I have this idea of a probably mythical time in the history of office work. A point in time a few years before my own career began when computers were present but were still the preserve of typists. Tools used exclusively by specialist, trained workers. When the average desk was reserved for paper, a Rolodex perhaps, a blotter. A strong cup of tea in our days before skinnylattacinos became the obsession.

Back in this probably mythical time the flow of information around an organisation was constrained. CCing a memo meant bringing out the carbon paper or maybe, just maybe, pressing a button on one of these clever new word processors from IBM or Wang. The production of documents was limited but the resource of the typing pool. If you wanted to get something produced as a document there were hoops through which to jump, people to be cajoled. If you wanted to produce a document you really wanted to produce a document. These were days before “Can you just knock me up a PowerPoint?”

Back in this almost certainly mythical time the effort that was required to produce a document meant that the documents that were produced were almost certainly important. They were the record of crucial decisions. Of important strategies. Not the output of eight hours of farting about with which font to use.

Because they were important, they were (probably) read. And lovingly stored away for posterity by legions of filing clerks who only purpose was to make sure that everything had a place and that place was were things would be.

In this mythical time, decision making was closely observed and systematic. We sat in committees or sub-steering groups. We pondered over agendas and methodically recorded our actions in artisanal minutes. How did we come to this conclusion? Smithers, check the files please.

Roll forward thirty years.

Today if I want to do something in a large organisation I’ll forward my half-formed thoughts to two dozen people. The longer the distribution list, the greater the chance that everyone will assume someone else has got it covered. Decisions aren’t made. Decisions are avoided and actions taken on the basis of a null response (“Nobody told me not to do it”). But data is everywhere. Everything is recorded, every little “Water cooler” conversation.

How did we come to a decision? is no longer a matter of looking up in the right place. Today it’s an exercise in forensics – who said what to whom and from that how can we infer a thread of causality. A task that, despite the promise of intelligences artificial, will become increasingly convoluted as our not making decisions making processes become ever more complicated.

Is the challenge in regulated spaces today not that we don’t make a record of decisions made, but more that with information everywhere we act on assumption and don’t really make conscious decisions any more?

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