History As Judge Part II: Your Code of Hammurabi


The start of something beautiful? It's too soon to tell.

In returning to the test of history, The Curmudgeon now looks at the Babylonian civilization, which is notable for its length of survival and for rising to prominence in a complex geopolitical environment. The most profound aspect of the Babylonian civilization relating to our topic of good management practices is the development of a uniform code of law.

So there was this king of Babylon, Hammurabi, who rules a bunch of city-states in the long, fertile valley of modern-day Iraq. Hammurabi's wandered along and gradually conquered each city-state and absorbed them into the overall Babylonian Empire, but even after making them part of the nation, he's still got a considerable problem. None of the city-states agree on how to govern. Every one of them has different laws and customs and even languages, and each thinks they're better than the others. They'll hardly talk to each other and trade between them is stilted, and they all expect him to sort it out in their favour

Hammurabi's ancestors have had to deal with this problem, and have done so mostly by waiting until the city-states rebel and then giving them a good thrashing until they got back into line. (This approach also became the basis for early European kingdoms, with monarchs who spent most of their lives traipsing around their kingdoms on long audits, making sure that all the nobles where doing what they were supposed to and being nasty to those who failed to live up to  the task.) However this method hasn't solved the problem in any lasting way. At the beginning of his reign, Hammurabi's Babylon was just the largest of a number of rival city-states, and it wasn't until he came to power that Babylon asserted itself as the dominant power in the region.

Hammurabi recognized that unless something radical is done, the internal feuding will continue and will tear his empire apart. His solution is unique for the period but sets an enormous precedent. He has all the laws of the kingdom written down in plain language, carved in huge obelisks, and set in the centre of the major cities.  Thus the Code of Hammurabi is born, and it details all the rules that govern life in Babylon. It sets out that the purpose of the king in providing justice, and that the law is the best means of doing this. It provides justification for the social hierarchy and the centralization of authority (being the instruments of divine will), what the rights and responsibilities of the people are, and what happens to anyone who commits a crime or an offense.

By this act, Hammurabi dispenses with a whole host of localized legal systems, languages and indeed cultures, and replaced them with a single system. Anyone who's literate (which admittedly would be a limited population) can wander up to the obelisk, read out the law, and see how it is interpreted. Everyone throughout Babylon who read the obelisk can know what was required of them and where they stand in relation to the society around them. The use of a common language and a simple script made the law more accessible to the citizens of the empire, and by basing the law on precedent (and allowing the use of evidence) rule within the empire built on commonalities, not differences.

The significance of the code of Hammurabi was that it clarified the nature of the relationship between the sovereign authority and the society. Instead of the people seeing themselves as members of the city-state or kinship first, they knew themselves to be first and foremost subjects of Babylon. They knew how and why they were ruled, what happened when things went wrong, and where to look for justice. Arguably, Hammurabi created the first codified system of governmental transparency – in which the clear codification of rules went a long way towards keeping excesses of behaviour and action in line.

Following the introduction of his Code, Hammurabi went on a long spree of consolidation.  Erecting or restoring temples, building new cities, digging canals funding new infrastructure and propagating agricultural progress.  Hammurabi made sure that the administration of his empire documented everything it did - from collecting revenue, initiating public works, to regulating food supplies, and providing exemptions from duty – all of which followed the principles of the Code. 

So what does all this have to do with management and the test of history? First, the parallels between modern organizations and the city-state problems of early Babylon should be obvious. The larger the organization, the more evident the similarities become, as departments specialize and develop their own ways of achieving goals. The more successful departments indubitably begin to compete for budgets, personnel, and organizational resources, which unless closely monitored, leads to internal feuding, turf wars, and a breakdown in the overall efficiency of the organization. Departments that have achieved a certain degree of autonomy from the overall hierarchy will be loathe to relinquish it, and may consolidate their own power by producing internal policies and procedures that differ considerably from the norm. If left to their own devices for long enough, bureaucratic departments begin to duplicate services (so that everything remains 'in-house') and distance themselves from both the overall purpose of the organization. They become, in effect, mini-fiefdoms (or Babylonian city-states)

Some of this process is considered inevitable in modern bureaucracies. However, The Curmudgeon disagrees with that premise. Regular oversight of departmental practices and policies will keep the fiefdom tendencies to a minimum, which is where the notion of Bablyonian law comes in. As long as any part of an organization is allowed to work in isolation from the the principles and policies that govern the rest of that organization, the problem will rear its head. However, if all departments or structures within an organization have to develop policy and practice in accordance with a single uniform code, and maintain that documentation in a clear, easily-understood, and retrievable format, internal feuding can be minimized.

Overall, any organization should have an integrated code of conduct, rights, responsibilities, purpose and practice. All employees should know and understand that code, and when conflict arises, it becomes the arbiter of disputes, not internal politicking. If we call that code 'organizational law', and make effort to ensure that its application is uniform, then we minimize the petty politics, the backroom deals, and promote greater unity and morale in an organization. A great deal of workplace efficiency and productivity is lost when the component parts of an organization spend more time feuding than they do collaborating. Organizations without a clear organizational law will suffer the consequences.

So if you're a management consultant and you're proposing organizational change, ask yourself if the policies and practices would stand up to Babylonian scrutiny? Are they not only clear and precise for the department, but also for the whole organization? Do they build on evidence and positive precedence? Will the overall organizational community understand the purpose and the consequences?

If an answer to any of these questions is no, then the idea should fall under the "too soon to say" branch of experimentation. Change in business is a constant necessity, but a change that creates internal fragmentation, division, obfuscation, and indifference is a change unwanted. Whatever we do should serve the purpose of the organization, not just a rebellious state within it. 

History will judge harshly otherwise.