That’s basically the question considered in an Economist article (The joy of the nudge Olympics, Aug 11). They give the organizers positive marks for how they managed Olympic goers but are less positive on how they managed their employees and volunteers.
In terms of managing customers, the game organizers have relied on some lessons from behavioral economics.
[T]he London games have been a “nudge” Olympics, where locals and visitors have been coaxed rather than coerced. Nudging, a theory developed by two American academics, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, is in vogue in Britain. …
Organisers have, for example, tried to make enjoyable Olympic experiences that might otherwise be annoying. The long trudge from Stratford station to the Olympic Park is lined with grinning volunteers, many shouting cheery messages reminding people that this is a once-in-a-lifetime event. Banners carry slogans: “You’re part of it.” Commentators rouse crowds in a similar way. It sounds cheesy, particularly for Britain. Yet it works.
Spectators have been nudged out of their cars—public travel passes were sent out with tickets—and persuaded to avoid hotspots by a heavily-marketed website that helps them plan their journeys. “People aren’t passive. They like to feel they are making decisions,” says Peter John of UCL, an adviser to the government’s behavioural insight team.
So their approach to managing customers has been cutting edge. The Economist has a less generous take on how they have managed their army of workers and volunteers.
But a parallel policy lesson has also emerged, which is much less reassuring—the advantage of sheer numbers. The Olympics workforce is huge: the organising committee directly employs over 7,000 staff alongside 70,000 volunteers and 100,000 contractors. In every other sphere of British public life, staff numbers are being cut and roles merged to save money. Not so at the games. …
Within Olympic venues, each worker is given a single task so that nothing may distract him or her from it—a kit bag to carry, a starting block to remove, a rake to smooth the sand. “Simplicity and clarity” is the guiding principle, says Paul Deighton of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Such an inflexible apportionment of jobs, rather like an old-fashioned assembly line, flouts modern management techniques where team members typically float between roles. It is viable during the Olympics because so many workers are volunteers, rewarded only with a garish purple-and-red uniform and, hopefully, a fun time. As Mr Deighton acknowledges, “If you were paying these people you’d obviously reach the conclusion that you could save costs by having fewer of them.”
I am not so sure that the modern approaches hinted at in the article would work at the Olympics. Broad job assignments and the cross training they require make sense in an ongoing enterprise in which the firm can expect to recoup its investment over time. That is not really the model for a two-week athletic tournament. Indeed, I suspect that they invested in the minimal training required. That may be substantial for some assignments. The Wall Street Journal reported that the crew mopping down the courts for the badminton matches were themselves elite players who in some cases practiced for nine months. But that is a setting in which the essence of the gig is getting the necessary work done without slowing down or interfering with play. The Journal also reports that other volunteers were tasked with handing runners cardboard bowls in case they needed to ralph after their races. I’m guessing that didn’t take nine months of preparation. You just need someone with experience with hard-partying roommates in college.
I also expect that the whole issue of pace of play factors into how the organizers allocated tasks. There are so many things going on at a track meet, for example, that someone needs to be raking up the long jump pit while someone else needs to be moving starting blocks.