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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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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Kelmscott ManorThere is a fine line between having a vision and being an idealist: indeed, it can be so fine as to be invisible to others, as the following quote – from interior designer and TV personality Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen demonstrates: “Re: William Morris ‘He didn’t quite bring down the Walls of Jericho so much as cover them in nice wallpaper“. Morris’s historic wallpaper is obviously now in imminent peril of damage from those sharp little claws, and it will be amusing to see in a century’s time how many museums are dedicated to preserving and showing old VHS tapes of episodes of Changing Rooms.

Googling this morning, the quote from Llewelyn-Bowen I unearthed most frequently was “I’ve just bought myself a G-string – which is rather fun.” Not a vision I cared to have so soon after breakfast, and not one I’d argue compares too favourably with what is possibly Morris’ most famous quote:

If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

A pretty good mission statement for a man who (as Morris did) ran a decorative arts company, although the vision ran rather deeper than providing a nifty strap line. Few interior designers integrate their work and their view of the world so intensely as to write a Utopian novel – News from Nowhere, which describes a then future world as Morris would ideally imagine it (set partly at his country home, Kelmscott Manor, pictured top left) – and to be highly influential in the formation of a major political party.

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Language is a tricky affair: not such ‘slippery when wet’ as ‘slippery when used as a protective coating’. We’re all aware of the nightmares of jargon, and the insidious effects of euphemism: when you hear the word ‘review’ does your mind first think ‘excellent, an opportunity to analyse, re-assess and optimise’, or is it closer to ‘mmm, cuts on the way: must ‘review’ the finances when I get home’? It depends on the context, and who said the word ‘review’, but one person’s opportunity can quite easily be another’s crisis. It’s all in the telling.

As someone who tries to go through life with my ears open, it amuses me – admittedly, in a rather dry, wry fashion – that there are two words I hear quite frequently used in offices as examples of what someone is, in someone else’s opinion, failing to be. Those words are ‘professional’ and – more especially – ‘businesslike’. Both have dictionary definitions, of course, although they don’t necessarily help to understand how the words wind up being used in such an accusatory manner. We are all in the building because a) we’re being paid, and b) we’re invoicing people so that we can continue to be paid, aren’t we? If we’re forgetting those little fundamentals, it’s a miracle we remembered to change out of our pyjamas and managed not to put our jacket on inside out. But what do they really mean, and what are we omitting from their definitions that they would gain from including?

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Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
Howard Rheingold

If I were the sensationalist type, life would have handed me a perfect opportunity this morning, and you’d be reading an article called Balls to the Treasury. If this isn’t just a case of delayed reaction on the search engine’s behalf, it’s almost encouraging: the easy attention-grabbing option has, for once, been resisted. Maybe there is hope – in a way that I’ve been pondering since listening to Lord Puttnam’s keynote speech at the Workworld Media Awards earlier this week.

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Sometimes an idea or an argument just seems suddenly topical. Right now, it seems ‘what is the point of rules?’ is one of those questions. Rules may not always have the full weight of the law behind thrm, but they throw up the same issue about whether they are to observed in the letter or the spirit. I’m guessing Shakespeare found that latter conundrum pressing too: not only did he give us the expression “More honour’d in the breach than the observance” (usually nowadays meant as a rule that is broken more than it is followed), but also – ahead of himself by a few centuries in noting the rise of the employment legal advisor – “let’s kill all the lawyers”.

That last one still resonates, particularly – and I can’t think why – with lawyers. In their very different ways (in two very readable posts coming from very different places), The Nutmeg Lawyer and The Ethical Spectacle come to different conclusions. On one hand, massacring our legal friends paves the way for anarchy and marches against informed dialogue; on the other, it is actually a dark joke at the expense of lawyers, spoken by a wisecracking villain. As they conclude:

As long as there are lawyers, there will be “lawyer jokes”. And lawyers will show how those jokes ring true by trying to explain how such lampooning really constitutes praise for their profession, thus by example justifying the jokes more than ever.”

I’ll leave you to take your pick on that one, as both writers make valid points. But if lawyers aren’t necessarily asses, that doesn’t stop ‘the law’ from turning into one once in a while. Even well-intentioned rule making can lead to logical conundrums.

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It’s amusing sometimes how different parts of your life can chime together. CIPD’s Next Generation HR has been calling for HR professionals to address HR much more as a core element of business and to use the language of business. Meanwhile, many corporations are hiring in ‘business professionals’ to head up HR functions, seeking to address ‘the great divide’ from their respective sides of the chasm. As ever, there is much talk of revolutions and new paradigms. Meanwhile, the TV news drones on in the background. Watching a programme about the American half-term elections and the country’s issues of the day recently, I found myself commenting at the telly to my partner’s amusement. The basic gist was that, given the august documents that seemed to surface most regularly were The Bible (Oxford standardised text: 1769), The US Constitution (1787) and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), it was one thing to talk about returning to the 80s, but that returning to the 1780s was taking things too far. Received wisdom has its moments, but wisdom has chronological context. Sometimes, even the most venerable, august and respected ideas or organisations need to move on.

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