Sunday, May 13, 2007

Implementing structure

Debora recently commented that structure implies bureaucracy. In thinking about that it occurred to me that there are (at least) two ways to implement structure: physically and procedurally. Structure implemented physically simply fixes in place — "hard wires" — whatever structure it defines. Structure implemented procedurally relies on processes to ensure that the intended structure is maintained. It's probably more expensive to implement structure procedurally. But it's probably easier to change procedures when appropriate.

An example that brought all this to mind are the hangers in my hotel room. They are the sort of hanger that have a little knob at the top instead of a loop to hang over a bar. The knob fits into a little hook, which in turn hangs from the bar. These are called ball-top hangers. The hooks are called security rings.) The point, of course, is that hangers with knobs are unusual enough that people won't want to take them home — because most people don't have the hooks into which the knobs fit. This is a physical implementation of the structure that prevents (or at least discourages) people from stealing hangers from hotel rooms. The procedural method would rely on inspections and perhaps entreaties to hotel guests not to steal the hangers. These approaches are unlikely to make much of a difference.

In this example, the physical implementation is almost certainly both much more effective and much cheaper than the procedural approach. But it is also much more hard-wired into the hotel's way of operating. Once a hotel has adopted ball hangers, it would be much more difficult for it to change its policy and encourage guests to take hangers home as a gift from the hotel. They could, of course, give away the security hooks. But those hooks are harder to install at home. One must take the rail out of the closet and slip the hooks on at the end. Besides, the underlying assumption is that most people don't want that sort of hanger in their closets. If a hotel really wanted to give hangers away, its best bet would be to throw out its ball hangers and change its hardware implementation of the no-theft policy.

1 comment:

Dale said...

I think you are staking out a new academic terrain--the hotel deconstruction industry.

I hope you made a copy of the guest brochure--it´ll probably give you enough material for a book and a Guggenheim.