Why policy ‘roadmaps’ often lead to nowhere
Steve Jobs once famously said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
We cannot agree more with this observation. Like their counterparts in the biological and physical worlds, social systems and institutions such as business organizations, government agencies, established religions and political parties—and entire societies and civilizations, for that matter—are the outcomes of their histories.
How they got to be where they are at time 0 can readily be traced by looking at their footprints. From collective institutional memory, available historical data and physical artifacts, it is possible to establish how a social system or institution was, or how it got to where it was, at time 0 -1, 0 -2, and so on.
Predicting where they will go next is quite another thing. Even with the most sophisticated theoretical models and modern analytical and research tools at our disposal, it is not possible to determine with perfect certainty where the system will be at time 0 +1, 0 +2, etc. For all the promise of Big Data, Predictive Analytics and System Simulation, there will forever remain what I call an “uncertainty residual” in our understanding of the real world, more especially so of the world comprising of people.
Steve Job’s 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University could also be interpreted to mean that, in a world that is in a constant state of flux, it is not possible to specify the dots that an organization or an institution or a society should follow in order to reach a desired state. Organizational managers and social planners must therefore seriously reconsider their usual practice of laying out a series of logically sequenced steps, or roadmaps, to follow in pursuing their strategy or policy objectives. Unlike their motoring counterparts who can reasonably be sure of reaching their destinations by closely following a roadmap or GPS voice prompts, organizational and social decision makers traverse continuously shifting landscapes where every turn made leads to new uncertainties. While it is possible for motorists to backtrack after making a wrong turn, organizational managers cannot do so without incurring huge switching costs. All too often, they find themselves locked into untenable situations from which they are unable to extricate themselves.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not totally averse to the general idea behind policy roadmaps, for truly, in plotting their developmental trajectories, organizational managers and social planners must be focused on the likely steps to be taken in the future. All probable future events should be factored into current plans and programs. However, rather than prescribing specific measures to be taken and aiming for specific performance targets to be achieved, they should instead endeavor to establish what I consider to be the sine qua non of planned organizational or social change: the flexibility to adapt readily to the uncertainties posed by a continually unfolding environment.
To drive home my point, consider two major developmental initiatives that are currently in place, one in higher education and the other in industrial policy.
CHEd’s Roadmap for Public Higher Education Reform
CHEd’s ongoing program for public higher education reform rests on the tacit and questionable premise that the required flexibility already exists in the system. It also implicitly assumes that all state universities and colleges (SUCs) and local universities and colleges (LUCs) can, and are willing to participate in the proposed collaborative endeavor. Absent are the necessary incentive mechanisms, and knowing the political processes by which most of the SUCs and LUCs were created, the bureaucratic mechanisms by which they currently operate, and the culture of ineptitude that prevails in most of these educational institutions, one is inclined to question the validity of these premises.
There is some doubt, therefore, that the roadmap can be efficiently, effectively and successfully implemented to meet its self-imposed targets within the prescribed time frame. We are not saying that this initiative is doomed to failure, only that the problems and difficulties that are bound to arise from its implementation have probably been grossly under-estimated.
PIDS’ Manufacturing Industry Roadmap
Today’s world economy is characterized by the breakneck speed at which technologies and markets change. Coupled with the dark clouds of political uncertainty that hover over most parts of the globe, making business plans has become forbiddingly risky. Equally daunting under these circumstances is the business of formulating industrial policy.
From published newspaper reports citing a draft version of PIDS’ roadmap that is currently doing the rounds, the program will be implemented in two phases. Covering the period 2014-2017, Phase 1 focuses on strengthening so-called “emerging champions” (products that are agriculture-based, machinery, glass, certain chemicals), maintaining “classics” (products with which the Philippines has a comparative advantage, such as forestry products, raw materials, garments, some machinery), and rebuilding existing industrial capacity. To be implemented during the period 2018-2021, Phase 2, we are told, is focused on attracting investments in high-value added activities, especially those that bring in new technologies.
I have a sense that the three-pronged thrust of strengthening emerging champions, maintaining classics and rebuilding existing industrial capacity are a case of putting our bets on the wrong horses. In today’s fast-paced and unpredictable global business environment, current “champions” may turn out to be early losers. Recent developments in production technology and major changes in the energy and transport cost equations have all but rendered irrelevant the textbook concept of comparative advantage. Finally, existing industrial capacity does not need rebuilding, it needs replacement.
The huge amount of public investments that are required in all three areas of manufacturing will, ironically, make Philippine manufacturing less, not more flexible in dealing with today’s fast-paced global economy. Perhaps they are better spent elsewhere.
A better alternative is to invest heavily in the knowledge resources and infrastructural facilities that will enable the business sector, on its own, to adapt seamlessly to a fast changing, increasingly complex, and vastly more uncertain global business environment.
(The article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines. The author is a former Professor of Management in UP Mindanao. Feedback at [email protected] and [email protected] For previous articles, please visit <map.org.ph>)
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