its host in a mutually beneficial relationship, forming a permanent or transient community in which the organisms both benefit. In effect, the species coexist, bartering products and services, and in some instances the symbiosis is “obligate”, in the sense that the partnered organisms cannot survive without each other.
Biology researchers have documented a vast number of instances of parasitic, parasitoid, and predatory adaptations in organisms. Especially interesting examples involve parasitic or parasitoid attacks on colony species, where an ant, bee, termite or other colony species becomes a host to be exploited. Parasitic and parasitoid adaptations are common on many scales, ranging from micro-organisms up to complex organisms, such as insects, fish, birds or mammals – evolution does not appear to discriminate in this area, with parasite and parasitoid adaptations arising in many areas.
Central to the success of parasitic adaptations or parasitoid predation on hosts is the successful use of deceptions.
The problem of deception has been well studied empirically, in biological, social and machine systems, but until 1999-2000, there was no mathematically robust theoretical construct describing deceptive strategies. The first theoretical construct, which captures all forms of deception, simple and compound, in a mathematically tractable form is the Borden-Kopp model, initially explored in the domain of information warfare, and based on information and game theoretic abstractions (Kopp, 2003). This model identifies four “canonical strategies”, which can be shown to be indivisible, and can be applied by an attacker either concurrently, or sequentially, or in complex compound strategies (Brumley et al., 2012), (Brumley et al., 2005).
The four strategies are defined thus (Brumley et al., 2005):
Importantly, biological parasites and parasitoids employ any, but frequently all of the four canonical strategies to overcome the host organism’s defenses, rendering it incapable of recognizing that it is under attack, or responding to the attack. The most successful parasites and parasitoids make extensive use of corruption and subversion, and are often impossible to dislodge easily, if at all, once established.
If we wish to define a parasite or parasitoid in information / game theoretic terms, it is any entity which employs any or all of the four canonical deception strategies to overcome the defenses of a host, which is then exploited to the advantage of the attacking parasite or parasitoid, providing it with nourishment, shelter and opportunities for reproduction. The relationship is not mutualistic, as the parasite or parasitoid exploits the host without any reciprocal benefit to the host, subverting the functions of the host to it own ends alone, and frequently causing the premature demise of the host.
This very general definition of parasitic and parasitoid behavior presents a useful framework for studying the problem of dysfunctional organizations.
Organizations are social systems in which, mostly, individuals invest time and effort in pursuing the stated goals of the organization, and are rewarded for their effort, mostly, in material terms. The latter appears to be one of the most common motivators for people to be become part of an organization, even if the stated goals of the organization are not always material goals, such as profit.
For organizations to function effectively, the agendas and goals of personnel must be closely aligned with the agendas and goals of the organization. Most of the problems we observe in the management of organizations arise from various misalignments between the intended goals of the organization, and the personnel staffing it. There is a wealth of literature detailing the various possible ways in which such misalignments might arise, but mostly, they are related to unintended systemic structural and design problems in organizations, especially breakdowns in feedback loops, and the flow of information through organizations, or a misunderstanding of how to reward effort in a manner which reinforces the alignment of goals between personnel, and the organization (Gall, 1986), (Argyris, 1976).
The extensive works of Argyris, for instance, are mostly predicated on the assumption that the agendas of personnel forming an organization are aligned with the interests of the organization, but importantly he identifies and explores the potential for conflict between these agendas (Argyris, 1957), (Argyris, 1960), (Argyris, 1976), (Argyris, 1976), (Argyris, 2001).
The problem of parasitic and parasitoid behaviors in organizations represents the extreme instance of misalignment or conflict, where the misalignment or conflict is a wilful action by personnel seeking to exploit their position within the organization, to maximize individual or group gain at the expense of the organization as a whole. Trivial examples include personnel wasting time and resources, to pursue their own agendas; more serious examples involve manipulating policy, practices, or organisational goals, to favor the manipulator at the expense of the organization. The latter instances are of most interest, as they present by far the greatest risks to the organization’s health, and indeed survival.
Human social systems frequently exhibit the “Tragedy of the Commons” problem, whereby shared resources are overexploited, and often collapse (Hardin, 2009). Recently and well known examples include numerous collapsed fisheries or environmental disasters, breakdowns in the academic peer review system, or exploitation of social welfare systems. The mechanisms of these breakdowns are common, and can be modeled by the classic iterated “Prisoner’s Dilemma” game, whereby uncontrolled competition leads to selfish individual exploitation of the shared resource, where “defection” is chosen over “cooperation” (Rapoport, 1965). The defense, which generally works best to pre-empt such problems, is proper governance over activities, which involve a shared resource, to ensure that competitive behavior does not take on an unwanted life of its own.
Governance in human social systems performs a role analogous to that of an immune system in a complex organism, or soldier insects in a colony organism – identify and neutralize internal or external threats invading the organism, and threatening its wellbeing, or even survival.
Parasites and parasitoids invading organisms must defeat the host organism’s defenses to establish themselves, and survive to exploit the host organism. The best strategy for doing so is to appear to the host organism’s defenses as a part of the host organism, rather than the invader they actually are. This is why deceptions are the primary tool employed by a parasitic predatory species. It is easier to bypass these defenses, than actively fight them, as any battle fought against the host organism’s defenses might be lost, but even if won, will drain resources which could otherwise be exploited to an advantage by the invading parasite or parasitoid.
Perhaps the best example is that of the “cuckoo ant species” in which the invading queens of the Bothriomyrmex regicidus and decapitans, or Monomorium sanschii displace the original queens, and seduce the workers into rearing their own brood. This is a classic subversion attack, supported by degradation and corruption, as required (Kopp and Mills, 2002).
The choice of this example is intentional, for three reasons. The first is that it shows a parasitoid predator, which wholly subverts the purpose of its host colony, into propagating the genes of the attacker, leading eventually to the death of the original colony. The second is that it shows the high potency of deceptions, in this instance chemical, in effecting the subversion of the victim colony. Finally it shows the potency of a parasitic attack against the “leadership” of the colony, its queen, which defines its purpose.
This is quite different from the parasitic attack of the Eurasian Large Blue butterfly, where an ant colony is seduced into rearing caterpillars, and where an ant colony collapse tends to be an inadvertent rather than inevitable occurrence as a result (Als et al., 2004).
In social systems, a parasitic or parasitoid attack on an organization involves personnel manipulating the organization’s systems to an advantage, without any reciprocal contributions to the organization’s advancement or survival.
Perhaps the most interesting “cookbook” of techniques for such parasitic and parasitoid subversion of organizations can be found in the 1944 Office of Strategic Services “Simple Sabotage Field Manual”, Section 11, included in Annex A. While the OSS compiled these for the purpose of crippling Axis industries during times of war, many of these techniques will be familiar to managers with experience dealing with personnel pursuing their own agendas at the expense of efficiency and the advancement of an organization. While such personnel waste time and resources, the organization is rewarding them with salary payments.
By far the most damaging parasitic or parasitoid attacks arise in the senior management structures of organizations, as typically it is in these structures that resources are controlled, and planning and management decisions are made, which determine the goals of the organization. Moreover, management systems within organizations are typically where most internal governance functions are concentrated, and where these can be most effectively subverted, misdirected, or indeed neutralized by an invader.
The list of examples and case studies of organizations which have fallen victim to such internal subversions could be very long, if it were not for the fact that a conclusive determination that such an attack occurred would require more than often a deep forensic analysis of records, where the true rationale for management choices made would typically never be disclosed. A CEO or VP who drives up quarterly profits by gutting core organisational capabilities, vital for long term survival, to enhance his or her CV in preparation for a move to another victim organization, will be unlikely to leave an easily interpreted or understood documentation trail.
Large bureaucracies, which grow without restraint, or to the bounds of resources, without producing commensurate increases in tangible output, present as interesting examples of group level parasitic attacks, in that shared goal of management and other personnel in such organizations may simply be to make the organization larger, as incumbent personnel would typically be rewarded by promotions, and increasing size presents profitable opportunities to diffuse responsibility and accountability. In such organizations, there may not be any evidentiary trail, other than a track record of growing size and declining outputs in stated core functions.
Nevertheless, understanding how parasitic and parasitoid attacks on organizations occur does provide us with some diagnostic tools for establishing, prima facie, that an organization may be the victim of such an attack.
The presence of any combination of these three symptoms is an indicator that the organization is in difficulty, and while other causes than an internal parasitic or parasitoid attack from within the management structure may be possible or probable, there is ample cause to look for an internal, self-interest driven, attack.
In biological systems, some parasites cannot be dislodged, and the organism is destined to live out its life, possibly a very short one, in pain or misery, before the inevitable end comes.
In social systems, there is much greater potential to successfully identify and excise the parasitic attackers, and heal the organization. Yet as the sad history of collapsed commercial organizations, collapsed states, and collapsed empires shows, internal parasitic attacks far too often also result in the death of the social organism.
Identifying a parasitic or parasitoid infestation, or infestations, within an organization, and repairing the damage, may be neither simple nor easy, as parasitic and parasitoid attackers are by definition, masters of deception, and inherently adept at appearing to be functional parts of the host organism, or host organization. Parasitic or parasitoid attackers are often highly adaptive, staying ahead of, and evading defenses.
No differently, the challenges medical and veterinary science confronts in dealing with parasitic or parasitoid infections illustrate the difficulties inherent in treatment, as the treatments are often painful, sometimes toxic, and often ineffective. The ongoing battle against malaria, able to adapt and evade defenses, makes for an excellent and extensive case study.
As in biological systems, the starting point for dealing with a parasitic or parasitoid attack must be in accurate and unambiguous diagnosis of the problem.
In dealing with attacks on organizations, it is essential that all other causes of dysfunction be correctly identified and excluded. For instance, the “industrious idiot” identified by Hammerstein-Equord, more formally an individual exhibiting Dunning-Kruger effect determined behaviors, will cause mayhem in a management structure through ignorance and inflated self-confidence, and may produce similar or identical damage effects to a parasitic or parasitoid attacker, but fervently believe these actions to be in the interests of the organization (Enzensberger, 2009), (Kruger and Dunning, 1999), (Ehrlinger et al., 2008).
The archetypal and best documented case studies of cold blooded premeditated parasitic, and arguably parasitoid, attacks on a host organization are to be found in the intelligence community, and specifically the instances of Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, both of whom produced extreme damage effects to their host organizations, for personal gain, material and psychological. Exposing both required an expensive and painstaking effort, as both competently masked their trails, exploiting opportunities to make the consequences of their actions appear to be unfortunate accidents (Wise, 2002), (Intelligence, 1994).
A complicating factor in the diagnosis of any parasitic or parasitoid attack on an organization is a natural propensity for deceivers to self-deceive about their own motives and agendas. This problem has been well studied, and extensive literature exists spanning psychology, biology, and cognitive science. Deceivers can improve their odds of success by convincing themselves that their actions are appropriate (Von Hippel and Trivers, 2011), (Peck, 1983), (Brumley et al., 2005).
Arguably, there is a continuum of dysfunctional behaviors spanning Hammerstein-Equord’s hapless “industrious idiots”, through opportunistic but self-deceiving organisational parasites, up to the extreme instances of sociopathic premeditated parasitic attackers, wholly aware of the nature of their actions. While biological parasites and parasitoid predators have no choice in their actions, humans choosing to play these strategies typically do. Even the “industrious idiot” will likely have some inkling that his or her actions are not always doing good to the organization, and will likely deal with the cognitive dissonance experienced by one or another self-deception.
It is interesting to observe that the often catastrophic impacts of parasitic and parasitoid predators in leadership positions were identified centuries ago – the deepest recesses of Dante’s Inferno were reserved for deceivers and betrayers (Alighieri and Cary, 2010).
Care must therefore be taken in the diagnosis of parasitic or parasitoid attacks on organizations, to establish with certainty what comprises an intentional effort to parasitize the organization, versus instances of self-deceiving incompetents in management positions.
Repairing the damage to an organization will also demand careful thought and thorough analysis of the damage effects. In many instances, replacing or educating problematic personnel, and restoring damaged functions within the organization may suffice.
Much more challenging are instances where the parasitic or parasitoid attack has gone undetected or unchallenged for a long time, allowing the attacker to substantially alter the internal structures, governance mechanisms, staffing and as a consequence, the internal culture and focus of the organization. In such instances, an organization may be beyond repair, and it might be necessary to start anew, this being the default scenario observed in collapses of nation states or corporations.
Severely damaged organizations may still be recoverable, and a decision will be required as to whether such a repair should be attempted.
The starting point of such a repair must inevitably be the definition of how the organization should be structured, how it should function, and what its internal culture should be, for it to perform its core function effectively. The baseline is to study extant or past organizations performing similar or identical core functions, which have evolved to perform highly effectively. These present a template for the repair effort, in terms of structure, governance, staffing and internal culture. Progressive and incremental changes must then be implemented, to bridge the gap between the extant organization, and the intended target state.
Importantly, any effort to repair an organization must include the introduction of very robust governance mechanisms, specifically designed to pre-empt and preclude future parasitic or parasitoid attacks from within. In this respect, social systems have a crucial advantage over biological systems, as the latter are constrained by the rate at which genomes can change. However, as biology shows, attackers adapt and evolve, and thus organizations must evolve self-actualizing internal defenses to stay ahead of parasitic and parasitoid attackers, if they are to remain safe from such predation.
A more detailed treatment of the problem of how to recover from a parasitic or parasitoid attack is a substantial study in its own right, and thus well beyond the scope of this work.
In conclusion, the biological abstractions of parasitic and parasitoid predation upon organisms are demonstrably a very useful model for the study, forensic analysis, and recovery from some frequently seen types of organisational dysfunction. Future research presents opportunities to refine modeling, forensic techniques, and develop a robust and detailed methodology for recovering organizations, damaged by the destructive effects of this type of organisational dysfunction.
i We use the term “core function” to describe that activity, which is defined to be central to the purpose of the organization. While the commonly used term “core business function” is often used synonymously, it carries the connotation of a commercial focus, which may or may not be central to the “core function” of many organizations, especially those in the government, military, regulatory, judicial or educational domains.
References and Bibliography
ALS, T. D., VILA, R., KANDUL, N. P., NASH, D. R., YEN, S.-H., HSU, Y.-F., MIGNAULT, A. A., BOOMSMA, J. J. & PIERCE, N. E. 2004. The evolution of alternative parasitic life histories in large blue butterflies. Nature, 432, 386-390.
EHRLINGER, J., JOHNSON, K., BANNER, M., DUNNING, D. & KRUGER, J. 2008. Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 105, 98-121.
KRUGER, J. & DUNNING, D. 1999. Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77, 1121.
Annex A Office of Strategic Services “Simple Sabotage Field Manual”, Section 11
(11) General Interference with Organizations and Production
(a) Organizations and Conferences
(1) Insist on doing everything through "channels." Never permit short cuts to be taken in order to, expedite decisions.
(2) Make "speeches." Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your "points" by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences. Never hesitate to make a few appropriate "patriotic" comments.
(3) When possible, refer all matters to committees, for "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the committees as large as possible - never less than five.
(4) Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
(5) Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, resolutions.
(6) Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of that decision.
(7) Advocate "caution." Be "reasonable" and urge your fellow-conferees to be "reasonable" and avoid haste, which might result in embarrassments or difficulties later on.
(8) Be worried about the propriety of any decision -raise the question of whether such action as is contemplated lies within the jurisdiction of the group or whether it might conflict with the policy of some higher echelon.
(b) Managers and Supervisors
(1) Demand written orders.
(2) "Misunderstand" orders. Ask endless questions or engage in long correspondence about such orders. Quibble over them when you can.
(3) Do everything possible to delay the delivery of orders. Even though parts of an order may be ready beforehand, don't deliver it until it is completely ready.
(4) Don't order new working materials until your current stocks have been virtually exhausted, so that the slightest delay in filling your order will mean a shutdown.
(5) Order high-quality materials, which are hard to get. If you don't get them argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will mean inferior work.
(6) In making work assignments, always sign out the unimportant jobs first. See that the important jobs are assigned to inefficient workers of poor machines.
(7) Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products; send back for refinishing those which have the least flaw. Approve other defective parts whose flaws are not visible to the naked eye.
(8) Make mistakes in routing so that parts and materials will be sent to the wrong place in the plant.
(9) When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.
(10) To lower morale and with it, production, be pleasant to inefficient workers; give them undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.
(11) Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
(12) Multiply paper work in plausible ways. Start duplicate files.
(13) Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions, pay checks, and so on. See that three people have to approve everything where one would do.
(14) Apply all regulations to the last letter.
(c) Office Workers
(1) Make mistakes in quantities of material when you are copying orders. Confuse similar names. Use wrong addresses.
(2) Prolong correspondence with government bureaus.
(3) Misfile essential documents.
(4) In making carbon copies, make one too few, so that an extra copying job will have to be done.
(5) Tell important callers the boss is busy or talking on another telephone.
(6) Hold up mail until the next collection.
(7) Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.
(1) Work slowly. Think out ways to increase the number of movements necessary on your job: use a light hammer instead of a heavy one, try to make a small wrench do when a big one is necessary, use little force where considerable force is needed, and so on.
(2) Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can: when changing the material on which you are working, as you would on a lathe or punch, take needless time to do it. If you are cutting, shaping or doing other measured work, measure dimensions twice as often as you need to. When you go to the lavatory, spend a longer time there than is necessary. Forget tools so that you will have to go back after them.
(3) Even if you understand the language, pretend not to understand instructions in a foreign tongue.
(4) Pretend that instructions are hard to understand, and ask to have them repeated more than once. Or pretend that you are particularly anxious to do your work, and pester the foreman with unnecessary questions.
(5) Do your work poorly and blame it on bad tools, machinery, or equipment. Complain that these things are preventing you from doing your job right.
(6) Never pass on your skill and experience to a new or less skillful worker.
(7) Snarl up administration in every possible way. Fill out forms illegibly so that they will have to be done over; make mistakes or omit requested information in forms.
(8) If possible, join or help organize a group for presenting employee problems to the management. See that the procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible for the management, involving the presence of a large number of employees at each presentation, entailing more than one meeting for each grievance, bringing up problems which are largely imaginary, and so on.
(9) Misroute materials.
(10) Mix good parts with unusable scrap and rejected parts.
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Air Power Australia Essay on Military Ethics and Culture
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