organisational development


We are, I’m getting the impression, having a human moment. At least, some of the online commentariat seem to be. Umair Haque – whose Betterness: Economics for Humans was an intriguing read – is pondering the socio-economic reboot most people seem to be muttering about us needing, and directing our thoughts to starting with the purpose. Or, as he put it his Next Big Thing blog post at Harvard Business Review:

I’d bet the farm, the house, and the Apple shares on the following proposition: Our institutions are failing not merely because they’re bankrupting us financially, but because they’re bankrupting us in human terms — that, having become something like Alcatrazes for the human soul, they fail to ignite within us the searing potential for the towering accomplishments necessary to answer today’s titanic challenges.”

This is heady stuff, ripe with the whiff of heavy lifting undertaken in the search for meaning, or ways of creating and unearthing it. Umair is adamant that the first great concern is with what makes us “searingly, painfully, achingly, enduringly, joyously human” – not with enhancing productivity or efficiency. As he argues, we’ve been pretty inventive at those over the centuries – even over the last few years (imagine how bewildering today would look if you stepped directly through a door from, say, 1987) – but it’s a lot less clear-cut as to what we’ve ‘solved’ has been what most needed fixing.

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Life gives us plenty of examples of unintended consequences. As we commented once before, electricity, mechanisation and computerisation freed up immense amounts of our time so that we could all work harder and longer, rather than enjoying our endless leisure time in the eternal sunshine of the pop-science prophesies. Some of us spend more time at the beach than ever before, but there’s a chance we’ll spend a fair chunk of it clutching a laptop and looking for ‘free broadband’ signs in café windows.

Sometimes the impact is so tangential that it would escape most of us, although in the case of George Gruhn, an American musical instrument collector, he no doubt sees the unintended consequence as something of a silver lining (the quote is from Tim Brookes’ enchanting read Guitar: An American Life):

The baby boomers grew up with guitars,” he began, speaking in sentences that got longer and faster, as if history itself were accelerating, “but the baby boomers were different from any generation from Australopithecus to the present in that we grew up from birth onward with antibiotics. No previous generation ever had. Turn-of-the-century life expectancy in the U.S. was about forty-two years, which wasn’t much different from what it was in ancient Greece. As result they had no mid-life crisis and they didn’t have hobbies in mid-life.”

Antibiotics weren’t designed for the benefit of the American luthiery trade, but the increase in middle-aged people with both savings and spare time has meant ‘vintage guitars’ have become hugely prized collectors’ items (if you want to make a vast return, nip back to 1957 and buy the entire stock of a music store – your money will outstrip almost any other investment), and meticulous bearded men who smell of wood shavings can make a comfortable living making arch-lutes in Vermont workshops. The audience for both products had, until recently, not been a demographic that stayed alive long enough for makers or museum curators to survive by courting them.

From an economist’s point of view, this must be pretty much a dream marketing scenario. Items whose age or price, quality and slow hand-made manufacture provide built-in scarcity value and whose marketplace has increased hugely – and will continue to be large until the demographic tide turns. Nor are unintended consequences the preserve of wooly-jumpered hippies strumming away around campfires. As Scott Granneman points out in a Register posting about them:

My British readers at least have one advantage over us Yanks: it appears that so many people in the UK are taking Prozac that the drinking water now contains traces of the drug. Wait a little longer, and security pros in the UK won’t be worrying about unintended consequences: thanks to one that I would have never thought of, they’ll be blissfully unconcerned about them.”

We can be equally confident that the developers of Prozac and of prescription antibiotics didn’t have booming guitar sales and a contaminated water supply on their list of aims, objectives or targets, yet both have come about. I’m not sure that attempting to head off these ripples of socio-economic chaos is achievable. At the moment they hatch, all new innovations are the ideas equivalent of frogspawn – lots of energetic wriggling, but not much sense of direction. How are we supposed to guess which will turn out to be the kind of frog that awaits merely the Princess’ kiss and which will become cane toads (introduced to Australia to control pests in sugarcane fields, they have become a major threat to biodiversity in their own right)? Good intentions provide no clue, as John Wilbanks shows when he refers to:

[…] the lovely example of the microwave oven, whose inventor did not intend to be part of the long term destruction of the family meal (negative unintended consequence) or of the long term movement to liberate women (positive unintended consequence). Indeed, he was a guy fixing a radar system who noticed his chocolate had melted, so it’s safe to say he didn’t have much of a social agenda at all.”

The more important point is that things tend not to get un-invented. Having made chicken curry with Bombay potatoes a viable option in 6 minutes or less on full power, the microwave is not about to depart from our lives. It’s too handy, too convenient and it makes great popcorn: what’s not to like? It doesn’t matter how regal a deckchair we park on this sand, the tide isn’t going to retreat at our command. We have to accept the situation and our responsibility for it, as Tim Healey has written:

The violence of television and the pornography of the Internet are not forced on us. The contribution which the automobile makes to a sedentary life can often be rejected. If we become a slave to our telephone or other like media, it is not the telephone which should accept the blame. Discipline is still a virtue, for ourselves and for our children.”

Likewise with any other change, the outcome of which goes beyond anything we originally had in mind. What’s needed is to accept the unintended consequence – unintended does not, after all, mean undesirable – and adapt to it, perhaps backtracking or changing tack where a new problem has arisen.

Trying to live in the world we planned to live in rather than the one we’re in is not a sensible option, let alone a realistic one. While a new idea is usually adopted – at least by those implementing it, if not those having it implemented upon them – with anticipation and expectation of the realising of its possibilities, that doesn’t mean we can turn an eye to downsides. As Panos Mourdoukoutas wrote for Forbes last year in an article called The Unintended Consequences of Outsourcing

Outsourcing’s unintended consequences for companies and industries that adapt it are not confined to the intensification of competition and corporate complacency. They extend to the relations of these companies with one of their partners – labor. If each and every activity of the value chain is gradually farmed out, what binds labor with management and stockholders? If company engineers and marketers who develop new product ideas can sense that their jobs will eventually be farmed out, why should they be loyal to the company? Wouldn’t it be better to part from the company and pursue their own value chain by farming out the development, the manufacturing and so on, to outsourcing companies?”

But deciding on the best way to house train the proverbial cat depends on whether or not it’s already out of the proverbial bag: we can’t undo history, merely deal in the present with its effects. Am I the only one to spot an irony in a quote from a Jaron Lanier interview with The Edge (a long and rambling interview that takes in social media, the disappearance of the middle class, Marx, the Tea Party and Google), which concludes as follows as he reflects on the ‘lost hope’ of a third way of computing based on micro-payments as a leveller of fields:

We’re not going to be able to test tomorrow because we’ve gone down this path so far that it will be a decade’s long project to begin to explore it, but we must find our way back. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a century after Ted Nelson first proposed this thought in 1960 that this is how the Internet should be. It might be a century before we even start to seriously try to do it, but that’s how things go sometimes in history. Sometimes it just takes a while to sort things out.”

Perhaps Lanier is wrong, and not all our current major corporations will be like Wal-Mart which he sees as in danger of squandering its own future as its actions can be seen as impoverishing its own customer base. Perhaps he is as blind to some consequences, yet to emerge, as the rest of us (although his CV and various writings suggest a far-sharper than average eye as well as mind). But I worry about ‘we must find our way back’. By all means change route, reset the navigation aids, trim the sails a little – but surely the direction has to be forward. If we start turning back time, heaven knows what the consequences might be …

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It’s fascinating to watch the arc of an idea, from the murky origin or “eureka” moment that launches it into the world through the stages where it gets observed and toyed with through the perspectives of groups of people with differing agendas, and on to the stages where the idea flirts with real life, gets mutated a little or has consequences no-one quite predicted. Was iTunes designed as a new way to buy albums, or to destroy the idea of albums by allowing us to buy just the tracks we like and create our own playlists? And was it the keen pricing and instant delivery that drew us in, or was it the novelty or the ego-flattering proposition of being in a position to have a better idea about sequencing a set of 12 songs than the people that wrote and played them? (Games that let us ‘play at god’ always seem to have a following, it seems.)

One of those ideas that’s been out there in the ether is The Death of the CV. I’m not claiming credit, but I remember raising the topic at an HR Unconference last year, having just encountered a group of unemployed graduates with qualifications and abilities a-go-go but a dearth of employment in which to apply it. What struck me at the time was the absurdity:

Tailoring many hundreds of variants (as some of these graduates had done) to submit to recruiters who then read many hundreds of them (or receive a selection filtered through online application processes where score-carding and box-ticking are applied to a highly condensed snapshot of a life) would, I suspect, strike the proverbial visiting Martians as odd. The debate that the idea triggered may have been inconclusive, but it was certainly interesting: most of graduate recruiters’ energies are spent not on recruiting, but on rejecting. And the rejected, who all too frequently receive no explanation or reasoning – if they receive a response at all – are not helped by the process either. We might be forgiven for concluding that the whole process is geared towards keeping people out of work, not in it.” (more…)

Books that take a big picture theme and attempt to explain it clearly, preferably with a sprinkling of anecdotes, are in vogue. Alain de Botton recently brought us Religion for Atheists, while Sunstein and Thaler brought us Nudge, which proposed a ‘third way’ (while trying not to call it that) between paternalism and libertarianism. Amusing us with tales of insects painted onto urinals to encourage a sense of direction, they also took aim – in a more metaphorical sense – at behavioural economics, explaining how a cheese and wine party hosted by ‘Econs’ might turn out. (Fabulously for those who look primarily for efficiency as the sign of a good party, it would appear.)

Masters of Management, a fairly updated version of the earlier The Witch Doctors (an absolute classic, available from Amazon for £0.01 at time of writing, and still eminently readable), shares this ever-so-slightly-down-the-bridge-of-one’s-nose view of the labouring millions, as one might expect from a writer schooled by The Economist. There are one or two things that the reader has to take for granted -not least that this is a by-product of The Economist, and that free market theories will be politely and eruditely defended while egalitarian tendencies can expect criticism. But a few sacred cows are declared fair game along the way, and if not exactly slaughtered then at the least given quite a public carpeting. And the wider world also makes a welcome intrusion. Though it’s not the kind of book to use such a flippant example, were it to view, say, Cabaret through economists’ eyes, it wouldn’t stop at commenting on the skilful deployment of a low-cost pool of creative labour (the turns), the ironic brand-positioning (the band), and the approach to a potentially hostile demographic (selling drinks and ‘services’ to the SS). It would also point out that the rise of fascism and the advent of war was going to have a disastrous impact on more than just the bar’s P&L account.

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When your grandmother – or any other adult demonstrating their infinitely superior wisdom for a moment – told you with an air of conspiring, “Doesn’t ask doesn’t get”, they had a good point. Apart from making a positive change from “Mustn’t grumble”, four well-chosen words communicated more than many a longer screed. Or, more accurately, a nebulous, windy cloud of a question.

There’s a fascinating post at Mark Gould’s Enlightened Tradition blog, Asking better questions, getting better insight, that ponders knowledge as something subject to push and pull. We’ve got quite good at push, albeit in an unfocused sort of way. If we live in an attention economy, it’s least partly because the need to pay attention and to pick your way through tidal waves of ‘information’ is becoming a modern survival technique. And export knowledge abounds, fizzing between the ears of the knowledge workers around us and the whirring on the hard-drives and the cloud stores of our latest gizmos.

But somehow this abundance of know-how manages to co-exist with equally cloudy stores of ignorance. As Mark Gould puts it:

Frequently, however, I see people asking quite open-ended questions in the hope that something useful will pop up. I suspect that what actually happens is that those with the knowledge to assist don’t answer precisely because the question is too vague.” (more…)

To avoid talent management failure and maximise effective resource use, organisations need to avoid three delusions:

  1. that talent activities constitute strategy
  2. that identifying talent does not need validation
  3. that transfer and application practices are an optional ‘add-on’ activity.

In an article published in the Feb 2012 issue of HR Director, The three delusions of TM …, ASK Managing Director Dr Anton Franckeiss shows that, if they are to ensure their talent management strategies operate at the intersection of individual and organisational development, organisations need to see talent management as change management that helps individuals develop into the roles that will be required.

Download a full copy of the article (PDF format) or go to our Elsewhere page to download any of our other press articles.

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The secret of comedy is timing, they say. Within 60 seconds of each other, I received two emails that seemed to be trying to prove the point:

  • An email from a colleague about a Roffley Institute report showing that board level managers think they are rather more respected that those below them would confirm
  • A email from dictionary.com, giving the definition of the word ‘mammonism’ (full definition online here).

Among the citations and references for the latter, I spotted an academic study of Dickens. Poking verbal sticks into ‘fat cats’ has a long and venerable history, of course, but it’s subject like so many things to the vagaries of fashion. Dickens’ bicentenary this year will no doubt bring a fresh tidal wave of retrospection to cultural shores already awash with Upstairs Downstairs, Downton Abbey and the like. (Fitfully switching between viewing and dozing in an armchair on Christmas Day last year, the only thing that didn’t feature Regency bonnets a-go-go seemed to be the evening news.) The list of associated words in the definition almost set my pun-loving mind into action (“I thought mammonite was a kind of fossil until I discovered …”) before the thought that nostalgic wallowing can be damaging as well as amusing. The past is another country, but tourism is a better option than emigration.

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