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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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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The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Franklin D Roosevelt

There you go. Nothing like a well-worn cliché to kick off, and with the apparently imminent (again) collapse of the global financial market and the consequent disintegration of democracies around the world, that is probably as relevant and true today as it was 80 years ago. Except of course, the Armageddon scenario won’t happen because throughout time the brave have overcome the one thing that would precipitate such meltdown; the paralysis of fear and the temptation to sit on the touchline and watch the whole sorry saga dissolve before their frozen, staring eyes. (Caveat: if it does happen, by then you’ll have hopefully forgotten that you read it here first and have more important things to worry about.)

Robert Terry’s recent blog All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, or “Kirkpatrick must go! put forward an interesting ‘conspiracy theory’ slant to the whole training evaluation debate, and it got me thinking that the root cause of the lethargy that contributes to the huge sums that are wasted on training events might just be because it’s all a bit scary. Even in such austere market conditions, why are so many of our corporate leaders apparently content to sit back and watch the money flow out through their Learning & Development budgets? Why do they seem satisfied when they have a team who return from their development experience having made some new friends, are a bit more motivated and, at best, have transcended as individuals into better human beings, albeit not actually able to contribute anything of demonstrable additional value to the business?

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There’s been quite a lively debate at Business Week, where two contributors – and a long list of commenters – indulged in some weighty mutual executive briefcasing (handbagging just didn’t sound right) in response to the question: “Multi-dimensional organisational design (Matrix) is the best way to restructure a business. Pro or con?”

In the Pro corner, Jay Galbraith argues for the value, inherent merit and – in today’s trading environment – the inevitability of the victory of a collaborative approach over a command and control variety. In the Con corner, Guido Quelle sees matrix organisations as painfully slow, lacking clarity and clear lines of responsibility. Verbal bruisings have been administered and received on both sides but there’s been no knock-out punch: anyone hoping to see the late, grand old man, Peter Drucker holding the limp wrist of one argument aloft and counting to ten would be disappointed.

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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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Like any professional consultants (whether that consultancy is provided internally or – even more so – externally), the privilege of being selected to provided our service carries responsibilities. Some are mandatory in the strictest sense – the legal framework defines a range of liabilities and risks – while others are better categorised as ‘professional’ or ‘ethical’.

To maintain our standards (and the standards of professional bodes to which we belong, as we are proud to support organisations that work to define, maintain and drive up standards), we are committed to regular and ongoing professional development.  A further ethical concern is to recognise the boundaries within which consultancy is provided and presented: the opportunity to present ideas does not translate into a right to see them implemented. (Indeed, insisting too adamantly ultimately undermines the recipient client: effective consultancy should be based on mutual professional respect.)

As world leaders in promoting the criticality of ensuring the successful transfer and application of learning, coaching and OD interventions, we are seeking here to identify and encourage the achievement of best practice in this business critical area.

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Two counter-intuitive postings from around the wider world of the web, both on aspects of organisational culture and its impact on satisfaction, performance and sustainability … and on the things we chose not just to believe but to cherish. (For a full list of our favourite items, pointing you to gems of wisdom from the web, see our Crackers page).

  • The Second Biggest Lie in HR: All “A” Players is Possible Outcome… – The HR Capitalist looks at the prisons that HR practitioners can create for themselves, including waiting for the ‘perfect’ ‘A Player’ candidate when the job requires someone more … er, prosaic. As one commenting visitor pointed out, “Personally for my company I think I want the ditch diggers – coders, hackers, outre graphic designers, deep level video player designers. Not glamorous roles but core to my success.” So do divas belong on the payroll or the CD player?
  • Business Culture: Denmark vs USA vs Guatemala: The Chief Happiness Officer (we’re guessing self-proclaimed, although we’re admiring the job title) looks at differences in four aspects of working cultures and attitudes around the world (Power Distance Index, Individualism, Masculinity, and Uncertainty Avoidance Index, as evolved and refined by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede) before drawing a few conclusion on the ideal balance. The CHO wonders how far Hofstede’s work illuminates the prominent positions Scandinavian countries traditionally enjoy in international surveys of job satisfaction, while his readers wonder how far these stereotypes hold up in the light of experience (perhaps slightly missing the CHO’s point?). In the meantime, I’m wondering how many jobs in Copenhagen don’t demand a working knowledge of Danish … 

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