organisational development


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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The future is a tricky thing. An opening sentiment I’m sure many economists, policy makers and politicians would agree with right now, but also a logical truism. Books about the future and what it will bring always set themselves to invite ridicule a few years down the line, and have an inevitable lack of concrete foundations: what the future holders, even for professional futurologists such as Bob Johansen, can only ultimately be subjective guesswork. Whether we are looking at the future of work (as Richard Donkin did in another book reviewed here), of leadership, of organisations, or of society, it’s worth remembering a lesson from talent management: past performance is not a reliable guide. Yet, as Marshall McLuhan once observed, “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

As a former President and Board member of the Institute For The Future, Bob Johansen should be as qualified a guide to what lies ahead as we are likely to find, drawing on four decades of experience of future casting for some of the world’s largest organisations. By its very nature, the future has always been uncertain; recently, the level of uncertainty seems to be increasing and leaders can no more be immune for anxiously wonder what it will mean for them than anyone else. Books such as Leaders Make The Future are, perhaps, only to be expected: that Johansen is one of a small number of authors essaying serious attempts to address this audience is to be welcomed.

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It’s one of those perennial HR blog/article/networking event/moaning-over-the-canapés topics, isn’t it? How will HR ever get a seat at the top table where it deserves to be? I can almost hear at least two groups of readers sighing, for at least two different reasons. Some of them at the use of the word ‘deserves’, perhaps? Part of me – possibly the ‘bah humbug’ streak I can feel gathering strength with every glimpse of tinsel and waft of carols – can’t help but think that those at the top table may have come to the conclusion that HR is already being discussed in its most relevant forum: the HR Department. (And to be fair, even my more charitable streaks feel they may have at least part of a point.)

While any HR practitioners who haven’t already clicked away have no doubt started to bristle, indulge me briefly while I note some of the other objections that have been raised. Writing at the Management Information Exchange site, Luc Galoppin essays an opinion that will do nothing to unruffled HR feathers, arguing – among many other points, all worth reading – that HR is a force for continuity, not change:

HR Doesn’t Drive Organizational Change. Let’s face it: By their very nature, the fundamental HR processes are aimed at safeguarding stability. But when you ask HR managers about the core competencies of their departments, they will tell you that the management of organizational change is at the forefront. They are wrong.”

Some commentators have been even less civil on the topic.

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Maybe it’s because the news is so heavily dominated by economic issues and the possible fates of European countries – waking up to the Today programme is becoming more and more like having someone murmur a Financial Times leader column at you through your pillow – but the ‘countries are just like companies’ analogy seems to be going viral. There was an example recently at Inc – Understanding the Euro Crisis: Imagine Italy Was Your Business – that was very wittily written, and actually quite a good way of explaining the interconnectedness of the European economic situation to anyone that’s been living under a rock since 2008.

Explaining things in ways that the unfamiliar can readily grasp is a proven pedagogic technique that I’m not decrying. But oversimplifying things so people think they’ve grasped something they’ve completed misunderstood is a different kettle of fish. It can be done comic effect, such as Alan Coren’s commentary on the density of the Belgian population –

For the same reason, the sprout was developed by Brussels agronomists, this being the largest cabbage a housewife could possibly carry through the teeming streets.”

but an awareness of the dangers of being taken seriously is a handy thing in any comedian.

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I have just finished reading Justin Webb’s new book, Notes on Them and Us: From the Mayflower to Obama the British, the Americans and the essential relationship: A Plan for the Amicable Separation of America and Britain, in which he explores the relationship that we have as Brits with our American cousins, drawing on his experience of 8 years in Washington as a BBC reporter. “Why?”, I hear you ask? Well, as a politics graduate who studied US politics and a massive fan of Alistair Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ (something I have in common with Justin), I was just interested. (I also had an Amazon voucher for my birthday.)

It’s a great and easy read that I would recommend, with lots of wise insights that I recognise from holidays and working in the US. But there was a completely unexpected by-product of reading it – triggered by a particular point he made that illuminated my work in helping organisations shift their cultures and more particularly in confronting the unwritten paradigms at the heart of such cultures.

And then I had a really scary thought – how does this affect the models and approaches that we use in our consultancy work?

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Every now and then, a foolish notion takes such a firm grip on the public consciousness that no amount of hard evidence to the contrary can persuade its believers to put aside their convictions and embrace what is frequently an unpalatable or less interesting truth. Some such notions emanate from the ‘supernatural’ school and demand high levels of blind faith from their adherents. The absence of anything remotely evidential in the stories that surround faith-based urban myths presents no problem to their originators who, through their powers of persuasion and the vulnerabilities of their audience, succeed in recruiting armies of supporters to their cause. The uneventful passing once more of Harold Camping’s revised deadline for the end of the world on 21st October is unlikely to persuade his followers that The End Times is a put-up job any more than readers of horoscopes will cancel their subscriptions just because none of the foretold events actually happen. Faith like bindweed once established, is tough to kill.

Some urban myths are lightweight confections whipped up by pranksters seeking nothing more than the inner satisfaction of knowing that they have duped the gullible. The recent Kidney Heist Hoax is a masterpiece of the genre. In its frequent beery re-telling the narrative gathers both mass and momentum like a snowball rolling down a ski slope. Each storyteller attaches his or her own embellishments and invigorates the story by making it their own; or at least “a friend of friend’s”. These myths derive their currency from the frequency with which they are told and the conviction of the teller, no matter how implausible the story itself may be. It would seem that for many, a myth repeated often enough will assume the authority of truth.

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