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Chapter Eight: Meta Management


By this point in our discussion, it is clear a human services agency is not a self-contained entity. It is a system of interacting, interdependent functions and sub-functions. This synergistic system does not have identifiable boundaries but can be conceptually limited to the scope of the Helping Triangle discussed earlier – see Figure 1. The agency – point “C” on the Helping Triangle – can itself then be understood as a sub-system within the Helping Triangle. A human services agency is a complex arrangement of systems within systems, in turn, comprised of multiple functions and sub-functions. Collectively, these elements and their relationships and interactions are the agency eco system. Additionally, the functions and sub-functions within the agency itself – point “C” on the Helping Triangle – are the internal eco system, with the rest of the Helping Triangle understood as the agency eco system or simply as the eco system. For the present purpose, our focus is on the internal eco system.

As we saw earlier, the primary function of our fictional agency, Social Services, Inc., is to provide assessment, family counseling, and case management services to children to improve their behavior and adjustment at home and school. Within SSI’s internal eco system, there are secondary functions – see Figure 5 – such as Fiscal Services and Administrative Services to support the primary function. The primary function and its supporting, secondary functions, in turn, each has its own sub-functions. We can understand each of these secondary functions and sub-functions as individual systems with specific and specialized duties, responsibilities, and expected outcomes. Within the SSI internal eco system, we see the nesting of systems within systems, functions within functions. The goal of SSI management is to maintain the SSI internal eco system so it continues to support and successfully sustain SSI’s primary function: children coping more successfully with the needs, problems, and vulnerabilities in their lives.

In Chapter Four, we discussed the notion of entropy. We saw the SSI eco system tends to transition toward disorganization and chaos over time. This tendency was characterized as drift, with its effects being seen in all eco system functions and within the system itself. The tendency toward disorganization and chaos exists within the internal eco system as certainly as within the external eco system. Drift is pervasive throughout the SSI eco system, externally and internally. We can think about drift as constant and continuous. Its effects at any time may be more or less, but drift is an unchanging constant. It is only possible to influence the effects and not the tendency itself.

With the above perspective in mind, we re-conceptualize SSI Management’s responsibility in this area as minimizing drift within SSI’s internal eco system. The reality is there are only three ways to do this:

·       Slow the effect.

·       Reconfigure the system.

·       Repair or replace system elements.

These three options are relatively straightforward for non-staff elements in the eco system. For example, SSI records are filed in cabinets in alphabetical order. Over time, the system tends to drift toward disorganization and chaos. Records are misfiled and cannot be located. Drift can be slowed by regularly reminding people to use the system correctly and by periodic, required training. Drift may be minimized by reconfiguration including moving the cabinets to an area where there is better light, only permitting designated people to put files into the cabinets or remove them, or by subdividing the records into smaller sections so misfiled records are easier to find. The chaos may be minimized by repairing the cabinet drawers or the rods on which the files hang. The system may be replaced by an electronic records system that is easier to maintain and use. However we approach the entropy in the filing system, its effects can be minimized by using one of the three strategies, i.e., by slowing its effects, by reconfiguration, or by repair or replacement.

Let me take a moment to clarify the concepts. Drift is a constant factor in the SSI eco system. It is the unavoidable tendency of the eco system to transition toward disorganization, chaos, and ineffectiveness. Exceptions are, in turn, the effect of drift. They are deviations from the ideal. If we do not notice and correct these exceptions, they intensify and spread. Sooner or later, they represent real jeopardy for the eco system itself. Let me also note the ideal is achievable in principle but not in practice. Exceptions are thus omnipresent. Further, our understanding of the ideal changes as we gain additional knowledge and experience, leading to concurrent changes in how we understand and define exceptions.

Indicators are signs or symptoms letting us know exceptions are present in the SSI eco system. Something has shifted away from the ideal. Intervention, in turn, represents our response to identified exceptions. We can ignore exceptions, although this likely leads to further deterioration of the SSI eco system.  We can wait and see, although this too likely leads to further eco system deterioration. Better is to do today’s work today. We should reduce or eliminate the exception and, if possible, prevent its recurrence. We intervene, with the intervention including some mix of slowing, reconfiguration, and repair and replacement. System Drift results in Exceptions detected by Indicators prompting Intervention.

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