Organizations and Prisons…The Similarities

Similarity 1: They are both organizations!

Yeah correct that’s that simple. Both the organizations have a purpose, a mission, or a goal to achieve which they should be able to achieve via interplay of interacting elements within and outside the organization. While one might see a prison as a more stable and static business environment as compared to the ever changing and evolving business environment, the forces of change do impact both. One can argue that such changes in external environment would impact organizations like prisons later than they would impact a commercial organization.

Similarity 2: They house in-mates from different and diverse backgrounds. Rules of the game would change based on how the in-mates interact with each other & the system

People who are part of any organization necessarily come inside the organization with different backgrounds, motives, and achievement orientations. The prisons are no different, including some people who may seek “shelter” inside a prison! Typically one would observe that the organizational system will create and recreate rules for these in-mates primarily based on how the system expects and experiences interaction within its inmates and with the system. So typically this is a reactive process where policies, procedures, and rules would be changed only when one realizes that they no longer serve the purpose or serve it as effectively as expected. I am sure after events like The Shawshank Redemption, the organization was forced to change certain rules, policies, and processes. What was your organization’s The Shawshank Redemption moment?

Similarity 3: Paternalistic systems — where discipline and adherence to directive is rewarded

In most industrialized organizations, the efficiencies are gained when more people do the same thing in the same manner. This is still true in many industries today and this essentially means that “workers” will be rewarded for adhering to the stated processes and behaving in a disciplined manner every day. In a prison environment discipline and routine has a great importance as it ensures that the system can keep an eye on the affairs of the participants. In most organizations, the paternalistic system would typically tell the participants what to do with giving little opportunity to them in deciding what, when and how to do. All though this is changing in certain pockets this is how most part of the industrial revolution was achieved in the first place and continues to operate in certain commercial setups.

Similarity 4: Rarely would the system recognize innate talents & create opportunities

The prison system works on mass scale and hence has very little attention to individual talents and creates those opportunities. Since most industrialized organizations also focused on scale the challenge was to train and keep the staff engaged in repetitive tasks. This is changing in 21st century and increasingly now such tasks are being given to machines while humans are expected to bring their unique talent to work. Thus modern organizations are struggling to create systems and structures to accommodate this fundamental change in the way of operation. The need to monitor and track what everyone is doing and how it is aligned to the overall goal or objective still persists in most commercial organizations.

Similarity 5: While on the outside all prisons might look similar & have similar stated objective they are very different from the inside

Yes, the culture. This is very true of all organizations commercial or otherwise. What one gets to read about one commercial organization may not be very different from the other when it comes to media information. Its only when one goes inside the said organization is when one is exposed to its intricacies and the unstated rules. One would encounter the power centres and how one would tackle them would determine who wins the battle. This can become an issue of “survival” in literal sense in both organizations.

Similarity 6: Your countries GDP will greatly influence your experience

I am sure experience inside American prison vs an Indian or any other developing country prison would be very different. While this can be a function of the culture, to me it’s also a function of the economic status of the country. Similarly when one is working in an Indian organization the experience might be very different than when one works in an organization within America. I am referring here to the average experience between an Indian and American organization while fully being aware that there are outliers on either side of the spectrum in both countries.

If you came this far, I would love to hear your thoughts, comments and ideas on this. This article was triggered after I watched the movie The Shawshank Redemption and also by the concept of “Organizations as Psychic Prisons” by Wesley, Carlo, Reilly and Sarah