Scribes and managers: compare and contrast

What do scribes and managers have in common? (And how are they different?)

For centuries, every civilization with a written language had scribes. Essential for the preservation of knowledge and recording of business information, scribes were a skilled and limited resource, and therefore accorded the respect and status of professionals. From the sesh of ancient Egypt or the dubsar of Mesopotamia, the Mayan ah tz’ib, or the Chinese tradition originating 20 centuries BC with Cangjie, the scribal professionals enjoyed an honored and central role in society.

Until the printing press, that is.

Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 15th century (and movable type and new inks) suddenly made it possible for books to be created faster than they could be read. Much faster. Over about 75 years, books and other written material went from being rare and treasured volumes containing only special and often sacred material, and owned only by the wealthy and powerful, to relatively widespread and containing everything from political propaganda to romance pulp-fiction. Even the minimally literate could (and did) print and distribute written media.

Technology eliminated the need for scribes, and within a century there was no scribal profession in the western world. Scribes remain today as an idiosyncratic niche occupation. There is nothing new about this concept. It has been the subject of countless high school and college essays and fills shelves in academic libraries. (See Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing, University of Chicago Press 1995, ISBN 0-226-50836-6 )l

(As a side note, although the impact of the new technology on scribes was large, it was dwarfed by the impact the proliferation of written media had on culture, religion, government, and science. But that is topic for another post.)

Ask about scribes and you will hear about their historical role. Ask about professional managers, and you will hear about corporate structure, the relative merits of different management approaches, discussion of salaries. It is not likely you will be told they will soon go the way of scribes. But they will. The change has started happening, if you know where to look.

Prior to the industrial revolution, no professional manager class existed. There was no need. At the start of the 20th Century, the population was rural and agricultural and businesses larger than a family were the exception. There were no managers because there was nothing to manage until large manufacturing plants with unskilled labor required complex infrastructures and managers. Then skilled management evolved into a valuable resource with its own body of knowledge (management science), and its own internally controlled standards and educational training.  Just as scribes were essential until the 15th Century for the preservation of records and knowledge, managers were essential for the success of 20th Century industry.

Growth comes with a cost. The small entity had one task, such as making shoes. The large shoe factory has two tasks: making shoes and remaining an entity that makes shoes. The larger the entity, the more resources must be devoted to maintaining and managing the infrastructure. These resources are not available to serve the core purpose (making shoes) and represent a cost. As long as this ‘transactional cost’ can be kept lower than the costs that would be incurred by having no infrastructure and management, it is cost effective.

Initially, management was necessary to coordinate internal and external resources and manage a large and unskilled labor pool. During the 20th Century, management added technology to its responsibilities. With the progression toward service and information industries and globalization, management has been necessary to create and maintain long term goals and coordinate complex disparate interdependent entities. The nature of management changed, but the need remained. (The Future of Management by Gary Hamel)

The changes of the last 15 years are different from the changes of the previous 150, and not so much quantitatively as qualitatively.

Starting in the mid 1990s, technology delivered steadily cheaper and more effective ways to communicate and to store and distribute information. Cheap many:many communication and  robust and adaptable collaboration and communication tools make complex self-regulating networks possible. A transition similar to that caused by the printing press is underway. Prior to the printing press, media communication meant a tiny number of scribes laboriously producing a few books for a small elite group. The printing press made it possible for a still limited group (authors and publishers) to produce large numbers of books for widespread use. Communication in the 20th Century was characterized by telegraph and then telephone (1:1 communication) and radio and then movies and television (1:many broadcast). Starting in the 1990s, the internet has been providing a growing ability for many:many communication and broadcast, and the separation between communication (1:1 or 1:small group) and broadcast (1:man) has blurred to near invisibility.

What does this mean for the role of management? A good example is Nupedia. If you haven’t heard of Nupedia, that’s the point. Nupedia was a 1990s venture to leverage the internet  by eliminating publishing and distribution costs and make a high-quality low-cost encyclopedia widely available. The model was to have a group of experts produce articles that would be made available electronically. At the end of nearly 18 months, there were fewer than 20 articles, and only a few more in the pipeline. Frustrated, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, in coordination with Ward Cunningham, tried something different. They launched Wikipedia in January of 2001 as a venture to provide drafts for Nupedia. Ten years later, Nupedia is gone but Wikepedia is a a self-regulating open-source community that has over 15 million articles in 200 languages, a million registered contributors, and an unknown number of anonymous contributors.

Because new technologies can essentially eliminate transaction costs associated with information maintenance, communication and collaboration, hierarchical organizations that use command and control authority to ‘manage’ information, channel communication and control processes are at considerable risk. Their increased internal costs and loss of creativity and adaptability put them at a competitive disadvantage. Over time, many will be replaced by collaborative self-regulating organizations based on trust rather than authority, using community generated and owned information, and practicing matrix communication. Just as scribes faded in importance, so too will managers. As their central role as directors and controllers vanishes, the best they can hope for is to become connectors and facilitators charged with maintaining the communication and collaboration technologies for their communities.

What do scribes and managers have in common? Both have largely outlived their usefulness. How are they different? Most managers haven’t figured that out yet.


For those interested in exploring the fascinating world of self organization, the role of the power law relationship in open source creative processes and social media, the concept of inevitable asymmetry or participation as a feature rather than a bug, should consider reading

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