The Vulnerable Fortress: Bureaucratic Organization and Management in the Information Age

James R. Taylor

Elizabeth J. Van Every

This book looks at the impact of office automation on organizations. The title, The Vulnerable Fortress, alludes to the way in which social, political and economic institutions are threatened by the intrusion of new technologies. What is most apparent, according to the authors, is that office automation has underscored the divergence between theory and practice in organizations. So long as the theory was not operationalized, it did not matter if the theory was inaccurate. In fact, the theoretical descriptions of organizational process served a certain symbolic function. However, when a system is designed and run on the basis of flawed theory, the theory can become a very expensive millstone. The authors say that this is the present situation in modern bureaucracies.

The computer has made it possible to operationalize theories in a way not previously possible. Unlike earlier technological innovations, the computer is message generator as well as message conveyor. Consequently, we find ourselves in the middle of a cycle of social mutation calling for a paradigm shift.

While such cycles may be the inevitable outcome of major technological innovations, several factors suggest a new level of urgency in the present situation. First, the computer has an unprecedented potential for influence as a consequence of the networks that it is capable of activating and supporting. Second, computer technology is unique in that it becomes simultaneously more powerful and much less expensive. These factors and the promise of enhanced information handling result in the investment of enormous sums in office automation.

The computer performs some tasks extraordinarily well. Inventory control, accounting and record functions, and other standardized daily procedures are child's play for the computer. However, the computer now has capabilities far beyond these routine tasks. It has demonstrated its usefulness as an analytical tool; and the more the computer is able to do, the more we ask it to do.

To program a computer to contribute to the decision-making dimension of organizations, one has to make certain assumptions about organizational process. These assumptions are drawn from the conventional perceptions of organizational process as set out in symbolic models. Thus, symbolic constructs of organization then become computerized operating procedures. Furthermore, the task of translating these procedures into computer programs is performed by individuals who are more familiar with the grammar of computers than with the grammar of organizations.

A recurrent theme in the book is the necessity to distinguish between the medium and the message, symbol and meaning, or text and conversation, as the authors term it. Two well-drawn case studies demonstrate the hazards of underestimating these distinctions.

The authors say that office automation has been disappointing so far, falling far short of its promise. They attribute this failure to the fact that organizations have approached the problem from the wrong end. They say that practice should not be dictated by procedures generated from theoretical constructs; rather procedures (and theory, for that matter) should grow out of practices, a bottom-up process.

A second paradox is also apparent in present approaches. Even if present organizational communication transactions were accommodated effectively in software designs, the computer has made the organization that it serves obsolete. The computer and its associated networks redefine the structure and boundaries of the organization. Extending this reasoning, the authors say that the computer brings into question the utility of the concepts of state or nation.

The paradigm shift that will free us from using today's technology on yesterday's terms will be brought about by the conceptionalists and the artists, not the technocrats and engineers. This is what many leadership theorists, from Abraham Zaleznik to Warren Bennis, have been claiming for some time. Recent experience in office automation offers strong support for these assertions.

This book brings together--from a wide range of disciplines--theories, insights, and speculations on the diffusion of technological innovations. The authors weave these ideas into a scholarly, readable, and interesting narrative. The argument they develop is moved out of the speculative range by their use of extensive research in private and public organizations. Students of organizational communication and new media should find this book instructive and worthwhile reading. Professional managers and executives, as well as system designers, will also be interested in it.