Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Obama, BP, and Perpetual Retooling: an Ivy League Disaster

I've been in and out of my apartment lately, and the magazines pile up. Today is recycling day, and road resurfacing day, and so there are lots of big machines grumbling about. There's been some lightning too, but so far no earthquakes. It's hard to find peace of mind.

While quickly scanning through the piled up magazines, to make sure that I don't throw away something I'd later wish I hadn't, I was struck by the cover of Information Week, March 8, just before the big Gulf oil blowout. They were celebrating the massive and radical transformation the shiny new BP CIO had accomplished.

According to the somewhat tired old saw which gets rehearsed in these particular pages, he had accomplished this great turnabout from IT being a moribund expense drag to it's being profit driven and cost conscious and mission centered. As you read the article, it's clear that the transformation was mostly about squeezing more productivity out of less money. They wanted to get rid of contractors and replace them with mission-oriented BP badge-wearing specialty staff. In place of "tenured generalists."

I'm certain that IT was already at the center of how BP makes its money. There are plenty of sophisticated applications which enable them to find oil and gas and then plan to extract it. Around these tools, there must be an incredible wealth of knowledge, much of it in the form of the lore of hard experience. Having been an IT "contractor" myself (which means you don't work directly for the company you support, but rather for an "outsourcing" company) I know how disparaged we types are by the company insiders.

But often the insiders are more focused on the politics of the place while the outsiders - the contractors - are focused only on getting the job done well, efficiently, and correctly. In many cases, contractors stay around long enough to know more about the processes their insider bosses direct them to accomplish than any of those insiders ever master. More than they ever need to master, because they have contractors to make them look good.

In one extreme case which used to give me chuckles bordering on helpless laughter, a particular government agency I'd had to interact with - one whose budget was the subject of a law suit on behalf of the people by the State's own Attorney General - kept firing this one lowly contractor, and then kept figuring out that he was the only one there who actually got things done. So they'd hire him back. He'd coach us "consumers" about how to circumvent the bureaucracy, and how to work the system, and finally he'd actually see to it that the goals on the books actually got accomplished.

He was a good-humored fellow who got through his days, I'm sure, by nursing along a book-length satire about government efficiency which I still hope to read some day. Maybe I was fooled by his Monty Python accent, but I think it should be a good read. Eventually, I discovered that virtually every single one of my peer "voluntary agencies" (meaning we were not-for-profit businesses apart from the government empire which controlled us) which interacted with this multi-hundreds-of-millions government IT operation was also best buddies with "Steve."

I don't doubt for even a second that the catastrophe in the Gulf is directly related to political transformations being effected inside BP. They were apparently discovering that they weren't making as much money as quickly as were their competitors and could see their own demise in their future. I'm also reasonably certain that this is directly related to those aspects of the company which truly were forward looking - all that "Beyond Petroleum" stuff which wouldn't pan out for years while competitors were cashing in on the here and now.

Information Week is clearly cognizant, even if only tangentially, of its complicity in the BP disaster - nobody wants to say these things out loud, but if you cut too much too fast, disaster is one likely scenario. It happens all the time in IT, which was the point of Information Week's follow on commentary about the cautionary nature of the BP disaster.

I still like President Obama fine, but like probably everyone else in the country, I was plenty disappointed by his message last night. The trouble with it was that is was all message. It was too well thought out, and reflected the Ivy world-view with which he has overpopulated his administration.

I should talk, but these guys have no real-world experience solving actual problems. They are skilled and talented and knowledgeable at the highest level only, and the bulk of their ability is rhetorical. They have to know how to align and motivate and direct those below them who actually do the work, just like that fellow at BP; their new and highest level IT manager.

Lowly IT people, no matter what their skills and knowledge level, would be scared shitless with the prospect to be the decision-maker at that height of accountability. That's what an Ivy League education actually means in the end, and it is no mistake that our presidents tend to come from there. They have no real doubts that they are as likely to know what to do as anybody else is, and gaining power and authority reinforces confidence in those positions.

Obama was off his game yesterday. He's allowed the message mavens to control his delivery and demeanor and to package a pitch-perfect rendering of the obvious, but really he should leave that to Time Magazine. It's what they're good at. He didn't come across as though he himself actually believes the platitudes about our better future, to be powered by our can-do American spirit. Maybe he's been ground down already by an insiders view of government in action.

It should be obvious to anyone that our future has never been brighter. We are at the brink of genuine breakthroughs in energy storage, transmission and distribution, and most of these will depend on sophisticated IT systems to be realized. An idiotic amount of energy - sorry - is still being expended on the supply side when any idiot can see that the sun deposits more than enough energy to run even our extravagant human consumption onto a space smaller than the state of Rhode Island if you do the math. Much smaller.

We are like lousy parents who talk a good game and maybe scream and argue and shout, but the kids know how to get the real rewards. The money right now is still in the hands and under the control of the oilmen. Oil is what's defined our civilization ever since the great wars of the last century, and continuing through the present. Oh, and by the way, there's lithium in Afghanistan, did I forget to tell you? How careless of me. Maybe that will quell the psychotic behaviors of our governors, even while it powers our cellphone and laptop batteries.

Maybe we'll let them concoct another third-world corrupted government narrative to maintain their hegemonic power over all that they survey. "They" are always graduated from the Ivy League.

Any damned fool can understand that the power of sub-global-corporate capitalism is more than equal to the task to rejigger our energy consumption patterns if there's money in it. Capitalism as we now practice it is more properly called global corporatism, and has about as much to do with buisness-minded energy as Stalinism does with Communism. We should get a rhetorical clue already!

It's government's role to change the incentive structure, and to do so somewhat drastically. So Rumsfeld is a criminal egotistical frat-boy jerk with some score to settle from the old days; that doesn't mean that all of his ideas were wrong. He was the majordomo of outsourcing, and likely of its corruption as well. Just imagine if we'd paid our grunts the money we paid to their private yahoo peers!

Sometimes we could use a Howdy Doody C-level intellect like Bush or Reagan, just simply because they can believe their own bullshit rhetoric. Hell, if I were to have exercised common sense ahead of time about many of my life's greatest accomplishments, I never would have attempted them in the first place.

OK, I don't have any great accomplishments, unless you consider the stuff I've already done which someday will be appreciated but so far isn't. Ha! But, there is something supremely satisfying about facing a problem which simply must be solved, and having to do it with the limited resources ready to hand. More times than not, I find that with a steady mind and steady resolve, and some body memory in my muscles which says that indeed this thing can be broken loose, there is a solution to be found.

The solution is almost never the one you might have wished for at the outset. Most of those fine soltions are readily had for a price, which is why not having the price of admission can be a pretty good solution driver, In order to get there you really do have to let your mind wander, and let some random in. You have to let the proper tools and parts and resources reveal themselves from among the stuff around you.

Right now, we think we all know everything we need to know about the problems which face us. We think we have all the facts we need about global warming and about Peak Oil and about population pressures, and oil-dependent agriculture and all we can see is gloom and doom because we can't imagine how to get all those stupid people to agree with us and agree to act in concert toward what we already know must be done.

Well folks, that's the Ivy League perspective in a nutshell. It can make you cynical, looking down at all those stupid people who just don't get it, how they have to put away their guns and snowmobiles and SUVs, while we continue to indulge our summer houses and multiple Priuses and jet-away holidays, and proxy murder of  hundreds of thousands of innocents if it isn't millions anymore. Our proxy larceny of whole cultures beneath our desire for year-round veggies to pamper the personal temple of our ever-so-sensitive bodies.

We live on oil in precisely the same way that we live off all the stupid people who eat MacDonald's every day, and believe that it's they who've failed and not our system of education. I don't mean that it's which  system. I mean that it's system in the first place. The very possibility for education has been destroyed in precisely the same fashion that we've already destroyed so many indigenous and self-sustaining cultures on the premise that they really want to be like us and should start my supporting us in the lifestyle according to which we'd like to remain accustomed.

Anyhow, what Obama needs is a few can-do Buffalonians on his advisory staff and a few fewer Ivy Leagers. He needs some more people with the actual experience of getting problems solved, and then he needs to let people take risks within the level of their expertise. Outsourcing, a notorious evil of our new global economy, can also mean autonomy, responsibility, risk-taking problem solving, and a collectively rendered solution very much in line with what's best about so-called capitalism.

Bureaucracies, no matter whether in government or in so-called private industry tend to stifle innovative problem solving. Surely this much is understood. You can see the buck passing written all over the face of the BP disaster, and the risk taking by people in no position to understand the consequences of the risks they would take. Everyone wants to be a cowboy, just like GWB was. The consequences are simply too obvious to bear rehearsing.

You can see our nation wanting to believe in the spirit so amply demonstrated in our past - the same damned World War II that Obama had to invoke yet again. The one which powered the oil-dependent economy my parents generation got wealthy on. I'm sick of that story. The emergency now is as great. Stop incentivising oil, stop incentivising agribusiness, stop incentivising too big to fail and the rest will take care of itself. Duh!

I just don't think this is rocket science - I mean getting people on the moon really was harder, and I'm tired of hearing about that too. Let's get our act together here on earth how 'bout, huh?

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