October 2010


I emailed my real friends, but they were busy or washing their hair, so my partner and I queued behind a thousand teens blackberrying intently while they waited to buy tickets for Vampires Suck and Paranormal Activity 2. Despite having gone to the cinema with people, everyone around us was talking to someone who wasn’t there. Eventually, and appropriately, we waded through the fast food wrappers to see The Social Network, the story of Facebook. Or more accurately, mostly the story of the lawsuits that later erupted around those at Harvard during the time that ‘thefacebook.com’ first debuted and the rather messy years that followed.

Much has been made in comments on the film of the irony of a social network whose driving force is a man portrayed as so lacking in the social graces that lubricate and enable friendship. As much as been made of the film’s suggestion that Facebook was a response to getting dumped in a bar by an erstwhile girlfriend. (She gets the film’s best line in the process), with Mark Zuckerberg, the central figure, denying it while other websites dig a little deeper into what may or may not be the truth behind what actually happened. So this posting is a reaction to watching a film that may or may not be exactly what happened in Harvard and in California in 2004 – 6: that the film itself suggests that truth is a highly interpretable abstract concept is a comment worth slipping in at this point.

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This review should start with a confession. In the spirit of the one of the ‘Mottos to work by’ at Bully OnLine’s Bad boss jokes page – “Plagiarism saves time”, one of the messages from Bounce has already appears in this blog. When light-heartedly identifying Five Signs You Might Need A Coach, we included “You lack bottom (especially for landing on)”. The inspiration was an example in Syed’s book of the counter-intuitive importance of failure in achieving success, namely Shizuka Arakawa, Japanese figure skater, 2004 World Champion and 2006 Olympic Champion. The point – one of many that Syed makes through the example of sport, but making compelling and interesting challenges to the notion that talent is somehow ‘innate’ – is that effective purposeful practice must embrace failure. To extend our abilities, we must try things we’re not currently capable of, and accept that we may not necessarily succeed at first. Or, to quote the book:

Author Geoff Colvin has estimated that Shizuka Arakawa {…} tumbled over more than twenty thousand times in her progression from five-year old wannabe to 2006 Olympic champion. ‘Arakawa’s story is invaluable as a metaphor,’ Colvin has written. ‘Landing on your butt twenty thousand times is where great performance comes from.’”

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A few weeks ago, I belatedly saw An Education, the film inspired by Lynn Barber’s memoirs of her teenage years. Although Ms Barber has made it clear in interviews that the film isn’t a verbatim rendition of her adolescence, the film is excellent: some truly fine performances, a well-written script and a real capturing of the suburban South London of yesteryear. (I grew up about 2 miles from the setting of the family home, and had several attacks of something slightly less fond than nostalgia through the film.) Without throwing in too many spoilers (just buy the DVD, it’s a film worth seeing), it’s a story about life lessons as well as school lessons, and the relative merits of each, illustrated by an academically gifted young girl’s affair with an older man (remarkably, with not just the consent but the encouragement of her parents, all three of them dazzled by social sophistication – and a noticeable whiff of cash).

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Now that it is clear that job losses in the public sector over the next 4 – 5 years will be measured in the hundreds of thousands, the economic gamble is – as many have commented – that the private sector can provide the new job opportunities to make up the difference. Its ability to grow at that rate given the circumstances shouldn’t be the only concern, although it is a perfectly valid one. And neither should we overlook the need to not just ‘take up the slack’ but to grow beyond that to accommodate those who will enter the job market for the first time and who will find few openings in publicly-funded arenas. The rise in state retirement age may also have an impact, as the queue for “dead people’s shoes” consequently grows a little longer.

The private sector will, sensibly, recruit those it deems most suitable to the opportunities it seeks to fill. The Equality Bill may, like the CSR, be upon us, but to expect companies to prefer (say) 50 year old former Council employees over (say) 23 year old MBA graduates is to expect law to have greater impact on preconceptions and behaviours than may turn out to be the case. But the impact of the private sector’s perceptions of the public sector is likely to prove more important in determining the latter’s former employees’ chances.

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I’m not a fan of car crashes as a spectator sport (hence my interest in the pioneering thinking of Hans Monderman, I suspect). I don’t watch F1 races– I’m a Grand Prix widower – and, following the same formula (no pun intended), I don’t watch The Apprentice except when my usually kindly and supportive ASK colleagues suggest a particular episode for my … er, delectation? So I missed Episode 1 of Series 6, where “16 of Britain’s brightest business prospects” (their words) made sausages and sold them to the unsuspecting public. My partner watched and told me how much it would probably have made me shout at the telly. I don’t doubt it: in its high-flying world of black limousines and luxury apartments, coarse language would be inappropriate, so let’s just say it seems to be mainly populated by people who couldn’t organise (ahem) a pea soup in a brasserie.

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Change is, at the clichés of the zeitgeist run, now a constant of organisational and individual working life. On top of market globalisation, technological advance, downsizing, rationalisation, business re-engineering, merger and acquisition, the public sector in the UK is now to face the kind of cuts that, for once, deserve the use of capital letters on the words Very Significant. Arguing about the requirement for them, or attempting to discern the assumptions and reasons for the choices that the Government will make will not change their impact: the motivations of the axe-wielder make little difference to the results of the blade’s impact.

There will, undoubtedly, be pain. Many of the howls of anguish will be real, rather than mere disagreement from those who are less directly affected. But managers and HR functions in the public sector (and in private sector companies dependant on income from public sector contracts) need to focus not on the vocal symptoms, but on repairing the damage and remodelling the future. This week will mark the change from a situation on not knowing what’s coming and asking ‘what are we going to do?’ to a situation of knowing what’s coming and doing it.

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On the eve of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review, one industry at least is running at maximum capacity: the rumour mills are turning feverishly. Whether the world’s Cassandras see the future as driven by ideology or mathematics, the axe is coming and the crystal ball clearly predicts amputations. As with any amputation, however, the point should be to save the patient from worse, rather than disable them.

One of the rumours strongly indicates a major change to learning and development across Government departments, suggesting that an overwhelming majority of this will in future be delivered through e-learning. We’re not Luddites: we were delivering major programmes of web-based learning in 1998 (and took the trouble to include features such as hurdled assessments and online views of individual and cohort progress and analysis for tutors), and we make extensive use of webinars, multimedia and many other offspring from the ‘new media’ family in our current blended learning programmes.

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