Control is an Illusion

I´ve been pondering this topic for a while, since I was invited to participate in a compliance seminar at my previous employer.

I am talking about an American corporation with a strong focus on compliance, in the sense of standard processes, documented processes, with controls in place and a regular internal audit check – a control of the controlled processes.

It was really an interesting setting – there were 10 of us, most of whom had left the company during the resizing of the year 2009. Each used their previous experience in their own special ways, starting up a small business of our own – in each special area of expertise: our former compliance manager now runs his own consulting firm around.... compliance. Another compliance expert from Germany started up in the area of data privacy, given the new regulations around it there are a lot of good business opportunities.


What particularly struck a cord with me was the repeatedly occuring concept of „control“ - the process as described is perfect, just.... at times it is not executed in this perfect manner... As long as we talk machines – manufacturing machines, computer programms – all remains perfect. Machines do not make mistakes. They execute faithfully, flawlessly what they are programmed to do.


What kills the perfect process is... the „human factor“ - I am not joking, this is how it was called: the human factor... the moment there is human interaction, meaning, a person has to perform a task like typing information about a person into a pc, or filing paper work to a filesystem – there is a risk of „imperfect processing“.... a person may forget to do something, which a computer never would, or may simply misspell a word.

A person could even be tempted to not be honest, to take advantage of access rights... you name it.


So the compliance department requires „compensating controls“ - control the human factor. Thru another human. AGAIN – risk of … human failure.


It really amused me – we always ran back to this „human factor“, using a very rational term for a very irrational behaviour: human feelings, temptations, moods.


And suddenly it struck me – control is an illusion!

We think we can control a human being like we control a machine.

We think we can control one human being through another human being – failure is still possible.

And we obsessed about the need to control, controlling the controller, perfecting the control process.


As humans, we do make mistakes. We are no machines... I can imagine that the aim of perfection really entered our interactions with the introduction of computers as co-workers: they flawlessly execute. No bad mood from troubles at home, no inattention as a slight illness arises – execution, always.


So the behaviour of the pc became the measuring stick for our human behavior. Ever more rational, ever more controllable.