January 2012


The title is a quote, fittingly from a food critic turned journalist and documentary maker: Jonathan Meades. Equally fittingly, Meades television output has a distinctly ‘marmite’ flavour: some people will lap up the breadth of source material and viewpoints, while others will blanch at some of the sourer notes or just flinch facing a monstrous feast of syllables. Mangling a culinary metaphor mercilessly, Meades is a man who serves up curate’s eggs by the dozen, some highly nutritious, some possibly addled. Approach iPlayer with caution. But, returning to earth – or, rather, Earth – he actually wasn’t talking about food. He was talking about how different cultures think about and value diversity.

Even if you are a BBC4 watcher with a thesaurus perched next to your remote control, some background might help. Apart from his print and TV work, Meades is also Honorary Associate of the National Secular Society and (in the language of its own website) a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association. His work, as blogger Aethelred the Unread describes it by comparison with the documentary-maker Adam Curtis, has a point to make:

Like Curtis, he’s not so much a polemicist for a particular viewpoint as he is a polemicist for the necessity of thinking for oneself. Like Curtis, he’s interested in unorthodox juxtapositions (especially of apparently serious and trivial things), and in approaching weighty topics from unusual angles.”

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Like so many words that start with ‘f’ (fairness or federalism, for example), faith can be a topic that leaves some of us slightly twitchy. As a word, its roots are actually secular: it derives from the Latin word for trust, and the religious sense was a 14th century acquisition. But for all the trouble humanity has wrought upon itself around faith in a theological sense, is it worth asking if we have successfully mastered the idea of faith in the broader, earthly sense?

I came across an old adage – “Fear can keep us up all night long, but faith makes one fine pillow” – that left me wondering if we don’t put too much emphasis on what we believe about the world around us, rather than on being mindful or receptive to the faith that others have in us? Most of us appreciate the merits of a fine pillow: whether we hold to a religion or live as atheists or agnostics, our lives are still touched by sorrow, frustration, setbacks or doubt, and a little pampering never goes amiss.  In terms of the comfort or sense of strength that it can bring, faith can definitely be its own reward. But I’m thinking about the idea of faith in a less … well, self-centred way: the benefits we can bring about by showing faith in others.

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There was an entertaining, provocative and feisty – in a nice way – guest post at HRFishbowl earlier this month by Chris Fields that caught my eye, and its title gives a good indication of the content: The Audacity of HR. Its main argument is summed up in one of its own highlighted sentences:

Maybe we should stop talking about ourselves as if we were a different breed.”

Before anyone puts their hand up to ask to complain (there’s a comment box below, by the way), I come not to bury HR (although the praise might not be fulsome.) In some ways, the piece strikes the same nerve endings that The Guardian’s HR: Friend or Foe? article did last year – although in this instance the comments have been much more favourable.

In this particular case, one of the issues raised was HR professionals’ reaction to being laid off: a first person lesson in “this time it’s personal”. As one commenter noted:

Having seen first hand the attitude of *some* HR pros when on the orgs side of the desk vs the being laid off side of the desk this is a great reminder to us all that what HR pros do is not *just* business. It affects the lives of fellow humans in big ways all the time. When we forget that we get it wrong.”

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The clue, as they say, is in the title. Or rather, two clues. Umair Haque’s argument in this short but fascinating and energising book is that our model of economics – and of ‘business as usual’ – has had its day, and that it now fails to serve us. Not an entirely novel argument, except that he has the bravery to move beyond mere protest and offer us at least a preliminary sketch for a more uplifting alternative. If you have the mental appetite for a challenging wake-up call, this is the textual equivalent of a pint of espresso (although you will need a Kindle to read it on).

The challenge begins with a comparison between economics and psychology. While the latter traditionally sought to address and minimise pathologies (on the basis that an absence of them meant a healthy mind), it has spawned a new paradigm of positive psychology that focuses on fulfilling human potential rather than merely on curing mental illness. The scale was extended to cover not just zero down to a negative figure, but also upwards to a positive figure. Haque contends that economics, however, still operates on the basis of a negative paradigm. What we call a healthy economy is one where ‘economic pathologies’ have been minimised or removed: if we remove barriers to commerce or trade, the economy will enjoy ‘health’. And as business is based on this economic paradigm, business-as-usual follows suit:

“Business” as we know it, live it, and do it is the expression of this economics of antipathology.”

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Anyone who relies on Wikipedia to maintain their position as most knowledgeable spark in their milieu might have struggled yesterday (particularly if they hadn’t Googled how to ‘View Source’ beforehand). If you missed it, several of the world’s largest Internet sites ‘took action’ yesterday in protest against the proposed SOPA and PIPA Acts currently being discussed in the different chambers of the US parliamentary system. This would be an awfully long blog posting if I stopped to explain them; thankfully the BBC News pages provide an overview and the (now-restored) Wikipedia can also tell you more.

Essentially, the arguments are around intellectual property rights and digital piracy: as we embrace Web 2.0 and user-content (and, by extension, social media, crowd-sourcing and many other topics you may already feel you’ve read your fill of), it’s technically far too easy for people to upload copies of films, music and so on that has someone else’s copyright legally attached to it. (Unless you’ve never watched anything on YouTube or burned a copy of a friend’s CD to iTunes, it’s a fair bet you’ve broken copyright law.) Because it’s easy, it happens; because the end result is free, other people watch, listen to or re-download it. Various high profile websites’ issue isn’t so much with the problem as with the proposed solution: if someone uploads a copy of a Hollywood movie to Wikipedia or YouTube, SOPA would – if enacted – mean that Wikipedia/YouTube has broken the law and could be taken down in total, Google could be forced to remove links to them, and so on … That’s why you either had to do your own thinking or find it in a book yesterday.

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HRZone recently published an interesting article by Emma Littmoden, partner at The Living Leader, called Can HR devise rules that stimulate not stifle innovation? A question that begged for a response – possibly a fairly abrupt one – from the organisational equivalent of ‘the cheap seats’, I thought, so it’s lack of comments so far comes as a surprise. Perhaps everyone else’s HR departments have issued memos banning employees from posting comments at HRZone?

There were quite a few points I wanted to pick Emma up on, in the nicest possible way. First of these was her surprise at Apple’s apparent introduction of stern social media protocols, given the money it makes from handheld devices that encourage ‘the free-flowing ideas of the individuals on the payroll’. Once some of the world had stopped loading candle apps on their iPads and leaving £400’s worth of hi-tech equipment outside shops to mourn Steve Jobs (I’m no accountant, but a tea-light would have said the same, and been far cheaper and less of a personal data security risk), I got the impression that the control-freak tendencies of the recently deceased were aired more freely than previously. And Apple, for all the design savvy of its products (for which thanks should strictly speaking go to Johnny Ive), is a company that makes it very hard to dig beneath the OS, install open source software, and is very keen that we load our (very profitable) new toys with apps, tunes, books, movies and so on bought from an online store that very much runs by their rules. Apple’s version of the world is impeccably stylish, but pretty tightly closed. I’m not sure everyone wants to rule the world, but Apple is keener than most: their internal application of the tendency didn’t surprise me in the least.

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As a highly successful business author, Patrick Lencioni may well need no introduction, although his individual style – imparting lessons through business fables – is very much a personal hallmark. From my first encounter with his book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team (which my colleague, Chris Rogers, reviewed here), I was immediately drawn to the way that he delivers his lessons in the form of a story, complete with characters, drama and plot. I had to consciously leave aside my reservations that his approach omitted the structure, methodology and models to support his argument… but as it turned out, I did not have to wait too long to sigh with relief. I found everything I sought at the back of the book.

It helped to draw me in that the first two dysfunctions he tackled were lack of trust and avoiding conflict, themes and experiences that chimed with my own thoughts and frustrations when dealing with many global senior managers and executives. Won over by the style and approach, I read on through the remaining dysfunctions and found myself appreciating a very satisfying read. (Satisfied enough to turn to some of his other works, where I found rich material on a range of approaches and ideas to free up thinking, manage meetings and handle change.)

His most recent book, Getting Naked: A Business Fable about shedding the Three Fears that Sabotage Client Loyalty, differs from his earlier output. Rather than the global CEO/CIO population, Lencioni has aimed this book at “anyone whose success is tied to building loyal and creating sticky relationships with the people they serve” – including not just service providers of many stripes but also people in his own trade: consultants.

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