Saturday, July 05, 2014

Hierarchiology and the Phenomenon of Self-Organizing Organizational Collapse

Back in 1979, my original intent for softwarephysics was to help myself, and the IT community at large, to better cope with the daily mayhem of life in IT by applying concepts from physics, chemistry, biology, and geology to the development, maintenance, and support of commercial software. However, over the years I have found that this scope was far too limiting and that softwarephysics could also be applied to many other knowledge domains, most significantly to biology and astrobiology, and similarly, that softwarephysics could also draw additional knowledge from other disciplines as well, such as memetics. In this posting, I would like to expand the range of softwarephysics further into the domain of management theory by exploring the science of Hierarchiology as it pertains to IT professionals, but again the concepts of Hierarchilogy can certainly be applied to all human hierarchies wherever you might find them.

Hierarchiology is the scientific study of human hierarchies. Since nearly all human organizations are based upon hierarchies, it is quite surprising that the science of Hierarchiology was not developed until 1969. The late Professor Laurence Johnston Peter (September 16, 1919 - January 12, 1990) (sadly, not a known relation to myself) is credited as the founding father of the science of Hierarchiology. Like the Newtonian mechanics that Isaac Newton first introduced to the world in his Principia (1687), the science of Hierarchiology was first introduced by Professor Peter with his publication of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969). The Peter Principle can best be defined in Professor Peter’s own words as:

The Peter Principle: - In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence ... in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties ... Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.

By this, Professor Peter meant that in a hierarchical organizational structure, the potential of an employee for a promotion is normally based on their performance in their current job. Thus a competent engineer is likely to be promoted to become a manager of engineers, while an incompetent engineer will likely remain an engineer. Over time, this results in employees being promoted to their highest level of competence, and potentially to a level in which they are no longer competent, referred to as their "level of incompetence". The employee then has no further chance for promotion and will have reached their final level within the hierarchical organization. Amazingly, employees who have reached their “level of incompetence” are retained because letting them go would:

"violate the first commandment of hierarchical life with incompetent leadership: [namely that] the hierarchy must be preserved".

Indeed the tenets of softwarephysics would maintain that since hierarchical organizations are simply another form of self-replicating information they are endowed with one paramount trait, the ability to survive.

Now for the modern reader, the Peter Principle might seem to be rather quaint, and certainly not an accurate description of modern hierarchies. That is because the Peter Principle was originally developed to explain the American hierarchical organizations of the post-war 1950s and 1960s. In those days, the power and influence of a member of a hierarchical organization were solely based upon the number of people reporting to the member of the hierarchy. The number of competent subordinates that a manager might have was totally irrelevant, so long as there were a sufficient number of competent subordinates who had not yet reached their “level of incompetence” to guarantee that the subordinate organization could perform its prime objectives. Efficiency was not a concern in those days because in the 1950s and 1960s America had no foreign competition since the rest of the industrial world had effectively destroyed itself during World War II.

This all changed in the 1980s with the rise of foreign competition, principally from the once defeated Germany and Japan. In the 1980s, corporate America was once again faced with foreign competition, and in response, invented the concept of “downsizing”. Downsizing allowed hierarchies to clear out the dead wood of employees who had reached their “level of incompetence” through the compulsory dismissal of a significant percentage of each department. These downsizing activities were reluctantly carried out by the HR department of the organization, which cast HR as the villain and not by the management chain of the organization whose hands then became forced by external factors beyond their control. This reduced the hard feelings amongst the survivors in a hierarchy after a successful “downsizing”. And since all departments were required to equally reduce staff by say 15%, no single manager lost status by a drop in headcount because each manager in the hierarchy equally lost 15% of their subordinates, so the hierarchy was preserved intact. The elimination of incompetent employees was further enhanced by globalization over the past several decades. With globalization, it was now possible to “offshore” whole departments at a time of an organization and dispatch employees en masse, both the competent and the incompetent, without threatening the hierarchy because the number of subordinates might actually increase as work was moved to foreign countries with emerging economies, but significantly lower wage scales.

Now the nature of hierarchies may have substantially changed since Professor Peter’s time, but I believe that there are some enduring characteristics of hierarchies that do not change with time because they are based upon the fundamentals of memetics. All successful memes survive because they adapt themselves to two enduring characteristics of human beings:

1. People like to hear what they like to hear.

2. People do not like to hear what they do not like to hear.

Based on the above observation, I would like to propose:

The Time Invariant Peter Principle: In a hierarchy, successful subordinates tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear, while unsuccessful subordinates try to tell their superiors what their superiors need to hear. Only successful subordinates are promoted within a hierarchy, and eventually, all levels of a hierarchy will tend to become solely occupied by successful subordinates who only tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear.

This means that, like the original Peter Principle, organizations tend to become loaded down with “successful” employees who only tell their superiors what their superiors want to hear. This is not a problem, so long as the organization is not faced with any dire problems. After all, if things are moving along smoothly, there is no need to burden superiors with trivial problems. However, covering up problems sometimes does lead to disaster. For example, a subordinate telling the captain of the Titanic that it might be wise to reduce the Titanic’s speed down from its top speed of 21 knots to a lower speed during the evening of April 14, 1912, because there were reports of icebergs in the area coming in over the wireless would be ill-advised. Such a suggestion would certainly not have advanced the career of the captain’s subordinate, especially if his warning had been heeded, and the Titanic had not hit an iceberg and sunk. The subordinate would have simply been dismissed as a worrisome annoyance with a bad attitude and certainly not a team player worthy of promotion.

Some might argue that the Titanic is an overly dramatic example of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, and not representative of what actually happens when subordinates simply cast events in a positive light for their superiors. How can that lead to organizational collapse? For that, we must turn to Complexity Theory. One of the key findings of Complexity Theory is that large numbers of simple agents, all following a set of very simple rules, can lead to very complex emergent organizational behaviors. This is seen in the flocking of birds, the schooling of fish and the swarming of insects. For example, large numbers of ants following some very simple rules can lead to very complex emergent organizational behaviors of an entire ant colony. The downside of this is that large numbers of simple agents following simple rules can also lead to self-organized organizational collapse. The 2008 financial collapse offers a prime example, where huge numbers of agents in a large number of different hierarchies, all following the simple rule of the Time Invariant Peter Principle led to disaster (see MoneyPhysics for more details). Similarly, I personally witnessed the demise of Amoco during the 1990s through a combination of very poor executive leadership coupled with the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action. My suspicion is that the collapse of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, was also largely due to the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action over many decades.

For the interested, the Santa Fe Institute offers many very interesting online courses on Complexity Theory at:

Complexity Explorer

The study of large-scale organizational collapse is always challenging because of the breadth and scale of large organizations. What happens is that the Time Invariant Peter Principle in such failing organizations leads to a series of fiascos and disasters that slowly eat away at the organization until the organization ultimately collapses on its own. However, trying to add up all of the negative impacts from the large numbers of fiascos and disasters that occur over the span of a decade within a hierarchical organization in decline is nearly impossible. Consequently, it is much easier to focus upon individual disasters as case studies of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, and that will be our next topic.

The Challenger Disaster a Case Study of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in Action
In preparation for this posting, I just finished rereading Richard Feynman’s ”What Do You Care What Other People Think?” Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), probably for the fourth or fifth time. This book was a Christmas present from my wife, and I periodically reread it because it describes how Richard Feynman, one of the most productive physicists of the 20th century, was able to apply his scientific training to uncover and analyze the absurdities behind the Challenger Disaster. The book is a marvelous description of how the Time Invariant Peter Principle interacting with the absurd real world of human affairs can bring us to disaster.

Richard Feynman is most famous for his contributions to QED – Quantum Electrodynamics (1948) and his famous Feynman diagrams. This work ultimately led to the awarding of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics to Richard Feynman and to two other physicists for their work on QED (for more on this see The Foundations of Quantum Computing). Richard Feynman was also a very unique and dearly loved teacher of physics. I encourage you to view some of his wonderful lectures on YouTube.

The first half of the book covers some interesting stories from his youth and also the continuing love story of his relationship with his first wife Arlene. Arlene tragically died from tuberculosis while the two of them were stationed at Los Alamos and Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. Richard Feynman married Arlene with the full knowledge that their time together as man and wife would be cut short, after Arlene’s diagnosis of tuberculosis became known. This did not bother the two of them as they proceeded to get married despite the warnings from friends and family to do otherwise - certainly a rare mark of loyalty that is not seen much today. In fact, the quote in the title of the book came from Arlene.

In the first half of the book, Richard Feynman goes on to describe how his father had decided that Feynman would become a scientist from the day he was born. So in Feynman’s childhood his father carefully taught Richard to have no respect for authority whatsoever, but to only have respect for knowledge. So later in life, Feynman did not really care who or what you were, he only cared about your story or hypothesis. If your story made sense to him and stood up to scrutiny, then Feynman would have respect for your story or hypothesis but otherwise watch out! Feynman would quickly reduce your story or hypothesis to a pile of rubble no matter who or what you were, but all during the process, he would still show respect for you as a fellow human being.

It all began shortly after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986. Feynman received a phone call from William Graham, a former Caltech student of Feynman’s and now the recently appointed head of NASA. Graham had just been sworn in as the head of NASA on November 25, 1985, less than two months prior to the Challenger Disaster, and asked Feynman if he would agree to join the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident that was to be headed by the former Secretary of State William Rogers. Originally, Feynman did not want to have anything to do with a Washington commission, but his wife Gweneth wisely persuaded him to join saying, “If you don’t do it, there will be twelve people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be eleven people – all in a group, going around from place to place together – while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things. There probably won’t be anything, but if there is, you’ll find it. There isn’t anyone else who can do that like you can.” Gweneth certainly got the part about Feynman running around all over the place on his own trying to figure out what had actually gone wrong, but she did not get the part about the other Commission members doing the same thing as a group. What Feynman did find when he got to Washington was that William Rogers wanted to conduct a “proper” Washington-style investigation like you see on CNN. This is where a bunch of commissioners or congressman, all sitting together as a panel, swear in a number of managers and ask them probing questions that the managers then all try to evade. The managers responsible for the organization under investigation are all found to have no knowledge of any wrongdoing, and certainly would not condone any wrongdoing if they had had knowledge of it. We have all seen that many times before. And as with most Washington-based investigations, all of the other members on the Commission also were faced with a conflict of interest because they all had strong ties to NASA or to what NASA was charged with doing. When Feynman initially objected to this process, William Rogers confessed to him that the Commission would probably never really figure out what had gone wrong, but that they had to go through the process just the same for appearance's sake. So true to his wife’s prediction, Feynman then embarked upon a one-man investigation into the root cause of the Challenger Disaster. Due to his innate lack of respect for authority, Feynman decided to forgo discussions with NASA Management, and instead decided to only focus on the first-line engineers and technicians who got their hands dirty in the daily activities of running the space shuttle business. What Feynman found was that due to the Time Invariant Peter Principle, many of the engineers and technicians who actually touched the space shuttle had been bringing forth numerous safety problems with the shuttle design for nearly a decade, but that routinely these safety concerns never rose through the organization. Feynman also found that many of the engineers and technicians had been initially afraid to speak frankly with him. They were simply afraid to speak the truth.

This was a totally alien experience for Richard Feynman because he was used to the scientific hierarchies of academia. Unfortunately, scientific hierarchies are also composed of human beings, and therefore are also subject to the Time Invariant Peter Principle, but fortunately, there is a difference. Most organizational hierarchies are based upon seeking favor. Each layer in the hierarchy is seeking the favor of the layer directly above it, and ultimately, the whole hierarchy is seeking the favor of something. For corporations, the CEO of the organization is seeking the favor of Wall Street analysts, large fund managers and of individual investors. The seeking of favor necessarily requires the manipulation of facts to cast them in a favorable light. Scientific hierarchies, on the other hand, are actually trying to seek out knowledge and determine the truth of the matter, as best as we can determine the truth of the matter. Recently, I reread David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality (1997), another book that I frequently reread to maintain sanity. In the book, Deutsch explains the difference between scientific hierarchies that seek knowledge and normal hierarchies that seek favor by describing what happens at physics conferences. What happens at lunchtime during a typical physics conference is that, like in the 7th grade, all of the preeminent physicists of the day sit together at the “cool kids’ table” for lunch. But in the afternoon, one finds that when one of the most preeminent physicists in the world gives a presentation, one can frequently find the lowliest of graduate students asking the preeminent physicist to please explain why the approximation in his last equation is justifiable under the conditions of the problem at hand. Deutsch wisely comments that he cannot imagine an underling in a corporate hierarchy similarly challenging the latest business model of his CEO in a grand presentation.

Now it turns out that Feynman did have one ally on the Commission by the name of General Kutenya. General Kutenya had been in contact with an unnamed astronaut at NASA who put General Kutenya on to the fact that the space shuttle had a potentially fatal flaw with the rubber O-rings used to seal three joints in the solid booster rockets – SRBs that were manufactured by Morton Thiokol. These joints were sealed by two 37 foot long rubber O-rings, each having a diameter of only 1/4 of an inch. The purpose of the O-rings was to seal the joints when the SRBs were fired. Because the joints were three times thicker than the steel walls of the SRBs, the walls of the SRBs tended to bulge out a little because of the pressures generated by the burning fuel when the SRBs were lit. The bulging out of the SRB walls caused the joints to bend slightly outward, and it was the job of the rubber O-rings to expand and fill the gap when the SRB walls bulged out so that the joints maintained their seal and no hot gasses from the burning solid fuel in the SRBs could escape (see Figure 1). At the time of the launch, it was well known by NASA and Morton Thiokol Management that these O-rings suffered from burning and erosion by hot blow-by gasses from the burning of the solid rocket fuel, particularly when the shuttle was launched at lower temperatures. This was because the SRBs were ejected from the shuttle after their fuel had been expended and splashed down into the ocean to be later recovered and reused for later flights. On the morning of January 28, 1986, the Challenger was launched at a temperature of 28 to 29oF, while the previous coldest shuttle launch had been at a temperature of 53oF.

Figure 1 – The two rubber O-rings of the SRB were meant to expand when the walls of the SRB bulged out so that hot burning gasses could not escape from the SRB joints and cause problems.

Figure 2 - On the right, we see that the two O-rings in an SRB joint are in contact with the clevis (male part of the joint) when the SRB has not been lit. On the left, we see that when an SRB is lit and there is pressure in the SRB that causes the walls to bulge out, a gap between the O-rings and the clevis can form if the O-rings are not resilient enough to fill the gap. Richard Feynman demonstrated that cold O-rings at 32oF are not resilient.

Figure 3 - How the O-rings failed.

Figure 4 – A plume of burning SRB fuel escaping from the last field joint on the right SRB eventually burns through the supports holding the SRB onto the Challenger.

Figure 5 – When the right SRB breaks free of the Challenger it slams into the large tanks holding the liquid oxygen and hydrogen used to power the main engine of the Challenger. This causes a disastrous explosion.

Figure 6 – Richard Feynman demonstrates that the O-ring rubber of the SRB joints is not resilient at 32oF. The Challenger was launched with a temperature of about 28 – 29 oF. The previous lowest temperature for a shuttle launch had been 53oF.

Figure 7 – After the Disaster, several changes were made to the field joints between segments of the SRBs, including the addition of a third O-ring. This finally fixed the decades-old problem that had been ignored by NASA Management all along.

For a nice montage of the events surrounding the Challenger Disaster see the following YouTube link that shows Richard Feynman questioning a NASA Manager and then demonstrating to him that what he was saying was total …..

For a nice synopsis of all of the events, please see this Wikipedia link at:

The Truth About the Time Invariant Peter Principle
Now that we have seen a case study of the Time Invariant Peter Principle in action, it is time for all of us to fess up. Everybody already knows about the Time Invariant Peter Principle because, as human beings, we all live within hierarchical organizations. We just do not talk about such things. In fact, the Time Invariant Peter Principle actually prevents work teams from talking about the Time Invariant Peter Principle. So what I am proposing here is nothing new. It is as old as civilization itself. Now as Richard Feynman used to remind us, “The most important thing is to not fool yourself, because you are the easiest one to fool.”. So the important thing about the Time Invariant Peter Principle is not discovering it for yourself, the important thing is to articulate it in difficult times, and that takes some courage, as Richard Feynman demonstrated in ”What Do You Care What Other People Think?”:

I invented a theory which I have discussed with a considerable number of people, and many people have explained to me why it’s wrong. But I don’t remember their explanations, so I cannot resist telling you what I think led to this lack of communication in NASA.

When NASA was trying to go to the moon, there was a great deal of enthusiasm: it was a goal everyone was anxious to achieve. They didn’t know if they could do it, but they were all working together.

I have this idea because I worked at Los Alamos, and I experienced the tension and the pressure of everybody working together to make the atomic bomb. When somebody’s having a problem — say, with the detonator — everybody knows that it’s a big problem, they’re thinking of ways to beat it, they’re making suggestions, and when they hear about the solution they’re excited, because that means their work is now useful: if the detonator didn’t work, the bomb wouldn’t work.

I figured the same thing had gone on at NASA in the early days: if the space suit didn’t work, they couldn’t go to the moon. So everybody’s interested in everybody else’s problems.

But then, when the moon project was over, NASA had all these people together: there’s a big organization in Houston and a big organization in Huntsville, not to mention at Kennedy, in Florida. You don’t want to fire people and send them out in the street when you’re done with a big project, so the problem is, what to do?

You have to convince Congress that there exists a project that only NASA can do. In order to do so, it is necessary — at least it was apparently necessary in this case — to exaggerate: to exaggerate how economical the shuttle would be, to exaggerate how often it could fly, to exaggerate how safe it would be, to exaggerate the big scientific facts that would be discovered. “The shuttle can make so-and-so many flights and it’ll cost such-and-such; we went to the moon, so we can do it!”

Meanwhile, I would guess, the engineers at the bottom are saying, “No, no! We can’t make that many flights. If we had to make that many flights, it would mean such-and-such!” And, “No, we can’t do it for that amount of money, because that would mean we’d have to do thus-and-so!”

Well, the guys who are trying to get Congress to okay their projects don’t want to hear such talk. It’s better if they don’t hear, so they can be more “honest” — they don’t want to be in the position of lying to Congress! So pretty soon the attitudes begin to change: information from the bottom which is disagreeable — “We’re having a problem with the seals; we should fix it before we fly again” — is suppressed by big cheeses and middle managers who say, “If you tell me about the seals problems, we’ll have to ground the shuttle and fix it.” Or, “No, no, keep on flying, because otherwise, it’ll look bad,” or “Don’t tell me; I don’t want to hear about it.”

Maybe they don’t say explicitly “Don’t tell me,” but they discourage communication, which amounts to the same thing. It’s not a question of what has been written down, or who should tell what to whom; it’s a question of whether, when you do tell somebody about some problem, they’re delighted to hear about it and they say “Tell me more” and “Have you tried such-and-such?” or they say “Well, see what you can do about it” — which is a completely different atmosphere. If you try once or twice to communicate and get pushed back, pretty soon you decide, “To hell with it.”

So that’s my theory: because of the exaggeration at the top being inconsistent with the reality at the bottom, communication got slowed up and ultimately jammed. That’s how it’s possible that the higher-ups didn’t know.

What Has Been Learned From the Challenger Disaster
Since the Challenger Disaster, there have been a number of dramatic video renditions of the facts surrounding the case produced for various reasons. Most of these renditions have been produced to warn the members of an organizational hierarchy about the dangers of the Time Invariant Peter Principle, and are routinely shown to the managers in major corporations. The classic scene concerns the teleconference between NASA Management and the Management of Morton Thiokol and its engineers the night before the launch of the Challenger. In the scene, the Morton Thiokol engineers are against the Challenger being launched at such a low temperature because they think the O-ring seals will fail and destroy the Challenger and all those who are on board. The hero of the scene is Roger Boisjoly, a Morton Thiokol engineer who courageously stands up to both Morton Thiokol Management and the Management of NASA to declare that a launch of the Challenger at such a low temperature would be wrong. Roger Boisjoly is definitely one of those unsuccessful subordinates in the eyes of the Time Invariant Peter Principle. In the scene, Roger Boisjoly is overruled by Morton Thiokol Management, under the pressure from NASA Management, and the Challenger is approved for launch on the very cold morning of January 28, 1986. Strangely, it seems that it was the very cold, in combination with the Time Invariant Peter Principle that doomed both the Titanic and the Challenger.

My Own Experience with the Challenger Case Study
Now in the 1990s, I was a Technical Consultant in Amoco’s IT department. Our CEO in the 1990s decided that it was time to “Renew” Amoco’s corporate culture in keeping with Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost (increased openness and transparency) and Perestroika (organizational restructuring) of the late 1980s that was meant to prevent the Soviet Union from collapsing under its own weight. Indeed, Amoco’s command and control management style of the 1990s was very reminiscent of the heydays of the former Soviet Union. The purpose of “Corporate Renewal” was to uplift Amoco from its normal position as the #4 oil company in the Big Eight to being the “preeminent oil company” of the world. Amoco was originally known as Standard Oil of Indiana and was one of the many surviving fragments of the Standard Oil Trust that was broken up in 1911 by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The Standard Oil Trust went all the way back to 1863 when John D. Rockefeller first formed the Standard Oil Company, and thus Amoco was just a little bit older than the Battle of Gettysburg. Now in order to renew the corporate culture, our CEO created the Amoco Management Learning Center (AMLC) and required that once each year everybody above a certain pay grade had to attend a week-long course at the AMLC. The AMLC was really a very nice hotel in the western suburbs of Chicago that Amoco used for the AMLC classes and attendees. We met in a large lecture hall as a group, and also in numerous breakout rooms reserved for each team to work on assignments and presentations of their own. Now back in the mid-1990s, there were no cell phones, no laptops, no Internet, no pagers and no remote access to the Home Office. There was a bank of landline telephones that attendees could use to periodically check in with the Office, but because the AMLC classes and group exercises ran all day long and most of the night too, there really was little opportunity for attendees to become distracted by events back in the Office, so the attendees at the AMLC were nearly completely isolated from their native hierarchies for the entire week.

One year at the AMLC, the topic for the week was Management Courage, and as part of the curriculum, we studied the Challenger Disaster in detail as an example of a dramatic Management Failure that could have been prevented by a little bit of Management Courage. Now, something very strange began to happen for my particular AMLC class. It was composed primarily of Amoco managers who had been pulled out of their normal hierarchies so they did not normally work with each other or even really know each other very well because they all came from very different parts of the Amoco hierarchical structure. But all of these managers did have something in common. They had all suffered from the consequences of the many fiascos and disasters that our new CEO had embarked upon in recent years, and because of the Time Invariant Peter Principle, there was a great deal of suppressed and pent-up unspoken animosity amongst them all. As the class progressed, and the instructors kept giving us more and more case studies of disasters that resulted because of a lack of Management Courage, the class members finally began to totally break down and they began to unload all sorts of management horror stories on us, like an AA meeting gone very badly wrong. I have never seen anything like it before or since. As the week progressed, with open rebellion growing within the ranks, there were even rumors that our rebellious AMLC class would be adjourned early and everybody sent home before the week was out. Finally, to quell the uprising, the AMLC staff brought in one of our CEO’s direct reports on an emergency basis to once again reestablish the dominance of the hierarchy and get everybody back in line. After all, the hierarchy must always be preserved.

A few years later, after nearly a decade of debacle, Amoco was so weakened that we dropped to being #8 in the Big Eight and there was even a rumor going around that we did not have enough cash on hand to come up with our normal quarterly dividend, something that we had been paying out to stockholders for nearly a century or so without a break. Shortly after that, we came to work one day in August of 1998 to learn that our CEO had sold Amoco to BP for $100 million. Now naturally BP paid a lot more than $100 million for Amoco, but that is what we heard that our CEO cleared on the deal. With the announcement of the sale of Amoco, the whole Amoco hierarchy slowly began to collapse like the former Soviet Union. Nobody in the hierarchy could imagine a world without Amoco. For example, my last boss at Amoco was a third generation Amoco employee and had a great deal of difficulty dealing with the situation. Her grandfather had worked in the Standard Oil Whiting Refinery back in the 19th century.

When the British invasion of Amoco finally began, all corporate communications suddenly ceased. We were all told to simply go into standby mode and wait. I was in the IT Architecture department at the time, and all of our projects were promptly canceled, leaving us with nothing to do. Similarly, all new AD development ceased as well. For six months we all just came into work each day and did nothing while we were in standby mode waiting to see what would happen. But it’s hard to keep IT professionals idle, and we soon learned that a group of Amoco’s IT employees had essentially taken over the Yahoo Message Board for Amoco stockholders. The Yahoo Message Board suddenly became an underground means of communications for Amoco employees all over the world. People were adding postings that warned us that HR hit teams, composed of contract HR people, were making the rounds of all of Amoco’s facilities and were laying off whole departments of people en masse. This was still the early days of the corporate use of the Internet, so I don’t think we even had proxy servers in those days to block traffic because BP never was able to block access to the Yahoo Message Board for the idle Amoco workers on standby mode, so we spent the whole day just reading and writing postings for the Yahoo Message Board about the British invasion of Amoco, sort of like a twentieth-century rendition of the Sons of Liberty. In the process, I think the Amoco IT department may have accidentally invented the modern concept of using social media to foment rebellion and revolution way back in 1998!

Then things began to get even stranger. It seems that the CEO of ARCO had learned about the $100 million deal that our CEO got for the sale of Amoco. So the CEO of ARCO made an unannounced appearance at the home office of BP in London and offered to sell ARCO to BP for a similar deal. BP was apparently quite shocked by the unsolicited windfall, but eagerly took up the deal offered by ARCO’s CEO, and so the whole process began all over again for the employees of ARCO. Now we began to see postings from ARCO employees on the Yahoo Message Board trying to figure out what the heck was going on. The Amoco employees warned the ARCO employees about what was coming their way, and we all began to exchange similar stories on the Yahoo Message Board with each other, and many of us became good friends in cyberspacetime. Then one day I rode up in the elevator with the HR hit team for Amoco’s IT Architecture department. Later that morning, we all took our turns reporting to Room 101 for our severance packages. Several months later, I had to return to the Amoco building for some final paperwork, and I decided to drop by my old enclosed office for just one last time. I found that my former office had now been completely filled with old used printer cartridges stacked from floor to ceiling! Each used printer cartridge represented the remains of one former Amoco employee.

With the assets of Amoco and ARCO in hand, combined with the assets that it had acquired when it took over control of Standard Oil of Ohio back in 1987, BP heavily expanded its operations within North America. But BP’s incessant drive to maximize profits by diminishing maintenance and safety costs led to the Texas City Refinery Disaster in 2005 that killed 15 workers and burned and injured more than 170 others. For details see:

As the above Wikipedia article notes:

BP was charged with criminal violations of federal environmental laws and has been named in lawsuits from the victims' families. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration gave BP a record fine for hundreds of safety violations, and in 2009 imposed an even larger fine after claiming that BP had failed to implement safety improvements following the disaster. On February 4, 2008, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal heard arguments regarding BP's offer to plead guilty to a federal environmental crime with a US $50 million fine. At the hearing, blast victims and their relatives objected to the plea, calling the proposed fine "trivial." So far, BP has said it has paid more than US $1.6 billion to compensate victims. The judge gave no timetable on when she would make a final ruling. On October 30, 2009, OSHA imposed an $87 million fine on the company for failing to correct safety hazards revealed in the 2005 explosion. In its report, OSHA also cited over 700 safety violations. The fine was the largest in OSHA's history, and BP announced that it would challenge the fine. On August 12, 2010, BP announced that it had agreed to pay $50.6 million of the October 30 fine, while continuing to contest the remaining $30.7 million; the fine had been reduced by $6.1 million between when it was levied and when BP paid the first part.

These same policies then led to the Deepwater Horizon Disaster in 2010 that killed 11 workers and injured 16 others, and polluted a good portion of the Gulf of Mexico, costing many businesses billions of dollars. For details see:

As the above Wikipedia article notes:

On 4 September 2014, U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled BP was guilty of gross negligence and willful misconduct under the Clean Water Act (CWA). He described BP's actions as "reckless," while he said Transocean's and Halliburton's actions were "negligent." He apportioned 67% of the blame for the spill to BP, 30% to Transocean, and 3% to Halliburton.

So remember, even though the Time Independent Peter Principle may lead members of a hierarchical organization to cover up problems, there may come a day of reckoning, no matter how large the hierarchy may be, and the costs of that day of reckoning may be far greater than one can even hope of imagining.

What Does This Mean for IT Professionals?
As an IT professional you will certainly spend most of your career in private or governmental hierarchical organizations. Now, most times you will find that these hierarchical organizations will be sailing along over smooth waters with a minimum of disruption. But every so often you may become confronted with a technical ethical dilemma, like the engineers and technicians working on the space shuttle. You may find that, in your opinion, that the hierarchy is embarking upon a reckless and dangerous, or even unethical, course of action. And then you must make a decision for yourself to either remain silent or to speak up. I hope that this posting helps you with that decision.

I would like to conclude with the concluding paragraph from Richard Feynman’s Appendix F - Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle that was attached to the official Presidential Commission Report.

Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

No comments: