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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Back in the 1970s, Shirley Conran famously thought that “life is too short to stuff a mushroom”. As a self-proclaimed Superwoman (the book is still in print), a certain fullness of diary was a natural part of life – and of the image that must be projected of it. Even slovenly instincts were something to be talked up, positioned with poise and verbally lit from the best possible angle, as another quote showed: “I make no secret of the fact that I would rather lie on a sofa than sweep beneath it. But you have to be efficient if you’re going to be lazy.” (It’s something of a puzzle, however, that her presumably considerable book royalties didn’t allow her the efficiency of hiring a cleaner. Or just having the floor replaced when it got dusty.)

Efficiency must be something in which fashions change – as we’re sure the mother of Jasper Conran would agree with us, even if she might be slightly affronted by the Hairy Biker’s culinary response to her most famous moment (although we have no doubt in Lady Conran actually watched the 2010 World Cup avidly – either too busy or absorbed in the hovering, no doubt.) But being busy, it seems, doesn’t go out of style.

Despite knowing – as most of us do – that simply being busy is meaningless (is all that effort actually getting anyone anywhere? Is any of it invoiceable activity, or paying some non-monetary dividend – hey, even good karma will do – further down the line?), it is a popular thing to be. In business communities, the ‘correct’ social answer to “How’s Things?” is – or at least it seems to me – to be “Busy!” rather than “Great, thanks”. “Great!” is what you say by way of congratulation when someone else says they’re busy – being busy is up there with engagements and pregnancies when it comes to things to be immediately and almost unquestioningly praised.

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It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it ...From some recent posts, you might think we were either consistently sceptical about the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) or picking on them for some social media kudos. We do understand the merits of keeping our fingers on the zeitgeist and cutting a certain profile, even if we haven’t necessarily mastered it (a quick ‘back of a calculator’ moment indicates we’re 9,250 hours short of the mythically required 10,000 hours), so today we are going to use the ‘f’ word in the opening paragraph. Yes, fairness. And we’re going to applaud John Philpott, CIPD’s Chief Economist. You might want to sit down.

At CIPD’s Annual Conference in Manchester, delegates heard employment minister Chris Grayling calling for employers – and their HR functions – to support the government in providing ‘good work’ and to support the Government’s Work Programme. (As you would imagine, there’s been commentary: here and here, for example.)

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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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Influence is a complex topic. It’s not helped by lazy definitions of ‘influential’: Lady Gaga’s appearance in TIME’s 100 most influential people of 2010 doesn’t imply we’re all wearing lamps on our heads, playing grade 8 piano and draping ourselves in raw meat: it just means she has a number of friends on Facebook that undermines the meaning of ‘friend’.

But there are less flippant issues with ‘influential’: is influencing something that happens through media, articles, journals and august books, or is something that happens rather closer to home? What of the role of social media and other new channels as mediums for influence? Are different groups and generations being influenced in different ways by different people. How can a US-based author be more influential than the line manager whose oxygen we share 45 hours a week?

Two commentators have been responding:

  • Who are the new influencers?: the HRD reminds of the meaning of influence as “to affect or change how someone or something develops, behaves or thinks”, pointing our that none of the names on the lists in HR Magazine or HR Examiner have had a discernible impact on his daily life as an HRD director. For theHRD, influence is not delivered from above through a star system, but “a whole load of small things and discussions coming together to make a change”.
  • Who are the new influencers?: Jon Ingham, despite being listed highly by HR Examiner, also has his doubts about the HR Magazine list, and is “surprised to see just how similar it was to lists from previous years”. Like theHRD, Ingham is a commentator/practitioner for whom influence happens at a different level, and sees the new school of influences as “are who are connected to the rest of a community through the shortest path”.

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The quote is from Bill Hicks, deceased US comedian, but it swam back into my memory as I alternated between flicking through the pile of unread broadsheet newspapers by the sofa and watching University Challenge. (OK I’m middle-aged and a little sad, but on the basis of Monday’s episode I know more than a whole Oxford college. Allow me some cardigan-clad pride.) The contestants were young, bright and youthful in their anxious optimism. Being Oxbridge students, no doubt they will prosper, but in a year of record numbers of university applicants being turned away (280,000 according to the Independent on Sunday) and high unemployment in the under 25s, Hicks’ question – I’ll replay the joke later – has a new resonance.

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Working life is full of phrases like ‘walking the talk’ and expressions like ‘delivering on potential’. With our suits on, we exist in a world where promises are meant to be kept, and reputations can rise and fall on our ability to maintain this code of honour. A little remarkable, given that we’re all at least old enough to dress ourselves and navigate our way from duvet to desktop: as far as the reliability of promises goes, that’s surely old enough to know better – whether that comes to making the promises, or believing wholeheartedly that they will be delivered upon. But whether we are being naïve or not, our working expectations, hopes and aspirations often start with the promises that are held out or presented to us. And turn a little bitter when the delivery doesn’t follow. We may be older and wiser, but we can still wind up like the little kid who keeps being told they’ll get a new bicycle for Christmas. Just not which Christmas they’re going to get it.

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