Innovation

Conspiracy theories and large corporations

With the ease of modern communication, it's easy to believe that major corporations are manipulating world affairs. The fact is, they're not organized enough to do that.

Conspiracy theories are an interesting aspect of modern life. While these types of tall tales have certainly been with us since the beginning of time, increasingly faster communication in an overly complex world seems to make conspiracies easier to spread and all the more believable. When I can answer my US-based iPhone in China and speak to someone in New York over a crystal clear connection, the other party never knowing I'm not a couple of postal codes away, is it that far-fetched to consider some large corporation or government is manipulating world affairs?

I have fairly limited experience with government, but in the case of large corporations, I can tell you that the answer is a rather dull "highly unlikely." Like many here, I studied IT and management at a large university, and a good portion of our coursework was case study-type material, showcasing the complex and highly efficient accomplishment of marquee corporations. I entered the workforce filled with visions of fearless leaders commanding a cadre of dedicated employees, who effectively conquered whatever technological or managerial challenge was thrown their way. I rapidly learned that most large corporations are more Keystone Cops than Untouchables, and I distinctly remember this image began to be debunked in my mind.

I was speaking with someone in IT management at a Fortune 500 company about their internet efforts, in the early days of online commerce when things like XML and "commerce portals" were going to change business forever. This manager was proudly presenting the company's efforts in the area, and I expected to be wowed by compelling technologies and highly efficient processes. The slideshow flickered to a process diagram, which effectively showed the web portal, an "interface," and then the company's 30-year-old mainframe order management system. When someone asked about the "interface," the gentleman explained, without missing a beat, that the web portal printed all orders on a dot matrix printer, without verification or validation, and then someone walked the printout to another room, handed it to a colleague, who then keyed the order into the mainframe. Moments later, I finally understood the term "sneakernet"!

Large organizations seem incapable of two critical elements for any successful conspiracy: impeccable organization and impenetrable secrecy. If you have worked in a large organization, you have likely experienced a sense that the place was always three steps away from disaster, careening wildly through time and economic cycles and changing strategic direction like a glitterati changes his or her outfit. Clearly these are not the hallmarks of an entity that carefully controls world affairs over a span of decades. Technology giants, whose very existence depends on keeping information about their next products away from consumers, are plagued with leaks, and it's rare that a company's latest and greatest product hasn't been photographed, analyzed, and reviewed by the press weeks before its official release.

While entertaining to consider an occasional conspiracy theory, it's remarkably rare to find a large company that can develop, keep secret, and effectively execute an annual strategy, let alone a nefarious plot. One cannot help but think of Occam's razor, the idea that when faced with several competing causes for an event, the most simple explanation, or one that requires the fewest "leaps of faith," is usually correct. If your career is not advancing in the desired direction or if your department or company seems directionless, there might be a problem with your management style, versus resources being diverted to a secret ring of executives plotting the demise of humanity.

Taking grand conspiracies out of the equation can be surprisingly liberating. If you work in an environment where everyone is plotting against you and every career move you make is thwarted by mysterious, organized adversaries, your prospects are grim at best. If your advancement is hampered by a few missing skills, correction is imminently within your domain and might be as simple as a course or two and some career development. In short, most conspiracy theories are neither grand nor able to render victims powerless.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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