I have had a checkered career. At one point I was an economist. At another point I was a systems analyst. At a third point (actually, several of them) I was an operational manager or management analyst. All these jobs involve similar world views, or at least a similar view of human activity. It’s linear: you put something in at one end, stir it around a bit, and something of greater value pops out the other end – like a goose eating grass and laying golden eggs.
Input ==> process ==> output
Economists focus on output. Mostly, they try to maximize output by devising signals that induce people to feed the proper inputs into the machine and stir them around in the proper way. A few economists, especially those in what used to be called “command” (i.e. socialist) economies, are interested in inputs, too (there is a branch of economics called input-output analysis). But I never met an economist who saw the “process” as anything but a black box labeled “current technology.” Economists don’t care much about what happens in the transformation.
Systems analysts, to the contrary, focus almost entirely on processes, or algorithms. They spell out processes in fantastic detail, with multiple branching pathways that allow for every imaginable scenario, intended or unintended. However, the inputs and outputs are often black boxes for them just as the processes are for economists. “Garbage in, garbage out,” is an old saying among systems designers – meaning, “Don’t blame my process if you aren’t getting the results you want.”
Managers have a more balanced view, which makes their job rather more interesting. They’re responsible for creating outputs, but they also have to assemble the inputs (including human effort) and decide which processes to use.
Not everyone thinks this way. The helping professions aren’t quite so linear-minded. (Recently, I tried to explain the input-output mode of thinking to a teacher of emotionally disturbed children, and she asked me, “So in my job, what’s the input and what’s the output?”) Artists, too, are granted exemptions.
But in the workaday world, for the most part it’s input – process – output. A long time ago (in my role as a management analyst) I asked a tax auditor to explain her job to me, and she said something like, “I take this piece of paper from this box, I check the ratio between this and that, I add up these two numbers to see if they equal that number, and then I put the paper in that box over there.”
What’s wrong with this type of thinking? Work does, in fact, involve processes, and processes do – or at least can – add value to inputs. And the incremental value is what sustains us.
Here’s what is wrong: There is never just one output. There are always multiple outputs – some we are aiming for and others we are not. Doctors call unintended consequences “side effects,” and economists call them “externalities.” These are obviously loaded terms, because they make unintended effects sound insignificant. But the side effects of a medicine can kill you, and the externalities of an economic process can render the world uninhabitable.
Moreover, there is never a single process. Each process is part of a larger cycle, all of which support one another. A cycle that isn’t part of a mutually supporting cycle of processes is ultimately not a sustainable process. We have to think about where the inputs are coming from.