When businesses grow to become dysfunctional

A few years ago, when Bank of America telephone support told me that my third consecutive defective SafePass card was an isolated incident, I decided to see for myself by blogging about it.

Last week, when I received the 75th comment from someone similarly affected by the problem, I decided to tweet to some Bank of America executives (I could only find four with Twitter accounts).

This week, I got a voice mail from someone at Bank of America working in “Enterprise Issue Resolution”. After a bit of voice-mail ping-pong, I finally got in touch with the guy, who we’ll call “Bob”.

  • Bob: “Hi Mr Henderson. This is Bob from Bank of America Enterprise Issue Resolution. I was notified by the Social Media Team, that you tagged one of our executives in a tweet, linking to your blog post. I’m reaching out to help resolve the problem.”
  • Me: “Oh, great! Well, I suppose you’ve read my article and are up to speed about the problem?”
  • Bob: “No, I haven’t. Reading your article would be the responsibility of the Social Media Team. My responsibility is helping you resolve the problem.”
  • Me: “Ah, OK. Well, do you know what the problem is?”
  • Bob: “No, I don’t. Can you please tell me what the problem is?”

It was at this point that it occurred to me how dysfunctional large organizations like Bank of America really are. I was thinking, “If anyone’s thinking about disrupting the finance industry, it’s definitely ripe!”

At the end of the call, when Bob asked if there were any other comments I’d like to provide, I mentioned that of all the financial institutions I deal with, Bank of America is one of the very few that have not implemented standard two-factor authentication, using apps like Google Authenticator or Authy.

Bob had never heard of two-factor authentication, and asked me to explain it so he could pass on the recommendation to the appropriate team. I have to say it just felt funny explaining to a representative of one of the world’s largest financial organizations what two-factor authentication is. “Yes, it’s spelled A-U-T-H-Y. Yes it’s an app. That’s right, for smartphones.”

Anyway, though, I’m not writing this to be critical of Bank of America, and certainly not critical of Bob. I actually really appreciate that he personally reached out to me, and is doing his best to help. I just think the whole situation is a glaring example of how inefficient and dysfunctional organizations get, when they grow to a certain size. (Bob did apologize that I’ve been experiencing this problem for three years!! and just asked for my patience in understanding that a company that size is limited in how fast it can react.)

It reminded me of a quote from Peter Drucker, in his 1960s book, “The Effective Executive”, talking about what happens when an organization grows:

An organization, a social artifact, is very different from a biological organism. Yet it stands under the law that governs the structure and size of animals and plants: The surface goes up with the square of the radius, but the mass grows with the cube. The larger the animal becomes, the more resources have to be devoted to the mass and to the internal tasks, to circulation and information, to the nervous system, and so on.

Agree? Disagree? What do you think?